This piece also appeared in Feministe on 1 April 2013.
One of the most striking scenes in the 2012 miniseries version of Ford Maddox Ford’s Parade’s End is one in which suffragette Valentine Wannop takes refuge in an art museum during a rally. While she is quietly admiring a painting of Venus, another woman enters and slashes the painting with a cleaver, shouting, “What are you all gawking at? Do you think that is all women are good for?”1
As someone with a deep love of art, I was alarmed as Valentine was. I do not believe in the destruction of art, but what the stand-in for Mary Richardson said stuck with me. Consider the status of women in the art world: often considered the “muse,” rarely the artist; lauded as the pinnacle of beauty but having no worth otherwise: the Venus forever looking in her mirror, the object of the (male) gaze, not the subject of her own agency. Should a gallery or museum try to strive for the inclusion of women artists (and artists of color, queer artists, and so on), there may be criticism of ignoring the masters, so-called “female privilege,” and the desire for a gender-blind meritocracy that simply does not exist at present. If you were wondering what such an article might look like, look no further than C.B. Liddell’s “The diverse works of Asian women artists,” a special to The Japan Times.
I don’t normally visit exhibitions in company, but this time I made an exception and press-ganged a female acquaintance to join me. The reason for this was that the show I visited, “Women In-Between: Asian Women Artists 1984-2012″ at the Tochigi Prefectural Museum of Art, is an exhibition of female artists’ work. As a mere male, I didn’t quite feel equipped enough in my own right to deal with this.
Well, Mr. Liddell, allow me and my ovaries to talk you through this one.2
Introducing identity issues is problematic enough when you do it into the wider society, against a background of, say, social justice or inclusivism; but it is even more of a problem when it is done in an area like art, which should essentially be meritocratic. What we really want when we visit an exhibition is to encounter genius and talent, and that should be regardless of the number of Y-chromosomes involved.
While I agree that art ought to be displayed for its merit, the present state of the world, the art world included, is not a meritocracy, though it may masquerade as one. The art world has the same problems with female and minority under-representation at the top levels as the fields of politics, science, and business. Women are grossly underrepresented in the art world, not in terms of the number of female art students or artists, but in the number of female artists whose work is displayed in museums and in solo and group exhibitions.3
It could be argued that concentrating on women and Asian artists may help create a sense of narrative and meaning. However, the group in question is such a vast and diverse one that it can’t really be summed up in a coherent narrative, even if you refer to some of the feminist shibboleths about the general oppression of women. And whether such gender despotism is a fact or not is beside the point, because nothing stifles art as surely as didacticism and an earnest, heavy-handed message — even if it is justified.
Instead of attempting to guess at the exhibit’s intent, I’ll let the Tochigi Prefectural Museum of Fine Arts speak for itself through the conveniently provided statement on their website (English | 日本語):
Recent years have seen a drastic change in circumstances surrounding Asian women artists. Since the rapid growth of Asian countries, particularly China and India, in economic development and international politics and the rising consciousness of gender issues in Asian society, the waves of time are bringing about unprecedented structural shifts to the relationship between women and society, as well as between Asia and the rest of the world. Under such conditions, what are the concerns, feelings and perspectives of Asian women artists, and how are they trying to express their subject matters? Through works produced from the 1980s to the present, by women artists who were born and based in Asia as well as who live abroad, this exhibition shows women’s various concerns and diversified expressions as well as their changes.
Specifically this exhibition is composed of some 110 works of 48 participating artists based on their experiences of social gender roles and positions as females , their awareness of female issues posed by daily life, or their concerns with history, war, and ethnicity, and of current new trends. Taking a look back over the activities of women artists in the last few decades, the exhibition also looks toward the works of the future. We also hope you will discover the creative and positive possibilities of Asian women artists, which are created by crossing “Asia”, “women” and “art” through the exhibition.
