Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Notes on Gender Issues in Art

*This for my MWF 1:30-2:30 and 5:30-6:30, and TTH 1:30-3:00 and 3:00-4:30 classes.

Is gender relevant to art, to the work an artist makes, or to meaning? What about sexual orientation? It seems some people think it matters—though why, and for what good reasons, remains to be seen.

Music-Pink and Blue II by Georgia O'Keeffe
Georgia O’Keeffe is a recognized American female artist. However, artworks done by female artists are not treated on par with men’s: they are always downplayed by being labeled ‘female’. In fact, Alfred Steiglitz, who later became O’Keeffe’s husband, exclaimed when he first saw her paintings, ‘At last! Finally a woman on canvass!’

Many viewers share Steiglitz’s reaction that they express qualities of the female experience. Flowers are sexual organs, and O’Keeffe’s large flower paintings often depict immense and engorged stamens and pistils, delighting in the petals’ deep folds and plush textures. They do evoke female genitalia in erotic ways.

In 1985 a group of women artist in New York organized to protest against sexism in the art world. The ‘Guerilla Girls’ hid their identity under furry gorilla masks. The ‘Girls’ recently published their own art history, The Guerilla Girls’ Bedside Companion to the History of Western Art (1998). It argues that more women should be included in standard art histories and museums.
In Gender and the Musical Canon, Marcia J. Citron advocated a social history approach that would challenge the canon in music by focusing more on how high art and popular music were differentiated, on women’s roles as singers and teachers, on how the audience were constructed and expected to behave, and so on.
To explain female absences from art, remember that social and economic facts of women’s lives in the past. Nochlin identifies the ‘myth of the great artist’ wherein greatness will be manifested no matter what the surrounding circumstance. However, artists need training and materials. Art required both patronage and academic training. Through much of the past, strict social expectations about women’s roles in family life discouraged them from seeing art as more than a hobby.
Some feminist art historians explain that some kinds of art, for example, flower paintings, were dubbed ‘feminine’ for complex reasons. Women could not study nudes in the academies from Renaissance through the nineteenth century to learn life drawing and this blocked their participation in the all-important genre of historical painting. Northern European paintings that were previously admired began to seem ‘delicate’, ‘feminine’, and ‘weak’ by contrast to large bold canvases on classical themes. So what makes a flower painting ‘feminine’? Feminists trace the origins of prejudice to art historians who see both flowers and females as natural delicate, and beautiful. Their attitude ignores the content and skill of flower painters.

Freeland, Cynthia. Art Theory: A Very Short Introduction.Oxford U Press: New York, 2001.

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