2009 02 06
Recently Read: Women, Art, and Power and Other Essays

Posted by in: Art, Books, Feminism

John Berger’s Ways of Seeing got me interested in feminist art criticism so I looked around a bit, gathered the impression that Linda Nochlin was an important figure in the field, and got a hold of this collection of essays. The volume brings together seven essays, arranged in reverse chronological order, from 1988 to 1971. Now that I’ve read the book, it’s obvious to me why Nochlin matters: the essays are both ambitious and cogent. A few of the essays were studies of particular artists or themes. These were less interesting to me, since I don’t have the background in the subjects to really evaluate or challenge Nochlin’s line of argument. But a few of the essays were really exciting, in particular the title essay, “Women, Art, and Power” (1988) and the final (chronologically, the first) essay, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” (1971).

“Women, Art, and Power” is about,

the ways in which representations of women in art are founded upon and serve to reproduce indisputably accepted assumptions held by society in general, artists in particular, and some artists more than others about men’s power over, superiority to, difference from, and necessary control of women, assumptions which are manifested in the visual structures as well as the thematic choices of the pictures in question. Ideology manifests itself as much by what is unspoken—unthinkable, unrepresentable—as by what is articulated in a work of art. Insofar as many of the assumptions about women presented themselves as a complex of commonsense views about the world, and were therefore assumed to be self-evident, they were relatively invisible to most contemporary viewers, as well as to the creators of the paintings. Assumptions about women’s weakness and passivity; her sexual availability for men’s needs; her defining domestic and nurturing function; her identity with the realm of nature; her existence as object rather than creator of art; the patent ridiculousness of her attempts to insert herself actively into the realm of history by means of work or engagement in political struggle—all of these notions, themselves premised on an even more general, more all-pervasive certainty about gender difference itself—all of these notions were shared, if not uncontestedly, to a greater or lesser degree by most people of our period, and as such constitute an ongoing subtext underlying almost all individual images involving women.

Yet, as Nochlin is quick to explain, the word “subtext” is potentially misleading:

It is not a deep reading I am after; this is not going to be an attempt to move behind the images into some realm of more profound truth lurking beneath the surface of the various pictorial texts.

Rather, the implications about women that Nochlin finds in visual art are there on the surface, as the plainest elements of a painting, even if we are not used to focusing our attention on them.

Focusing our attention on these implications is easier said than done—at least for this culturally obtuse dude, it is. I’m a feminist, and I’ve spent some time thinking about feminism and feminist issues. Even so, the plain meaning of a painting, the set of obvious implications suggested by different elements in it, is often extremely difficult to take in, whether we’re talking about gender in particular or other kinds of social relations. This is partly because of my own limitations as a viewer. But it’s also because seeing this sort of thing clearly is just an inherently difficult thing to do. Art has all kinds of functions, but it performs its ideological function, as Nochlin points out, by making certain highly contingent assumptions seem highly natural. What makes a book like this so exciting, for me at least, is the promise it holds of teaching how to see things in a fresh way. With a bit of practice, gradually what seems natural and ordinary—say, certain conventional treatments of women in painting—can be re-viewed as contingent and peculiar. Nochlin, of course, gives us more than theory. She walks through a number of examples, setting out and arguing for her interpretation of them.

The standard complaint here is that this approach to art turns it into an occasion for harping on your favourite ideological preoccupations, rather than treating art on its own terms, whatever that means, exactly. Berger faced much the same criticism in response to his own Marxist-influenced approach to art. “We are accused of being obsessed with property,” he wrote.

The truth is the other way round. It is the society and culture in question which is so obsessed. Yet to an obsessive his obsession always seems to be of the nature of things and so is not recognized for what it is. The relation between property and art in European culture appears natural to that culture, and consequently if somebody demonstrates the extent of the property interest in a given cultural field, it is said to be a demonstration of his obsession.

The depiction of women as subordinate in visual art is pervasive, and although the fixation on this subordination often isn’t conscious, it’s nevertheless very deeply ingrained in the Western tradition. So it seems to me that the criticism of a feminist approach to art criticism mentioned above is especially perverse. It’s the tradition that is shot through with sexist assumptions, to the extent that it would be completely unrecognizable without them, and feminist art criticism is only pointing that out.

