Though she has said she dislikes labels – that to identify oneself as a ‘feminist’ artist “ghettoizes” the artistic process – Ida Applebroog has the ability to make visible the systems of power that precipitate patriarchal behavior. Look how, in the painting below, she lets juxtaposition suggest an opinion that in other modes of discourse might seem polemical.
The title – ‘American Medical Association’ – puts the painting in context, even if we aren’t immediately sure what the painting means. For although the painting’s images are strange, its title is forthright. By invoking a group that has a long and public history, and whose actions can thus be judged, the title invites us to judge the artist’s evaluation of that group. Is the American Medical Association what it proposes to be – “American” in the way the viewer wants to define the word? Does it reflect in its actions the principles of the medical profession, and thus earn the descriptor, “Medical”? And, further, do the images depicted resonate with our conception of this group; is the artist’s rendition ‘apt’? These are the kinds of questions we are invited to ponder while studying the painting.
If we look at the painting from left to right, we encounter first the group of three men, whose relationship to the image of the woman above them is essential to the painting’s meaning. First, notice how the men’s posture and appearance differ from the woman’s. While they are clothed, apparently in suits, and are facing away from the viewer, so that we are not permitted to see their faces, she is naked, defenseless, facing forward so that we can see every inch of her. Most noticeably, her eyes are covered, suggesting anonymity, blindness, or vulnerability. While the men are seated, relaxed, in what could be an auditorium or a theater, she is splayed in a position not unlike a patient’s. And, though she is given a sort of primacy by the artist, who has placed her near the top of the canvas, the men below her seem unmoved by her presence, as if, though they might be discussing or observing her, their relationship with her is impersonal. So that a discrepancy exists between the knowledge they might have of her and the detachment with which they wield that knowledge.
It’s possible the men are unrelated to the woman, but their placement seems so intentional that our tendency to infer a narrative might be justified. Further, they are connected to the woman by the color they have been painted, which means they share with her a sort of livelihood, a kinship that is undermined by the indifference with which they regard her. And consider the color itself, a shade of red that, in the context of the title, and in light of the ‘diagrammatic’ way the woman is presented (like an illustration in a medical textbook), might be described as menstrual. It works upon our consciousness, evoking a sense of womanhood as biological and primal. At this point, the indifference of the men becomes blatant, even absurd. The men are ‘of’ the woman – they are not born except through her – yet they do not acknowledge her except as an object of study.
Alone, this first panel constitutes a political statement, but we cannot remove it from its ‘conversation’ with the second panel (of a man with a finger in his mouth). Tonally, this panel is different. In terms of the title, the man is most likely a doctor (with a shirt and tie and a white coat), but any other logical connections we might try to make between this panel and the title are elusive. Consider the color of the background – an oddly nascent pink – and the strange, autoerotic gesture (in which the man, with eyes closed, sucks his pinkie finger). It tends to put the viewer at a loss. The man is eroticized and narcissistic – to such a degree that this panel might undermine the seriousness of the men depicted in its counterpart. How do we understand this man? Is he part of the “Association” referred to in the title. And what does his gesture mean? He imparts to the painting a sense of the pornographic, so much so that the men in the first panel assume a voyeuristic quality that otherwise they might not have.
Finally, an observation might be made about the homogeneity of the males depicted. Though the painting doesn’t foreground this issue, all the males seem to belong to the same demographic; either that, or demographic differences are superseded by the unity the men share simply because they are colleagues. The men convey an air of tranquility, as if their lives have progressed according to expectation; they exhibit no fear or self-doubt; they are there because they are ‘supposed’ to be there – all products of the same American background.
There are other ways of understanding this painting, but largely it asks us to evaluate the way women are treated in a Western society. That it does so in a way that isn’t simplistic reflects the complexity of the issue it addresses. Nowhere in the painting are men shown to be explicitly domineering. If anything, they are shown to be silent, unobtrusive; yet there is something sinister about their silence, something at once bureaucratic, self-serving, and sexualized.