There is a painting in the Metropolitan Museum of Art called “The Birth of Venus.” I saw it a handful of times before they took it down and replaced it with something less memorable. I also photographed it. And then I took the photos home and looked at them and looked at them and looked at them some more. At one point I noticed something I thought was somewhat odd. At first glance, the female subject appears to have her eyes closed, but on closer inspection, her eyes, or maybe it’s just one eye, is open, just barely. There is something about this that hooked me, and maybe I find the slightest bit unsettling.
One of the things I love about art museums is I can gaze at the female figures, whether painted or sculpted, for as much and as long as I like. I can drink them in, trace every curve, every line, over and over again with my eyes, with my imagination. With my heart. My gaze is sanctioned. That is the very purpose of an art museum. But, like I said, Venus watching me is ever-so-slightly unsettling. But no, that’s not quite it. It feels to me that she is enjoying me studying her figure, her extravagant locks, her goddess’ beauty. That she wants to be admired and wants to watch me admiring her. Perhaps this is my projection, but it is hugely comforting to me. Rather than being the perpetrator of the much-vilified “male gaze,” I am a participant in a game of desire, my desire for feminine beauty, and her desire to be seen and admired. And that’s more honest than I care to be.