[ continued from this post ]
Grouping art history by theme and subjecting it to feminist interpretation can be a helpful exercise. As Bram Dijkstra pointed out in the introduction to Idols of Perversity, “while we may have forgotten the specific content of these images, they nevertheless had a fundamental influence on the development of our preconceptions regarding the nature of women” (viii). In my case, many of my favorite paintings are eloquent, clever, and technically impressive. The catch is that they eloquently, cleverly, and with technical virtuosity assert pernicious stereotypes about people like me. Their paradigms and mine simply do not match.
I recently responded artistically to six images of Eve in European art. Each artwork had the same short Biblical narrative as a primary reference, so differences between them result from the artists’ opinions and context. Each painting is at least a century old, but, like the more openly misogynistic imagery analyzed by Dijkstra, these images display gendered paradigms of privilege and blame.
By conceptually and literally inserting a self-portrait into an anachronistic crowd of similarly decontextualized women, their incompatible paradigms becomes obvious. Their differences in stance, orientation, clothing, and objectification are particularly significant.
One shift relates to the concept of the male gaze. Depictions of Eve almost invariably feature the key narrative symbols of a nude woman, fruit, and a man. The nudes’ poses emphasize the fruit they carry, but the clothed figure’s stance does not. That emphasis corresponds with an unpleasant historical assignation of women to original sin (and their concomitant untrustworthiness). In The artist intervenes, the men have disappeared. Only women regard one another, and their posing then either becomes farcical or defies heteronormativity. It also highlights the inherent power structure of this historical motif.
The appropriated artworks may be sexist, but they are also masterpieces. As Danto reminds us, “One does not escape the constraints of history by entering the post-historical period” (198). To censor the artwork would be unreasonable. Feminist artists are left searching for ways to reconcile to the canon of art history and to build spaces for themselves. Recursive as it is, this often requires literally making art that appropriates and subverts the old in service of the new. The tradition endures but is weakened. Identifying and understanding paradigms is a key component to dealing with them.
Danto, Arthur C. After the End of Art: Contemporary Art and the Pale of History. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997. Print.
Dijkstra, Bram. Idols of Perversity: Fantasies of Feminine Evil in Fin-de-Siècle Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986. Print.
Kuhn, Thomas. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. University of Chicago Press, 1962. Print.
Plato. The Republic. Trans. Benjamin Jowett. 27 Aug. 2008. Project Gutenberg. E-book.
Salomon, Nanette. “The Art Historical Canon: Sins of Omission.” The Art of Art History: A Critical Anthology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991. Print.