Toying with History: Abstract and Introduction

[This is the first installment of my final MFA thesis paper.  The master post is available here.]

Abstract

I use my paintings to playfully invite serious conversations. The series Toying with History examines representation through a feminist lens. I began this series with the following question: to what degree are women still misrepresented in our own culture?

My inquiry concerns the beloved but problematic visual tradition of Western European and American art. My paintings highlight the resonances between this canon of art history and contemporary pop culture. I approach this topic by repainting iconic figures as children’s paper dolls. The resulting artworks refer to contemporary feminist topics such as representation, gender norms, and power.

I do affirm the inescapability of canons and history by appropriating from them. Subverting those icons by translating them into toys reflects my optimism; we are influenced, but not controlled, by tradition.

 

Introduction

To what degree is the present dictated by the past? This can be an embarrassing question for citizens of the United States, who idealize independence and the rags-to-riches archetype. These mores inspire and empower, but they also tend to blind us to how profoundly our traditions guide not only our actions, but also our fundamental worldview.

By focusing intently and artistically on this blind spot, I became convinced that our society is still hampered by the inequality of women’s representation in politics and entertainment. My inquiry concerns the beloved but problematic imagery of Western European and American art. My paintings highlight the resonances between this canon of art history and contemporary pop culture. In other words, gender inequality continues to crop up in everything from museums to entertainment for the lowest common denominator.

One of the important barriers to discussions of this inequality in the United States is our collective reluctance to admit that it exists. We would love to relegate such unpleasantness to history books, and thereby date the end of sexism with women’s right to vote, racism with the Civil Rights Movement, and homophobia with state-by-state legalization of same-sex marriage. The persistence of these comforting myths betrays wishful thinking rather than ignorance. Recent headlines suffice to deflate them. The federal Supreme Court’s decision on Burwell vs. Hobby Lobby in June 2014 has been widely interpreted as prioritizing corporations’ rights over those of individual women. Michael Brown was shot by a police officer in Ferguson in August 2014, and subsequent protests underscore collective outrage over this and similar racial injustices. In September 2014, Rolling Stone published a detailed account of the increases in LGBT youth homelessness (Morris). This is no time to rest on laurels.

Many politicians, writers, activists, and artists work to eradicate contemporary inequality. Some link their efforts to specific causes, while others contribute to general consciousness-raising. Without underestimating the seriousness of violence against women, people of color, and individuals who identify on the LGBT spectrum, my interest and artwork focuses instead on how gendered systems of inequality are maintained and normalized over time. This socialization process must be altered if we ever wish to forestall future headlines about the violence it inspires.

Next: How history repeats itself

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