Monday, July 16, 2012

Guest Post: Feminism in Art

Since I'm still off in the woods, being woodsy and singing a lot of songs, I convinced my friend Emaline to write a blog post for me.  Emaline is a quizbowl pro and she's also studying art history at BYU, so she's my go-to person for random questions about...everything.  Yep.

So, here it is!  Fun!

In 1893, the Louvre Museum purchased what they thought was  Frans Hals piece from a private seller. Upon further inspection of the signature of the painting, they discovered that the signature at the bottom of the work did not read "Frans Hals," but "J*L" (the letters J and L separated by a star). Puzzled and outraged, curators at the Louvre found that this was not a Frans Hals but a work done by contemporary Dutch artist Judith Leyster, who happens to be a woman. Needless to say, the painting lost its artistic and monetary worth.
In 1917, the Metropolitan Museum of Art acquired the unsigned painting Portrait of Mademoiselle Charlotte du Val d'Ognes believing it to be done by famed French artist Jacques Louis-David. However, in 1951, Charles Sterling, director of the Met at the time, determined the painting to not be done by David but by one of his female students, Constance Marie Charpentier. Following the work's attribution to a woman artist, its value plunged. 
These instances raise several questions, and these questions are symptomatic of larger issues within art and art theory. Did these works lose value because they were not done by one of the Great Masters or because they were done by women? What makes a work of art great--its artist or its artistic execution?
Feminism has a long history, and its roots in art history are pretty recent. Feminist art theory really began with the publication of Linda Nochlin's Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists? in 1972. With a provocative title, Nochlin sheds lights on an issue that had been ignored in art theory. She strategically published her article in a mainstream publication that was not overly academic but rather more available to a broader audience. She points out the "white male subjectivity" that is forced upon the study of art history. If the viewpoint is distorted, then it follows that the discipline must be also. The very title of her article provokes a response, an defensive outcry almost. Her audience might try to answer her by throwing out names such as Gentileschi, Morisot, or Vigee Le-Brun. However, Nochlin shows that these examples of women artists do not represent the typical struggles and concerns of an every-day woman artist; these women had connections, most of the time male connections, into the art world. There were a lot of prejudices against women. It was difficult for a female to sell her work, it was outside of her accepted social sphere, it was often times linked to selling oneself, and in a woman's case this was viewed as a form of prostitution. Nochlin realizes the potential the "woman question" had to challenge  and alter art history as a discipline; it is not a minor field that can simply be taught as something in the peripheral.
Fast forward several years and Griselda Pollock enters the scene. Pollock notes that there are still issues remaining within art history with regards to feminism, despite Nochlin's efforts to correct such errors. She points out the inclusion of the word "woman" when referring to a woman artist. Why do we feel that this is necessary when we do not do the same thing when referring to a male artist? She calls for greater integration of female artists as well as a restructuring of art theory as a whole. She champions its potential to deconstruct the methods of research, education, and thinking within art history as a disciplineFeminism challenges so many established and accepted concepts in art history, such as the artistic genius. This notion is generally accepted to be male. Certain characteristics in art, such as portraits of the human figure, were considered to be a higher, a greater art form than landscapes or still lives. However, women were denied access to art schools where students sketched the human body from nude models since it was determined to be inappropriate for them. Women were therefore forced to practice these lower art forms as their artistic abilities were handicapped; the male dominated society around them ultimately controlled their access to opportunities within the art world. Furthermore, the Canon, those legendary, famous, and eternal masterpieces accepted and studied extensively by art historians throughout the world, was created by men according to their beliefs, their opinions about what makes a work of art marvelous and timeless. (Not to mention that the large majority of the works listed on the Canon are done by male artists.) Art history's foundations are constructed from a male point of view, and feminism ultimately has the power to alter this. It's so cool, it's blowing my mind. 
Feminism is still an issue in art today. The Canon is still being taught in schools and universities around the world. Names such as Michelangelo, da Vinci, Raphael, David, Monet, Picasso are dropped and these men revered. When will our horizons broaden and include the women who traced the evolution of culture and history vicariously their artistic pursuits? What truly makes a work of art great and who decides this? These are all important questions that need to be answered and addressed before our understanding of art history and theory is complete.  

1 comment:

  1. Awesome article. It is not the desire to rewrite history of the past but to live today in such a way that the history others read in the future will include the wonderful contributions from females.