What Is "Women's Art"?

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A review from the Financial Times of two female artists with exhibitions in London asks the question that has been floating around since women first started producing art: is art gendered?


In her discussion of the work of Annette Messanger and Gitl Braun, two contemporary female sculptors, Jackie Wullschlager returns repeatedly to this issue of "feminine" art. She begins with the words of several artists who rejected the confining shackles of "women's art":

At the 1845 Salon, Baudelaire praised Eugénie Gautier because "her painting has nothing to do with woman's painting". A century later, critics applauded Georgia O'Keeffe because "she paints like a man". Then came the feminist revolution. Annette Messager, born in 1943, came of age in the 1970s in France when "it was so difficult for a woman to be an artist. I wanted to say all the time, ‘I am an artist and I am a woman. I will not do male work.'"

Messanger responded to the masculine-dominated and testosterone-infused art world by creating art that self consciously draws attention to its "feminine" nature. Frustrated with compliments that her early art "looked like a man did it," Messanger decided to play the role of the hyper-feminine artist and work with typically gendered mediums and forms. She parodies the roles created for women in her sculpture, using "domestic materials" like textiles and girl's toys to, as Wullschlager puts it, "free herself from male-dominated forms and create an art of female autobiographical experience."

The debate over women's work is not limited to art, as a review of Elaine Showalter's new book A Jury of Her Peers: American Women Writers From Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx from Sunday's New York Times shows. In this encyclopedic collection of female writers, Showalter categorizes those who resisted being labeled as women writers as "dissenters." The dissenters preferred to think of themselves as creating work that is neither feminine nor masculine, but rather coming from a more universal experience. In contrast to Messanger, who was interested in creating "female" work in order to subvert and challenge, the dissenters (a group that includes Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, Mary McCarthy, Elizabeth Bishop, and Joan Didion) did not want to be limited to "female" topics or confined in a book of women writers because, as Elizabeth Bishop once said, "art is art and to separate writings, paintings, musical compositions, etc. into two sexes is to emphasize values that are not art." This is clearly a fraught debate, but what say you: what makes art "women's art" and does classifying it as such somehow diminish it?

Women Artists Evolve Unique Visual Language [Financial Times]
Writing Women [New York Times]



It comes down to the age old question of whether one can separate art from artist, work from writer, etc. I think the art MUST be taken free from gender, but, once it is exmained objectively, understanding the artist can enhance one's understanding of a piece. Example. Artemisia Gentileschi worked in her father's studio and they painted many similar scenes. Comparing two works on the same subject (Lot and his Daughters, for example) is interesting when one considers gender and life experience (Artemisia was raped by one of her father's students.)

Here's an Orazio Gentileschi...

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The daughters clearly have the power here, which makes what comes after in the Bible story—them cloying their dad with wine to have sex with them—in their hands.

Here's an Artemisia...

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Who's reaching for whom?