The Politics of Being a Muse

Introduction

By HANNAH GOTTLIEB-GRAHAM

  Courtesy of Hannah Gottlieb Graham - photograph part of a series that a man took of her

Courtesy of Hannah Gottlieb Graham - photograph part of a series that a man took of her

In this series, I aim to confront the complications of being a muse - what it means for a woman to be documented by a man in the traditional, heterosexual, art historical sense, as well as how the idea is shifting today. Increasingly, queer artists and women-identifying artists are reclaiming the term 'muse' by documenting one another in less objectifying ways, making profound leaps into the reexamination of desire.  

Let me first introduce myself. I grew up in a town in the Midwest, but I never felt like Illinois was my home. My mother and I were frequently exoticized for our olive skin and dark features, and the question, "What are you?" was a constant one. Boys and men started sexualizing me when I was nine or ten, and I learned to normalize this attention quickly. I was creative right off the bat; I danced, modeled, and performed. I cultivated an aesthetic and physical persona at a young age. I let my beauty define me - sometimes even smother me - and this practice seeped into my romantic relationships. 

In high school I dated young photographers who worshipped me the way you do your first love. In college my heart was broken by an impulsive writer who couldn't commit. In my early 20s I rebounded with a sexually-adventurous painter who treated me like a queen. And there have been countless other relationships along the way, ending with poems, pictures, photos... Evidence of my importance. I have a box in my bedroom filled with artwork and notes from boyfriends. Each year I get a bigger box. 

Looking back, I realize that the men I've been involved with photographed, painted, and wrote about me in ways that made me feel relevant. As if I were helping them realize their talents through simply spending time with them. I developed a desperate desire to be seen and appreciated through art, which permeated my every thought. But when I moved to New York I grew into my beauty, and it began to feel like a burden. The cat-calling, the attention, the assaults. 

I see now that I've spent the majority of my life objectifying myself for my partners, conflating idolization with love. There's a power exchange that occurs when you allow someone to document you, and while many of these practices felt collaborative and mutually inspiring, they sometimes left me feeling superficial. I needed to be alone - or at least to be with someone who didn't put me on a pedestal. 

Slowly, I learned how to refocus my energy on myself, and I turned to self-portraiture. I started photographing my lovers as well, turning the traditional muse scenario on its head. Examining myself and my relationships on my own terms has been incredibly valuable to me. 

By writing this series, I hope to dive into the countless historical examples of woman-as-model and woman-as-muse in art history, in order to understand why this practice feels so comfortable to me and to many women I know. I'd also like to address the ways in which social media has changed the landscape of documentation - for example, how fashion brands can elevate the status of an unknown person by featuring them as a 'muse' in an upcoming campaign and turning them into an Instagram star. Additionally, it's important to discuss the negative aspects of being a muse - how subjects are exploited for their beauty and never offered the payment or recognition that they deserve. My hope is that this series can open our eyes to our society's fascination with beauty, and to the contemporary politics of being a muse.

@hannahgottliebgraham