Counter Arts
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Counter Arts

Women in art and photography

Part II

Welcome back to this essay on women in art, and in photography. In Part I, I wrote about how new feminist scholars during the second and third feminist waves, such as Linda Nochlin, Bonnie Mann, or Carolyn Korsmeyer; decided to take a hard look through a critical lens to the role of women as artists — or rather the lack of it — but also as the objects of artistic representation by men for men, this fact affecting the way women are still seen and perceived today, both externally and internally. That long introduction to the topic of this essay ended in Kant, the “father” of aesthetics and its discourse, the “sublime” experience through a “beautiful” art object created by the “genius” artist-man. This second part will be dedicated to demystifying the Kantian tradition for a new way of understanding art, women artists, and women as objects of male contemplation.

Cover of Bonnie Mann’s Women’s Liberation and the Sublime, text I quote in this essay. Available on Amazon

The philosophical work of Kant has been crucial in the construction of modern society as we know it, his ideas ranging from politics to art and aesthetics, having had an extreme influence on the way we understand the world, and even ourselves in relation to us and to others. However, Kant’s work was in need of thoughtful criticism and revision, especially in the area concerning aesthetics; a task feminist philosophers dared to venture on. Why was this task important for feminist scholars to review? I’ll let contemporary philosopher Bonnie Mann answer that: “if the emerging body of feminist work in aesthetics has tended to articulate its criticisms of the masculinist tradition in the form of responses to Kantian aesthetics, this is appropriate for several reasons. Kant’s work on the beautiful and the sublime holds an extremely important place in the dominant canon and is commonly held to draw together and express most eloquently a number of central concerns in modern aesthetics”¹ (pp. 26–27).

Kantian aesthetics together with the language he employed to understand art and the roles of both artist and audience are still today the dominant canon. And this is concerning for feminism as Kant’s notion of art is extremely male-centric, which has reached farther niches of our society, permeating into gender roles¹, classes, race, politics, and sociology to name a few. However, it is quite evident that Kant’s aesthetics, initially meant for the realm of art, have shaped the way we perceive women outside of art into our daily lives both physically and intellectually as mere beautiful objects of male contemplation, a misogynist concept deeply rooted in our patriarchal society which capitalism learned to explode at the cost of women’s body image and self-esteem. All these consequences for our contemporary society are caused by Kant’s aesthetics.

It is quite strange that we, as a society, don’t take art that seriously. We believe it is just a painting, or a sculpture, or a performance; when art is much more than that. Art influences our perception of the world through a “dangerous” way, our subjective experience. And I say “dangerous” because it depends on our individual knowledge of art or the world, alongside our abilities to interpret art and artistic intention. This has a huge impact on our society as a whole and that is why art is so important. And, by extension, aesthetics. By looking back at the pieces of art we have from different times in the history of humanity, we can try to analyze how societies were and what their behavior was. And, through that analysis, we find the representation of women through the male gaze, a representation that Kant equated to that of nature’s beauty as an object of sublime experience: “women often find ourselves in the position of the object in philosophical texts, but nowhere so clearly and consistently as when the topic is the aesthetic experience of the beautiful. Here women, nature, and art all occasion the experience for men, and in a way that points to a labyrinthine relationship between the three”¹ (Mann, 2006, p. 26)

As I said, women’s association with beautiful objects is all over art history, however, it reaches its peak thanks to Kant and the subsequent modernist art movements when white European women became the normative carriers of beauty¹ meant for adoration and contemplation. Mann criticizes Kant’s idea of women’s life goal to be beautiful in opposition to men’s pursuit of knowledge and aesthetic experiences through contemplation¹. These dichotomous distinctions between subject (man) and object (woman), intellect (man) and appearance (woman), observant (man) and observed (woman), capable (man) and incapable (woman) are still with us today due to beauty remaining “the central and primary cultural task of women in postmodernity, the saturation of culture with images of beautiful women and women striving for beauty, messages about the power that comes with feminine beauty, the specter of the failure of feminine beauty, and the mass marketing of technologies of beauty”¹ (Mann, 2006, p. 27).

The misogyny embedded in the Kantian tradition when it referred to women’s role as objects incapable of becoming subjects of sublime experience due to our intellectual inferiority is an important feminist issue we should not exclude from analysis and action. How many great women artists have society excluded throughout art history because they were not white men? As Linda Nochlin asked herself, “what if Picasso had been born a girl? Would Señor Ruiz have paid as much attention or stimulated as much ambition for achievement in a little Pablita?”² (p. 155). Well, probably not. Because for Nochlin, art institutions and not only individuals were to blame for art being made by men for men. She suggested that “it was indeed institutionally made impossible for women to achieve artistic excellence, or success, on the same footing as men, no matter what the potency of their so-called talent or genius” (p. 176).

So how did women such as Georgia O’Keefe or Frida Kahlo start making it in the artworld at the start of the XX Century? According to Linda Nochlin, “it is only by adopting, however covertly, the “masculine” attributes of single-mindedness, concentration, tenaciousness, and absorption in ideas and craftsmanship for their own sake that women have succeeded, and continue to succeed, in the world of art”² (p. 170). This made me wonder if we, women, have internalized misogyny due to the patriarchal institutions, society, and cultural systems as I have outlined here, how can we be sure what the female gaze is in order to counteract the dominant male gaze within the arts and aesthetics? This is a long topic I will continue in part III.

¹Source: Mann, B. (2006). Women’s liberation and the sublime: feminism, postmodernism, environment.

²Source: Nochlin, L. (1971). Why have there been no great women artists?. In Women, art, and power and other essays.



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