Women, Art, and Art History: Gender and Feminist Analyses
- LAST REVIEWED: 16 January 2020
- LAST MODIFIED: 30 January 2014
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920105-0034
- LAST REVIEWED: 16 January 2020
- LAST MODIFIED: 30 January 2014
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920105-0034
Following a worldwide feminist movement in the later 20th century, women became a renewed topic for art and art history, giving rise to gender analysis of both artistic production and art historical discourse. Gender is to be understood as a system of power, named initially patriarchal and also theorized as a phallocentric symbolic order. A renewed and theoretically developed as well as activist feminist consciousness initially mandated the historical recovery of the contribution of women as artists to art’s international histories to counter the effective erasure of the history of women as artists by the modern discipline of art history. This has also led to a rediscovery of the contributions of women as art historians to the discipline itself. Gender analysis raises the repressed question of gender (and sexuality) in relation both to creativity itself and to the writing of art’s necessarily pluralized histories. Gender refers to the asymmetrical hierarchy between those distinguished both sociologically and symbolically on the basis of perceived, but not determining, differences. Although projected as natural difference between given sexes, the active and productive processes of social and ideological differentiation produces as its effects gendered difference that is claimed, ideologically, as “natural.” As an axis of power relations, gender can be shown to shape social existence of men and women and determine artistic representations. Gender is thus also understood as a symbolic dimension shaping hierarchical oppositions in representation in texts, images, buildings, and discourses about art. It is constantly being produced by the work performed by art and writing about art. Feminist analysis critiques these technologies of gender while itself also being one, albeit critically seeking transformation of social and symbolic gender. The analysis of gender ideologies in the writing of art history and in art itself, therefore, extend to art produced by all artists, irrespective of the gendered identity of the artist. Women, having been excluded by the gendering discourses of modern art history, have had to be recovered from an oblivion those discourses created while the idea of women as artist has to be reestablished in the face of a an ideology that places anything feminine in a secondary position. Women are not, however, a homogeneous category defined by gender alone. Women are agonistically differentiated by class, ethnicity, culture, religion, geopolitical location, sexuality, and ability. Gender analysis includes the interplay of several axes of differentiation and their symbolic representations without any a priori assumptions about how each artwork/artist might negotiate and rework dominant discourses of gender and other social inflections. The postcolonial critique of Western hegemony and a search for non-Western-centered models of inclusiveness that respect diversity without creating normative relativism are driving the tendency of the research into gender in and art history toward an as yet unrealized inclusiveness regarding gender and difference in general rather than the creation of separate subcategories on the basis of the gender or other qualifying characteristics of the artist. The objectives of critical art historical practices focusing on gender and related axes of power are to ensure consistent and rigorous research into all artists, irrespective of gender, for which a specific initiative focusing on women as artists in order to correct a skewed and gender-selective archive has been necessary, and to expand the paradigm of art historical research in general to ensure that the social, economic, and symbolic functions of gender, sexual, and other social and psycho-symbolic differences are consistently considered as part of the normal procedures of art historical analysis.
Foundational Texts: Gender, History, and Paradigm Shift
Without a foundational understanding of the social meaning and symbolic operation of gender, both the historical process of artistic creation and the historical representation of that history will not be grasped. Women working on art history (domain and discipline) draw on germane theoretical interventions in historical research while also using sociological studies of institutions to call for a paradigm shift in art history itself. Scott 1986 offers a key argument for gender analysis in the historical disciplines, examining different theoretical paradigms that have been introduced to approach gender as an axis in history. Kelly-Gadol 1977 is a critical reading of the major cultural shifts from late medieval culture in which Troubadour culture allowed women agency in relation to love by means of appropriating feudal relations to the Renaissance in which new concepts of the decorative courtier closed out such opportunities for women. In art history, Nochlin 1973 is the foundational text of a specifically feminist challenge to art history. Nochlin calls for a radical, paradigm shift in art history (discipline). Raising the “woman question” becomes a lever to challenge the exclusion of all social and institutional factors in the study of art’s histories. The text’s title is, however, representative of its own moment in 1971 when women art historians had to confront a discipline that presented art history (domain) almost entirely without women, having established a canon solely composed of great masters. Honoring Gabhart and Broun 1972’s neologism “Old Mistresses” (cited under Initiating Exhibitions: Women Artists of the Western Tradition) to point out how language already disqualifies women from recognition as “masters.” Parker and Pollock 2013 (written in 1978 and originally published 1981) identifies the discursive habits of the discipline of art history as structurally gendered and gendering. The authors, however, also stress the ways that women artists actively negotiated their own differential situations to produce distinctive interventions in their own cultural context and to show how they negotiated the image of woman and of the artist in different contexts. Broude and Garrard 1982 lays out the case for feminist studies across all periods of art to reveal the central role of gender in historical cultures and visual practices while recognizing the distorting effects of an unacknowledged masculinist and heteronormative bias in art historical interpretation. The authors demonstrate the overall shifts in art historical method that result from awareness of gender in culture. De Lauretis 1987 uses a Foucaultian model to understand gender as an effect produced in its representations, self-representations, and feminist deconstructions, challenging a model that, privileging man/woman difference, makes lesbian subjectivities invisible. Battersby 1989 traces gender across philosophical aesthetics to reveal its foundational and continuing gender thinking. Broude and Garrard 1992 tracks the developing range of theories of gender in relation to art historical analysis registering the impact of postmodernist concepts of authorship and subjectivity while balancing such trends with an equal acknowledgement of the agency of women in contesting historically variable organizations and representations of gender relations.