Chapter 1 Women’s Bodies – Sites of Reproduction/Multiplication, Seduction and Violence
Chapter 2-1 Women and Societies: The Roles of Women and Men, and the Bonds Between Women
Chapter 2-2 Women and Societies: The Diaspora and the Marginalized People
Chapter 3 Women and Histories – War, Violence, Death and Memory
Chapter 4 Women’s Techniques and Materials – The Periphery of “Art”
Chapter 5 The Lives of Women – Departing On Her Own
-Tochigi Prefectural Museum of Fine Arts, “Women In Between: Asian Women Artists 1984-2012”
In short, the purpose of the exhibition that Liddell criticizes as being incoherent is to show the diversity of Asian women artists. One would hardly argue that the “Asian experience” is universal, so why should “the female experience” be? To return to Liddell’s critique,
So, while the exhibition strives for a meaningful narrative, the diversity of the different artists — and they are very different — luckily defeats this overarching purpose. And this makes for a more confused, but interesting show.
Read: incoherent narratives are fine as long as they don’t highlight gender oppression, the glass ceiling, or the struggle of female artists to be recognized.
The artworks that work best are the ones that resist the grand feminist narrative, either by their subtlety, playful abstruseness or by appealing to aspects of humanity that simply transcend gender.
Because we wouldn’t want you to feel uncomfortable about not being a woman. Nor would we want to make you consider how each artist’s work is informed by creating a personal identity that may include the refusal or questioning of gendered aspects of her role in her society and the international art scene.
From here, Liddell describes some of the pieces. Although I have not seen the show, the Tochigi Prefectural Museum of Fine Arts has a press release with images of the works and a brief essay , cited above. Of course, one’s taste in art is subjective, and everyone has their own opinions on the merit of individual pieces and artists. Liddell did not care for most of the show, which is his opinion. However, his article is far less of a critique of the art than a piece on how an attempt to balance female representation in the art world makes him uncomfortable.
Interestingly, though, he comments on about Chiharu Shiota’s video piece “Wall,”
[the piece] seems to show her own blood pulsing around her in a spaghetti-like jumble of tubes. Although she is naked in both videos we soon forget she is “a woman” and start to see her instead as a human being.
Women are human, despite the fact that our bodies considered atypical and, as a result, medical research and dissection must be done on men, who have “human” bodies. One rather glaring example of this is the Body Worlds exhibit. Why? Because women’s bodies are sexual objects that lack sufficient structure:
Why are there not more women plastinates in the exhibits?
Sensitive to perceived community concerns, Dr. von Hagens did not want to appear voyeuristic in revealing too many female bodies. Further, he sees himself in the tradition of Renaissance anatomists, whose works traditionally included far more masculine than feminine bodies, since all but the reproductive systems are essentially the same. The musculature of male bodies is generally more pronounced and illustrates more aspects of the muscle system…. (Body Worlds FAQ)
You know, even though we make up half the human population. (There are many, many more examples of this at Sociological Images‘ “Male as Neutral Default.”) But I digress.
As I stated, Liddell’s piece is more focused on the intent of the show than the actual content, and so he quickly delves back into his dislike of the concept of an all-women show:
Another point that might grate after a while is that this feminist critique of society fails to address women’s own collusion in the social order. Women are, after all, a massive part of any society, and some endorse and drive its fashions, lifestyles and moral atmosphere. The feminism here, however, often claims that sexism is the fault of a tiny minority of powerful men, who are by implication pure evil.
Here Liddell accuses women of historically keeping their fellow women down and out, without legal rights and social power, but when women work to get more female representation in an area from which they have been historically excluded, they’re threatening men and men’s rights. And the cherry on top of the irony cake?
But that’s just the viewpoint of a male reviewer, so what did my female companion think? Although deeply interested throughout, her final conclusion was more damning than I expected. According to her, the show lacked what she regarded as that most essential of feminine qualities: emotional warmth.
Does Liddell not realize that he is critiquing women’s supposed collusion in the social order by using a comment from a a woman who is colluding the social order?
