A feminist approach of Art History is inherently wrong because it is steeped in activism and always presents a biased approach.
I argue that there is no such thing as a Feminist Art Historian. You can be a historian and a feminist, but crossing both would never lead to objective research. Is there such a thing as a Feminist biologist? A Feminist Archaeologist?
Feminists argue that woman as a subject in art have constantly been dealt a role in a passive or negative light, emphasized by the selection of certain literary and iconographic themes. They mostly see woman as passive vessels, as objects acted upon by men.
I argue that there is the same amount of evidence so support the contrary too.
These feminist art historians only highlight the negative aspect of the depiction of woman in art or the way they have been barred from it as creators or patrons. In itself it is not a very emancipatory view of their own sex.
They also point out that, for example, prior to the 1970’s woman artists were excluded from major art work surveys.
Again, there is enough evidence to contrairy and see that Classical and humanist authors did not forget female artists in Western Art.
Feminists do need to see that equality of females to men does not imply women are or have been inferior to men. They are simply different. It is not because the emancipated take on female artists or the social position of women in general has altered that all what was in the past was ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’ or ‘belittling’.
One could draw a parallel to Renaissance minds finding the Middle Ages ‘backward’ because they are not equally cultured or have not been ‘illuminated’ as they as Renaissance people had become. If one does not take into account the social and cultural context of societies we no longer are part of, because of the history gap, than one is looking at cases from an extremely one sided perspective. This same argument is furthermore stressed by these feminists, they think gender influences the expression and interpretation of history. I beg to differ that it has really anything to do with the ‘male’ of ‘female’ gaze. I would judge it is just a kind of poor historical scholarship prevailing. To write about something that is not really there or has not been scientifically proven to be true.
Things will actually really be misread if only looked upon from one angle without looking at other relative facts involved.
One cannot just look at the social status of a woman without looking at the entire society she moves in.
Generalization is very dangerous. Painting with too broad a brush without supporting them with hard facts (positive as well as negative) is yet again a very post modern take on deconstructing discourse. It focussed on all the ‘flaws’ in study but does not present an alternative or solution.
The only solution is: more differentiated objective contextual approaches instead of this neo-Warburgianism. If Art History has anything to contribute to Human Sciences it needs to steer clear of a) art critique, b) suppositions c) moral judgement.
Just like in exact sciences the art historian needs to let go of the ‘maybe’s’, ‘ifs’ and ‘subjectiveness’ that is so prevalent in teachings on everything associated with interpretations and ‘vibes’ coming off the art works.
Mixing up two different discourse e.g. ethical judgements to point out objective facts is something one would not stand for in say biology, religion and even in philosophy. If we think back to Kant, who outlined this problem as far ago as the 17th century, we have progressed little in our philosophical debates on art.
What I am trying to say is that the feminists, although looking to increase our knowledge of women (albeit mostly in the negative sense how they have been repressed etc) do not cease at pointing out the ‘abuse’ or negativity. They never consider the fact they are ‘biassed’ because they are women looking at women from another era and another society. Not one person can relate to being a woman in another era; no matter how well up they are on say late 16th century Florence. The only thing they can relate to is what it is to be a woman biologically. None of us, being male or female, can fathom how it is to be someone else. We can never escape the reference area we are in at the time. We cannot look forward. We can only look backward from what we are right now.
So just the facts ma’m, just the facts.
There is the tendency to strive for demystification associated with works of art. But if the well runs dry (say there are no clues in hard facts such as documents) and conclusions can only be made based on supposition, we just have to admit that. We cannot concoct ways round the scientific process (as far as we can use it in Art History). A scientist has to be intellectually honest. One cannot launch a theory and than claim it is correct because it has to be so. He needs to come up with hard evidence as to convince fellow scientists he is right. There needs to be a replicable experiment to support the theory and prove it right. If one lacks one or the other or dismisses other factors out of hand because he knows it will not support his theory he is being intellectually dishonest.
Skipping from one subject to another and associating things by putting them next to one another is a good way of finding hidden connections or pointing to a theme, but there are rules and borders to this matter of approach too.
Something that does not fit into a train of thought also needs to be considered. Georgia O Keefe is entitled to change her opinion on some things. She is entitled to disagree. Collectiveness and, again, generalisation do not meet everyone’s requirements. If someone’s thoughts or actions are being taken out of context to support a train of thought it does not do the person or the writer any justice.
Out of the box thinking is something every field of research needs, but some forms of reasoning have been tainted with goals that are far off from initial objectives.
Feminism seeks equal rights for woman to men. But do they not try to enhance the importance of woman through the ages. Why do they not see the fact that it has only emerged in Western Society within the very movement they have created? As they criticise the way everyone has been looking with ‘the male gaze’, they now do the opposite and insist we look again with a female point of view. We can look at the facts again, sure. But need it be coloured and subjective?
Do we not need to stress the objectiveness of a researcher, being a man or a woman, looking at history? Should we not do the opposite and look like a woman at how men would look and men should look with a male gaze? It would be more objective, but we will never be able to define what it is to have a male or female gaze. One of the pivotal arguments feminists use is that gender influences the interpretation of history. Not in our contemporary era in any case.
Just like new research alters other research papers on the same subject made ten, twenty or fifty years ago. We always rethink our findings if put in a new light. But because scientific Art History research has still not been defined in every area of the field it wishes to explore we will constantly been adjusting our gaze until we have reached a satisfactory method of perceiving.
We need a longer tradition of defining and redefining the scientific method for good research in Art History so any kind of gender influence is ruled out.
I see feminism as social activism, without attaching a pejorative feeling to the word ‘activism’. I see it as a temporary wave of a movement that has strived for the female emancipation in every bit of our Western society. And as Art History also has its place in a society, it has not been immune to feminism.
I am not negating all the good that has come from female emancipation, but is has been a temporary thing. Just like; say Italian Futurists had a manifesto.
They have changed certain things, but we have moved on, reaping the benefits or lessons from points or flaws exposed, and built upon the legacy that has been left.
I object to the houghtyness feminism assumes as doing the ‘women have gotten nothing from men, only when we have stood up for ourselves we’ve gotten what we deserved all these years’ attitude. Even so in Art History.
But we are past that now. A society shapes and twists during the course of its existence. Feminist art historians are only there because society has an interest in history about woman. It is a thing of here and now.
Why did Van Gogh hardly sell any paintings when he was alive but are millions being paid today?
Perhaps feminists have never stopped and wondered if women weren’t just content living out their lives as they were all those years ago. Art was for the privileged and has always been a thing for elites circles. Why do they use the supposition that crafts have been deemed inferior because they have been associated with women? How do we know this is so for certain? Why talk with a gut feeling when there is no evidence to support the claim?
They claim they are hidden because they were deemed inferior. Society did not work like that based on suppositions.
They are searching for ‘female art’ but strive for equality. How can there then be such a thing as female art?
Is there a move to revert to ‘gender’ instead of ‘feminism’? Is it a watered down version?
Activism has no place in art history or science.