Toying with History: Means of Representation

[This is part five of a thesis paper about the series Toying with History.  Here is the master post.]

Knowing history might free us from repeating it unconsciously, but it does not free us from it entirely. Certain events and cultural artifacts will linger. What we can do is change what they signify to us. As Berger posits, “The meaning of an image is changed according to what one sees immediately beside it or what comes immediately after it. Such authority as it retains, is distributed over the whole context in which it appears” (29). This subjectivity of signs and execution is well established in the visual arts.

Just as censorship or negative representation carry symbolic meaning, so also is an image’s signification affected by the medium by which it is evoked. Artistic mediums are both culturally interpreted and, in author and art critic Thomas McEvilley’s words, processed “automatically without necessarily even thinking of them as content” (74).  Medium-based hierarchies are a stubborn conceptual holdover.

This is certainly still true in regard to the enduring distinction between art and craft. As mentioned previously, Woolf listed many of the historical stumbling blocks to women’s admission to the canon in A Room of One’s Own. Another reason why women are underrepresented in the canon of art history is the fact that many of women’s creative traditions are classified as crafts regardless of the skill, beauty, or effort involved. In a vicious circle, the creative output traditionally associated with women is rarely lavished with the same enduring regard as fine art by men. Two dimensional paintings and sculpture more readily earn the appellation “fine art,” whereas clothing and anything remotely related to children tend to be labeled as mere craft. My series Toying with History seeks to expose and subvert this sort of hierarchy, and this goal is reflected in the format of the works themselves. Paper dolls conceptually align with childcare and craft.

Tabs and a consistent scale refer to paper dolls, but my imagery repeatedly refers to the Western European figurative tradition in oil painting. Oil paint was for centuries the medium of the artistic elite, just as figuration was their subject of choice. Contemporary artists who choose oil paint may do so because the open time suits their working habits, but it rarely aligns them with the avant-garde. In fact, two-dimensional art is no longer the clear favorite.

McEvilley points out that painting, as opposed to sculpture in the 1960s (and today), “came to imply a lack of direct involvement in experience, an absorption in indirect, distanced preoccupations” (72). Sculpture continues to be a medium with particular appeal for those interested in the authority and reification of physicality. Of all painted mediums, watercolor elides physicality most emphatically. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why watercolor’s status remains relatively marginal and its use stereotypically popular with women, children, and amateurs.

Remedios Varo detail
Anon…was often a woman (Remedios Varo detail). Watercolor. 45” x 66”. 2014.


Some of my paintings arguably blur the line between painting and sculpture when parts of the painting are almost entirely cut free from the surrounding paper. The best example of this use of the cut occurs in Anon…was often a woman. In this instance, the way in which the sections of paper painted as gorilla masks hang by their tabs imitates the effect of paper dolls in use. This potentially links the artwork to paper engineering, popup cards, and paper dolls.  It does not, however, truly embrace three-dimensionality. These remain emphatically planar artworks. If anything, this technique acts like breaking the fourth wall in literature or entertainment. By directly addressing the audience or its own means of representation, a creative work reminds us that what we see is a shallow illusion that relies our suspension of disbelief.

Like painting, realism and technical ability are also formal characteristics under attack after a long period of dominance. McEvilley claims that “what we experience as a representation is, like aesthetic taste, a culturally conditioned habit-response not involving objective resemblance” (70). I whole-heartedly agree that the entire notion of realism and representation is a culturally loaded one. The trompe l’oeil tradition is as calculatedly artificial and self-aware as any photoshopped magazine cover. As the insightful poet and critic Susan Stewart explains in her book On Longing, “Realistic genres do not mirror everyday life; they mirror its hierarchization of information. They…are mimetic of values, not of the material world. Literature cannot mime the world; it must mime the social” (26). There is no such thing as a completely neutral representation.

In addition to noting that mimesis carries cultural baggage, I question our time-honored reliance on bodies (and especially faces) for identification. It might take a viewer quite a while to notice, but my series Toying with History provides paper doll costumes with no base doll to wear them. The scale of each costume is consistent with a doll that is never shared with viewers. My series promises a use value that is not quite possible with the parts provided. This may seem like a prank, but it is actually a means by which to acknowledge the fact that these are shared icons. The cultural narrative thus refers to all of us and to none of us.

