My first introduction to the unique phenomenon of "boob art" came, as so many things that titillate and unsettle me do; via mommy blog. I was indulging my daily lunchtime stalk of one particular Brooklyn-based blogger who regularly features "house tours" on her site when I came across the home of two celesbian micro-influencers with a boob rug—this one, I'm pretty sure—on their bathroom floor.
"We like boobs in this household," one of the women explained, and I kept the phrase in mind as I toured the rest of their pale-pink, ceramics-forward home.
In the three years since, boob art has proliferated to a somewhat remarkable degree—Etsy lists 3,194 results for "boob art," mostly handmade line drawings in soothing, Insta-friendly palettes and often slotted into femme tableaux with dried flowers and clean white sheets. Urban Outfitters, Otherwild, and seemingly every independent boutique in a major city all sell some variety of boob paraphernalia, and there's even an Instagram artist to whom you can send a topless photo and receive, in turn, a portrait of your own boobs. Mule Gallery in San Francisco mounted a whole boob-art exhibition in 2017, and artist Emily Deutchman has been painting boobs on presidents' faces since the Obama administration.
As anyone who's taken a sex-ed class hopefully knows, breasts come in all shapes, sizes and colors, yet you wouldn't necessarily know that from browsing Etsy. While it is possible to find diverse boob art, the vast majority of what's out there tends to be pale-pink or lily-white, rose-nippled and symmetrical. The prototypical boobs of boob art are substantial enough to be recognizable, yet never so big as to invite the image of mudflap girls and sticky Playboys; this is, clearly and demonstratively, boob art for boob-havers, who tend to be (though are not always) women.
The unclothed breast has been a subject of art since at least 28,000 BCE, if the Venus of Willendorf is anything to go by, and a small but significant portion of the Greek and Roman sculptural canon was devoted to getting the topless female form exactly right. In Naked Truths: Women, Sexuality and Gender in Classical Art and Archaeology, Beth Cohen writes that the several female nudes that have been preserved from the Classical era are "but footnotes" compared to the far greater amount of preserved male nudes, adding that while total female nudity was generally taboo during the fifth century, "'the divesting of one breast'...on otherwise draped female figures became a popular visual symbol."
From there, it's a hop, skip and a jump to Manet's Olympia. So how did a fully nude set of breasts, divested now from their corporeal owner, become the de rigueur home accessory of 2019? How, in other words, did we get there from here?
Pamela Dungao, a writer in Toronto who noticed the encroaching tendencies of the boob art trend this spring, pointed me toward the work of Group Partner's Isaac Nichols, who has helped stoke the boob-art fire despite being, as Dungao put it, "A DUDE."
It feels a little disjointed to have a straight, cis man making art that concerns itself with female-coded secondary sex characteristics, and Nichols, who describes himself as "definitely a feminist," told Sight Unseen that he was nervous about potential negative reactions to his work. "As for the breasts being small, I was seeing a girl at the time who was small-chested. That was sort of where it came from. I still try to make them small. The alternative already exists. And I never wanted to make a pot that could be construed in any way as a sexy pot."
Boob art isn't exactly sexy, but it is unabashedly sexual, daring observers to be scandalized. Since 2012, the Free the Nipple campaign has been advocating for women's right to appear topless in public, and boob art feels like a logical outgrowth of that idea; after all, to paraphrase the Guerrilla Girls, why do women have to be naked to get into the Met Museum, or clothed to walk down the street outside of it?
Nonetheless, the privilege of baring all as a female-presenting person is, inevitably, raced and classed; after all, Erykah Baduh faced misdemeanor chargesin 2010 for walking naked through downtown Dallas, while Emily Ratajkowski continues to bare all in the name of, uh, activism, seemingly without consequence. Instagram "allows nudity in artwork—but only if it’s sculptures or paintings, not photographs," allowing a male artist like Nichols to make a living off women's bodies while penalizing sex workers for doing the same.
When I reached out to Otherwild for a quote about their fairly diverse range of boob art, owner Rachel Berks bristled at the term, saying, "Otherwild doesn't profess to sell "boob art", although we sell products wherein breasts/boobs/tits are a feature of several products. These products are enjoyed, purchased and adorned by people who use them as a form of self-empowerment, pride and agency: through their adornment, the user/wearer is able to claim their breasts as public, self-defined and visible, rather than objectified, private and exploited."
Boob art's evolution into mainstream Insta-bait and home decor could stem partly from the after-effects of what I'd like to term Women's March Madness; in the post-pussy hat era, and during yet another rollback of U.S. reproductive rights, it's easy to see the appeal of festooning your home in art that sends a message about women's right to take up space in public life. Still, boob art feels less like activism than a visually pleasing virtue signal; after all, as a wise elder once told me, if it's for sale, it's probably not feminism.
So where does that leave boob art? Is it the tangible manifestation of feminism, or its demise? "Otherwild isn't interested in whether our products are sexy; rather, we're interested in whether our products represent positions of agency and empowerment that our customers desire," says Berks, and in these troubled times, it's not hard to see why an aesthetic that smacks even remotely of sexual liberation is gaining traction—especially one that's millennial-pink and costs three figures.
This article originally appeared on VICE US.