Nochlin’s essay “Why are there no Great Women Artists?” is also good. Nochlin surveys a few of the standard responses to this question, dismisses them, and then launches into an investigation of the shared characteristics of most of the artists in the last few hundred years who are considered great. Practically none of them, Nochlin notes, came from the aristocracy, in spite of the fact that aristocrats often had encouragement and some amateur instruction at painting. Very few people ask “Why are there no Great Aristocratic Artists?” Once we do ask the question, the answer is reasonably clear: Aristocrats lived according to, and within, a set of social expectations and restrictions that made the sort of intensive, early, full-time training necessary for serious accomplishment extremely difficult, if not impossible, to acquire. (No one worries, of course, that aristocrats might be born with little natural facility for art.)

Women, aristocratic or not, had a whole other set of burdens, social expectations and restrictions to deal with. Nochlin illustrates this by singling out one such factor for scrunity: the availability of nude studies for aspiring woman painters. Extensive work on such studies was considered an absolutely essential precondition for serious accomplishment in the most respected areas of visual art for much of the last few hundred years of Western visual art. Unsurprisingly, the opportunities for such studies for women were highly restricted (at times there were no such opportunities; other times, they were extremely limited). Nochlin’s meditation on this theme circles a number of times around the notion of greatness, teasing apart the assumptions that go into the question, as well as possible responses to her question.

Anyway, this is good stuff. I imagine the general reader would have roughly the same experience that I had with some of the essays in this collection (that is, might find them a little too specialized). But a few of the essays I would certainly recommend for anyone with any interest in visual art.

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2007 05 26
Same place, different cities

Of all the places I’ve spent a significant amount of time (Ottawa, Toronto, Ithaca, NYC), New York is far and away the most sexist. I see women harassed (aggressive staring, rude comments, honking, etc.) on a regular basis. I was reminded of this yesterday when I noticed a woman giving the finger to two guys in a van. I didn’t see the provocation, but the snickering in the van made pretty clear what kind of provocation it was. (A company van too, and I’m kicking myself now that I can’t remember what company it was.)

Everybody notices. But there’s noticing and then there’s noticing in a way that seems calculated to communicate disrespect, as if the disrespect is part of the thrill. Watching this woman giving the finger and then continuing to walk down the street reminded me of just how different our experiences of the city must be. Even in the best case, if the harassment never becomes violent, she has to contend with a sort of pervasive, low grade hostility, the continual possibility of random displays of disrespect. Of course, as a New Yorker I encounter rudeness all the time. But this is different. We live in the same place, but very different cities.

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2006 09 05
How to talk about feminism

Holy fuck, this is good. Really, one of the best things I’ve ever read on a blog.

Howls of outrage (2)

2006 08 26
Nussbaum on Mansfield

Posted by in: Books, Feminism

For your morning delectation: Martha Nussbaum crushes Harvey Mansfield’s book on Manliness — and Mansfield himself — into a fine powder.

How did someone whose every paragraph is a stake in Socrates’s heart come to be an exemplar of philosophical seriousness?

I had never so much as heard of this guy, even though he’s been at Harvard for years, and no way have I even been in the same building as this book — but my money’s on Nussbaum having it right, and Mansfield seems like a hard guy to feel sympathy for. Read the whole thing, and wish that someone had the energy to do this to every “public intellectual” who deserves it.

Howls of outrage (3)

2006 03 15
Co-ed Earns Fellowship for Research on Hegel’s Philosophy of Right

Posted by in: Feminism, Language

Can we please get rid of the term “co-ed”, used as a noun to refer to a female university student? (This is a longstanding pet peeve of mine; I saw it in a news article today and now you all get the benefit of my ruminations on the subject.)

First of all, it suggests that having female students on campus is novel and noteworthy. It’s been a long time, 30 or 40 years, since this was true at most U.S. colleges and universities. It’s insulting to use it now, because it suggests that female students are some kind of novelty act rather than being just normal students.

