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Is there a glass ceiling for women in the arts? When it comes to visual art, a superficial glance by a visiting alien would see 21st-century Britain as one of the best places and times there has ever been for women working as artists. I went to Rome for my holidays. I gorged on paintings, frescoes and statues, from ancient Roman mosaics to Canova nudes. None of these great works of art of ages gone by are credited to women – which doesn’t mean there were no women artists at all before modern times. The Roman writer Pliny the Elder lists women artists. The Renaissance writer Giorgio Vasari also praises a handful of women. But art was organised as a male-only craft and women could only sidestep the guild system under exceptional circumstances, such as being the daughter of a painter, like the Baroque artist Artemisia Gentileschi.
The exclusion of women from art was a holocaust of talent, a denial of half the human imagination. That’s over. Modern art appeared at the same women campaigned for the vote. In Britain, the contemporary art boom that started in the late 1980s has – apparently – seen as many women as men become famous. Compare the art world of Tracey Emin with the art world of Artemisia Gentileschi and it’s obvious a lot has changed.
Or has it?
In what some critics describe as a long overdue effort, the Museum of Modern Art in New York is this month publishing “Modern Women: Women Artists at The Museum of Modern Art.” The 500-page book, in the works for more than four years, is the centerpiece of a larger initiative to shine a light on women artists. From last December through summer, 2011, MoMA’s curatorial departments are mounting 15 large and small exhibitions that highlight and temporarily increase the presence of works by women in the museum.
Judith H. Dobrzynski
From Confessions of a Shopaholic
Simone de Beauvoir famously announced that “One is not born a woman, but becomes one,” in her 1949 treatise The Second Sex. She might have added: “But it takes Hollywood to turn one into an hysterical fashion-mongering man-craving anorexic caricature.” For, increasingly, the modern Hollywood women’s picture or so-called chick flick has become home to the worst kind of regressive pre-feminist stereotype and misogynistic cliché.
Movies such as the recent Anne Hathaway/Kate Hudson catfight Bride Wars or the forthcoming Confessions of a Shopaholic are aimed exclusively at women, and yet feature female characters who are variously neurotic, idiotic, label-obsessed, weight-obsessed, man-obsessed or weddingobsessed, and often all at the same time. In Confessions of a Shopaholic, for instance, the gifted comedic actress Isla Fisher plays Rebecca Bloomwood, a wannabe Manhattan fashionista who lives only for designer clothes and will happily fight to the death for a pair of sale-price Gucci boots.
Rebecca wears pink and leaves the important stuff such as thinking, to her patronising male colleagues: at a job interview she hilariously confuses the word “fish” with “fiscal”. The boys, to a man, find her adorable, even though her greatest achievement involves matching a black Saint Laurent coat with a purple dress.
Other incoming chick flicks will hardly give the women’s movement much cause for celebration. Films such as He’s Just Not That Into You (Jennifer Aniston and Drew Barrymore lead a cast of women desperate for commitment from their men), All About Steve (Sandra Bullock plays a semi-stalker who chases her one-night stand across the country in the hope that he’ll marry her) and The Ghosts of Girlfriends Past (the title says enough) all point to a version of womanhood that at best is mired in cliché and at worst in hateful caricature.
“The heroines are getting dumber and dumber,” says the feminist historian and Fellow of Oxford University Diane Purkiss, who suggests that these cartoon protagonists are merely reflecting a decline in our own culture into one that, for women, is image-obsessed (see celebrity culture, size zero models, Heat magazine, etc).
“Women’s lives today feel oppressive, more so than they did ten years ago,” Purkiss says. “And the more oppressive they feel, the dumber these portrayals of women become.”
Chick flicks, she says, thrive on a form of institutionalised schadenfreude. “The entertainment industry allows you, the audience member, to pat yourself on the back and say: ‘I’m smarter than her, I’m more together than her, and I’m not as stupidly anorexic as her.’”
Things were different in 1998, when the contemporary chick flick was born. Ten years ago Bridget Jones’s Diary was still a best-selling novel and the winner of the British Book of the Year award. The first season of Sex and the City had just begun on HBO and the Spice Girls were in the middle of their Spiceworld tour.
The chick-flick heroine that emerged then was often ditzy, yes, but she also had recourse to irony, self-satire and intelligence. When Bridget the movie appeared in 2001 and eventually scooped more than £150 million at the international box office, the chick flick became a hot Tinseltown property. However, for every smart-thinking Bridget Jones, Legally Blonde or Devil Wears Prada there appeared a slew of movies that appealed to the genre’s baser instincts.Films such as 27 Dresses, Made of Honour, License to Wed and What Happens in Vegas were cookie-cutter movies defined by lazy stereotypes (wedding overkill, anyone?) and explicit anti-feminism.
