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Art History: Oppression Against and Objectification of Women in Art

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Table of Contents

  • Exploring the Women's Role in the Context of World Art History
  • Conclusion
  • References

Art history essays contain plenty of topic examples to write about. However, for this paper the topic of women role in art history was chosen. Throughout centuries, women were systematically excluded from most social domains, among which is history of art. They were totally involved in making art, whether as creators or sources of inspiration, made significant contributions to the world of art. However, even though women were and continue to be an integral part of the institution of art, there was a considerable – and remains so, but to a lesser degree – underrepresentation and undervaluation of female artists in the world.

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For example, according to sociologist Taylor Brown (2019):

The statistics of the past few decades confirm that the art world is not one of gender parity. Works by female artists comprise a small share of major permanent collections in the U.S. and Europe, while at auction, women’s artworks sell for a significant discount compared with men’s. Only two works by women have ever broken into the top 100 auction sales for paintings, despite women being the subject matter for approximately half of the top 25. (para. 1)

Furthermore, women working across arts professions make almost $20,000 less than men annually (Artsy, as cited in NMWA, n.d.), and comprise only 40% of the 100 list of the “most influential people in the contemporary art world” (Art Review, as cited in NMWA, n.d.). In other words, there is gender disparity in the global art markets to this very day. Yet what are the reasons behind such disparity? Why women artists were even more marginalized in the earlier centuries?

Exploring the Women's Role in the Context of World Art History

To begin with, it is worthy to note that, despite the still existent unfairness, the conditions for women in the art world have significantly improved and continue to be gradually improving. These changes were brought primarily by the emergence of the equal rights and the feminist movement in the 1960s and 1970s, which raised awareness among many, many women artists. Before that time, they faced a major opposition in the traditional narrative of art history: they faced difficulties in getting education and professional training, in selling their works and getting recognition. Activist feminism fixed this situation and reintroduced both past and present female creators, such as Lee Krasner, Louise Bourgeois, Alice Neel, and many, many others (Gouma-Peterson & Mathews, 1987, p. 332). Women started creating new alternative frameworks and establishing themselves within them: in exhibitions, galleries, museums, publications, etc. In the process of doing so, they developed a sense of solidarity, community and enthusiasm. As Miriam Schapir, a pioneer of feminist art, recalls:

We had discovered the gold of sisterhood and it was a unique and precious find. It gave us the moral support that our previous isolation had prevented. Out of our consciousness-raising groups and our political action meetings we emerged as a vigorous art body. . . The position papers. . . written by the first wave of liberationists . . . stressed the gathering of one's forces for freedom from the intellectual and emotional dependence on men. (as cited in Gouma-Peterson & Mathews, 1987, p. 332)

As a result, feminist art created opportunities and spaces that previously did not exist for women and other minority artists. In the period of the 1960s there was a huge increase of women both teaching and studying art. With the establishment of new programs, such as Women’s and Gender Studies, they developed an interest in the subjects of “the status of women through history, the social construction of the female image, and the institutionalised idealisation of the female body within Western culture” (Dekel, 2013, p. 19). Thus, they started questioning the traditional criteria of art criticism, and by doing so, they challenged the male-dominated culture, which had guided it (Dekel, 2013, p. 18). In other words, they began reexamining the conventional mode of view, evaluation, structure and ideology of art history. Moreover, they sought to rewrite this male-dominated art history, as well as change the contemporary world around them through their works, including the social structure. They realized that art was a powerful tool, that it was not merely an aesthetic object for admiration. Art was a median of communication, through which the author could speak to the viewer, impose certain ideas on them or make them question the social and political scale, and by doing so, probably bring changes to the world. One of the focal points for feminist art criticism was raising the issues of why works by female artists were forgotten or neglected (Dekel, 2013, p. 18), and what was the difference between female and male artistry.

Furthermore, another important issue raised by art feminists was objectification. According to feminists MacKinnon and Dworkin, “objectification involves treating a person, someone with humanity, as an object of merely instrumental worth, and consequently reducing this person to the status of an object for use. The objectified individual is made into a tool for others' sexual purposes. Objectification, therefore, constitutes a serious harm to a person's humanity” (as cited in Papadaki, 2018). Objectification is also a problem in the history of art by being linked to the traditional representation of the female image. As many feminists state, female body was always a central element in art themes:

Up until the 1970s, the expression given to power relations between the sexes by Western art had been principally male itself. From antiquity through the Renaissance and up to the modern period, art had unanimously followed this trend, the female nude lying — literally and iconically — at the heart of Western art (Nead 1992). Herein, nudity embodies that narcissistic gaze which permits the Western male observer to perceive himself as enlightened and cultured — the male painter likewise experiencing the pleasure of domesticating and converting to high culture what he considers to be a symbol of raw, passionate, bestial nature. (Dekel, 2013, pp. 14-15) Thus, women are usually portrayed in sexual light, naked or almost naked, with the emphasis on certain bodily parts. Female body has always been voyeuristically exploited by male gaze. Yet what exact mechanisms support this objectification?

