Art works by women must become visible

Art works by women must become visible so that their exhibition in historically representative or contemporary exhibitions can be secured. The fact that the establishment of an academy or museum of women’s art can be seen as an alternative to the demand for quotas, or that ‘integration’ and ‘autonomy’ are” seen as irreconcilable, has a negative effect on women’s capacity to act. Women must be able to work in autonomous as well as established institutions.

A women’s Academy/Museum also makes sense to me because the women’s museum in Washington has proved to be a positive effect on the art market for women. Since the opening of the museum many more private galleries in Washington are interested in showing the work of women artists.

Furthermore, an institution of this kind would be the place to provide the historical foundations necessary for the discussion of feminine aesthetics. In the last ten years aesthetics based on the perception of femininity as emotional, spontaneous, physical, etc. have been labelled feminine or feminist. These perceptions are neither new nor original nor emancipatory. They do not differ in the least from the traditional male definition of feminine. An academy for women would offer students and teachers the opportunity to carry this discussion further and deeper, to abandon the established definitions and dare to come to an authentic concept of the feminine. This task would include an historically substantiated investigation of the gender question in art. It could offer the foundation for the refutation of male universality in the annals of aesthetics and art history, and for the development of new criteria for artistic creation. Such a programme can only succeed if it deals with the relationship between the sexes. It is impossible to define what masculinity and femininity are. We cannot grasp them by attributing certain qualities to them. What defines gender is the relationship to the other sex. A ‘relativity theory of the sexes’ leads to the realisation that ‘general’ aesthetics, that is those determined by men, are no less absolute and therefore just as relative as female aesthetics. Seen in this context, art by women appears no longer as an overdue correction to history, but as a necessary prerequisite for aesthetic understanding as such. Thus it has the general validity (it no longer just is specifically female) which male-dominated art and aesthetics have claimed until now.

To communicate and demonstrate this general validity in the existing establishments (academies, museums, universities) seems to me impossible. New thoughts need new organizations and institutions.

Edited English text of a translation from German by Gunhild Muschenheim

THE NATIONAL MUSEUM OF WOMEN IN THE ARTS WASHINGTON

Opened in 1987 and housed in a former Masonic temple the permanent collection of approximately 500 works are displayed on seven floors. The core of the collection came from the Museum’s founders Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay, who had privately owned a mass of women’s work in a variety of media.

Funds for the museum were raised by national subscription which included donations from private individuals as well as large corporations. The museum continues to rely on these sources of revenue and on their sponsors in the shape of Philip Morris Companies Inc.

The Museum houses a library, a resource centre, and a large auditorium. It also has an active education department and organizes travelling exhibitions. Prestigious temporary exhibitions are regularly held. ‘Elizabeth Frini, Sculpture and Drawings’ runs until 4 July and later in the year the Museum will host the Scottish show ‘Glasgow Girls’. From the introduction to the 1987 book of its permanent collection, Alessandra Comini sets out its purpose: ‘The permanent collection … serves a revisionist–and coincidentally feminist–cause, ensuring that the whole story of art be told, and insisting that the definition of art be broadened to include the “Anonymous Was a Woman” arenas of human endeavour. It presents not a footnote to the history of art, but a supplement: not a ghetto, but an extension.’

Further information, newsletter and slide packs available from The National Museum of Women in the Arts, 1250 New York Avenue, N.W., Washington D.C. 20005-3920.

THE FRAUEN MUSEUM, BONN

‘The Women’s Museum’s first goal: to liberate art and culture from limitations and standards of societal norms–areas of art where women have hardly participated and have been represented even less. The areas concentrated on are: the construction of a complex exhibition programme, the availability of research and archive facilities documenting women in art and all this with the help of an original form of management.’ (Frauen Museum Statement.)

The Frauen Museum was founded in 1981 from several groups of women artists, writers and historians who had been working together and organizing exhibitions since 1973. In 1981 the city of Bonn provided the groups with a 3000 square-metre storage warehouse. There was no public funding, however, and private donations have kept the Museum and its collections going. The museum organizes a great number of temporary exhibitions (90 since it opened, including the work of 600 artists). Twice a year it holds larger theme exhibitions around which a series of events are held. The Museum is ranged on three floors, including a studio space with nine resident artists. The Museum also houses an archive, a catalogue library, and a permanent collection of works by women. Further information and exhibition programme available from the Frauen Museum, Im Krausfeld 10, 5300 Bonn 1, West Germany.

DAS VERBORGENE MUSEUM, BERLIN

Along with the Frauen Museum and the Women Artists Slide Library, Das Verborgene Museum is a member of IAWA (International Association of Women in the Arts). The Museum was founded by a group of women artists and art historians in 1986 as a result of their collaboration on a large exhibition of women’s work in Berlin entitled “Das Verborgene Museum” (The Hidden Museum). The project had been initiated in 1984 by Gisela Breitling (author of the preceeding article) and Evelyn Kuwert. The Museum which carries the name of the original exhibition has been funded in its activities through private donations, though this has left it in a vulnerable position.

