Week 16 – Feminism and Multiculturalism

Feminism and Multiculturalism

Lecture by Gerald Deslande, a successful gallery director in the 1970s and 80s.

I am really struggling with the artistic concept of feminism.

Throughout my working life from 1969 to 2013 I had very little contact with the artistic establishment, either in academia or the commercial sphere, so I am coming to the lecture and the recent Neo Avante-Gard lecture with fresh eyes, and I am uncomfortable with what I am seeing.  This discomfort is on two levels.  Firstly with the visual imagery, which is obviously intended to shock, and on that level, it succeeds, but it is the second level that I find equally shocking, and why the art world found it necessary to stoop to such levels to be noticed, when my experience of the real world was nothing like this.

From 1969 to 1996 I worked full time in the computer industry, designing large insurance systems, then later in financial services in the City.  I have never experienced inequality.  In fact, so much so, that I have always acted and believed and been treated as an equal.  I am not suggesting that inequality doesn’t exist, but I am inclined to think that if you fight it and bring it centre stage, rather than ignore it and act as if it isn’t there, you highlight weakness and provoke a response.  Women are smart.  We are reinventing the game, but quietly.

And so it is from this perspective that I am seeing Feminism in action in art for the first time.  It is not a pretty sight.  Having diligently followed up every artist in the Neo Avante-Gard lecture, because I thought that was what I was supposed to do, and been sickeningly haunted by some of the images, and what supposedly passes for art, I have decided I do not have the stomach to repeat the exercise.  It is sufficient for me to be aware that it was a phase, and like all phases, it too will pass.  For me, art is about nourishing the soul, and I will focus on that.

If the art establishment had devoted as much time to positive creativity, the world might be a better place.

The Venus Project


Thank you Sharon for the pointer and the restoration of balance to the week.

Tracey Emin

On face value, not one of my favourite artists, but after the Feminism lecture, perhaps she has achieved more than I have given her credit for.  Angela, in my tutorial suggested reading critical reviews.  Now is a good time.  I will approach this enquiry with an open mind.

Jonathan Jones writing in the Guardian calls Emins exhibition at the White Cube ‘a lesson in how to be a real artist.’   ‘Her convincing repossession of nude beauty as an artistic theme is just the beginning of this radical exhibition. Emin is an expressionist. Whether she’s using ready made objects or sketching, her true purpose is to communicate passion.’ Up Straight (2014)

Up Straight (2014). Photograph: Tracey Emin


Jones concludes ‘Emin bares her soul by portraying humiliations of the flesh. As the confidence of her drawing seems to break and fail, what’s left is despair.’

Tracey Emin at her show The Last Great Adventure Is You.

Tracey Emin at her show The Last Great Adventure Is You. Photograph: Afp/AFP/Getty Images

Reviewing the same exhibition, Alastair Sooke writing in the Telegraph says ‘Emin in middle age is repositioning herself as a traditionalist at heart.’

In summary, a very different view point compared with Jones,

‘Without her wit and vim to animate them, too many of these small and supposedly “intimate” artworks feel trivial and slight, like forgettable art-school exercises. Occasionally her draughtsmanship approaches something like tension and urgency, but more often it lapses into vague meandering and wishy-washiness.

I find Emin the personality impossible to resist, but her drawings shruggable and nondescript.’


Tracey Emin with one of the works from her new show, the fruit of life-drawing classes in New York

Tracey Emin with one of the works from her new show, the fruit of life-drawing classes in New York

‘Tracey Emin has gone from enfant terrible to establishment figure. But a new show proves that her new work has lost none of its energy or ability to provoke, ‘ writes Karen Wright in the Independent.

‘Good Body (2014) shows her in a pose more odalisque then struggling, while in Up Straight (2014), the line is smooth and fluid – gone is the edginess of her earlier work.’  Of her bronzes Wright says ‘Emin is not another Matisse.’

Wright concludes that in spite of being rich and mixing with the Royals, ‘.. what shows here in Bermondsey is that she is still an artist with energy for work, best when alone in her studio, paintbrush, pencil or embroidery needle in hand.’

Finally, Daniel Barnes writing in Aesthetica.  ‘The devotion to craft and the intimate expression are still there, but the resultant works are cleaner, somehow effortless, with all the toil locked in their conceptual grounding rather than in their physicality. The important thing, as with all Emin’s work, is the way the depth and sincerity is realised in the materiality of the work.’