Battersby, Christine. Gender and Genius: Towards a Feminist Aesthetics. London: Women’s Press, 1989.
An extended, philosophically based analysis of the gendering of the concept of genius from the ancients of the West to Simone de Beauvoir, revealing the identification of genius with the masculine body and conventionalized masculine attributes defined in opposition to the equally constructed and rhetorical figure of the feminine. Such an analysis is necessary in order to create the ground for any reconsideration of the contribution of women to art.
Broude, Norma, and Mary Garrard. “Introduction: Feminism and Art History.” In Feminism and Art History: Questioning the Litany. Edited by Norma Broude and Mary Garrad 1–18. New York: Harper & Row, 1982.
Introducing their first major collection of substantive works of feminist art historical scholarship, Broude and Garrard position feminism’s impact on art history as a major reconceptualization of previous history and art historiography as patriarchal, necessitating radical revisions to the distortions created by sexual bias in the creation and interpretation of art and demanding a new definition of the cultural and social uses of art.
Broude, Norma, and Mary Garrard. “Introduction: The Expanding Discourse.” In The Expanding Discourse: Feminism and Art History. Edited by Norma Broude and Mary Garrad, 1–25. New York: Harper Collins, 1992.
Representing the theoretical and methodological diversity of feminist studies in art history from its second decade, Broude and Garrard both identify the effects of “postmodernist” theories of authorship, the gaze and the social construction of gender in art history, while contesting the tendency to polarize feminist scholarship between modern and postmodern, essentialist and constructivist, traditionalist and theoretical. They advocate incremental change in the discipline and argue for a continuing acknowledgement of the importance of studies of women’s authorship in art.
de Lauretis, Teresa. “The Technology of Gender.” In Technologies of Gender: Essays on Theory, Film, and Fiction. By Teresa de Lauretis, 1–30. London: Macmillan, 1987.
Challenging predominantly masculine narratives of gender that effectively install the heterosexual contract, which may be reproduced in feminist texts, because of the fact that gender is always being produced in the play between representation and self-representation, de Lauretis sketches out methods for countering the exclusion of nonheteronormative subjectivities by suggesting that otherness and difference is always already present in the “spaces off” of dominant discourses.
Kelly-Gadol, Joan. “Did Women Have a Renaissance?” In Becoming Visible: Women in European History. Edited by Renate Bridenthal and Claudia Koonz, 19–50. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1977.
Kelly-Gadol stresses that the temporalities of gender relations may not only not coincide with the progressive model of historical periodization—the Renaissance as progress—but may be in conflict. Histories attentive to gender do not necessarily coincide with those that are gender-blind. Reprinted in Women, History and Theory: The Essays of Joan Kelly (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), pp. 19–50.
Nochlin, Linda. “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” In Art and Sexual Politics: Women’s Liberation, Women Artists, and Art History. Edited by Thomas B. Hess and Elizabeth C. Baker 44. New York: Collier, 1973.
First published in ARTnews (January 1971), pp. 22–39, 67–71. Nochlin discouraged her colleagues from answering her question by seeking candidates for “great woman artist.” She questioned the rhetorical figure of the autonomous genius and insisted upon the role of discriminatory institutions and practices that had limited women’s, and others’, potential and access to training and recognition. Her perspective suggested that reduced discrimination would create a level playing field for women.
Parker, Rozsika, and Griselda Pollock. Old Mistresses: Women, Art and Ideology. 3d ed. London: I. B. Tauris, 2013.
Defining art history as an ideologically impregnated discourse, the authors track stereotypes of femininity (mindless, decorative, derivative, dextrous, weak) negatively invoked to sustain an unacknowledged masculinization of art and the artist. They critique the gendered hierarchy of art versus craft and assess the strategic interventions into the representation of gender difference, body, and identity of artists from the Middle Ages to the late 20th century.
Scott, Joan W. “Gender: A Useful Category for Historical Analysis.” American Historical Review 91.5 (1986): 1053–1075.
Scott reviews working definitions of both the social construction of gender and the symbolic function of gender in representing and enacting hierarchical difference. Gender is presented not only as a historically fabricated social relation but also as an effective element in representational systems that also exceed the relations of masculine and feminine. This is a critical text of the potential for gender as a category for historical research. Available online for purchase or by subscription.
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