Friday, June 17, 2011

[a] Feminist Theory for Art Education

a work by Alma Thomas

Ever since my Maymester Feminist Theories course, I have had a renewed outlook on life and social structures. One of these renewed outlooks applies to the field of Art Education. I want to talk a bit about feminist theory of art criticism, it's implications, and how you can address it in your classrooms.

I am most inspired by black feminism and the call for feminists to see equality as a human rights issue rather than a case for women to become more like men, dismissing the reality that there are other minority groups that don't have a voice.

I am not advocating that one day you decide to announce to the class, "we're going to do feminist theory today". The suggestions that I make are for continuous adoption and should be considered fully when developing a lesson plan. Many of my suggestions I consider guerilla tactic for feminist theory in the art classroom, meaning that nobody has to know the underlaying motivation for such actions.

Plainly stated, I want to challenge accepted social values related to art education. It is my belief that if we decide to actually put some thought and care into our lessons, that we can change the male-dominated canon through educating our students on diverse forms of art. Some of you unknowingly do this on a day-to-day basis and I commend your efforts. Perhaps this will enlighten those who never made a connection, or plant a seed of thought in your mind. Either way, I hope that you find it inspiring.

Please note that I have cited references in this post, which I've never done before on the blog, so it'll be a bit fancier than usual. I want to provide multiple perspectives and sources so you can learn more about the subject at your leisure.

The feminist theory of art criticism seeks to deconstruct social values and "reflect on women's ways of knowing" (Anderson and Milbrandt, 2004, p. 106). Feminism respects women's experience and realizes that every woman faces life with a different paradigm.

Work by Miriam Schapiro, who creates artwork using shapes that are "feminine".
She does this to make the people who critique her art deconstruct aspects of "femininity"
and question the construct's existence (Anderson and Milbrandt, 2002).

In this respect, it is easy to make a connection between feminism and constructivism. Constructivism is the belief that we pull from our experiences to create our reality, and we build upon these experiences to learn. Art, similarly, is experienced differently by each viewer, who brings their life experiences to the artwork in order to create understanding. Art teachers are primarily constructivists because they understand that their students bring different levels of understanding, skill, and experience to the classroom.

the art of Rachel Lachowicz

The case I make for feminist theory in the art classroom focuses primarily on that of equality in diversity. I challenge each of you to think of and list the "great masters" of art. How many of them are women? Furthermore, what criteria makes you believe that their work is "great"? It is easy to see how social construction plays into our aesthetics (aesthetics in this case is our perceptions of good and bad). If we are taught that the Mona Lisa is a "great" work of art, then we believe that it is a great work of art. Again, if we accept that a great work of art is one that has great monetary value, we are buying into this socialization because our society values expensive items. What happens if we never challenge these assumptions?

the "brilliance" of the Mona Lisa is a social construction. do you actually like it?

The "great masters" constitute the canon of artists. The canon is a "group of [...] works that are generally accepted as representing a field" (The Free Dictionary Online). If the canon is accepted without question, cultural assimilation of a standard for art is created. Have any of you actually looked at the "great" works of art? If it weren't considered a masterpiece and it wasn't worth a large sum, would you still consider it "great" or would you pass it over without second thought?

Women should paint flowers because they're dainty, right? wrong.
O'Keeffe painted them because they were cheaper than a model and they sat still.

Think of all of the artists who are women* that you can off of the top of your head. Most begin with artists like Frida Kahlo and Georgia O'Keeffe. Then they get stuck. Regardless of how many you can think of, think about the subjects that they paint. Why are women artists, even "famous" ones, reduced to artwork that is emotional in nature, autobiographical, or nature-themed? Think about that. Ecofeminist Val Plumwood (1994) writes about the dualism between nature and culture, and how women are associated with nature and men are associated with culture. While I disagree on the essentialist (believing that women are born a certain way that is different from men) view described in categorizing the two, it is obvious in the world of art that for a woman to be noteworthy, she is often famous for her focus on "nature".

"woman" and "nature" have been closely associated for centuries. have you ever heard of "father nature"?
maybe the famous women artists are famous because they perpetuate this stereotype

I can understand why feminist theory might make some art teachers apprehensive. It is easy to lose a job when you already feel like you are walking on eggshells as an art teacher, a position which is considered expendable to many principals.

It's not difficult to adopt small perspectives that can make a large difference. One obvious suggestion would be to stop teaching solely about artists like Van Gogh, Matisse, Picasso, DaVinci, and Michaelangelo. In focusing on the socially established "greats", we are perpetuating the male-dominated system of oppression in the world of art, the canon.

why is it that famous artists' work often perpetuates stereotypes about women or focus on male domination?

Why not focus on things that you can actually enjoy teaching about in your classroom? There are many artists who can increase student understanding of the diversity of art, which is important because art is often stereotyped as being people who can draw, paint, and sculpt. By teaching non-canonical artists to your students, they might be able to relate more to the work presented. The advantage of the canon is that it creates a sense of elitism that many feel isolated from. Incorporate looked over factions of art, including (but definitely not limited to) these suggestions:

- Folk Artists/Outsider Artists, like Vollis Simpson, Myrtice West, or Howard Finster.
- Artists who happen to be women*, like Francesca Woodman, Catalina Estrada, or Marilyn Minter.
- Artists who happen to be minorities or from another culture, like Subodh Gupta, Liu Xiaofang, or Carmen Lomas Garza.
- Rebellious and Low Brow Artists, like the Stuckist Group, or the Pop Surrealists.
- Street Artists, like Banksy, Slinkachu, or Miss Van.

Work by Miss Van. Since when were only men allowed to create graffiti?