Another implication is that of a composite portrait rather than a single, essentialist paper doppelgänger. Other artists whose work undermines the validity of single images to define identity are the photographers Yasumasa Morimura, Cindy Sherman, and Nikki S. Lee. In the context of this eclectic approach to portraiture, consider philosopher and gender theorist Judith Butler’s question: “To what extent is ‘identity’ a normative ideal rather than a descriptive feature of experience?” (23). Her question is part of a larger challenge to cultural preconceptions about fixed and easily comprehensible gender identity. It reminds us that individuals and culture are forever mutable and never simple.

The logic of the collection applies to any series of appropriated images. The defining feature of any collection is the criteria governing what is included or excluded. As Stewart posits, “The collection is a form of art as play, a form involving the reframing of objects within a world of attention and manipulation of context” (151). Groups of objects or images read differently when divorced from their contexts and arranged as a collection. Everything appropriated from its customary context and relocated to a collection is read first and foremost in relation to an overall theme.

Art historical scholarship sometimes seems entirely concerned with cross-referencing artworks as lineages of form, content, or subject. When artists appropriate aspects of their mentor’s work, then the imitation reads as homage. When the artists are unrelated, or when the imagery is repackaged in ways antithetical to the original work’s ethos, then appropriation can appear subversive.

The ambiguity between homage and subversion is particularly clear in the wake of Pablo Picasso’s relationship with art history. This famously egotistic artist is popularly—albeit incorrectly—credited with saying that “Good artists borrow. Great artists steal.” This is, however, a sentiment intriguingly modified by a series of his paintings in Barcelona’s Museu Picasso. In five months during 1957, Picasso painted fifty-eight different versions of Diego Velásquez’s Las Meninas. At the entrance to this gallery, the museum displays the following quote by Picasso:

Suppose one were to make a copy of “Las Meninas” in good faith. If it were me, the moment would come when I would say to myself: suppose I moved this figure a little to the right or a little to the left? If the case arose, I would do it in my own way, forgetting Velasquez. I would almost certainly be tempted to modify the light or arrange it differently in view of the changed position of the figures. Gradually I would create a painting of “Las Meninas” sure to horrify a specialist in the copying of old masters. It would not be the one he thought he saw in Velasquez’ canvas, it would be my “Las Meninas.” (qtd. from Sabartés)

Picasso’s versions of Las Meninas all reinterpret the original through Cubist stylization and other alterations from the original. He took immense liberties with the image’s formal qualities, but the sheer number and size of these copies testify to the power that this artwork held for him.

Picasso’s Las Meninas series had a profound effect on me as I began my own series Toying with History. This is clearest in my Guerrilla Girls homage. The figures derive from a poet’s photograph (Gertrude Stein), painters’ self-portraits (Rosalba Carriera, Käthe Kollwitz, and Frida Kahlo), or paintings by the women to whom they refer (Remedios Varo and Lyubov Popova). For me to repaint other women’s images in each other’s company indicates their collective status as role models for later artists.

With all the other paintings in my Toying with History series, I, a woman, dare to steal images from the great masters of my field. By repeating their images, however, I also acknowledge their authority. As the cultural historian Hillel Schwartz phrases it in The Culture of the Copy, “At one and the same neutered time, sampling is a signal of respect for and rebellion against those templates by which one’s time is fitted to one’s times” (310). Hand-painting these appropriated images implies a degree of humility. It is easy in this day and age to find and print out reproductions, but to paint them by hand requires time and effort.

Within this series of homages and subversions, it even matters that my paper doll costumes are small. Regardless of the scale of the original to which they refer, all are forced into a degree of equivalence by the consistent scale of their watercolor reincarnations. That scale happens to be small, and pointedly so in contrast to the oversized sheets of paper. Miniatures, as Stewart shows, are often the preferred vehicle for creative works that explore the extreme end of control and layered signification. As she puts it, “the representative quality of the miniature makes that contextualization an allusive one. … [T]he daydream of life inside life, of significance multiplied infinitely within significance” (Stewart 54). In case this characterization of miniatures seems arbitrary, contrast it with Stewart’s observations in art and literature about representations larger than human scale. As she explains, “Whereas the miniature represents closure, interiority, the domestic, and the overly cultural, the gigantic represents infinity, exteriority, the public, and the overly natural” (Stewart 70). Dolls play with the logic of the miniature.

The format of paper dolls links the entire project to the concept of playing. The parallel between creating art and playing is, as Ellen Dissanayake points out in a book linking art to evolution, well established. As she observes in Homo Aestheticus, “the ‘metaphorical’ nature of both art and play, the make-believe aspect where something is, in reality, something else, was the salient core feature [of both]” (Dissanayake 44). Playing dress up with ourselves and dolls is a valid path of self-definition and identity experimentation for children.

