Should male artists profit off women’s bodies?

My partner is a huge history nerd. He loves war paraphernalia, airplane parts, funny-looking hats…you name it, he’s made a bid on eBay for it. His quirky hobby has led to some thought-provoking discussions on the morality of warfare and whether any appreciation of it can be without ethical quagmire. Recently, he began replicating nose art from WWII-era aircraft, prompting my thoughts on whether male artists should be creating and selling art featuring women’s bodies.

Nose art refers to paintings that are done on the nose of an airplane; typically, they are celebrity pin-up girls, but they can also be shark mouths or anthropomorphic cartoon rabbits. The pin-ups appear, as one might expect, in lingerie (or not), featuring seductive poses. They are the subjects for art produced in a particular historical context by soldiers who found questionable ways to cope with their mortality. While I believe there is value in learning about the history of nose art, the objectification of women who received no compensation for their part in the artwork strikes me as a bit problematic.

A similar situation arises when self-described “body positive” male artists draw fat women. On the one hand, seeing larger people in artwork is rare and can be incredibly validating. Representation! Finally! At the same time, these men are literally profiting off the backs of oppressed people. They make money selling their art, whereas those women are still marginalized by society. It can also be fetishizing; they often use their status as an artist to gain access to nude photos of women for their pieces, which often have sexual themes. These men have not actually advanced the rights of fat people, despite their admiration of fat bodies.

When my partner started painting pin-ups, he did it from a place of aesthetic and historical appreciation. At his work as an aircraft mechanic, he hung one of his paintings on an airplane and unexpectedly received a huge positive response. Before he knew it, his co-workers were lining up to commission his artistic talents. He found himself making serious money for doing something he enjoyed—every artist’s wet dream.

But does the fact that he had pure intentions overshadow the effects of his work? Surely not every man purchasing the art was interested in the “historical value,” they just wanted to ogle beautiful women. By reducing them to a suggestive portrait created for the male gaze, we reinforce the stereotypes of women as playful temptresses or naïve, fragile creatures, neither of which does much to advance the rights of women. The models who originally posed for those pin-up photos are likely dead; there is no way for them to be compensated when an artist uses their bodies to make money.

But does anything change when the models are compensated, both for the original photoshoot and for any sales made thereafter? Most pin-ups are thin, white and conventionally attractive; is the moral quandary different if the models are fat or people of color or LGBTQ+? In other cases, I believe that the outcome supersedes the intention, but I can’t say I wouldn’t be happy to see diverse representation of bodies in art.

Unfortunately, I don’t have the final word on what our decision was. Moral grey areas are sometimes just that, and no satisfying conclusion can be reached. We acknowledge the oppressive systems while still being complicit in them because if we do not, someone with fewer scruples will jump in to take our place.