The reason for all this sinister discord is ultimately, of course, men. “Fewer than 10 per cent of Hollywood films are written by women, and fewer than 6 per cent directed by women,” explains Melissa Silverstein, a movie marketing consultant and founder of the company Women & Hollywood. “So really what you are seeing is a white male version of women. And that is just unacceptable.”
It is nonetheless a version of womanhood that appeals to an enormous amount of female moviegoers, argues Archie Thomas, foreign correspondent for Variety magazine. “Chick flicks such as Sex and the City get repeat business from female audiences,” Thomas says. “Which means that women go to see it together the first time then they go back with their mothers, sisters or daughters to experience it again.”
“Women go to these movies, because they want to go to the movies,” Silverstein counters. “And most of the time there are no other options out there.”
And certainly last year Sex and the City’s blunderbuss marketing campaign, which cost a reported £35 million, left women in no doubt that there was only one must-see movie around that summer. She adds that, consequently, the real herculean job to be done is to motivate women away from chick flicks and towards the few edgier, more interesting movies that might normally go unnoticed. “I just worked on Emma Thompson’s movie, Last Chance Harvey,” Silverstein says. “So the message I’ve got to get across to women is: ‘You’ve got to go and support this movie. It may not be perfect, but no movie is, and if you do support it then you’ll have the chance to see more movies like it in future.’”
The antidote to the chick-flick burden, says the former Hollywood agent Gayle Nachliss, is to populate the production sector with women. “In the boardroom we’re doing fine,” says Nachliss, who is now executive director of the LA-based Women In Film organisation, which encourages women’s participation in all aspects of movie-making. “And we have successful women agents, managers and publicists. But this is not the case creatively. And it’s why we end up with a situation where Hollywood thinks that all women care about is weddings and shopping. We constitute half of the population, and we’re starved of entertainment.”
The good news, for right-thinking women everywhere, is that the contemporary cardboard chick flick may yet eat itself without any help from feminist producers or activist audiences. If the glut of such films continues there’s a very real danger that the genre will implode in a market filled with squealing, pratfalling heroines.
“It happened before, to some extent, with the horror genre,” Thomas says. “The market can take only a certain amount of these types of movies. If you flood it with them the audience appetite is lessened. There is, ultimately, not that many Sex and the Citys to be had every year.”
The women’s movies that would be left in a post-chick-flick world are not hard to imagine, Silverstein says. They’re already here. “There are amazing movies out there, but you have to find them,” she says, pointing to the Michelle Williams road movie, Wendy and Lucy. “These are not overtly serious movies or so-called feminist movies. They’re just films about women – but fully formed women.”
Topics included “Britney’s Tears: The Abject Female Celebrity in Postemotional Society” and “Hooker, Victim and/or Doormat: Lindsay Lohan and the Culture of Celebrity Notoriety.”
European and American academics are meeting here this week to examine society’s fascination with “train wreck” female celebrities. Why do the public and media seem to get such a kick out of Britney’s latest meltdown, Lindsay’s booze and drug arrests, and Amy Winehouse’s rehab struggles?
Diane Negra, one of the conference organizers, says participants wanted to study why we take “pleasure in seeing women brought low.”
“The massive coverage these women draw is only a little bit about themselves,” says Negra, a professor of film and television at the host university in Norwich, 185 kilometres northeast of London. “These women operate as lightning rods for a lot of other concerns.”
There’s nothing new in society’s fascination with celebrities. But the Internet and the spread of tabloid culture to the mainstream have created a whirlwind in which rumour, claim and rebuttal swirl.
A Google News search for troubled soul diva Winehouse produces almost 10,000 stories. In British newspapers, the story of the singer’s erratic public appearances, struggle with drugs and health worries is played out almost daily.
There are plenty of male celebrities, from Pete Doherty to Robert Downey Jr., whose personal and legal difficulties also make headlines.
But Negra claims the coverage of women is more judgmental, casting wayward female celebrities as “cautionary tales.” She said coverage of female celebs is less likely to celebrate a troubled star’s triumphant comeback, the way Downey has been lauded for Iron Man, or Owen Wilson has been applauded for returning to work after a reported suicide attempt.
“We seem to have a lot more fixed ideas about what women’s lives should be like than we do of men,” Negra says.
“When we use female celebrities this way, we see them failing and struggling. They serve as proof that for women, the work-life balance is impossible. Can you have it all? The answer these stories give again and again is `absolutely not.'”
Unsurprisingly, celebrity journalists here disagree. Gordon Smart, who edits the Sun newspaper’s celebrity pages, says the preponderance of troubled female stars in the news is a coincidence.
“I just think at the moment there just happens to be cluster of female celebrities that are going through difficult times,” Smart told BBC Radio.