Playing is described in terms of freedom from care, but great care is taken in the experience by its participants. In her defense of playing, Dissanayake contends that:

…the presence in human societies all over the world of valued avenues and occasions for fantasy, make-believe, and imagination suggests that far from being mechanisms of escape and regression, or immature and trivial exhibitions of frivolity, as current received wisdom proposes, they can be positive and integrative activities. (86)

No less a luminary than Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., has expressed similar opinions about the value of entertainment. As Nichelle Nichols has recounted in multiple interviews, Dr. King dissuaded her from abandoning her role as Lieutenant Uhura on the original Star Trek series by arguing that “Uhura is more than just a communications officer. You’re a symbol. The work you are doing: you may not know how important it is, but we, who are fighting the good fight, stop and watch you on Thursday nights when you’re on.”

Even so, it can still seem almost beside the point to consider children’s toys through a feminist lens, but many sociologists and feminists do exactly that. The gender coding of toys is very pronounced today, and the quickest way to characterize that coding is by the overwhelmingly pink quality of any girl’s toy aisle. Criticism over the recent Goldie Blox ad campaign (and similar efforts to market stereotypically “boy’s toys” to girls) typically centers on the fallacy that girls will not be interested in such toys unless and until they are symbolically feminized. Conversely, boys are sold “action figures” rather than “dolls.” As Dr. Lisa Wade, who also co-authored papers on problematic feminist icons and how mass media objectifies women in politics, explained in a 2014 podcast:

It’s almost gross how much we’re so excited for girls when they like things we think that boys like, because the opposite is not true…We have a name for it in sociology.  It’s called androcentrism, the valuing of the masculine over the feminine.  So it’s not sexism (that’s valuing men over women…). It’s this whole other layer of inequality. (Daugherty)

Our culture’s correlation between value and masculinity is socialized from an early age. It may begin with toys, but this devaluation of the feminine crops up in even the most professional fields. Forcing media associated with craft and women’s work into the realm of fine art is one way to combat the overall androcentrism of the artistic canon.

Art historian Svetlana Alpers once described a common attitude in art history as “equating all works as separate but equal pieces of history” while challenging readers to consider the ramifications of that pretense of objective judgment (10). Art history is billed as a treasure trove of virtuoso technique, stylistic innovation, and individual genius. A corollary implication is that artworks that survived to the present day did so in a Darwinistic survival of the fittest. In this line of reasoning, artworks by women appear infrequently in the canon because they were objectively inferior. In the jargon of social justice, it is time to check that privilege. Art history is dramatically altered when stripped of the supposedly neutral status of historical artifacts.

When Michael Camille wrote that “a canon is not made up of the actual objects but only of representations of those objects,” this art historian spoke of plaster casts of medieval sculpture and their presentation in ways that reflect the entire canon of art history (198). The canon of art history is not reliant on the significance of each artwork within its original historical, social, and philosophical framework. These origin stories are important, but artworks only remain in the canon on the strength of their value to the canon’s current curators. Artworks that remain in the canon are concomitantly influential to contemporary artists.

In characterizing contemporary art, art critic Arthur Danto pointed out that our preoccupation with historical eclecticism both negates and reinforces its authority. In his words:

The sense in which everything is possible is that in which all forms are ours. The sense in which not everything is possible is that we must still relate to them in our own way. The way we relate to those forms is part of what defines our period. (Danto 198)

The canon is unavoidably modified with the passage of time, but does actively subverting a secular canon display disrespect?

There is much more respect in challenging a flawed system than avoiding it. In Simulacra and Simulation, Jean Baudrillard argues that, in a sense, “the iconoclasts, whom one accuses of disdaining and negating images, were those who accorded them their true value” when deeming them threatening enough to require destruction (5). Apathy, not anger, is the more dismissive response.

Perpetuating symbols is not necessarily tantamount to reinforcing them. Judith Butler points out the subversion of meaning while describing drag in Gender Trouble. As Butler explains, “Although the gender meanings taken up in these parodic styles are clearly part of the hegemonic, misogynist culture, they are nevertheless denaturalized and mobilized through their parodic recontextualization” (188). She later describes these as “imitations which effectively displace the meaning of the original” (Butler 188).

This displacement and slippage of meaning are one of my primary reasons for presenting history references as paper dolls. The conflation of children’s toys (or modeling tools) and high art, the forced equivalence of anachronistic images sharing space, and the parallelism of playing dress up and performing gender all affect the signification of what they remix.

Next: Conclusion and Works Cited

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