Reflections on a Feminist Aesthetic

by Susan Elizabeth Crowell

This article first appeared in Studio Potter, Volume 20, Number 1 (December 1991).
Copyright © 1991 by Studio Potter. All rights reserved.
May be reproduced with permission of Studio Potter.

We frequently discuss aesthetics as if they arose, pure and disconnected, from moral principle. As practicing artists, however, we know that is not the case. The process by which we select our aesthetics is a conscious one, subject not only to our personal prerogatives, but also to the constraints of the material and our understanding of the world in which our work is received, perceived, and used.

Aesthetics comprise the language with which we converse with our audience. Working in the studio, we immerse ourselves in a series of aesthetic choices, deciding which to use from a constantly developing set of experiences and responses, only some of which are visual. Others are spiritual, moral, or philosophical. They all influence the eventual outcome of our work.

Any discussion of a feminist aesthetic, it seems, should take this process of aesthetic choice into account and include the artist as a proactive selector of what to say and how to say it. (If this seems to be stating the obvious, let me remind the reader that viewing women - and women viewing themselves - as proactive beings is a fairly recent cultural development.) The training of artists, especially of women artists, has not emphasized this proactivity, but has instead reinforced a subjective role, that of artist-as-receiver. Feminist aesthetics examines this subjectivity, reverses it, and converts response to action instead of reception.

Aesthetics unite us in what we, together, love and admire. Clusters of people, including artists and critics and consumers and collectors, form what philosopher Ted Cohen calls "community of appreciators" who bond by virtue of their common responses to works of art. But like other groups created around common interests, an aesthetic community sooner or later begins to assume an exclusionary as well as inclusionary function, and maintains its definition more by exclusion - what and who it isn't - than by what it is and of whom it consists. Traditionally, our culture has embraced an aesthetic system that includes women, but includes them in limited ways and restricts the extent to which their perspective and experience play a part in establishing aesthetic canons.

Discussions of aesthetics are, at best, problematic, full of contradictions and refutations. Especially in the twentieth century, when the training of artists, at least in the West, has made central the critical examination, inversion, and deconstruction of received canons, it is no longer easy or even possible to say what the canon is; yet aesthetics cannot exist apart from canons. Such a discussion is further complicated by the problematic nature and function of aesthetics. In The Ideology of the Aesthetic, Terry Eagleton writes:

The aesthetic, then, is, from the beginning a contradictory, double-edged concept. On the one hand, it figures as a genuinely emancipatory force - as a community of subjects now linked by sensuous impulse and fellow-feeling rather than by heteronomous law, each safeguarded in its unique particularity while bound at the same time into social harmony. The aesthetic offers the middle class a superbly versatile model of their political aspirations, exemplifying new forms of autonomy and self-determination, transforming the relations between law and desire, morality and knowledge, recasting the links between individual and totality, and revising social relations on the basis of custom, affection and sympathy. On the other hand, the aesthetic signifies what Max Horkheimer has called a kind of 'internalised repression,' inserting social power more deeply into the very bodies of those it subjugates, and so operating as a supremely effective mode of political hegemony. To lend fresh significance to bodily pleasures and drives, however, if only for the purpose of colonizing them more efficiently, is always to risk foregrounding and intensifying them beyond one's control. The aesthetic as custom, sentiment, spontaneous impulse may consort well enough with political domination; but these phenomena border embarrassingly on passion, imagination, sensuality, which are not always so easily incorporable.... 'Deep' subjectivity is just what the ruling social order desires, and exactly what it has most cause to fear. If the aesthetic is a dangerous, ambiguous affair, it is because ... there is something in the body which can revolt against the power which inscribes it; and that impulse could only be eradicated by extirpating along with it the capacity to authenticate power itself.[1]

There could not have developed a feminist aesthetic without the awareness, analysis, and critique of a visibly masculinist aesthetic. During the rise of feminism in the late 1960s, women graduate students began to question the cultural assumptions inherent in the aesthetics taught in art schools. It was not at all unusual for art instructors to criticize or praise works by women students for their "feminine" qualities.[2] Women began to mobilize in consciousness-raising groups, and the gendered nature of what we had come to accept as "aesthetically correct" became a hot topic for discussions, analysis, and deconstruction. The assumption of large-scale works as somehow superior, the selection of vertical (erect) over horizontal orientation, the preference for rigid materials over softer, ephemeral and "craftlike" materials - indeed the preeminence of art over craft - became synonomous with an emerging understanding of the art of masculine privilege.

