The use of “Venus Restored” by Man Ray to visually represent an outline on the culture of women

The Uproar over Man Ray

The other day, I saw this posted on Facebook, followed by a lovely photograph of my friend holding her baby:

The Pontifical Council for Culture used an image for its assembly on women’s culture that comes from an artist, Man Ray, who intended the image to have an erotic and sadistic quality. In response, lets flood the internet with positive images of women that truly depict women’s culture.

As I am a curious person and naturally on the side of the Church I was curious what this was all about. I found a few articles briefly describing the foolish use of this image.

I am fairly open-minded when it comes to the arts and I’m not against using provocative art to make a point, but some conditions apply. I do not think art, meant to be provocative, should be vulgar or crude (should use subtlety), blasphemous, or too personal, meaning art which uses photography rather than a less personal representation. Sculpture and painting are the representation of a person, filtered through the perspective and hands of the artist. So, for example, if Venus Restored was a photograph of a naked woman, bound with rope, missing her head and limbs, I would find it highly offensive. On first viewing, I’m not against this piece by Man Ray. I’m willing to take a closer look.

I navigated to the website for the Pontifical Council for Culture, a Vatican site where the uproar started.

“While acknowledging the anger, Cardinal Ravasi has chosen not to remove the image as it speaks clearly for one of the central points of the document: many women, alas, are still struggling for freedom (bound with rope), their voices and intellect often unheard (headless), their actions unappreciated (limbless).”

Hmm, provocative, in a good way. This art is meant to represent the unequal-status that women still suffer from in the world. It is meant to describe the current state of affairs.

A few more clicks, I find this piece in the National Catholic Register.

“What is behind this choice of female bondage image by the (all male) Pontifical Council for Culture?” the group asked in a press release. “What message does it seek to convey?”

As I continue perusing the web to see the outrage, I wonder if anyone has read Ravasi’s statement, and I wonder if the image is a good representation of what the document highlights. Onto the document. This is an outline document titled, “Women’s Cultures: Equality and Difference.”

In response to the above complaint, we do read directly from the document:

“This text has been composed by a group of women in the light of pastoral considerations sent in by our Members and Consultors and will guide us in our reflections.”

So if the temptation existed to dismiss this as a man’s document telling women how it should be, which might have been the reaction of some on viewing the art in question, we can stop right there. This document is written by women about women if that matters at all.

Does “Venus Restored” Represent the Document in Question?

In order to focus on the question at hand, I will post the summary of the content separately (click here to read). What I will say here is the document takes a hard, realistic look at the culture in the world today, as experienced by women.

It is a good document. It avoids the cliches and any rose coloring common to writings about women. The authors are realistic about the culture, which is necessary, but not often noticed by those who live in smaller Catholic circles, sheltered from the world at large. Pope Francis has a special gift of reminding us of our mission to consider what goes on in the deep, and to swim there.

The artist’s motivation in re-imagining the Venus is grotesque, and connections are rightly drawn to Fifty Shades of Gray. The description of Man Ray’s sculpture is as follows:

“…these men tended to objectify women and define them as subordinate. As targets of male desire, women were the subjects of disturbing fantasies and erotic violence.”

Though the Facebook post calls for images “that truly depict women’s culture”, unfortunately, too many women do live in the culture represented by Man Ray, and not the culture of life we would like every person to be part of.

The description acknowledges the preservation of the perfect dimensions of the female form. Although not the artist’s intention, we can see this as accurately representing what occurs in real life.  Women are betrayed, abused, objectified, yet their dignity remains intact. Her goodness cannot be taken away, although terrible things may be done to her.  Indeed it is the rediscovery of that good, underneath the wounds, that can heal the woman of her trauma and restore her to a new life in Christ.

But were they prudent in the choice? I think not. Although I think the sculpture is a good choice to represent the document, better still would have been to place that photograph side by side with a piece of art that puts on display the magnificence of woman, particularly in her physicality. This would create a sense of “where we are” and “where we should be” or “where we should be going.” The message would be made clearer. Sensitivity to the use of soundbites is needed if the Church is to use the internet media, otherwise, outrage ensues.

Here are some proposals. For a direct comparison, a Venus-bound juxtaposed against a Venus in her original freedom, which would call to mind references to the Theology of the Body (despite the pagan subject).

Birth of Venus, by Boticelli, 1486

Or something Catholic in nature, the Virgin Mary nursing the Christ Child, by Peter Paul Reubens. Classic and loves the female form.

