Art: You shall never see all of me, ladies and gentlemen You will always only see that part towards which you have turned. I am a mirror. Look at me–you see yourself.
The woman artist: The longer I look at you, the less I recognize myself. I can’t say that you are my mirror.
To come to the point straight away: I’m in favour of museums of women’s art. I would like to see not only one, but many. I would like to see such museums as places where exhibitions and research take place, where the lost works of women artists are traced, catalogued, evaluated and shown, where contemporary art by women is bought and exhibited. I would like to see them as educational institutions where the conditions for the creation of art are studied, and the concept of life is discussed which is reflected in this art.
I consider women’s museums not just a temporary measure which should and can increase the opportunities for women artists, I also consider them a socio-political and above all an artistic necessity. I’m concerned not only about greater justice–in regard to the distribution of funds, for instance, 90% of which end up in the pockets of men–I’m concerned about art.
I would like at first to talk about the relationship between art and social norms and then take up the question of how we are to tackle the androgyny which is asked of art. Demands for androgyny in the production of art and ‘objective’ of criteria of quality, are the main arguments raised against the separation or ghettoization of womens art in special museums or exhibitions.
But art is like the society in which it is produced. It reflects the norms which are valid in that society regardless of whether these norms appear to have been imposed from the outside or whether they have been arrived at democratically. Art in itself is nothing. Art has no absolute quality which only reveals itself in more or less ‘pure’ form. Rather art is both judgment and claim. Artists are not prophets, they do not ‘sense’ something in advance, they create, they produce. As a result art is not only a reaction to social phenomena, power structures or changes, it is also a participant in these changes, in fact art itself causes changes.
Since art is indivisible from society at large it appears in manifold and contradictory forms. It reflects the aspirations, hopes and identities of the time in which it comes into being. It is not manufactured out of a ‘purely artistic-objective’ interest, nor is it bought, admired, shown and preserved as a result of such interest.
Thus once art has been commissioned, acquired and exhibited, (that is once it has ‘arrived’), it appears to illustrate what is objective.
In art and by the means of art, all that a society accepts as normal and generally binding is affirmed and declared valid.
This applies even to art which understands itself as oppositional, once it receives official blessing as ‘valid work’. On the other hand, works which do not conform to what is considered valid are denied the attribute of art. They are considered either trivial or barbaric, i.e. ‘bad’, depending on whether their content is judged harmless or a threat to the system. If harmless, the opponents are ignored. If dangerous they are fought against and their works are prohibited. While the cultural policy of dictatorships are rigidly restrictive, in democracies non-conformist art is ignored or denied public exposure through economic or market-specific pressures.
We known that women are underrepresented in all decision-making positions, that they are a majority treated like a minority. This absence is hardly registered, is seldom perceived as deprivation. If it enters consciousness at all, it is at best regretted half-heartedly, more often accepted as a law of nature. But perceptive individuals, mostly women (men continue to exhibit astonishing mental lethargy in this area) know that this is the result of manipulation practiced for thousands of years.
Small wonder then that in its portrayal of human beings art shows women only as objects, as something ‘outside’ and different.
Women working as artists find themselves in a situation which is in total contradiction to what is generally expected of them. Excluded everywhere else from making decisions for themselves they are expected to act autonomously and rely on their own judgement. Through art they must avail themselves to a notional artistic “freedom” If they are unable to fully use this “freedom”, they are criticised for being weak, despite the fact that radical subjectivity, has long since become the programmatic principle of art. But female subjectivity and experience of self cannot be reflected in works of art, not where it counts.
At best, femaleness is considered as something opposite to maleness, whereby the latter remains the standard of what is deemed human.
Exhibitions, museums and art schools convey and confirm the perception of the marginality and insignificance of women. As a result both sexes are offered different reference points. This will continue as long as it is not acknowledged that women live in a different culture from men and that they experience this culture in a different way. Women find themselves in an alien culture, in a culture that has been determined by men. Men find themselves in their own culture. For this reason cultural institutions should present to the world at large the female experience of culture, that is the experience of alienation and exclusion, as much as they should present the work of women artists.