The aim of the Museum has been to provide a full education programme based around its historical archive on women’s art, from which the Museum produces an annual publication of research. It also organises three to four exhibitions a year. Currently on show is an exhibiton of the East Berlin artist Heidrun Hegewald, It runs to May 27 and will be followed by further exhibitions of East German work; a development about which the Museum is very excited.

Progress or ghetto?

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.

SHIFTING FOCUS

In a recent interview in Creative Camera Susan Butler, curator of “Shifting Focus” pinpointed its central premise as the “construction which begins before the camera is even picked up” that is how a range of constructions within photographic image making are articulated with contexts or situations existing in the ‘real world’ which are not merely ‘there’ or ‘natural’ but are culturally produced. These, to quote from Norman Bryson, pre-empt and decentre our vision through “paths and networks laid down in advance of our seeing.” The insertion of this screen of social relations and disourses inscribes the Lacanian notion of the Gaze and the positioning of the self visa vis the Other.

In the current exhibition the role of the photographic representation in this prescriptive and structuring network is explored through a spectrum of work by women from Europe, North and South America and Australia. Implicit in this is the notion of woman as predominantly subject in western patriarchal culture to the male gaze and the consequent need to unpick the ideological codes which underpin such a position. The catalogue essay stresses woman as the agent for the ‘ruin of representation’–ie. as that through which the visual conventions that position both the viewer and the viewed can be exposed.

Many interrelated issues and debates are touched upon. These have their origins in the late 60’s or early 70’s. Yve Lomax’s The World is a Fabulous Tale, (1987/88) could be taken as the leit-motif for much of the show–filmic quotations formally and metaphorically both invite and defy narrative. The framing and relationship on the wall of the multiple image panels and of the images within them dispel any attempt at coherence– ‘the look’ has to make leaps and unexpected bounds–making a nonsense of any residual notion of the frame as an equivalent to a window on the world as we think of fixed meaning but also of any meaning within fixed enclosure or frame. Like words in a sentence the images make no sense in isolation, they can only be defined through a context and it is the generation of this context which all the work in the show attempts to expose. The use of re-photographed photographic images, unifying monotone colour, and integration of surface patterning photographed from every day artifacts are ploys which emphasise the screening (and screened) nature of vision. Representation is not an illusion of something else which signifies ‘truth’ but a horizontal assemblage of ‘bits’. However unlike the anamorphic skull in Lacan’s example of Holbein’s The Ambassadors there is no presupposed viewpoint for legibility.

Lomax’s work bears an interesting comparison with that of Barbara Ess. She distorts moments from the familiar and ‘fantastic’ scenarios of television, film and magazines with the use of a pinhole camera. ‘Normal’ perspective (a socio-political construct which does not correspond to the curvilinearity of binocular vision) is lost–there is no middle or foreground and the rectangularity of the framing edge is purely coincidental. Filtered monochromatic’ colour and the contingent surface interference and damage of specks of dust and dirt emphasise the flatness of the representation whilst the image itself evokes the depth of that unclaimable hinterland between the subjective and objective world leaving it open for the perceiver, much as Lomax’s Fabulous Tale … has many endings. Susan Trangmar’s Untitled Landscapes, 1986, borrows from conventions of popular landscape and documentary picturing. In it the assembling of apparently disparate and random locations in effect suggests a narrative, but one over which the singular omnipresent musing female figure (viewed only from the back) has some mediation. She never meets our gaze, just as the subjects of Sophie Calle’s Blind (hung adjacent in the Serpentine showing) are physically unable to do so, but one feels the strength of her resistance to positioning and the somewhat ironic desire to dream as she transverses the cultural and ‘natural’ landscape.

Allusions to film and confrontation with the question of narrative, (in this case whose narrative?), are found in the work of Mitra Tabrizian with its highly dramatised sets for the exposure of racial, class and sexual tension, most often of an unacknowledged and ‘unspoken’, but assumed kind. The work appropriates an interesting genre of realism. Anne Testut’s staged enactments of the hierarchies within a French upperclass family, likewise highlight the unspoken. A voice for a private space within such constructs of society is to be found in the work of Hannah Collins with her willful transgression of a dulling and lonely environment, in Graciela Iturbide’s ‘framed recording’ of a matriarchal society and perhaps most overtly in the work of Lynne Cohen and Candida Hofer. The latter two both present a variety of cultural spaces–Cohen in a cool clinical claust rophobic manner which can only accommodate idealized representations and where the closed vistas highlight the shallowness of cultural conditioning and aspiration. Hofer’s world is one of great social interaction and more intimacy. It works almost in opposition to that of Cohen-a variety of cultural and historical styles and the often oblique angle of the viewpoint suggest the possibility of something beyond the frame whilst at the same time imposing the weight of history and conventions of the present.