Social Construction Feminist Theory attempts to explain both two phenomena: underappreciation of and objectification of women in art.

What is Social Construction Feminism? First of all, social constructionism is a theory that states that characteristics typically thought to be solely biological and unchangeable — such as gender, race, class, ability, and sexuality — are actually products of human interpretation shaped by social and historical contexts. Therefore, “social construction feminism looks at the structure of the gendered social order as a whole” (Lorber, 1997, p. 29). To be more precise, this theory regards gender as an institution per se that construes all social organizations of society: distribution of power, political rights and privileges, economic resources, etc. As a result, the existent gender norms and gender expectations get incepted into women’s and men’s mind so deeply that they create a concept of themselves strictly corresponding to these norms and expectations. Behaving in alternative ways becomes an unthinkable activity.

Furthermore, the concept of inequality is at the heart of social construction feminism:

In social construction feminist theory, inequality is the core of gender itself: Women and men are socially differentiated in order to justify treating them unequally. Thus, although gender is intertwined with other unequal statuses, remedying the gendered part of these structures of inequality may be the most difficult, because gendering is so pervasive. Indeed, it is this pervasiveness that leads so many people to believe that gendering is biological, and therefore 'natural.' (Lorber, 1997, p. 29)

This particular notion about “nature” is one of the most powerful instruments creating gender differences in society, gendered division of labor, gender segregation, etc., and justifying inequality in favor of men and against women in almost all spheres, including art. As it was already noted, women were highly underrepresented and ignored in this domain. Art historian and writer Linda Nochlin in her essay “Why have there been no Great Women Artists?” provides a very comprehensive explanation to this phenomenon that corresponds with social feminist construction theory. First and foremost, she suggests that there were a lot of hindrances on the way for female artists to gain any recognition. Firstly, men’s historically established dominance over women was usually perceived as “natural”, as something that always existed and should exist, so that males’ (if not men, who else could do that “scientific” research at that time – not women, obviously) assumption about ‘'scientifically' proven demonstrations of the inability of human beings with wombs rather than penises to create anything significant’ (Nochlin, 1971, p. 2) was regarded to be a sufficient reason for absence of any female great artist – or rather a sufficient reason for undervaluing women’s works. Secondly, the art criticism was always a misleading evaluation in itself. For example, the decision of naming as “geniuses” predominantly male artists was always made by art historians (who are also male), thus considering ‘the social and institutional structures within which he (one of those prominent artists) lived and worked as mere secondary 'influences' or 'background'’ (Nochlin, 1971, p. 8). This justification in itself again implied that since there were no proclaimed great women artists by male art historians, they were “naturally” deprived of such ability. However, it was precisely men’s privileged position in the society that allowed them – and allows to this very day – to decide what was natural and what was not in the way beneficial merely for them. They manipulated the whole situation.

Thus, Linda Nochlin (1971) states that the issue of women’s inferior position in the art world is to be analyzed from the organization of the very male-centered social and institutional structures, upon which artistic world is based. Firstly, socially appropriate activities of women demanded them only dabble in art and focus on the “real” work, that is to “directly or indirectly serve them (men) and their children” (Nochlin, 1971, p. 29). Women were warned from exceling their skills in art, as in any other field, because it would distract them from their main social and domestic duty – or their primary gender role, in other words. Secondly, the institutional prohibit for women to draw from nude living models, which was the last essential step towards development of talent and training, deprived them from “the possibility of creating major art” (Nochlin, 1971, p. 25). Therefore, women were kept from pursuing a general education, let alone arts training. This situation reveals the institutionally maintained discrimination against women. It was not lack of abilities of women:

The fault lies not in our stars, our hormones, our menstrual cycles, or our empty internal spaces, but in our institutions and our education—education understood to include everything that happens to us from the moment we enter, head first, into this world of meaningful symbols, signs, and signals. The miracle is, in fact, that given the overwhelming odds against women, or blacks, so many of both have managed to achieve so much excellence—if not towering grandeur—in those bailiwicks of white masculine prerogative like science, politics, or the arts. (Nochlin, 1971, pp. 5-6)

As feminist social constructionism claims, it is inequality that makes women artists’ stance in art history inferior, it is the subordinate role of women in the social arrangement of society brought and maintained by men, who dominated the discipline both in practice and history.