The work of women artists will be considered irrelevant as long as society does not grant women the right to set standards, that is as long as women are defined as being different, as being outside the norm. If women are considered sexually, biologically and emotionally different, then the art made by women cannot gain access to the level where the generally valid is shown, where the established Philosophy of life is communicated and made palatable. In other words as long as something does not count because it is made by a women, her art does not count either, at least not as art. The more women are able to achieve authority and recognition, however, the more they will take up decision-making positions in society and influence established standards, the less they can be defined as being different, as being ‘outside’. Although museums of women’s art might seem to maintain that ‘outside’-ness or otherness of women in relationship to the “asexual” art world, I feel that women’s museums can offer women a chance to take more control of the display and reception of their work.
Ever since the appraisal of art has been preserved in the form of art history, the attribute of masculinity has been the highest compliment. Noble or heroic manliness, virile strokes of the brush, manly enthusiasm–all the most highly rated qualities are identified with masculinity. To this day the creative talent itself is considered a specifically male talent. Women artists who disregard these assertions are considered either incompetent or unfeminine.
At the turn of the century men complained about the effeminization of art. A work of art that was not considered successful or worthy of critique was said to have feminine qualities: weakness, indecisiveness, sentimentality and histrionics. I have never heard of an art work being criticised for being too masculine!
Women artists, it seems, must prove androgenous, however. What women are supposed to prove when they claim that their art is androgynous is not gender symmetry reflected in the work but what is generally called the ‘masculine part’. Many of the women who demand androgyny or even sexual anonymity in art distance themselves from women’s art, women’s exhibitions and feminine aesthetics. They see the assertion of themselves as women rather than sexually anonymous artists restrictive, encouraging the ghettoization of women artists who show together as women.
Women’s exhibitions, women’s museums, women’s art–in combination with the word women the terms exhbition, museum and art are robbed fo their reputation.
The reason why the negative connotation of women’s art is disturbing is because it unmasks and disproves the illusion of neutrality in regard to gender, an allusion which has been sucessfully maintained by the male view of the world. Art can be produced either by men or by women, there is no such thing as a sexually neutral human being. Thus the hint of the disreputable and scandalous associated with women’s art, women’s museums etc. is the best proof for the necessity of these projects.
One of the questions which could be taken up in a women’s museum with a research facility is to what extent innovation in art is possible for women as long as innovation means nothing than a new version of the male self-image. The difficulty is that among women themselves there is no consensus whether there should be women’s museums and women’s exhibitions in the first place. In the introduction to the catalogue of the exhibition “Women Artists 1577-1977”, Ann Sutherland Harris, the organizer of the show, expressed the hope that projects of this kind would become superfluous in the future, a wish that is hard to understand in retrospect. Would an organizer of an exhibit of artists of, say, the ‘Blue Rider’ group hope that such shows would become superfluous in later years? Would he/she not want the opposite, namely more and larger exhibitions of these works?
The Holladay Collection, a collection of works by women artists since the thirties, has recently been opened to the public at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington. The reactions to this museum have been typical for exhibitions of women artists in general. The evaluation of the works in this private collection turned into an evaluation of women’s art as such. But a collection of this kind can no more claim to represent, say, contemporary art in general, which in the case of the latter would never be made. It is assumed, however, that women’s museums can erase century-old prejudices and slights, and that comparisons with the great, traditional collections and museums can seriously be made.
As art by women has appeared so far only when it is shown separately, critics feel entitled to draw conclusions about the artistic abilities of women in general. A womens museum also leads to the assumption that its mere existence is reason enough to delegate acquisition and presentation of women’s art to it. Since it can be seen there, it need not be shown anywhere else. Thus the women’s museum is seen as a place of separation–a ghetto. The founding of a museum for “Brucke” painters, on the other hand, of course does not imply that these artists are not collected or shown elsewhere. But it is precisely this double standard which applies to every women’s exhibition. It is supposed to express the desire for separation. But separate exhibitions only reflect the fact that art by women has always been treated differently, that it has always been ghettoized. Women and their art have always been made invisible by male-oriented cultural thinking. Women’s exhibitions are not indications of the female desire to be separate but a reaction to male-dominated restrictive policies.
Within the environment of a women’s museum women artists could work without being subjected to the pressure of having to prove their femininity or deny it (or both) at the same time. Historians could research feminism without having constantly to justify it. And the museum would show not only one or two works by women, as is usually the case, but exclusively works by women. These works could be seen for what they are without being scrutinized for what is feminine or unfeminine about them. In such institutions students and teachers could concentrate on the questions and problems important to them without having to feel like outsiders. They could build up their strength because competent women would not be isolated in a male-dominated environment but in an atmosphere which promotes the development and communication of abilities and self-determination.