Messy Histories: Squares

I thought I’d have an easy week this week. Like Rainbow week, when there wasn’t a theme beyond the colours. And having fun with colours, the next obvious topic would be shapes. Why not look at an artwork using a different geometric form everyday? Then the more I researched, the more obvious it became that squares were by far the most common shape. So a whole week of comparing squares – let’s go for it!

All the artworks I’d picked were made in the 20th century – no real surprise there. An (extremely) abbreviated history might say that a combination of societal, industrial and artistic innovation first made the use of geometric shapes in art commonplace. All to do with reflecting the new regularity of the machine age, you see. Then artists decided that representational painting was in the past and the real power should lie in colour and shape. Squares retained their status as vehicles to carry this new meaning.

But my first version of the list all had something else in common too – they were all by male, white artists. By now it’s not so much that I’m surprised by this, or that the accompanying disappointment isn’t expected. But it did mean I seriously questioned whether I could run a week like that. Of course most of my featured works have been by white, male artists, but I can usually explain it with the thought that “that’s history!”. There might not have been “no” Great Women Artists but there are very few, and the historical reasons for that are multitude. But when this ubiquity was condensed around a much smaller time and subject, it got me really questioning whether I could go ahead with this celebration.

Art History is, I’m well aware, a subject which has a lot of assumptions made about it. There is stereotype about those who studies Art History; posh public-school kids for whom the consumption of art is a sign of good breeding more than a genuine appreciation. I’m happy to concede it’s often true. Even during my MA I came across middle-aged adults who admitted they’d never considered the selectivism of the ‘canon’ or ever given any thought to art which lay outside the linear model of ‘development’ that offers.

I’ve always thought to myself that upholding this canon is not the Art History I’m interested in. This doesn’t mean I dismiss every single artwork that gets included in the tradition – there’s many beautiful and worthwhile pieces, and some great artists. But Art History should involve a constant questioning of where this power comes from. I’m all for decolonising, introducing queer & feminist approaches, recognising where art is propaganda. And yet this week in particular – though other points in this Messy Histories project, too – have forced me to confront how embedded within traditions I am. At points I’ve wanted to be able to branch out into more global and cultural examples, only to chicken out because I have no confidence in talking about these histories. All of these traditions deserve to be known properly. So rather than be condescending or tokenistic I’ve stayed away, admired from a distance, made notes about how much I still have to learn. And to be clear, I’m determined I will learn – it’s the only way to make the discipline better. But for these last few weeks I’ve stayed in my lane, which is extremely Western art history. Which I know often picks the artists it wants to laud to support its own narrative of superiority.

This line up of squares is the time I’ve felt the confines of this lane most narrowly. Like, why is it all white men? It feels so boring to say that “men go for angles, women for soft shapes” but, is it true after all? Or if not, why is it all men who come up first in my research? Why did they get their squares looked at when female artists didn’t? I don’t want to be propping all this up – but also – some of these squares are really good! I like looking at them! Surely that makes them worthy of our attention no matter who made them?

After quite some time with all of these thoughts, I’ve decided to press ahead with squares. It turns out that rather than being a topic of whimsy, this humble, regular shape could be a basis for a helluva lot of critique. I’m gonna look at who’s getting praised for their squares, and why. Where and how we’ve taken them into our collective social conscience. And who else has made squares apart from my original list of the usual suspects? Spoiler: there will be women!

Featured image: Josef Albers, Homage To The Square, 1969

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