As for the issue of objectification, the same patterns of social structure emerge. Throughout art history, what is interesting, women were allowed to model passively as “naked-as-an-object” for male students, but were strictly restricted from any active participation, that is recording or drawing from the models (Nochlin, 1971, p. 25). This obvious unfairness is a manifestation of “the processes of gender differentiation, approval of accepted gendered behavior and appearance, and disapproval of deviations from established norms are all manifestations of power and social control” (Lorber, 1997, p. 30), according to social construction feminism. In other words, the established social order supports boundaries between men and women by approving and disapproving certain behaviors. Moreover, sexuality is also learned, or constructed, especially if talking about women’s sexuality. For example, starting from earlier times (e.g., Renaissance) of classical paintings till nowadays of mass media and advertising, explicit woman’s body has been the main object for depiction. The portrayal of female beauty and sexuality reflect desires of male-dominated culture, thus demonstrating the inferior social place and status women occupy within the patriarchal world (Dekel, 2013, p. 19).

However, despite the negative connotation the objectification imposes, most women voluntarily go along with the societal scripts, according to their gender status, because these gender norms for women of being beautiful, attractive, and hot for male gaze are firmly built into their self-concept and identity (Lorber, 1997, p. 31). This proposition of social construction feminism is confirmed by the analysis of the history of Western art by the American scholar John Berger. In 1972, he published the book and the series entitled “Ways of Seeing”, where he concludes that: “Men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at”. Thus, Berger claims that the man is the one who possesses power over the woman, who imposes on the woman this passive-object status, which she learns to accept since early childhood. Female nudity serves a goal of feeding an appetite of male sexual desire. Women are in a humiliated position, and they are aware of being humiliated. As a result of this relationship, the woman becomes “the other person”. She no longer has any autonomy, she is “turned into a thing or commodity, bought and sold” (Dworkin, as cited in Papadaki, 2018). She ceases to be a rational agent of her own sexuality, but becomes dehumanized and depersonalized, since “objectification is an injury right at the heart of discrimination: those who can be used as if they are not fully human are no longer fully human in social terms; their humanity is hurt by being diminished” (Dworkin, as cited in Papadaki, 2018). Thus, again, it is the structure of the patriarchally organized system, which disempowers women to be objects in the hands of dominant men, to satisfy their desires and conveniences.

Conclusion

All in all, before the emergence of feminism, the majority of women artists were invisible to the public eye. Moreover, they were relentlessly objectified as a common practice. The mere factor of their gender created hindrances and still creates them for women artists’ status in the art world. Thus, the movement of feminism in the arts fostered a large body of theory and diverse artistic practice, paving the way for many women artists practicing today. However, the situation is still not ideal for women creators today. Yet social constructionism suggests that existing inequalities are not immutable or inevitable, that changes are possible. It helps to realize the historical, cultural and institutional origins of power relations in the society. In this way, it “offers feminists means to challenge the idea that women are inferior to men due to their natural characteristics (an idea held by almost every Western philosopher prior to feminism)” (Fiaccadori, 2006, p. 12). It helps to reveal that women have never been treated equally in the art world, thus raising awareness to the problem. Yet why is this so important? Why art is so important for the development of feminism? Apparently, because art is the mode of communication, because it is the instrument of not merely expressing ideas and images, but, more importantly, because it is the instrument of ideology. Art is never innocent. And it was never.

References

  1. Brown, T. (2019, March 8). Why is work by female artists still valued less than work by male artists? Retrieved from https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-work-female-artists-valued-work-male-artists
  2. Dekel, T. (2013). An historical view: The birth of feminist art. In Gendered: Art and feminist theory (pp. 1-21). Newcastle upon Tyne, United Kingdom: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.
  3. Fiaccadori, E. (2006). The question of ‘nature’: What has social constructionism to offer feminist theory? Retrieved from http://research.gold.ac.uk/8356/1/fiaccadori_booklet.pdf
  4. Gouma-Peterson, T., & Mathews, P. (1987). The feminist critique of art history. The Art Bulletin, 69(3), 326-357. doi:10.2307/3051059
  5. Karl Hungus. (2016, October 31). John Berger - Ways of Seeing (Episode 2) [Video file]. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/ta-s_vzxWn8
  6. Lorber, J. (1997). The variety of feminisms and their contributions to gender equality. Oldenburg: BIS.
  7. National Museum of Women in the Arts. (n.d.). Get the facts. Retrieved May 14, 2019, from https://nmwa.org/advocate/get-facts
  8. Nochlin, L. (1971). Why are there no great women artists? In V. Gornick, & B. Moran (Eds.), Woman in sexist society: Studies in power and powerlessness. New York, NY: Basic Books.
  9. Papadaki, E. (2018). Feminist perspectives on objectification. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved from https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/feminism-objectification/

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