Second, although it has the veneer of being a plain statement of fact (which means that it still occasionally crops up in mainstream news sources) it’s nearly always used in contexts in which something demeaning is being said or implied about the student. Co-eds are a little flighty, a little dumb; they’re not serious about school; they’re attractive and maybe of easy virtue. Notice the incongruity of the title of this post. Because of the pretense that it’s a statement of plain fact, this term that means “dumb sluts” gets used as if it were a simple synonym for “member of the sex whose admission made this school coeducational”.

Third, the veneer of plain fact is thin, too. As far as I know the term wasn’t applied to men who enrolled at places like Vassar (which had been a women’s college) when it went co-ed. And it sometimes erroneously gets applied to women who are enrolled in women-only colleges, or schools like Oberlin or Cornell that have been coeducational since they started. So if it’s a plain statement of fact, the fact being stated is “this person is a female student”, rather than “this person is of the sex that makes a formerly single-sex school coeducational”. If you just want to convey the former fact, you can get it across as easily by saying “the student …she…”.

So, to sum up: this term, which implies that a person is a dumb slut, whose presence on campus is novel and maybe a little amusing, gets applied to all female university students as if it were a simple, neutral statement of fact.

Which fills me with the berserker rage.

Howls of outrage (14)

2006 02 10
Domestic chores and feminism

Belle Waring takes Matthew Yglesias’s commenters to the woodshed for a bunch of seriously asinine comments about gender imbalances in the division of domestic labour.

I suppose that makes my own views clear. I’ll add this one point, though: As far as I can tell, it was a few blog posts in this spirit a while back that forced me to wonder about the division of domestic labour in my own household, which in turn led me to recognize that that that division of labour was pretty unfair. Since then I’ve learned how to cook better (because, seriously, a real man needs to know how to please his woman in the kitchen – and not just when they’re fucking on the kitchen table), and I’ve taken up a much larger share of tedious crap like dishes, laundry and groceries.

Point is, if you’re blogging your heart out on this issue and feel like you’re getting nowhere, do please remember that every once in a while posts of this sort can actually make a difference.

Howls of outrage (5)

2006 01 17

Posted by in: Feminism, Language

From Slate:

. . . If there’s one naysayer in an institution of thousands, we’re more apt to believe that she’s nuts than that she’s the only one who hasn’t drunk the Kool-Aid. So far, the NSA hasn’t responded to Tice. But if he . . .

Notice the feminine pronoun, used here to make a general point in a context in which the particular point is about a man. I see the feminine pronoun used this way all the time in academic writing, but I think this may be the first time I’ve seen it in a piece of popular writing. Have I just been dozing and missing lots of these, or is this the first you’ve noticed too?

Howls of outrage (4)

2005 10 18
2:08 pm Oct 24

Posted by in: Feminism, Political issues

My spy in Reykjavik just sent me an article about the 1975 women’s strike in Iceland and the planned anniversary strike this coming Monday. On Oct 24, 1975, 90% of the women in Iceland “took the day off” — from work, from childcare, from their normal daily duties — to demonstrate how difficult and necessary their work was, and how undervalued. Read what happened, and why it’s going to happen again.

Howls of outrage (14)

2005 03 25

I’ve seen this point made before, but rarely so succinctly:

Don’t hurt your brain trying to reconcile the following stereotypes:

(a) Women are afraid of argument.

(b) Feminists are too outspoken.

(c) The media has a liberal bias.

(d) Women of color are too outspoken.

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2005 03 22
Pollitt on the underrepresentation of women in the commentariat

No first hand experience, of course, but it sounds awfully plausible to me.

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2004 04 09
Advice to Young Ladies

One initiative making the rounds in the blogosphere is an effort to publish decent Arabic language translations of famous English language texts.

My own modest contribution to this initiative is the proposal that we translate A.D. Hope’s poem “Advice to Young Ladies” into as many languages as possible, and organize public readings from Canada to Afghanistan, everywhere sexist thugs dare to congregate.

Special attention should be drawn to the final stanza, which is so powerful that it elicited an involuntary “omph” from me the first twenty times I read it. I’m now past audible “omphs”, but the poem continues to move me no matter how many times I read it.

To continue reading, click “Continue reading Advice to Young Ladies” immediately below.
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