The Body in Art

Discover how artists represent and use the body to investigate their relationships to gender and identity.


Constructing Gender

Explore how artists examine the relationship between gender and society.


Intersecting Identities

Artists often address their multiple, intersecting identities in a work of art.


The human body is central to how we understand facets of identity such as gender, sexuality, race, and ethnicity. People alter their bodies, hair, and clothing to align with or rebel against social conventions and to express messages to others around them. Many artists explore gender through representations of the body and by using their own bodies in their creative process.

The 1960s and 1970s were a time of social upheavals in the United States and Europe, significant among them the fight for equality for women with regards to sexuality, reproductive rights, the family, and the workplace. Artists and art historians began to investigate how images in Western art and the media—more often than not produced by men—perpetuated idealizations of the female form. Feminist artists reclaimed the female body and depicted it through a variety of lenses.

Around this time, the body took on another important role as a medium with which artists created their work. In performance art, a term coined in the early 1960s as the genre was starting to take hold, the actions an artist performs are central to the work of art. For many artists, using their bodies in performances became a way to both claim control over their own bodies and to question issues of gender.

The organizing around shared cultural characteristics such as race, class, and religion.

The shared cultural identity of persons from a particular national, linguistic, or geographical group.

A classification system that organizes humans into large and distinct groupings based on appearance or geographical lineages. The concept of race has been criticized for being a simplistic, socially constructed categorization that has led to racism, or the unequal and unfair treatment of people based on race.

The socially constructed identity assigned to a person as a result of their sex.

The biological classifications, usually male and female, that are determined by chromosomes, hormonal profiles, and internal and external sexual organs.

A term that emerged in the 1960s to describe a diverse range of live presentations by artists.

A category of artistic practice having a particular form, content, or technique.

Multimedia

VIDEO: Panel discussion on “The Feminist Future: Body/Sexuality/Identity” at the Museum of Modern Art

Questions & Activities

  1. Comparing Notes

    Ana Mendieta and John Coplans both use their own bodies to create their works.

    Compare and contrast Mendieta’s Nile Born and Coplans’s Self Portrait. Consider the following questions: How are their bodies represented in the final art works? How do the artists represent the female and male body? How do they create universal images of the body, and how do they create personal images of themselves?

    Reflect. Choose a few of the above questions to respond to, or create your own. Write a response in a one- or two-paragraph essay.

  2. Beauty Is Skin Deep

    Lorna Simpson, Senga Nengudi, and John Coplans’s works challenge the traditional conventions of beauty.

    Consider. What qualities does contemporary society consider beautiful today? How are the standards of beauty different for men and for women? What do you and your peers do to conform with or rebel against these standards? How do you receive messages about what is considered beautiful?

    Create. Often the media influences our standards of beauty and fashion. Collect images of beauty in magazines, advertisements, newspapers, and on the web. On a large sheet of paper, draw a line down the middle. On the left side, paste images that conform to typical standards of beauty. On the right side, paste images that defy these standards. How many images did you find for the left side? How many did you find for the right side?

  3. The Body as a Paintbrush

    Carolee Schneemann and Yves Klein both used the human body to paint on a canvas.

    Consider Schneemann’s Up to and Including Her Limits and Yves Klein’s Anthropometry. Watch a video of Klein’s process.

    In Up to and Including Her Limits, Schneemann used her body to paint on a canvas. To make Anthropometry, Klein, a male artist, would direct female models covered in paint.

    Compare and contrast. How are Schneemann’s and Klein’s processes similar? How are they different? Does the fact that Schneemann used her own body and Klein used the bodies of women change how you view their works?

  4. Hair and Identity

    Hair is an important part of a person’s identity. People often style their hair to align themselves with certain trends, social groups, or political statements.

    Research. Pick a work of art that depicts people. Start by visiting the website for Hair: Untangling the Roots of Identity, an exhibition at Cornell University’s Johnson Museum of Art. You can also search in MoMA’s collection. Looking at the subject(s) in the work of art, think about what their hairstyles might reveal about their identity.

    Consider and create. What does your hairstyle say about you? Take a photo of your haircut—it can be from the back of your head, if you prefer—and share it on Flickr by tagging it “MoMA Learning Hairstyle.” Check out this page or the Flickr photo set to see other examples!