Women in art and photography
I hope you could wait one week for, finally, the last part of my essay on women in art and photography. The topic is so interesting and there is so much I could write about, but I think it’s good enough for now. If you haven’t read Part I and Part II, I recommend you do so before. For those who read them, I will do a little recap before I continue where I left it. This essay’s point of departure was Linda Nochlin’s 1971 essay titled Why have there been no great women artists?, which served to analyze through a feminist lens the role of women within the arts in general, both as subjects and objects, and also how art and aesthetics have shaped our perception of women’s beauty. With the help of Bonnie Mann’s 2006 book Women’s liberation and the sublime, I expressed how Kant’s concepts of art, genius artist, aesthetics, beauty, and sublime experience are problematic, gender-biased, alongside being deeply patriarchal and misogynistic. Concepts that are still very much rooted in our society, therefore art affecting our lives more than we want to realize.
I ended this essay’s part II with a quote from Nochlin in which she asserted her belief that women artists — and I would dare say women in general — can only succeed in this society if they adopt masculine traits and behaviors. This made me wonder and pose the following question: if we, women, have internalized misogyny due to the patriarchal institutions, society, and cultural systems […], how can we be sure what the female gaze is in order to counteract the dominant male [one] within the arts and aesthetics? Welcome to Part III.
Women artists have existed in history for a few centuries, some art historians considering Italian painter Artemisia Gentileschi, born in 1593, the first “great” woman artist. However, Artemisia was studied as a rare exception whose father’s, also a painter, teachings granted her a place in the fine arts realm of art history¹. Artemisia was lucky enough to belong to an accommodated family with the head of the household, her father, having the capability to overlook the fact of her womanhood and everything it implied back in the XVI Century in order to encourage her creativity and artistic skills. This privileged life would be a key factor in women’s interests in artistic expressions. I think the best example is in literature. Even if within the classical arts, painting, and sculpture, women were mostly excluded, literature seemed like a haven in which they could express themselves and were better recognized. Literature was not degraded to the level of arts and crafts, those traditionally made by women in the private sphere of the household which didn’t belong to the high art made by men. Because literature required a set of skills, writing and narrative; those were taught to bourgeoise classes and women appropriated them, such as acclaimed authors Charlotte and Emily Brontë, Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf, or Mary Shelly. Creativity cannot be stopped, not even by patriarchy, but it needs the right social conditions to emerge.
However, within the fine arts, men were not going to give away their male dominance so easily. As the art historian, Whitney Chadwick mentioned in her book Women, art, and society (1996), there were two women amongst the founders of the British Royal Academy back in 1768, Angelica Kauffmann and Mary Moser². This fact might seem to overthrow the whole feminist critique on art and art history; however, this event would be considered what we call today pink-washing. Because, as Chadwick analyzed, they were both excluded as subjects from the official painting celebrating the institution done by Johann Zoffany in 1771, their place in the painting being two representations as objects in the shape of bust sculptures hanging on the wall². Kauffmann and Moser might have been admitted to the club, but they were still no more than just mere objects of contemplation for their male “colleagues”. Another fact that I think supports my claim of this being pink-washing is that, after them, there was no other woman part of the academy until Annie Louise Swynnerton was granted an Associate Member in 1922, the next full member being Laura Knight in 1936².
This should come as no surprise after what we know thanks to feminist analyses about the role of women as passive objects and men as active searchers and producers of beauty and sublime experience conceptualized by Kant, which is the reason why women took so long to break into the artworld. The art institutions and society did not allow that to happen. And even when they did step in, their work was always devaluated in comparison to those produce by men. Traditionally, “the work of women has been presented in a negative relation to creativity and high culture. Feminist analyses pointed to the ways that the binary oppositions of Western thought ―man/woman, nature/culture, analysis/intuition― have been replicated within art history and used to reinforce sexual difference as a basis for aesthetic valuations. Qualities associated with “femininity”, such as “decorative”, “precious”, “miniature”, “sentimental”, “amateur”, etc. have provided a set of negative characteristics against which to measure “high art”” (Chadwick, 1996, p. 9).
So it seems quite clear that it is up to us to change the perception of women, not only as artists capable of representing beauty and aesthetics but also as subjects of art, moving away from traditional representations as objects of contemplation for the male gaze. But what is the male gaze? This idea was first introduced by Laura Mulvey³ when writing specifically about film that was then expanded to art in general. She recognized the dichotomy between active/male and passive/female, this “determining [that the] male gaze projects its fantasy onto the female figure, which is styled accordingly”³ (p. 19). It seems that the male gaze could be seen as the sexual lens through which men look at women and then shape them in order to fulfill their pleasurable arousal, women becoming “an indispensable element of spectacle”³ (p. 19). Our purpose in life is then to provoke pleasure, first visual then sexual, through indoctrination to internalize the male gaze into our behavior, accepting our submissive, passive, and objectified task which perpetuates patriarchy and misogyny. This has been women’s role in art and in life, art opening the path for women’s representation through men’s ideals of women, a role that permeated all levels of society through education.
I feel we have been trapped. The male domination within ourselves is so deeply rooted that it seems impossible to know what the female gaze is. There is also a contradiction within feminist theory that allows for this being open to interpretation, that being the belief or not in a feminine essence shared across all women that defines us and our experiences in the world. I do not particularly agree with essentialism, because I believe in intersectionality and I feel essentialism removes the experiences of those women who are affected by other social conditions, such as class, race, or religion, in favor of the “mainstream” one — aka white, middle class. Therefore, the female gaze is, for me, difficult to define in a way that allows for all women to be included. Also, it might be dangerous to conceptualize the female gaze as the opposite of the male one, because then we will be perpetuating the dichotomies that have separated us throughout human history.
The way I see women’s art, especially since the beginning of the XX Century and from the 1960s onward, is as a search for that female gaze, a revindication of our freedom as full, autonomous subjects capable of producing aesthetic works of art through any artistic medium. We are still today having to fight the label “female art” or “feminine art” while never seeing that for men’s art because the outdated concepts of artist, aesthetics, and beauty are still being taught not only at the higher levels of artistic education and institutions but to the general public, therefore continuing the male sovereignty over art and all its expressions.
The artworld is still very masculine, not only in the fine arts realm but also in photography and film for example. The more technological an art form is, the more difficult it is for women to access it due to rooted misogyny. This was also an excuse back when the main artistic forms were painting and sculpting. Art requires not only creativity and intentionality but skill in the tools needed for production. And, for centuries, women were thought of as lacking any kind of skill that was not sexual reproduction and household care. Photography is part of that. A tool that should bring artistic liberation to those excluded from art but that hides the reality of this man world. Women are still a minority within the photographic profession of any kind, from artistic to photojournalism. Editors, magazine and gallery directors are still mostly men looking for art made to fit their male gaze. We still have a long way to go within the arts, whatever the medium employed, to destroy the patriarchal system that we allowed to continue into our days and into our lives.
I would like to finish this essay recommending some wonderful social media accounts that work to spread the word about women in art and photography:
Feel free to leave more accounts in the comments and thank you for reading!
¹Source: Bridget, Q. (2017). Broad strokes. 15 women who made art and made history (in that order). Chronicle Books LLC.
²Source: Chadwick, W. (1996). Women, art, and society. Thames and Hudson Ltd.
³Source: Mulvey, L. (1989). Visual and other pleasures. Language, discourse, society. Palgrave.