Modesty and the Pornographic Gaze

Modesty and the Pornographic Gaze May 2, 2016

Trinity_with_holidays_and_chosen_saints (3)

Rebecca over at “Suspended in Her Jar” is talking about modesty again. Rebecca’s cool. I want to sit at her table and talk about modesty too. But modesty gets talked about so often. There are so many things you could say about modesty, so many tacks you could take on the subject. You can agree with the most conservative folks, that women ought never to show their elbows or hair in public, or you can agree with Rebecca that modesty is actually more about downplaying your power and not being ostentatious, not so much about sex at all. So much has already been said about a person’s responsibility to be modest. But there’s a related responsibility that rarely gets talked about at all. We all have opinions on what our responsibility is, as people who are going to be seen. And I’m the last person to argue that I don’t have a responsibility as someone who is going to be seen. But have you ever stopped to think about your responsibility as someone who sees? Did you even know that you had one? That the way you view the world is your responsibility?

Think of an icon. Let’s pretend you’ve never seen an icon. In fact, let’s take it a step further and say that you know nothing about the subject matter of icons. You’ve never heard of Jesus or any Religion of the Book; your culture’s view of God and religion is very different. Ignorance is something a person can’t always help, but disposition is usually within your own control. Let’s say you are disposed to appreciate art and to respect religion and culture even if you don’t understand it. Now, let’s say I led you into a room that was almost empty, but contained one beautiful and expertly-written Orthodox icon of the Blessed Trinity. You see two bearded men, a gray one with a triangle in a circle behind His head and a young one with a crisscross in a circle behind His. You see a Bird hovering above Their heads, and the Bird has a circle as well. You see scrolls and hands curled into funny gestures that must mean something. You see odd bundles of red wings with eyes. You see bright color, gold leaf and strange writing. You don’t know who this is a picture of, but you sense you’re seeing a depiction of something above Man. Are they Bodhisattva? Are they gods? If they are gods, why do they look like men? Why is one of them old and the other wounded? Is the bird above them to show seniority, or just placement? The three figures’ positions make a triangle like the one behind the gray One’s head. Does that mean He is the one in charge of the other two? Are they all One? What does it mean that they gaze at you like that? What are they demanding of you? What does the Deity demand of men? Who are we as human beings, that we reach out to the Deity and believe the Deity is gazing at us? What does it mean, that we are beings who paint boards with tempera and gold leaf to help us speak to the Deity? What is Man, and what is the Deity? You find, in fact, that while you are gazing at the icon, the icon gazes at you, and the two of you are in dialogue without having said a word.

Now, suppose you have a disposition to hate religion, culture and art. You feel you’re above all that nonsense. And I lead you into the room with the icon. What now? Do you mock the strange and stilted figures, the way they sit stiffly with a bird between them? Do you flip the icon the bird? Do you feel yourself superior to whoever painted the icon and their silly archaic beliefs; does the occasion of the icon make you feel even more superior to those who waste gold by applying it to paintings? Do you turn away? Pull it off the wall and use it for a dinner plate? Masturbate to it? You could. The icon will not stop you. How you respond is your decision. But if you do not gaze upon the icon with the right reverence, the icon will not gaze back at you, and it will not converse with you. Your disposition has made the icon into a pornographic object, for you, and the possibility of communion with it is gone.

Now, suppose that I led you into another almost empty room, but this one doesn’t have a painted icon. This one has another kind of icon. This room contains a human being.

Browse Our Archives