Yes, women can be sexist, too. Women who make jokes about how men are “useless” or “dumb” or “incomprehensible” are participating in sexist commentary, but women can have sexism toward their own sex socially ingrained in them. Women (and men) who act as gender enforcers toward other women are also participating in sexist narratives.4
Thus, Liddell’s companion’s appropriation of “emotional warmth” as a feminine attribute is collusion, a propagation of a false gender binary to reinforce his point. Her comment is as damning, to use Liddell’s phrase, in regard to what the inverse implies for someone who only sees “gender” in binary terms: that masculinity is about the lack of emotional warmth. From there, one can extrapolate that men who have emotional warmth are feminine, which is bad because the feminine is lesser, unwanted. By the same “logic,” women who lack emotional warmth should be simultaneously praised for privileging “masculine” means of communication and shunned for denying the “innate nature” of their sex. It does not follow.
Sexism is not, as Liddell seems to suggest, solely about gender oppression from the top or about women raging against “the fault of a tiny minority of powerful men.” While it’s true that a tiny minority of lawmakers (male and female) has deemed my sex unable to retain the right to their own names on the family registry of Japan and that another tiny minority of lawmakers seems to think I don’t have the right to my own body in the US, sexism does, in fact, exist outside the world of institutionalized sexism. In a country where it is easy and legal (vs. the US, which varies by state) for a man to change his name upon marriage, why is the number of men entering their wives’ family registry not about 50%? In a country where everyone was “created equal,” why am I more likely to make 81 cents to a man’s dollar for doing the same work? Furthermore, socialized and institutionalized sexism does not just hurt women; it also hurts men by telling them they aren’t allowed to express emotion, to talk about their problems, to care for their children (parental leave and its stigma), to be vegetarian if they so choose, and to pursue work in “feminine” fields (even though they will likely be paid more). Yes, people can rebel against gender policing, but when one does, as the Tochigi Museum did, they are criticized by the enforcers of the norms.
It is precisely the culture of sexism that exists at the personal, familial, academic, and social level that has led to the need for minority exhibitions like Women In-Between. Until the art displayed in galleries and museums is evenly balanced, art spaces and institutes would do well to address the imbalance in their collections and exhibiting artists, not necessarily by hosting all-women shows, but by giving equal support to display and curate the work of women, to help female art-school graduates find residencies and spaces to create, and to focus on facilitating an art world that does not discriminate based on sex.
Museums are not tombs where people go to simply stare at objects. They are places to participate—places where things you don’t understand change your life. Museums have to not only defend the canon but also delve into and question it. They are guardians of history, but they’re also makers of meaning and metaphors.
The Tochigi Prefectural Museum of Fine Arts is making steps in the right direction. Perhaps the question Liddell ought to be asking is not “why an all-women art exhibition?” but what is it about women’s agency, experience, and inclusion in the art world does he find so alarming?
1 Though Parade’s End is fictional, this incident actually happened: Mary Richardson took a cleaver to The Toilet of Venus (The “Rokeby Venus”) by Diego Velazquez in the National Gallery of London in protest of the treatment of feminist and suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst.
2 Some women don’t have ovaries, just so we’re clear.
3 See “Are Women Still a Minority in Art Museums?” by the New Britain Museum of Art, which includes a list of resources at the end; Madeleine Zinn’s “More Representation for Women in the Arts!” on Divine Caroline; art critic Jerry Saltz’s “Where Are All the Women?: On MoMA’s identity politics” for New York Magazine and “Where the Girls Aren’t” for The Village Voice; Catherine Coreno’s “Data: Gender Studies: Is MoMA the worst offender? We tallied how women fare in six other art-world institutions” in New York Magazine.
4 “Be a man, don’t cry!”; “Stop dressing like a boy!”; “I can’t believe she’s wearing that; what a slut!”; “Men are bad with children.”; “If you don’t change your name, you don’t love your husband”; “Boys don’t like pink”; “Women are more emotional, so they’re better at creating art”; “Women are more emotional, so they’re bad at politics”; “Are you PMSing?”; “All men are idiots”; “He runs like a girl”; ad nausem, ad infinitum.