“Sexual Equality” Causes Birth Dearth, Makes Unicorns Sad
I’m sure no one is surprised that C.B. Liddell, the art critic who tragically just “can’t” understand women continues to fail at discussing women in art, or, to be perfectly honest, art itself. The National Art Center in Tokyo recently hosted an exhibition of medieval/Renaissance art, including the famous tapestries The Lady and the Unicorn. I knew the writer of “Making Sense of Medieval Avatars” was Liddell the moment I read the first paragraph:
The Western model of sexual equality — one that drives women to focus on careers but also contributes to lower birthrates — may not be an entirely unmixed blessing, but the roots of the West’s gender attitudes run deep and stem from some interesting places, as “The Lady and the Unicorn” exhibition at The National Art Center, Tokyo shows.
Yes, how horrible that women want to 1. have control over their bodies, including reproduction, and 2. enjoy fulfilling careers and/or financial independence! It must be the West’s fault for bringing the poison of what Liddell thinks is “sexual equality” to Japan. You know, because we women in “the West” are not all busy fighting for equal recognition on bank notes or to not be raped while serving their country or to have access to equal wages or anything like that.
In fact, I’m sure the late Beate Sirota Gordon was just rubbing her hands together like Queen Maleficent at a baby shower when she wrote the gender equality section of the Japanese constitution (before much of it was shut down by SCAP officials in the final cut). “But–before the sun sets on the century, they shall prick their finger on the splinter of a shamoji – AND BECOME FEMINISTS!”
The horror, Mr. Liddell, the horror.
By the way, our “focus on careers” and, to borrow Dan Savage’s phrase, fight for “equal rights, not double standards” hasn’t really affected the US birthrate so much. Unless of course, we are comparing this to 15th century France, which doubtless had a higher birthrate–and a higher mother- and infant mortality rate. (France saw a rise from 1.75/children per woman to 2.08 from 2000-2012, by the way.)
“My Sole Desire”
Failed dig at feminism aside, the piece is actually supposed to be about The Lady and the Unicorn, a series of six tapestries depicting, you guessed it, a lady and a unicorn, which were created in France (the cartoon) and Flanders (the weaving) between 1484-1500. You can see each of the pieces and read a brief description about each of them in English on the Musée national du Moyen Âge (National Museum of Modern Arts, aka the Cluny Museum)’s website. Five of them depict the five senses (taste, touch, sight, smell hearing), and the sixth, as Liddell writes,
The sixth tapestry, titled “À mon seul désir” (“My Sole Desire”) is more enigmatic, with several theories on its significance, although it seems reasonable to associate it with some “sixth sense” of the soul, heart or understanding.
I’m not a medievalist, but even I think that’s a bit short on substance despite the short length of the review. Dr. Richard Kearney (2011) of Boston College has an excellent academic piece on the medieval and Renaissance symbolisms represented in “À mon seul désir”:
In conclusion I propose that the phrase “A mon seul désir” refers to the two directions of the heart – internal and external: a heart which takes the form of a Sixth Sense which combines traditional opposites: real and imaginary, immanent and transcendent, carnal and spiritual. So doing, the Sixth Sense of the heart could be said to reconcile 1) the erotic love celebrated by Courtly Love and Renaissance humanism with 2) the sublimated love of mystical theology cherished in the middle ages. The Sixth Sense thus reveals itself to be a swinging-door where eros both ascends towards the divine and descends towards the human at one and the same time. It is the hidden site where embodied and mystical imagination unite.
You don’t have to write a dissertation on every art show, but doing a little research and citing sources is the key to making any sort of assertion about the meaning of art. Kearney’s argument deals with theories about the meaning of the art, but in this single paragraph, even out of context of the whole article, he successfully acknowledges the sexual imagery and symbolism of the unicorn instead of just visually mumbling something about “several theories” and deciding on “heart.”
“Cultural Defense Against Change”
As for Liddell’s treatment of the historical role of art:
Despite their size and the great effort and skill expended on them, there is a low-key feeling to these tapestries, as if they were designed merely to serve as a luxurious backdrop to the lives of the nobles whose châteaus they adorned.
According to the Musée national du Moyen Âge, “Fabulous animals, the lion and the unicorn, wear armour which identifies the sponsor as Jean Le Viste, a powerful personage close to King Charles VII” (see also Kearney 2011: footnote 13). Yes, historically tapestries were used as moveable art that served to keep the draft out, but functionality in art doesn’t mean the piece lacks meaning or don’t deserve to be analyzed.
Art, like gender, is in a constant state of flux based on time and space. I don’t even mean the symbolism of a piece; I mean the functionality and display. For example: in the concept of kôgei (craft), particularly pre-Meiji, Japanese chawan (tea bowls) were meant to be used (functional), not for display. The idea of a public art museum as we know it (as opposed to a private collection) is a relatively recent one. To use a European example, portraits commissioned by Renaissance patrons for display in their homes or frescos commissioned for cathedrals also don’t fit into the contemporary idea of museums open to the public. Which is not to say that art of that era was not deeply imbued with symbolism or that Renaissance artists did not make art for art’s sake, but artworks made for display in a noble’s home was certainly no less art than a contemporary artist’s work which she or he intends to display or sell in a gallery or museum.
Symbolizing the senses through female figures in this way has a hint of Renaissance paganism in it. This use of female forms to stand for qualities and elements of nature, rather like the goddesses of antiquity, is a thread that runs through European culture. This was also evident at the recent Aphonse Mucha exhibition at the Mori Arts Center Gallery. Here, too, the feminine was used as an avatar for aspects of nature.
