The Pretty/Dirty Realities of American Beauty


On a recent gallery crawl I hit Marilyn Minter: Pretty/Dirty at The Brooklyn Museum. The retrospective is part of A Year of Yes: Reimagining Feminism – a yearlong series of exhibitions celebrating a decade of the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art. At 68, Minter is increasingly respected for her provocative renderings of beauty and its gritty underside. A self proclaimed ‘Nasty Woman’, Minter gives space to a younger generation of women to challenge American culture surrounding body, beauty, and glamour.

Located in Prospect Park, The Brooklyn Museum is a gorgeous monstrosity. Pretty/Dirty was introduced on the fifth floor by an explicit warning. There was at least one highly pornographic set of paintings, but any other explicities in the show were not very different from seeing Gustave Courbet’s The Origin of the World 1866 at the Mussée d’Orsay in Paris. It is unfortunate that a woman’s artistic depictions of vaginas need to be forewarned as explicit – meanwhile high classical paintings of vaginas can live in respected institutions. Ultimately Pretty/Dirty invited me to consider the ways women do and do not own their bodies.

The Pretty/Dirty retrospective introduced many archival photographs from Minter’s body of work spanning four decades. I personally gained a better understanding of her intentions after witnessing her conceptual and artistic processes alongside the completed work. A typical private collection rarely grants access into an artist’s process and this leads to regarding the artwork in a contextual manner that might not offer a contextual framework or insight to understanding the work outside of the, often poorly projected, exhibition texts. Retrospectives, however, make a point to share those connections and answer your questions before one is prepared to ask them, and Pretty/Dirty does this very well.

The production shots were really the beginning of her practice – a practice now dubbed as photorealistic. Marilyn, however, claims her own work to be a form of abstract realism because there is almost nothing realistic about beauty standards in America today. I believe if beauty advertisements were created by women empowering other women, they would take inspiration from the work of Marilyn Minter.

Minter has said that she aims to photograph, “the other side of glamour – a side that doesn't have a lot of representation, but that is still very real.” Anyone who resonates with Minter’s work knows this side of glamour well; it is our truth, and it is not filtered, retouched, or adorned with good lighting. Presumed defects like pimples, stubble, freckles, and misapplied makeup that are digitally eliminated in glossy fashion spreads have become Minter’s glorified subjects.

Minter’s work stems from similar ideas heavily present in fashion, advertising, and pornography – industries that induce expectations of beauty, consumer behavior, sex, and sexuality. But by presenting private ideas of pleasure, fetishism, and pretty and dirty things at an enormous scale, Marilyn challenges us to acknowledge, and then infringe upon, the conditions in which we are told what is beautiful, what is sexy, and what is a necessity. Marilyn’s work reminds us through pictures of dirty toes and hairy armpits that these mega industries fully intend to sell us our insecurities. It is this process of artistic communication that Marilyn refers to as, “the pathology of glamour.”

Recently the perspicacious mind and art theorist, John Berger, passed and the topics covered in his 1972 BBC series, Ways of Seeing have stuck with me since studying them in school.

“From earliest childhood she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually. And so she comes to consider the surveyor and the surveyed within her as the two constituent yet always distinct elements of her identity as a woman. She has to survey everything she is and does because how she appears to others, and particularly how she appears to men, is of crucial importance for what is normally thought of as the success of her life. Her own sense of being in herself is supplanted by a sense of being appreciated as herself by another.”

His passing reminded me that because we live in this western patriarchal society, how we view ourselves is altered through the projected opinions of others. Whether we want someone to believe we are intelligent, funny, or even beautiful, our own opinions of ourselves often come second to the opinions of outsiders. Who we are in our own minds is directly obstructed by who we are told we should be, and this is where I think Marilyn Minter’s work overlaps Berger’s critiques - the exposure of the things we are conditioned to be ashamed of.

Now more than ever, women, minorities, and the LGBTQ+ community should take up as much space as they want, require, and deserve. Bigoted, sexist, and entitled systematic oppressors that aim to constrict the rights and respects we are owed will continue to emerge, but we can be our own advocates and brawl to deconstruct oppression.

Following the Presidential Inauguration, Minter participated in many demonstrations and protests. At a recent panel discussion alongside Madonna at the Brooklyn Museum, Minter offered her opinions on the current state of our country and our culture. She shared that this is the most frightened she has ever been. “The most qualified candidate who ever ran was defeated by the most unqualified candidate who ever ran, and it’s all because of misogyny.” Madonna went on to say that we have two choices: destruction and creation, and she chooses creation.

So however you respond to the current political disaster, whether it’s through powerful protests for the injustices in this world, donations, or progressive dialogues, choose to create. Your creativity can be your voice, and the art world desperately needs more artists that contradict American cultures surrounding beauty, femininity, and the representation of bodies in art and media.


If you have yet to visit Pretty/Dirty you must. Plan a gallery crawl and head out to The Brooklyn Museum before it closes on April 2nd.

All .gifs and imagery courtesy of Kristi Kruser