Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Lady picture show

This innovative volume goes beyond the examination of specific women artists to explore the ways in which gender is constructed in visual images. The discriminatory conditions which impacted women's abilities to become professional artists are described in each historical epoch. The role of women as patrons, or commissioners of works of art, and the ways in which art directly impacted the lives of women living in a given cultural context are also explored.
That's the jacket copy from a feminist art history book I took out from the library the other day. The book lives up to its promise, unfortunately.

Allow me to mansplain. There's value in gender studies, learning about sexual inequality across eras, including this one. But it can blunt the effect of the art itself. Art is in large part a Dionysian exercise, concerned with expanding possibilities in defiance of reason, if needs be. Sociology is more Apollonian, concerned with self discipline and order. There's a place for the Apollonian in art - there's a reason why paintings are generally exhibited in frames and not crumpled on the floor. But excessive adherence to an ideology, even a just one, can inhibit the creation and enjoyment of art. That bothers me in this case because many of the artists on display created arresting and transporting work. (Which could be better appreciated if the publisher had sprung for color plates, but I threaten to digress.) Nothing wrong with acknowledging the difficulties these artists overcame, and that might have defeated women we've never heard of. But the book threatens to become about nothing else.

tl;dr, male artists at all levels of accomplishment are granted the privilege of being known primarily through the images they've created. Female artists deserve no less.


susan said...

The idea of a book specifically about women in art is rather offensive in itself. Can you imagine anyone suggesting one about male artists being taken seriously? Of course it could be all our own fault for having spent hundreds of generations making homes more comfortable - curtains over the cave doors and pictures of baby dinosaurs (so fubsy) next to the sleeping shelves - all go a long way to verifying man's suspicions that women are only capable of making decorative art rather than professional art. It's not dissimilar to cookery - women cook but men are chefs. It's a general prejudice that has a long history. It's also one that still subscribed to by many women.

There's a place for the Apollonian in art - there's a reason why paintings are generally exhibited in frames and not crumpled on the floor. hahaha

Meanwhile, I agree with you that publishing a book about art of any kind without color plates is insulting to both the artists and the audience. It's like whoever wrote the book didn't take the work seriously either.

Ben said...

The work of women as artists does deserve to get more attention than it's gotten overall so far. This I don't necessarily have a problem with. But that work is sidelined, almost being treated as irrelevant.

And no, the lack of color plates certainly doesn't help. Black and white in art can be a neat effect, but for most of this stuff it's not at all representative of what was made.