Feminists rejected Formalism (the concept arising out of the Abstract Expressionist movement which equated the physical presence of a work of art with its content and function) for its masculinist, mystified, obscure, nonconsensual, and instrumental values. In its deconstruction they began to challenge and discard its values and aesthetics, which, in the presumption of art's autonomy and isolation from the content of people's lives, did not serve the interests of feminist culture. Feminists also rejected the stereotype of the solitary, bearded, and maladaptive artist, which they could not mirror. In an effort to go beyond confrontation, deconstruction, and critique, the search for grounds upon which to build a feminist discourse - one which gave more appropriate form and content - began:

...I can tell you that we were very busy: unearthing scholarship on obscure women artists, probing hidden self-information through consciousness-raising, developing artistic form language to express personal experience, critically examining women's artwork for its underlying impulses and premises, and trying to reconcile the rapidly growing body of feminist political theory with our artmaking.[3]

The reclaiming of previously rejected aspects of the female self and her art - the crafts traditionally wrought by women and their relationship to utility, the soft and gentle forms arising from a feminine body of experience, the intuitive approach to artmaking, the physical and erotic realities of womanhood as experienced from inside - became an aesthetic strategy against the objectification of women. There was so much to discard in the way of enculturation. Most burdensome of all, perhaps, was the way women had historically been depicted, most typically as passive beings who did nothing at all but wait for the artist to notice and paint them.[4]

The paradox of feminist aesthetics is that the deconstruction and destruction of masculinist canons compromises, in its critical stance, the agenda of full female economic and political participation in the art world. In the critique of the art world as a masculine institution, feminist critics became increasingly hesitant to join it. In Overlay, Lucy Lippard writes:

Due to the resulting skewed notions of nature and culture, women artists' attempt to restore a forceful female image is a complex enterprise. Replacing the headless and expressionless nudes, the flowery muses and femme fatales and bovine comforters of 'high art' history with a new active persona, or trying to imbue the old images with more positive content is not an easy task, and is only in its early stages.[5]

What makes that task difficult is that the successful accomplishment of feminism's early mission - to analyze and expose the depth and extent of masculine privilege - has undercut our trust in the world and its workings. Bashing the canons, as part of a larger avant-garde agenda, meant abandoning faith in any canons at all, and the establishment of aesthetics, even feminist aesthetics, became increasingly slippery and easy to deconstruct. Along with feminism, there developed other movements that were, in many ways, sympathetic to its aesthetic and ideological concerns. Together they participated in a larger artistic movement against the aesthetization of the art world. It seemed that in order to produce a truly democratic art, we would need to examine, through works of art, criticism, and performance, the previous status of art as a permanently valued, culturally hierarchical iconography. Suzi Gablik wrote:

I believe that in order to give our culture back its sense of aliveness, possibility, and magic, we now need to deconstruct the aesthetic mode itself. The rational framework of aesthetics - which has favored an ontology of objectification, permanence, and egocentricity - has hardened into a presumption that is conserving and reinforcing a reluctance to make art which is inherently communicative and compassionately responsive. We are still drawn ideologically to authoritarian positions and shifting demands that art is difficult, willfully inaccessible, and disturbing to the audience.[6]

It would be most accurate to classify Gablik as a post-feminist. Her writing demonstrates ways in which feminist values have been incorporated into progressive artistic thought. Central to her (and others') discussion of aesthetics is an examination of the role that values assume in their formation. It is in the analysis of what we value and why we value it that cultural truths are revealed, and those values are accessible through an analysis of art's role and functions. A feminist aesthetic, for example, would serve to introduce and support the artistic validity of female experience. It might include a readable set of visual symbols and signs that embrace that artistic validity. Its function would be to transform its culture, moving from masculinist domination to aesthetic and political democracy in which women participated actively, not subjectively.

The most serious problem with this, though, is that deconstructing artistic hierarchies leaves no economic or aesthetic structure in which feminists, women, or anyone might participate. While the deaesthetization of art may expand the size of its audience - that "community of appreciators" - it implies no strategy for developing patronage and endorsement, at the economic level, of a feminist aesthetic.

The mechanisms by which a contemporary Western audience supports its artists (which I like to call patronage, to differentiate it from the ideological support an audience may provide) are limited to the State (for example, the National Endowment for the Arts), academia, and the marketplace. While the State and the university are anxious not to appear sexist, they have vested interests in seeing their values and structure reinforced and reproduced; they are also interested in preserving "standards" (which canons serve to uphold) and are therefore likely to promote those women artists who meet those standards without challenging the established canons. The patronage of the State and the university, even when they take a progressive stance in favor of "diversity," can sustain and reward a very limited number of practitioners.

