If you've just stumbled onto this blog, please forgive the appearance; it's still under construction. If I've used one of your photos (found on Google) in a lecture and you don't approve, please write a comment and I'll remove it.

The purpose of this blog is to explain the basics of art and culture to English language learners in secondary school in Slovakia. This is not for profit. If you look to your right, you'll see a long list of topics that I plan to cover. This is a large project that will most likely take years to complete, covering some topics I know little about (like dance), so I will be borrowing heavily from other experts, with their permission, giving credit wherever possible. Please be patient, and, of course, all advice is greatly appreciated.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Feminist Perspective in Art History

Art is one of humanity's greatest achievements with a rich variety of styles, periods, and subjects. The majority of our art is made for noble reasons - love of nature, love of beauty, love of family, etc. But, despite this tremendous accomplishment, this treasure that we have created, we must recognize that it could have been even greater. We have set a severe limit on our creative potential, in that practically all of our most famous artworks have been made by white men for other, richer white men. Most art has been made to satisfy the white, male mind. And, while that often simply meant painting a nice sunset or flower pot - something we can all enjoy, it has also included a male view of the world and women, which is why so many museums carry a high percent of female nudes, while presenting so few female artists. And museums do so because they reflect history which has all too often become "his-story".

For most of human history (and possibly prehistory?) art making in the west was considered a man's job, for the same reason that professions in general were considered for men. Even as women broke social barriers and began picking up paint brushes, discrimination kept them out of museums and galleries, a trend that has only begun to change in the last forty years or so. And, while most people don't like to think of themselves as sexist today, sexism in art is a legacy that haunts us, obscuring (zatemnuje) hundreds of great artists. Consider the following experiment:

What happens when you Google "10 greatest artists?"

I found this, as of March 18th, 2015:

Ø      Rolling Stone Magazine lists 100 greatest pop singers and groups of all time. Only 7 are women. They listed John Lennon and Eric Clapton twice.
Ø lists a top twenty list, they're all men.
Ø lists a top ten list, they're all men. They also have a top ten works of art, all made by men, although 5 of them portray women.
Ø      The list top ten works of art, all made by men, unless the cave paintings were made by women - the world will never know.
Ø lists 101 greatest artists of all time. Two are women: Frida Kahlo and Georgia O'Keeffe (they misspelled it).

What happens when you Google "10 greatest women artists"?

Ø      Wikipedia comes up with a good history of women artists, but no top ten list.
Ø      The lists a top 10 list of "Most Subversive Women Artists," suggesting it's subversive (podvratný) for a woman to even be an artist.
Ø lists top 10 most controversial works, none of which were made by women.
Ø lists top 10 most studied women artists, but not the greatest.
Ø      The Huffington Post lists ten drawings by women who were underestimated in their time.

There wasn't a single top ten list anywhere. Men had a top 100 list, and women, nothing. It was the same thing when I changed the word "artist" to "painter". I found an "8 list" on for women artists of the renaissance - as in that's how many artists they could name between 1500-1750. Meanwhile, try Googling top 10 supermodels, and you'll find an endless amount of lists, and in fact, Google even creates a gallery to scroll through them. The message is clear, men have a great interest in looking at beautiful women, but no one, apparently, cares much what they create.

Why is this? Is it pure sexism? Aren't there plenty of women artists out there? Yes, thousands of them. Aren't they any good? Yes, they are! Then why don't we recognize them in our culture? Well, there are several reasons, and no, it's not just sexism, although sexism plays its part.

1. First of all, artists in general are ignored in modern culture - male and female. If you're reading this, try and name a living artist. How about a living architect (who isn't in your family)? Think of your favorite animations - Shrek? The Lion King? Frozen? Who designed those characters you love so much? Do you have any idea? Recently I asked my students to present their favorite art, whatever inspires them. Each student went through the internet looking for examples of what they consider "great art". One by one they stood up to present their choices. Only one student could tell me the names of the artists he chose. People just don't think about it. The only artists these days who receive any publicity are the big names shown in museums, known only to art aficionados, and some comics artists who have a small fan base. A couple artists are popular on blogs, online, but it's not the same as celebrity status. They're popular only within their small community.

2. Historically, women have been discouraged and forbidden from making art - unless they were really, really good. I've found that this results in women artists historically being above average, better than most of their male counterparts. So, why aren't they more famous? Well, for the same reason most male artists aren't famous. There are too many of them - no one wants to learn them all. Art historians like to keep things simple. They narrow their focus, showing only the greatest, superstar artists from every era and style. And the superstars of art are mostly male, because they were lucky enough to have a rare genius for art, and the support of society to make great works. They were in the right place at the right time, with the right gender, and then they worked and struggled to make masterpieces like the Sistine Chapel, the palace at Versailles, etc. Great women artists sometimes found a way into the art world, but were not given access or money to make great, large-scale works, until the 20th century.

3. Since women didn't get to begin working large scale really until post modernism (PoMo), and many people don't like PoMo, there's not a lot of interest for their work (note, I'm not attacking the quality of this art, merely acknowledging its controversy). I can name, for example Eve Hesse and Tracy Emin,  two big names in PoMo art. Ever heard of them? If not, look them up. See what you think. Maybe you'll see why they don't appeal to the masses, along with all the other PoMo crowd.

The Guerilla Girls

The Guerrilla Girls are a group of feminists who formed in 1985 in New York City to protest an art show at the Museum of Modern Art. The show, "An International Survey of Recent Painting and Sculpture", was called the single most important exhibit of contemporary art. The curator, Kynaston McShine, said in an interview, that if you're an artist, and you're not in his show, you should rethink your career. The survey showed 169 artists, and only thirteen were women.

So, a group of women put on gorilla masks and began an advertising campaign to promote women in art and fight for equality. They made billboards, advertisements, and even wrote books making fun of museums and rewriting women's history. It's a movement that still exists today, and they have their own website you can look up. They wear gorilla masks as a way to shock people for publicity, and to remain anonymous.

Pussy Riot
This is a group of feminist protestors from Russia. Starting in 2011, they stage "guerrilla performances" of punk rock music in public places, which they then edit and put on the internet. They support women's rights, gay and lesbian rights, and strongly protest Putin, who they consider a dictator. They've been arrested and jailed numerous times.

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