Cary Cooper, a professor of psychology and health at Lancaster University in England, says readers and viewers want to watch celebrities struggle.
“It makes people feel good,” Cooper says. Celebrities “look like they lead a golden life, and yet it doesn’t make them happy. So in a way it justifies our humdrum existence.”
Negra suggests the negative tone of much coverage reflects public concern about the growing number of celebrities with no obvious talent: people like Paris Hilton or the stars of reality-TV shows, who are famous simply for being famous.
The Toronto Star
It was my good fortune a week or so ago to hear the Luce annual lecture on American creativity, given by pioneer feminist art historian Linda Nochlin. The title of her lecture was Dislocating Tradition: Women Artists and the Body, from Cassatt to Whiteread. Having for years grappled in vain with the peculiar role of the body as both medium and message in women’s art, I hotfooted down to the Royal Academy and prepared to have my perplexities unknotted and my vestigial puritan revulsions dispelled.
It is a truism of feminist history that women have been regarded primarily as body, passive, fertile body, as essential to human survival as earth. If women artists were ever to engage with anything, they were going to have to engage with body as earnestly as Cézanne engages with landscape, and so they did. The model became the artist, but at the same time she clung to her role as model, so that she became her own subject. At first, this was manifest in a tendency to produce an inordinate number of self-portraits. In 18th-century France, Vigée-Le Brun never tired of painting flattering portraits of herself, which was quite a good move for a society portrait painter, who was expected to do a similar job on her clients. At the same time, Angelika Kauffmann produced dozens of dreamy versions of herself not only in portraits, but also in allegorical paintings in which she figured as the personification of art or music or both. Frida Kahlo could engage with no subject other than her fictionalised and glamorised self. Her proliferating faux-naive paintings are advertisements for the performance that was her life.
For the women artists of surrealism, in the words of Whitney Chadwick, “the idealised version of the woman as muse was no help … rejecting the idea of the Muse as Other, they turned instead to their own images and their own realities as sources for their art. Even when the subject of the work is not the self-portrait per se, there is a persistent anchoring of the imagery in recognisable depiction of the artist.” The thought of art as solipsism has me tearing my hair. The convention of the muse is simply a trope figuring forth male creativity; if the convention was useless to women, they could simply have done without it, but, as most of them also chose to become sexually involved with male artists, they wasted a good deal of time playing the muse’s illusory role, apparently unaware that the muse is rarely the artist’s actual bedmate. A male artist’s recognition of his consort in the role of muse is mere gallantry. Why did the women artists of surrealism have to follow such a sterile, narcissistic paradigm? As for their images being recognisable, they made sure of that by posing for at least as many photographs as they made paintings. Most of them put more paint on their faces in a lifetime than they did on canvas.
The advent of performance art produced a tide of women artists, many of whom were not content with starring in their own show without stripping. Since the 1960s, when Carolee Schneeman took off her clothes to perform art in New York basements, I have wondered what the connection might be between art and exhibitionism, and why it was that so many of the nude female performance artists had beautiful bodies. Could it have been coincidence? Even Helen Chadwick, a serious artist, took pride in displaying her own wonderfully elegant young body when somebody else’s would have done.
Professor Nochlin explained to us that Sam Taylor-Wood’s Portrait (1993) in a Fuck Suck Spunk Wank T-shirt, with her trousers around her ankles, was a “marvellous parody” of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus. She pointed out that the cabbage on the table was a reference to the volute out of which the goddess steps in Botticelli’s painting, but she didn’t explain why Taylor-Wood chose to pose herself and let someone else (Stephen White) take the photograph. Any of Taylor-Wood’s art-school chums could have put on the T-shirt and adopted the pose, and Taylor-Wood could have taken the photograph herself. Sarah Lucas’s self-portrait with fried eggs on her chest was correctly described as “as arrogant as any male portrait”, but why did Lucas pose it herself? The fried-egg reference would be as appropriate to any other woman, no? Why is Tracey Emin the subject of all her own work? Is this good or is it pathological? Why does Jenny Saville deconstruct her own body? Why can’t she use someone else’s? There is a possible answer, which is that the use of the nude is necessarily exploitative, and therefore a female artist who needs to use a body has no option but to use her own, but surely it can be no more than a sophistry. Why does a female artist need to use flesh in the first place?
The feminist art historian can no more ask these questions than she can ask why most women’s art is no good. Her duty is to cry up women’s work, to see it as reactive and transgressive, as dislocating tradition indeed, when the painterly tradition is always being jolted and set off on contradictory tangents, more often and more fundamentally by men than by women. The woman who displays her own body as her artwork seems to me to be travelling in the tracks of an outworn tradition that spirals downward and inward to nothingness.