This might be the one part of the review that Liddell got sort of right. Women’s bodies are so constantly compared to nature, equated with nature, and seen as objects of the natural in art and literature that it’s cliche–and a very popular topic of academic study. To cite just one short-but-relevant-to-this-review piece, Renaissance art historian Dr. Mary Garrard comments in a 2008 interview with The Washington Post,
Classicism is a cultural defense against change, against the transitory, against disruption and conflict — rather than representing some kind of perfection in a vacuum. Why are these people in a meadow? Well, you can think, it’s an ideal setting, it’s timeless. But another way of thinking is that it’s inscribing the Virgin and her child in nature — to “naturalize” them, to make their gender roles seem normal and necessary….
Renaissance art is full of women and men shown in gender-constructed roles, over and over, performing their duties within those roles. This is the way art and society speak to each other, and set up models that seem to be natural — because art tells you they’re natural. So in terms of its function, that’s what the Alba Madonna does. But the analysis by which we arrive at understanding wha it does and how it does it gives us a reason to engage the painting.
With The Lady and the Unicorn, is the female figure really a representation of nature, or is she a woman in a natural setting being “naturalized” into gender roles with the unicorn’s representation of masculinity?
Liddell doesn’t touch on that, but he does want us to know about how important women were in medieval/Renaissance culture:
The appearance of such heraldic beasts immediately puts the viewer in mind of the age of chivalry and romance associated with medieval Europe. This was a courtly culture, where the veneration of the right kind of lady served as a focus for knights to develop their less martial virtues, such as gentleness, courtesy, chastity, and cultural refinement.
Again, of course it reminds viewers of heralds and the cusp of the medieval and Renaissance period because the animals are the Le Viste herald and the piece was made at the end of the 15th century. Also, he’s conflating what was expected of a certain class of women with the reality of women’s lives.
Even though women were at the center of this culture, their role was essentially a passive one. It is tempting to see them as the grit around which the “pearl of chivalry” formed. This passivity seems reflected in the relatively unvarying character of the six great tapestries, which to modern eyes appear quite similar.
What does this contribute to the review? Are you trying to make the same point Garrard is?
While the occasional male makes an appearance here [in the exhibition], these items also convey an image of a courtly European society, where the fair sex held sway.
No, it doesn’t. What actually conveys an image of a romanticized image of society where the “fair sex” (just don’t.) held sway is Victorian depictions of courtly love and their love of Medievalism. I would argue that the tapestry cannot harken back to a romanticized time if it depicts scenes contemporary to its creation. Romanticizing the idea of courtly love is what the poetry and paintings of knights and ladies created circa 1880-1900 did. When you romanticize the present, the narrative is different: “The future is now! We live in a more civilized age!” “Holding sway” isn’t having power; instead, we should be looking more carefully at how these women and their bodies are depicted in pieces from the same period. Liddell tries to get at this with the observations about The Lady’s “passivity” but the analysis falls flat, particularly in light of the lack of discussion about the roles, positioning, and symbolism of the other pieces in the show.
It’s more than possible to write a concise review of an art exhibition without getting deep into philosophy and academia. It’s also possible, as I have stated before, to write about art without insulting women, ignoring basic art history, or grossly oversimplifying social history. Painting 15th c. European women (not the cultural ideal but the actual people) as passive bulldozes over the lived histories of those women. It erases diversity of region, ethnicity, class, and religion.
On a final note, Liddell’s constant talk of female gentleness and passivity doesn’t even remind me of Victoriana. It makes me feel like Jean-Jacques Rousseau has come back from my first year of university (or, worse, back from the dead) and decided to haunt me. Female gentleness?
Good sir, just call me La Belle Dame sans Merci.
In regards to my prior criticism of Liddell’s writing, some my readers asked why I read The Japan Times at all. I don’t feel like criticizing their publication is like taking potshots at tabloids or known conservative media outlets–and, as Jessica Valenti proved, sometimes you have to be the whistleblower. The Japan Times, as I have stated before, is supposed to be the voice for English-speakers in Japan. On one hand, you have Alice Gordenker (So What the Heck is That?) and Makiko Itoh (food), both accomplished, nuanced writers, and on the other hand, you have just as many cringe-worthy pieces, like the two I’ve mentioned by Liddell as well as the horrifying “Herbivore Men: Wheres the Beef?”, also known as “that time Amy Chavez tried to write a humor piece about herbivore men.” (Choice quote: “Gain some weight. A lean look is fine, but not that lean! Don’t leave your women saying where’s the beef? Eat manly stuff — hamburgers or chanko nabe. Eat till it hurts — because you can. You’re a man!” I swear Sarah Haskins could have made whatever this article is supposed to be work, but Chavez failed to strike the correct tone for satire or parody and just ended up with “kids these days! I remember when men were men….”).
The Japan Times owes it to itself–and all of us!– to provide quality news, and that includes quality art reviews. Just because it’s journalism rather than academia doesn’t excuse sexism, poor research, or a lack of basic understanding of one’s own field.
The Art Institute of Chicago. “The Use and Function of Tapestries.” Divine Art: Four Centuries of European Tapestries.
Blake Gopnik. (2008.) “Expanded Text of Mary Garrard Interview.” The Washington Post.
Richard Kearney. (2011.) “The Lady and the Unicorn: Hosting the Stranger.” The New Arcadia Review (vol. 4). Boston College, Boston, MA.
The Met Museum. “How Medieval and Renaissance Tapestries Were Made.” Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History.
Megan Morris. “Library Resources on Medieval Topics: Victorian Medievalism: An Annotated Bibliography for Teachers.” The Consortium of Teaching for the Middle Ages.
Musée national du Moyen Âge. “The Lady and the Unicorn.” Tapestries, cloths and embroidery.