Bodies and the Gaze

            For all the talk of “the body” we get into in terms of jewelry, and the idea of it in a gallery display versus photos versus on a model, I'm not sure we really think about looking at jewelry.  Worn by a “real,” non-model type results in a disruption of the viewers gaze (in the art sense) because closely inspecting it would violate social codes of proximity and staring.  It is fine to look at performers and models because they are presenting themselves for visual inspection directly, but a piece of jewelry cannot be separated from the wearer while worn, and the owner of a piece is not necessarily offering themselves up for visual consumption just by virtue of wearing it.  Combined with the fact that most wearers are women, it seems to me that jewelry can be pretty damn subversive because there is an invitation to look without a ceding of bodily autonomy.  Because art jewelry is usually meant to do more than embellish the wearer, it changes the experience from looking at an adorned woman to the woman as gatekeeper for an art experience (not to mention how the owner is particularly privileged because they get to handle the piece). 

            Is putting jewelry on men less subversive or otherwise different, and if so, in what ways?  Naturally, there has been plenty of work done about discomfort and proximity in jewelry displays, but it seems to me that most of that has been in terms of very thoroughly constructed display and installation rather than about the real-world “life” of the pieces (here's looking at you, Lauren Kalman). In fact, I’m willing to bet that there is a significant body of thought on the subject I’m simply not well acquainted with, though I would love to learn more.  How much feminist jewelry is out there and/or how much that focuses on disruption of the gaze?

            Let me relate to you an experience I had, appropriately enough, in Toronto while attending the annual Society of North American Goldsmiths conference.  On a spur-of-the-moment suggestion, I made a trip to a strip club called Remington's Men of Steel (you know, in keeping with the metallurgy theme). It was FACINATING.  And, hands down, the first time I've ever been someplace which so thoroughly illuminated the gendered gaze.  The performances aimed at women (there were de facto divisions between areas for straight women and gay/bisexual men) were mostly what I would consider traditional displays of masculinity for a particularly appreciative female audience; there was a sense of swagger and expected adulation.  The bachelorette parties in the audience obliged with much squealing and laughter, with many of them visibly averting their eyes when a dancer actually entered their personal space or made clear eye contact.  The women were empowered to look, but having their gaze returned by the object of their scrutiny was still disconcerting for most.  (Cross-reference with Manet's Olympia.)

            It was the performances of the men for other men which were most interesting to me.  The displays were no longer made with the apparent expectation of worship, but with a sense of relenting before inspection.  Not to suggest that the dancing was de-eroticized, demure, or indirect; the gaze was simply directed at male bodies without a returned challenge.  Which, frankly, isn't how it works in daily life, particularly as a woman conditioned to avoid prolonged/intense staring at strange men unless actually attempting to initiate contact.  However, I would not characterize the dancers as feminized (particularly in its negative sense) or even passive.  But to be put into what I can only assume is the position of the male gazer of non-female bodies was an intriguingly alien experience. 

             At some point I'll have to transcribe the notes I took and put together a more complete account (yes, I took notes at the strip club), but all this probably puts my interest in the lover's eye jewelry into some context.  For the uninitiated, the lover's eye tradition dates back to Georgian England; miniaturists would paint only the eye of a person and have it set into jewelry, allowing the wearer to bear a portrait which did not reveal identity.  Over time it shifted from a token of illicit love among the privileged classes to a more general sentimental reminder exchanged among friends and relatives, but the intimacy of an object that returned the gaze remained.  Of course, the lover's eyes are usually more warm reminders than confrontational devices, but the potential is there. 

             Looking, performing, returning the gaze, relenting before it, avoiding it; there are many configurations for the asymmetrical power relations tracked via the eyes.  Bringing the gaze as understood within art and actually transposing it onto the body via jewelry has ramifications worth a close look.