Language is important in feminist theory. In the classroom, we should avoid using the words "masterpiece" and "women artists", as well as labeling our lessons "multicultural". Here's why:

"Masterpiece" creates the illusion that a great work of art can only be made by a man. Have you ever heard the word "mistresspiece" used before? No? So don't use "masterpiece". Allow your students to make decisions on which artwork they like for themselves. By using the term "masterpiece", you are teaching your students that one artwork has aesthetic value over others.

Ah... the "perfect man", complete with arms, legs, and a penis.
Did you know that this statue was originally made to be on top of a building?
David's head was made sizes larger than actual proportion so that viewers below the building could still see his face.
Even in his moment of fear, his body language seems to imply that he thinks a lot of himself.
Maybe Michaelangelo was onto something by giving him an inflated head...
The "venus", looking uncomfortable, maybe angry, but not smug like David.
She is imperfect with cut off arms and a cloth covering her genitalia.
Comparing the two, what do these statues lend to feminist commentary?

Since the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, we are no longer allowed to call our students "disabled individuals". It is politically correct for us to call them "individuals with disabilities" so that the primary focus is on the fact that they're an individual. The "disabilities" is tagged on to the end of that term so that it doesn't become the primary definition or focus of the person described. If this is the case, why do we use the term "women artists"? Does the fact that they are female become the primary focus of the person described? Why don't we call them "artists who happen to be women" or just "artists"? Using the term "women artists" helps the viewer understand the gender of the artist, but how does it contribute to the understanding of the artwork? It perpetuates a schism between the genders, especially in the realm of art where men have been primarily viewed as the artmakers and women have been subjugated into the realm of craftmakers. I'm not even going to get into the difference between art and craft because that could take up a whole other blog post. To sum up, using the term "women artists" becomes oppressive (meaning limiting) to the artists and disrespects their efforts as artists because the focus is turned to gender.

Dinner time! Judy Chicago's The Dinner Party.
Each plate is adorned with female genitalia from around the world.
Think about the shape of your dinner table...
Why do you think Chicago chose a triangle?

I've always wondered what would happen if I showed an artwork by Takashi Murakami in the classroom without giving contextual information to my students, and asking them "do you think this work was done by a man or a woman?"

Do you think this work was done by a man or a woman? Why do you think so?

Now, the fine line of "multiculturalism". The problem with creating a "multicultural" lesson plan often involves fragmenting a curriculum and creating a separatism between "fine art" and art from other places in the world. I strongly urge readers to do an observation in a Montessori school, where cultures are taught consistently and fluidly. Montessori believed that it was important to teach about all cultures throughout the child's life so that students would connect to commonalities to others. If multiculturalism is not adopted in this way, people would view themselves as independent and with different interests, leading to destruction of one another (Montessori, 1972). If such is the case, it is important for us to teach about multiculturalism fluidly. A suggestion of this would to do a [school] year-long tour of art around the world, focusing on different places in equal amounts of allotted time.

by Shepard Fairey

Not only is multiculturalism important in the art classroom, but it is essential to address if we are really fighting for equality. bell hooks (2000) argues that feminism is pointless if we don't view it as a fight for equality for all, including minority groups, homosexuals, and the like. Oppression happens on different levels, including socio-economic, racial, and gendered. We have a better chance of making a case for equality if we work together.

If this is the case, we should present artwork to students that brings up important social issues such as these. Many feminists believe that dialogue is the most important part of feminism. Through dialogue, we can learn more about each other and about our world. Talking about art and applying it to our personal lives and experiences can be endlessly rewarding.

As you can see, I firmly believe that art education is an avenue for bringing awareness of human rights. I have much more to say on the topic, but I have decided to end with suggestions for implication in the art classroom:

- Try using the Visual Thinking Strategies to allow your students to assess an artwork without teacher intervention. This can help avoid any bias that you may unknowingly bring to the discussion. While I believe that VTS is important for students to make their own connections, I disagree with VTS on the subject of contextual information. VTS says that you should give no information about the artwork before or after discussion. I believe that beginning with VTS allows students to analyze the artwork, but contextual information is important in allowing them to understand it more fully. Discussion after contextual information is revealed might be more meaningful if VTS is implemented at the beginning of the discussion.

- Identity and the formation of identity is important in the art classroom. Let your students learn more about their sense of aesthetics (which I believe is unique, like a fingerprint) by taking 5 minutes at the beginning of class to look through magazines, find an inspiring image, and paste it in their sketchbook. Let them write a small blurb about why they chose it. Let them share it with others, so they can learn more about each others' interests.

- Perhaps start off the school year by asking students to make a list of all artists that they can think of. This might be an interesting read for you later on. Do this again at the end of the school year. See how it has changed and use that information to help you plan next years' lessons.

Edouard Manet's Olympia

- When looking at artwork, let your students create a narrative for a certain work. For example, let them adopt the perspective of Olympia or her servant. See what happens.

*For clarification, I use the term "women artists" or "artists who are women" throughout this post to make a distinction between the two genders for the sake of argument.

Anderson, T. & Milbrandt, M. (2004). Art for life: Authentic instruction in art. McGraw-Hill Humanities/Social Sciences/Languages
hooks, b. (2000). Feminist theory: From margin to center (2nd ed.). South End Press.
Montessori, M. (1972). Education and Peace. Chicago: Henry Regnery Company.
Plumwood, V. (1994) Feminism and the mastery of nature. Routledge.

If you'd like to read more on Feminist Theory for art education, I strongly recommend the chapter out of Art for Life, as well as the work of Elizabeth Garber, Sally Hagaman, and Barbara Huber. To anyone mildly interested in feminism and art, visit the Guerrilla Girls' website.

1 comment:

  1. THINKING OF HIM : Original Source

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