The specific position of women within cultural and sexual politics is addressed directly in the work of Anne Ferran, Ingrid Orfali, Laurie Simmons and Sarah Charlesworth. Simmons and Charlesworth appropriate the tactics and images of the mass media and advertising, whilst exploiting, seductively, contemporary high art conventions to comment on the placement of women and the channelling of desire (the absence which is integral to looking). Ferran erodes and distances more personal images which could verge on the erotic as she untangles for questioning, myths surrounding female sexuality. Orfali’s bold use of stereotypes– social and pictorial–has a testing edge of provocation (so much so that it obviously hit a raw nerve in the water tight world of the Royal Park Keepers, who asked for the poster image Wemen, with its crystal winged phallus to be covered up, presumably so that it would not offend ‘the page three reading public’). The staged and literally made-up stereotype is the subject of Katharina Sieverding’s series of self portraits–her eyes in their calculation and desperation never quite meets yours, again as those of Sophie Calle’s Blind. This pillaging of the photographic comes full circle in the deconstructed and exploded images of Shelagh Alexander and Astrid Klein. In both artists work the normally pre-supposed legibility of the photographic image and its locus within a positivist framework is radically denied, not through the exposure of codes, but through the dissolution of the image itself and a first order exposure of uncertainty. They are images which posit no frame.

The exhibition undoubtedly contains some interesting, challenging and important work but it also fails as an exhibition. It is a pity to accommodate compromise– one can ask first and foremost why only women and secondly why this selection? (One only has to think of pioneering work in critical analysis of the field of the gaze as the two way mirror and time delay videos of Dan Graham in the late 60’s; that of Victor Burgin informed by psychoanalysis in the seventies, or the more recent work of Jeff Wall to realise that the discourse is not confined to the female artist). A conscious decision was made to leave out some of those artists who had been seen more widely in Britain–notably Cindy Sherman and Barbara Kruger. The show is actually travelling around the country to places where the audience is no more likely to have seen their work than anything else in the show. The work by Iturbide, Calle, Trangmar, Klein, Cohen, Lomax has all been exhibited in the UK recently and seen by the informed audience that would have seen Kruger and Sherman. Are the organisers unintentionally contributing to an already chronic metropolitan/regional divide? Why the placing of Susan Hiller and Jo Spence in the historicizing context of the catalogue but not in the exhibition itself? Why no time based or installation work which so often broaches the decentring of the subject and breaks

down the priviledge of the viewer?

Criticism aside, the problems of bringing together an international touring show are immense-dealers are loath to see work travel to public, non-commercial venues over such a long period and time-based and installation work is almost impossible to tour successfully. Expense is prohibitive, realistic touring fees exclude most regional galleries. Given the difficulty of doing the job properly should it have been less ambitious and born less of the mark of a ‘committee selection’? It is all too easy to criticise. Much of the work retains its poignancy regardless of context. It highlights the wealth of material produced by women working with the photographic image and although I was left looking for a slightly tougher edge, I also welcomed the opportunity to reassess the statements which make this possible. “Shifting Focus” provides an essential comment on 150 years of photography, the catalogue a much needed overview and reference tool. Above all it lays the foundations needed for a comprehensive survey show.

Previous updates

1-16-05 I haven’t had very much creativity lately as I have lost my best friend. Hope to get back to doing some creations in the near future. I’ve added Quiet Nights to the Figure Studies Gallery. Used Photoshop extensively.

11-26-04 Happy Thanksgiving! I’ve been pretty busy with projects lately and have neglected to put up any new creations. I hope you enjoy Alienated added to the Fantasy Gallery. Rain Dancer to the Figure Studies and Woman’s Intuition to the Emotions Gallery.

05-30-04 Added Windtalker to the Emotions Gallery. She was chosen for the Daz 3D Gallery for May.

11-01-03 Added Photoshoot III and Pearl to the Figure Studies Gallery. Pearl was inspired by the great artist JMW Chranoska. Thanks for viewing.

11-01-03 Today is the day in which the new book Virtual Humans by Peter Plantec is released. A totally different concept for 3D books which gives you all the background you need in order to create your own virtual human. The Poster art for the book is Simone! If you haven’t read the reviews take a tour of the virtual human site! You won’t be disappointed. A book worth having in your collection!

10-31-03 Happy Halloween! I have much to share with you. I was blesssed to have some of my art in a book entitled Femme Digitale by Michael Burns. Actually, the UK version has my cover art of which I was very honored. A wonderful tutorial book made up of a wonderful group of talented artists.

6-9-03 Well it’s been awhile since I’ve posted anything. The last four months have been overwhelming in as much as I have hit a wall which has prevented me from creating. I’m sure we get these blocks once in awhile but I’m slowly coming out of it. I have added a new creation in the Figure Studies Gallery entitled Claire. Enjoy and be blessed!

2-19-03 Added a new creation to the Figure Studies Gallery called Simone. Hope you like it. Be Blessed!