The Virgin Nursing the Christ Child, by Peter Paul Rubens

Or something modern, and extremely beautiful by artist Kate Hansen.

I highly recommend reading the original document, or if you haven’t time, my summary of it. It’s common practice online to get distracted from the original, more focus-requiring, content. Let’s fight that urge and take time to really talk about the ground women has covered so far in living out their dignity and how to help those women still suffering under the bondage of use and objectification.

Summary of the Outline by Pontifical Council for Culture

The summary below of the outline Women’s Cultures: Equality and Difference, was originally written to be part of my consideration of the use of a sculpture by Man Ray, Venus Restored, on the Vatican website to represent this document. However, the article became too long and so I have posted it here separately for those who wish to know more.

Content of Women’s Cultures: Equality and Difference

The outline begins with a wonderful articulation of the male-female difference and what it means to be feminine.

“The expression “women’s cultures does not imply any division from men’s cultures, but shows our awareness that there is a women’s “perspective” on the world and all that surrounds us, on life and on experience.”

John Paul II wrote that femininity is woman’s way of being in the world. It is how she experiences it, and masculinity is man’s way of being in the world. Masculinity and femininity do not refer to set traits, but general experiences that shape the life of the person in question, making him masculine or her feminine. Both are complete as they are, not in need of the other to be complete, as the opening quote by Edith Stein to this outline so beautifully states.

“I am convinced that the human species develops as a twofold species, ‘male’
and ‘female’; that the essence of the human being, of which no trait should be
missing, is present in both, manifesting itself in two ways: and that the entire structure of being highlights this specific mould.”

The outline begins with an articulation of the presence of a women’s culture, which is experientially different then a man’s culture, because woman experiences the world differently, as a woman. The document takes a realistic view that at one time these different cultures created different spheres of influence for the man (public) and the woman (private), but in time that gap has lessened. Despite the narrowing of the gap, a woman’s reality continues to be quite different than that of a man, and she identifies herself with different terms. The writers propose some important questions regarding the co-existence of equality and difference.

The next section focuses on the concept of generativity and the nature of woman to be linked to and defined by her body. “Putting it in an excessively simplified way, we can affirm that the generative path is divided into four moments: desiring, bringing into the world, looking after, and finally, letting go.” Woman’s genius is not limited to her bio-physiological orientation towards child-rearing, but also in every day practice, the way she goes about the world. “Women executives and managers, for example, who develop managerial processes based on respect, welcoming, making the most of differences and skills, generate and protect life expressing fecundity.”

Recognizing the value of the feminine body, the document goes on to examine the abuses that happen specifically towards women and how these abuses are linked to her body through poverty as “both a cause and consequence of violence on women”, slavery, feminicide (“selective abortion, infanticide, genital mutilation, crimes of honour, forced marriages, trafficking of women, sexual molestation, rape”), domestic violence, non-medical plastic surgery, reducing woman from generator to producer of children, and using woman’s body for marketing, commercialization.

The last section explores the role of women in the Church, which John Paul II called for, as coming to fruition. Continuing the hard, realistic look at the state of things, the authors ask, “What is not working, today, so that the image of womanhood that the Church has kept, does not correspond to reality?” Woman’s engagement with the Church seems to be diminishing. Rather than calling for the replacement of men in positions of liturgical power with women, the authors continue to plea of John Paul II:

“A realistic objective could be that of opening the doors of the Church to women so that they can offer their contribution in terms of skills and also sensitivity, intuition, passion, dedication, in full collaboration and integration with the male component.”

In Catholic circles, we’d like to think that the good we see makes up the majority of the reality, but unfortunately it is not so. Faithful and informed Catholics are quick to point out the Catholic Church has a singular historical role in valuing woman and her contribution (through motherhood, the saints, the Virgin Mary, mystics), educating women (through convents/monasteries, Catholic schools) and creating positions of power (abbess) and importance (teaching, Catholic hospitals). Woman is valued, perhaps now, more than ever and her role discussed with great honor and respect via the writings of John Paul II.

With only a like button possible to quickly post our views, we’re tempted to post only positive things because if we talk about the negative, communication online quickly breaks down. Nevertheless, the conversation is important and must be pursued. I hope you will take a look at this document, and further the discussion of what we can do to help women in society to discovered, with unbridled freedom, her glory and dignity.