GWS & Art: Parallel Shifts

As this is an art and GWS blog, allow me to link some of the ideas and history of GWS to art.  As I stated in the last blog post, GWS began as Women’s Studies, a field devoted to the contributions and unique oppressions faced by women. While women had been studied and had made contributions for millennia, the field of Women’s Studies comes out of the Civil Right’s Movement, specifically the Women’s Movement. The field then morphed in the 1980’s and 1990’s into Gender Studies, which looks more specifically at Gender and Sexuality, although Queer Studies also looks at these things. The field is in the process of shifting again, something paralleled in the move to Fourth Wave Feminism, and has shifted to studying a much broader set of objects, many of which do not appear innately gendered, but have complex power relationships.

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I want to touch briefly on what this looks like in art- I will be doing a longer post in the future about Women in Art, specifically the shift from Objects to Artists, and a look at the history of Feminist art, and Menstrual Art, but for now I just want to provide a visual art context for the shifts in GWS.

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Women have been making art all along. New evidence suggests that much cave art, which was assumed to be made by men because of it’s depiction of hunting themes, was actually made by women. Much of the art women have made has been labeled crafts and dismissed or ignored in the art history cannon.  This includes needle work, ceramic painting, weaving,  sewing, and a whole host of incredibly skilled and beautiful traditions. Take for instance the Bayeux Tapestry (1476 or earlier), infamous for it’s depiction of the Conquest of Normandy in 1066, which was most likely created by women, all 230 feet of this 20 inch tall tapestry.

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We also find women making art all along, not just “craft”. Take for instance the Renaissance artist Sofonisba Anguissola, who was primarily a court painter.

Anguissola. Family Portrait, 1559.

Women artist’s continue to appear through out history from Élizabeth Vigée Le Brun, court painter to Marie Antoinette, to Camille Claudel, who apprenticed with Rodin, to Berthe Morrisot, one of “les trois grande dames d’Impressionisme”.

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Le Brun. Marie Antoinette and Family, 1787.
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Claudel. L’Abandon, 1886.
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Morisot. The Cradle,1872.

However, these artists were seen as one offs, so to speak.  Unusual incidences and not the norm for artists.  Usually, they were wealthy and could pursue their art a a passion, that might also be profitable. Also they were often the daughters of artists or good friends of male artists, who would train them or help them gain access to academies and shows. (I will discuss more of this when we talk about Linda Nochlin’s work Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists).

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In the 1960’s, at the same time as the Women’s Movement, female artist’s like Judy Chicago, Mirriam Schapiro, and Carolee Schneeman, began making Feminist art that was meant to reflect and interrogate the experience of being female. These works were not merely aesthetic objects, but fueled by conceptual art practices, were meant to incite engagement in the political. By asking the viewer to question established ideas about women and femininity, these works sought to change cultural and bring about equity between the sexes.
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Hanecdote. Stitched Feminist Art Meme, 2016.

Judy Chicago created The Dinner Party (1974-1979) to draw attention to all of the famous women that history has ignored.

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Chicago. Place Setting for Emily Dickinson.
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Chicago, The Dinner Party.

Miriam Schapiro created Dollhouse (1972) as part of the Womanhouse Exhibition. An assemblage connstructed from scraps and designed to reference childhood play, each room in the dollhouse signified a particular role woman play in society and the conflicts that arise from these roles.

Miriam Schapiro - Dollhouse (detail), photo credits collection from the Luce Foundation for American Art
Schapiro. Dollhouse, 1972.

Carolee Schneeman depicted the female nude not as a closed form presented for male pleasure, but as a living, breathing, bleeding, body in her work Interior Scroll, where the artist pulled a scroll from her vagina and read a text about a lost female artist from it in a live performance.

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Schneeman. Interior Scroll, 1975.

These artists are analogous to Women’s Studies and are focused on women as artists, women’s issues as the subject of art, and women’s equality as the political goal of the work. However, as Women’s studies evolved into Gender Studies, so many artist’s works have shifted to focus more on gender and sexuality.

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Catherine Opie is a photographer that looks at the relationship between the mainstream and subcultures, particularly queer subcultures. Her work investigates the ways in which gender is performed.

Image result for Catherine Opie                                                                Opie. Chicken, 1991.

Yasumasa Morimura, Portrait (Futago) (1988) is another example of art that interogates gender. In the work the male Morimura plays the coquettish Olympia, from Manet’s famous painting, a street walker and a famous figure in art because of her sexuality and because of Manet’s Post-Impressionist flat painting style.  More than a gender switch, the work also plays with race, casting the often desexualized Asian male as a sexually-avaliable as desirable figure. Morimura also casts himself as the figure of Olympia’s maid, in a form of black face, pointing to the role of the maid in the original work to heighten the sexual tension and exoticism of the brothel scene. Morimura even recasts the black “pussy” cat at then end of Olympia’s bed as a Maneki Neko, or Chinese Lucky Cat.

Morimura. The Portrait (Futago), 1988.

Kent Monkman’s varied works also deal with gender and indigeneity. In his paintings and performances Monkman, an Irish/Cree First Nations artist from Canada, paints images of queer desire and Berdache, or Two Spirited Identity.

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Monkman. Dance to Miss Chief (Film Still), 2010.

Two Spirited is a native term that refers to the fact that the gender binary, or the idea that there are only two sexes or two genders, is a European idea that was brought to America with the colonialism.  In Native American and indigenous beliefs there were unto six different gender arrangements.  Individuals who did not align with what we call “traditional” gender roles, were often valued members of the community. Monkman’s works deal with sexuality, gender, colonialism, race and religion.

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Monkman. Heaven and Earth, 2010.
This is a very brief look at the shifts in art that in many ways parallel the shifts in GWS. These works provide insight into GWS as a visualization in the differences between Women’s Studies and Gender Studies.  Reciprocally, the shift in Women’s Studies to Gender Studies provides a point of entry and an analytic framework to understand these works of art.
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