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Mean Art Teacher Coffee Talks: Critiquing How Women Show Up in the Fine Arts

After a lively discussion about Balthus' paintings yesterday (an exhibition is being hosted by the Metropolitan Museum in New York right now) I would like to take a moment and explain how women and girls have shown up in different visual arts. I am not going to specifically address T.V or film since many of these critiques can easily translate. We can all pretend that we're in a cool cafe somewhere discussing art. La de da, no?


Starting off I would like to note that I am not in the camp of art critics or artists that believe art should be observed in a contextless space. I've heard it many, many times - just judge the work on its artistic merits and not its social implications.

No. I will not. This is just lazy. And it is a pre-emptive move to silence anyone who can point out things like 1) racism 2) sexism 3) homophobia 4) transphobia etc in someone else's work.

Look, I understand that creating is hard, soul barring work. I honestly do. It makes the artist feel vulnerable, exposed. If racism, sexism, homophobia or transphobia are things the artist doesn't care about removing from their art then - they should roll with it. If they are things that the artist doesn't want in their art, the artist will have to take it upon themselves to learn about those things to avoid doing them in their work. Pre-emptive silencing tactics will not work. Besides, criticism is a vital tool for social progress.

Because no critique is worth a damn without the guiding hand of an expert, I am going to use the wise John Berger and his musings from his book "Ways of Seeing". His focus is on oil paintings but I think it can translate to sculpture and photography easily. This was a BBC show before it was a book. This is the best episode here. Go for the 70s style, stay for the great feminist critique on women in Western paintings. Anything I have quoted here he says in the linked episode. If you want a quick crash course watch the video - bonus, no extra mean art teacher reading.


To be on the same page, I am considering art as something that is 1) unique and 2) tells a story. The art community is exclusionary from the start. Curators, art directors and the like are not shy to axe someone's work or tell the artist what they do is shitty.

I know there can be a whole esoteric "what is art, man" conversation and I certainly like discussing that, but this is primarily to point out the common tropes about women as they show up in fine art. By explaining these tropes from a feminist perspective I can show how "great art" isn't mutually exclusive to "harmful to women".


I would like to highlight these quotes from Berger: "Women are depicted in a quite different way from men - not because the feminine is different from the masculine - but because the 'ideal' spectator is always assumed to be male and the image of the woman is designed to flatter him." On nude women - "This nakedness is not, however, an expression of her own feelings; it is a sign of her submission to the owner's feelings or demands. (The owner of both woman and painting)." This starts to put things in perspective of how women and girls manifest in fine art.

Distilling his ideas down to four simple areas, women show up as sex, sin, symbol or property. Of course, they can show up as all of these things in one image.


As an aside it is important to note that old master painters usually studied a set of Western symbols while they were learning and mastering their craft, largely modelled after stories in the Bible. Not only the content but colour, objects and the story told added to the image. Anything found in an oil painting is fair game for interpretation as a symbol.

Touching on Balthus again - the cat represents animalistic lust, prostitutes and occasionally magic or freedom. These are standard ideas tied to cats as a symbol in the visual arts and would have been known and purposely used by Balthus. Look at the images again after reading this and watching Berger to gain a deeper understanding of the message Balthus was taking great pains to tell us. Nothing is put in the images by accident. This holds true for photography, especially fashion photography. (That is a post for another day, perhaps)


Sex. Berger, as quoted above, makes an astute point about the assumption of the viewer (hetero male). For a woman in a painting it is important to notice whether she "engages" the viewer with her gaze. If she doesn't engage the viewer with her gaze it is to be assumed that we, the viewer, are catching a private glimpse of her as her owner. She is there to flatter, tease, reject or arouse the male viewer.

Sin. (or shame). Eve, the snake and the apple are symbols of our inherent imperfections, fall from grace and rejection of god. It was Eve who opened us up to sin. Berger says of Eve in Renaissance paintings, "The couple wear fig-leaves or make a modest gesture with their hands. But now their shame is not so much in relation to one another as to the spectator." As the viewer we are meant to notice the shame, the sin, of the woman. She is the cause of the shame and bears the punishment. We are meant to know this when looking at her.


Symbol. In the visual arts a woman represents womanhood, never humanity. She can also represent Eve, or sexuality (sexual availability and ownership). Sometimes she is lucky and a concept, nation or belief is anthropomorphised as woman.

Property. A woman in a painting isn't just a that. By viewing and owning the painting you take on the woman as her owner. You own the painting, you own her. She is now your property. In advertisements this notion still lingers, although women are supposed to put themselves in the shoes of the woman whose body is selling a product or service. You, as a woman, could be her. The idea of woman as commodity bought via purchase of the product or service is still meant to be there. The difference is that a painting reflects your wealth now; whereas, the ad reflects a potential (better) version of you. For any cries of "but sex sells!" read Martin Lindstrom's book "Buyology: Truth and Lies About Why We Buy". (Spoiler: sex is so powerful it only sells itself, not a product)


I am not actually a mean art teacher, I only play one occasionally on the internet. In any case, I hope this was an interesting mean art teacher coffee talk.

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