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Naked bodies on a canvas

I am an art historian. This means that I spend my days researching about the history of beautiful objects, and in my case, those objects are pretty old. It would be easy to think of my discipline as segregated from contemporary social issues as well as above any kind of ideological partisanship; but it takes just a little dive deeper into the world of Art History to understand how the arts, their history and their legacy cannot, nor should not, be looked at as an impartial and innocent discipline. 

Like many other fields of human history, art has always been dominated by men. Why are there so few female artists in history? If I use the supposedly neutral word ‘artist’, my mind, just like that of my interlocutor, will probably immediately go to names as familiar as Vincent Van Gogh, Michelangelo, Pablo Picasso, Claude Monet. I will have to use the adjective ‘female’, and hope to be speaking to a highly educated audience to make sure that names such as Georgia O’Keeffe, Sofonisba Anguissola and Edmonia Lewis will be something more than just names. 

Of course there are worldwide famous female artists whose work is as admired and recognized as those of their male counterparts. First in line Frida Kahlo, then maybe Marina Abramović and Artemisia Gentileschi. However, it won’t be three superstars who will solve the huge gap between the male-dominated art world and the little niche of female artists alone. That would be like using the success of Beyonce as a black woman to deny the systemic misogyny and racism that dominate our world. 

But why is that? Why were women relegated to play once again a lesser role in history? It is ironic when we think that still now people will believe that women are more creative and sensitive than men (two qualities that you would consider essential in the creation of original art), and that this belief has often been used to dismiss the role of women in STEM (sciences, technology, engineering and math) fields. Despite our creativity, the fine arts were not accessible to us, and because of our creativity we could not be proper scientists either. It was (and somehow still is) indeed a non win/non win situation.

If we, however, understand art as a power issue, like any other product of human society, it might be easier to understand the systematic exclusion of women, just like of POC and indigenous people all over the globe, whose artistic creations are still widely dismissed. And who does not see how creativity is connected to power must have never experienced the inebriating sensation, nor understand the intoxicating allure of the word ‘genius’. On the other side, women have always been celebrated for their power to create life, but it’s hard not to think that the rhetoric of the miraculous creative power of women as child bearers could be easily used to teach women their place – their only place in society. 

The discourse on women in the arts is not new; it has actually been discussed for some decades now. My personal awakening came through the work of the Guerrilla Girls: this anonymous group started in New York City in 1985, their faces covered with a gorilla mask, and protested against the male-dominated world of contemporary art. Women were indeed an essential part of the art scene, and had always been, they claimed, but merely as objects, never as active subjects.

So, not only do we have to acknowledge the hardship for women artists to access the same privileges and recognition as their fellow men artists, we need also to see how this issue is tangled to the omnipresent sexualization and objectification of women. I can’t help thinking of the Impressionist painter Auguste Renoir, one of the most celebrated artists of history, and his many delicate depictions of femininity. Then I think about a quote that has been attributed to him: “I consider women writers, lawyers, and politicians as monsters and nothing but five legged calves. The woman artist is merely ridiculous, but I am in favor of the female singer and dancer”.  

But thank you, Auguste, for your lovely paintings. I guess. 

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