Another of the many problems is that aesthetics embody more than values - psychology, libido, and, most disruptively of all, the requirements of the marketplace, which we call taste or fashion. After five hundred years, the function of art-as-commodity has reached its cultural limits. The marketplace in our materialistic society consistently obscures important differences between attractiveness and seduction, between beauty and eroticism, between utility and decoration, between affection and sex, between aesthetic appeal and artistic prostitution.[7] In general, the commodification of art does not operate in the interests of feminism, and feminist aesthetics returns the favor.

Compared to the size of its audience, a feminist aesthetic earns very little patronage. So what is it good for? What can you do with it? To whom does it speak, and what does it serve? After more than twenty years, there is still the question of who has the power - who, in contemporary terms, is able to determine and assign cultural validity - and therefore to determine ultimately what is said and heard in the artistic arena. Censors, critics, gallery owners, collectors and dealers, teachers, publishers, patrons, and administrators have all participated in the current consensus of canon-bashing, and this makes it difficult to construct a positive feminist aesthetic beyond mere critique. A profusion of commercialism now undermines the capacity even of the market to establish worth. We see the old order of valuation ("high" art, "important works," "serious" artists), having built itself upon a masculinist and individualist cultural consensus, in a state of deterioration.

The art market replicates the condition of aesthetics, and if there is any future in feminist aesthetics, they must develop strategies to circumvent, transcend, or transform the marketplace. Aesthetics are neither universal nor morally tone deaf. What we value, whether as practitioners, audience, or patrons, is culturally assigned and determined. We, by virtue of our training (away from thinking or doing the expected and avoiding the culturally predictable), erroneously presume that we make aesthetic decisions independent of our culture, but the mechanisms that activate us as artists are culturally derived, whether for its approval or against its injustices and vulgarity. Cultural forces are behind every creative act, and they play an important part in audience response and reception of works of art.

At its most vital, art occupies the cultural borders where change takes place, and it is one vehicle by which cultural values and practice are transformed. We have abandoned the notion that there is only one aesthetic, that of "good art." The task of feminist aesthetics has been - and remains - to replace that old notion of "good art" with one that is useful, workable, and desirable and, through a conscious series of aesthetic choices, to transform the culture out of which it arises.

Footnotes

  1. Eagleton, Terry. The Ideology of the Aesthetic. Cambridge,1991, p.28.1.
  2. Well-trained as we were, we began to see the contradictions in using the same word to praise or criticize. We wondered why we were allowing men to tell us what was feminine, and we began to question the validity of the word "feminine" as descriptively meaningful or aesthetically useful.
  3. Suzanne Lacy, "The Name of the Game," Art Journal, College Art Association, 1991, Vol.50, No.2.3.
  4. It's an interesting and revealing exercise - go through any art book or magazine and count the number of figurative works in which women are depicted doing anything at all.
  5. Lippard, Lucy. Overlay. New York: Pantheon Books, 1983.
  6. Suzi Gablik, "Deconstructing Aesthetics: Toward a Responsible Art," The New Art Examiner, January 1989, p.32.
  7. For over twenty years, the town adjacent to the one in which I live has had a pair of X-rated movie houses called Art I and II Cinemas. Pornography, exotic dancing, and the like have, since the 1920s, called themselves art, retreating behind the notion that since no one knows what art is, no one will know what it isn't.

Recommended Reading

(List compiled by Coille Hooven for the 1991 conference of the National Council on Education in the Ceramic Arts.)

Broude, Norma and Garrard, Mary D. Feminism and Art History: Questioning the Litany. New York: Harper and Row, 1982.

Greer, Germaine. The Obstacle Race: The Fortunes of Women Painters and Their Work. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1979.

Lerner, Harriet G. Dance of Anger: A Woman's Guide to Changing the Pattern of Intimate Relationships. New York: Harper and Row, 1985.

Milwid, Beth. Working With Men: Professional Women's Stories of Power, Sexuality and Ethics. Hillsboro, OR: Beyond Words Publishing, 1990.

Nochlin, Linda. Women, Art, and Power and Other Essays. New York: Harper and Row, 1988.

Parker, Rozsica and Pollock, Griselda. Old Mistresses: Women, Art and Ideology. New York: Pantheon, 1982.

Pollock, Griselda. Vision and Difference: Feminity, Feminism and the Histories of Art. New York: Routledge, Chapman and Hall, 1988.

Rubenstein, Charlotte S. American Women Artists: From Early Indian Times to the Present. New York: Avon, 1982.