He summarises, ‘This show is the product of a carefully honed craft that has the expression of human sentiment at its core by an artist who suddenly understands herself as middle-aged and content. And whilst it really is all about Tracey, none of the figures here have faces, as if Emin has once again looked at herself, but she has been unable to distinguish herself from the mass of humanity.’ http://www.aestheticamagazine.com/blog/review-tracey-emin-last-great-adventure/#sthash.sztEGbmb.dpuf

Kirsty Wark interviewing Emin at the White Cube created a different dynamic.  Quite softly spoken , for me, the interview echoes Alistair Sooke’s conclusion.  There is a hesitancy, almost an apology  about the size of the space and the scale of her work.  Has the brash confidence mellowed with age or is the Enfant Terrible of the 80s and 90s suffering the same dilemma we all face as we come to terms with the ageing process.  Who am I now, when everything else is stripped away?  For me her current work is good but not exceptional, what has surprised me is that I have warmed to the fragility of the mellow Tracey.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GSdyiB4_4_M

Linda Nochlin – Women, Art and Power

Angela offered this extract from Nochlin’s 1988 book for consideration, ‘Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?’

Nochlin suggests ‘But like so many other so-called questions involved in the feminine ‘controversy’, it falsifies the nature of the issue at  the same time that it insidiously supplies its own answer: ‘There are no great women artists because women are incapable of greatness.’  She argues that it depends which side of the equation you find yourself, as to the determination of the ‘question’ or ‘problem.’

She argues ‘The problem lies not so much with some feminists’ concept of what femininity is, but rather with their misconception – shared with the public at large – of what art is: with the naive idea that art is the direct, personal expression of individual emotional experience, a translation of personal life into visual terms.  Art is almost never that, great art never is.  The making of art involves a self-consistent language of form, more or less dependent upon, or free from, given temporally defined conventions, schemata, or systems of notation, which have to be learned or worked out, either through teaching, apprenticeship, or a long period of individual experimentation.  The language of art is, more materially, embodied in paint and line on canvas or paper,..  it is neither a sob story nor a confidential whisper.’

Nochlin concludes ‘Disadvantage may indeed be an excuse; it is not, however, an intellectual position.  Rather, using as a vantage point their situation as underdogs in the realm of grandeur, and outsiders in that of ideology, women can reveal institutional and intellectual weaknesses in general, and, at the same time that they destroy false consciousness, take part in the creation of institutions in which clear thought – and true greatness – are challenges open to anyone, man or woman, courageous enough to take the necessary risk, the leap into the unknown.’1

Reflecting on this passage and the question posed, from the perspective of 1988, Lochlin’s argument is wholly valid.  I would still argue that the ‘greatness’ that has emerged since around this time, in the form of painters like Richard Diebenkorn, Peter Doig, Bruce McLean, and even at a stretch, Mark Rothko, who died in 1970, plus many other male painters, could just as easily have been women. There was no physical reason why couldn’t have produced such work, but instead of just working at their craft as an equal, key female artists chose to gain attention by subjecting themselves in pursuit of a feminist platform.  If this undeniable energy had been channelled into comparative ‘greatness’, there would be no requirement for a feminist movement, and the bedrock, after centuries in the wilderness, would have be laid for all future generations, with the stature assured on an equal footing.  A wasted opportunity.

Ben Okri

It is not just the plight of women artists and their chosen response that Ben Okri writing in the Guardian http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/dec/27/mental-tyranny-black-writers highlights a similar problem for black and African writers who are pigeon holed into writing about ‘slavery, colonialism, poverty, civil wars, imprisonment, female circumcision, in short, for subjects that reflect the troubles of Africa and black people as perceived by the rest of the world.  They are defined by their subjects.

The black and African writer is expected to write about certain things, and if they don’t they are seen as irrelevant. This gives their literature weight, but dooms it with monotony. Who wants to constantly read a literature of suffering, of heaviness? Those living through it certainly don’t; the success of much lighter fare among the reading public in Africa proves this point. Maybe it is those in the west, whose lives are untouched by such suffering, who find occasional spice and flirtation with such a literature. But this tyranny of subject may well lead to distortion and limitation.’

He concludes ‘The first freedom is mental freedom. We have to seize the freedom to be what we can be, to write whatever we want, with all the mystery and fire of art. It is our responsibility to illuminate the strange corners of what it is to be human.

Literature is the index of our intelligence, our wisdom, our freedom. We must not let anyone define what we write, what we see as worthy of playful or profound investigation in words. “The aim of art,” wrote Aristotle, “is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance.”

Not the appearance, but the inward significance, radiated from the genius of inner freedom.’

In a similar way, I would argue that Feminism is holding back the female genius.

1.  Linda Lochlin, Women, Art , and Power, New York: Harper and Row 1988.

Author: susanmilleruk

Watercolour painter living, working and loving Hastings and St Leonards on Sea. MA in Fine Art.

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