Let’s Talk About It: How Art History made me Feminist

If you’d asked me a few years ago if I was a feminist, I would still have answered yes.  I’ve always been frustrated when financially and sexually independent women who says they don’t think feminism “applies to them”.  Do they not realise that they owe everything about their position to the struggles of women before them?  But I will concede that there’s been a leap between acknowledging what feminism has achieved in the past and recognising what it’s still fighting for (though with #MeToo and the reporting of gender pay gaps, that seems to be changing). I’m lucky enough to have attended an all-girls school where high aspirations weren’t just encouraged, but demanded.  The idea that somebody wouldn’t respect me based on my gender seemed absurd.

Artemisia Gentileschi, ‘Judith and Holofernes’, 1620

And then I went out into the big wide world, where the reaction to sexist “banter” and even workplace bias tends to be “that’s just the way it is”.  It seems that pointing out sexist behaviour is still seen as socially unacceptable, too uncouth and confrontational.  Which perfectly illustrates how deep the fundamental roots of patriarchy run.  But whilst it may be frustrating, we still end up going along with it.  We’re often too busy to figure out how to change it, or too dependant on staying in the system to want to rock the boat.

Having gone along with this for a while, I didn’t get angry so much as bored.

The art world led by traditional, conservative narratives is boring.  It’s boring to hear the praises of the same artists – Raphael, Monet, Picasso –  sung constantly.  Not that they’re not good and we should acknowledge their influence, but they’ve been studied time and again for a good while now.  Surely there must be different artistic perspectives to talk about?

It’s also boring to go around museums and only see three types of women: the rich, naked or suffering.  This a little reductive: one of my favourite paintings is Manet’s Olympia (naked), and I’ve also written admiringly about Vigée Le Brun’s portrait of Emma Hamilton (rich).  But those are two paintings out of a canon of centuries, lining walls across the globe and widely venerated.

Guerilla Girls, ‘Naked’ poster, 2012 edition

And then a few years ago, I came across John Berger.  He may not be a ‘feminist thinker’, but remember: I was looking for approaches to art rather than feminist theory, and Ways of Seeing is a great book.  It was designed for TV, so it’s written in super accessible language.  This gives his points even more punch because he makes them sound so casually obvious.  The third essay is the killer – I could almost include the whole thing here, but instead I’m going to give the two passages which I, and so many others, find key.

“To be born a woman has been to be born, within an allotted and confined space, into the keeping of men…A woman must continually watch herself.  She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself.  Whilst she is walking across a room or whilst she is weeping at the death of her father, she can scarcely avoid envisaging herself walking or weeping.  From her earliest childhood she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually….how she appears to others, and ultimately how she appears to men, is of crucial importance for what is normally thought of as the success of her life” (Berger, Ways of Seeing 2008, page 46)

This unequal relationship is so deeply embedded in our culture that it still structures the consciousness of many women.  They do to themselves what men do to them” (Berger, Ways of Seeing 2008, 63).

Remember that these aren’t the words of a feminist theorist, but an art historian – these facts are so bloody obvious that you don’t need to be looking with specifically feminist eyes to see them.  Berger’s were the first quotes which made me think about feminism not just as a set of theories, but as an active force challenging unconscious biases.  Nudes aren’t subtle in and of themselves, but the pervasion of their standards and morals into a culture which influences us to this day is.

Bronzino, “An Allegory with Venus and Cupid”, 1545

Unpicking that subtle saturation of the patriarchy is a subject which has of course been explored by a great number of thinkers, and to begin to explore it in the art world is a rabbit hole which feeds directly into feminist issues in the wider world.  To take one example: reading Linda Nochlin’s Why Are There No Great Women Artists? leads to a history of education, of how the whole system of museums workThen there was the furore a few months ago about the Whitworth’s removal of Waterhouse’s ‘Hylas and the Nymphs’.  Despite what the media said, it wasn’t an act of “censorship”: the plan was always to put the painting back.  But the hijacking of the original intention – to provoke debates about how women have been and should be represented in the era of #MeToo – in favour of a “political correctness gone mad” narrative seemed to be an attempt to deflect the question that was actually being asked.

What’s more, once you start exploring the nature of the female presence in art, you inevitably start asking questions about other identities.  What about artists of other ethnicities and artistic traditions?  What about representation for those who don’t fit the patriarchal model in other ways, such as the queer experience?  I’m genuinely gobsmacked by the lack of self-awareness from feminists who stand against the acceptance of transgender people.  It seems utterly shameful, to fight against your own oppression whilst simultaneously maintaining discrimination against another minority group.

While this 2017 report by Artfinder highlights just how unequal representation for women is in so many aspects of the art world, this inequality has been my school.  Recognising gender bias in the everyday experience of something I care deeply about is what drove me to ask questions about why it has to be this way – and then extend that question into every aspect of life.  I’m still early in my reading journey and know I have a lot to learn, but without art I might not even be asking the questions that will hopefully lead to a more feminist life one day.



Featured image: Sir John Everett Millais ‘Ophelia’ (an iconically suffering woman), 1851, Tate Britain




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