Bodies for Sale

12.20.13

Modern Magdalenes

Malerie Marder's brothel images get at the West's endless indecision about the meaning of prostitution.

This photo of Dutch prostitutes is from a solo show by Malerie Marder at Leslie Tonkonow gallery in New York. When the show was up for discussion at a recent edition of The Review Panel, the series of critics’ talk-fests organized by ArtCritical.com, all sorts of credible – and mutually exclusive – positions were tried on for size. Some speakers found the images just as sexist and exploitative as the profession these women are forced to belong to. Others praised Marder’s depiction of untraditional forms of female beauty, and the empowerment of big and old and even anorexic bodies that it implies. Still others felt that the pictures captured the tragic plight of women who have to sell themselves – or, alternatively, that the photos depicted women who’d taken charge of their bodies and lives, to pull cash from the pockets of men made idiots by their libidos. (Or of female photographers: I’ve heard that Marder paid her subjects the normal price of a trick.) Even though I tended to side with viewers who found the pictures and their subject problematic, I couldn’t simply dismiss the opposing opinions. This left me feeling that, more than anything, Marder’s photos are vastly successful in getting at our society’s total indecision about what prostitution is, and what it does to – or is it “for”? – women.

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