Friday, February 15, 2008

The Feminine Mind

'fifth seed,' collage and etching on wood
Susan Constanse and Stephanie Lee Jackson

People are still wringing their hands over the radically unequal representation of women in the blue-chip end of the Art World. All the possible, political explanations for this fact have been discussed ad nauseam; frankly, I'm not interested in them anymore.

On my last visit to MoMA, I caught the Martin Puryear retrospective, which most of my friends found to be staggeringly wonderful. I thought it was fine. It was playful, whimsical, relatively broad in scope, and the pieces were well-executed.

What struck me was the essential singularity of each piece. The sculptor would think, "I think I'll make a circular piece that hangs on the wall," and boom! he'd do it. There was no second-guessing about any of these sculptures; what you saw was what you got. "I think I'll make a horn shape that points this way." "This time the circle goes on the floor."

This show, in fact, was as relaxing as having a male roommate. There was no Subtext, nothing Implied, no shades of emotional complexity to unravel, just a nice, straightforward guy in the living room, drinking beer and messing with his tools.

I went through the show fairly quickly.

Suspended sculpture, Lee Bontecou

As I perused the rest of the museum, I found myself looking for works by women; I suppose I was in a Mood. What I found, when I found them, were works that tended to have a greater number of layers of complexity. Julie Mehretu's work, for example; and an enigmatic and unwieldy installation by Louise Bourgeois. Some of them I liked, some of them not so much. They took a lot of time to apprehend, and some of them were downright creepy.

Rather like some of my female roommates, in fact.

I have, in the past, made the case that women's brains actually work differently than men's. Not better or worse, just differently--in a more holistic, non-linear, relational way. This theory is borne out by recent brain scan studies on how men and women handle stress:
Increased corpus callosum in women—the connective tissue between the left and right side of the brain—was the first big discovery about how men and women's brains work differently. It was extremely controversial at first. The corpus callosum allows both sides of the brain to be in conversation. Her brain is, to much greater extent than his, multitasking due to all of this communication that goes on in different parts of the brain. There's a tendency for men to sort of stay focused, using one part of the brain. In a woman's brain, when the thinking part of the brain is in use, the feeling part is involved. In the middle of a crisis, men will go sit down and watch TV. And women are going, "How can you do that?" When a woman is using the right side of the brain doing recreational activity, the left side of the brain is still pumping her messages that there are important problems that have to be addressed.
Perhaps part of the reason that art by women still goes underrecognized, particularly in the Big Leagues, is that we still define Great Art from a masculine perspective--as a Monolith, as a Big Statement. Women tend not to make grandiose statements, so much as an intricate web of conjecture, which points to many levels of being, of consciousness, and relation. So much so that I don't think we can get to the top of the tree by faking a masculine attitude; we're simply not pushing with our whole minds when we do that.


Anonymous said...

I agree with your take on Puryear. The craftsmanship is unparalleled, but conceptually it's thin.

Not kissing up -- but for a while now most of my favorite artists have been female. Maybe it's due to the dimensionality issue you raise.

sus said...

So, what is your take on what happens next for women artists? Separation doesn't work, we've been down that road.

Pretty Lady said...

Sus, I've only just gotten as far as pointing out what I notice about this, and seeing if it resonates with other people. I think ultimately the issue is about expanding our paradigms, so that all the different ways art can be great are recognized. In some ways the women's movement has done us a disservice, in that it can ghettoize women's work, and encourages us to see ourselves as victims, instead of people with complimentary strengths to those of men.

I think that if I continue to point out where the strengths of women's art may truly lie, that we can learn to critique our own work on those terms, to explain it on those terms, and to make it stronger on those terms. I think a lot of women's work can suffer from a lack of clarity and intention--it gets so 'intuitive,' it's all one big mushy mode of 'being,' rather than communicating something specifc.

Perhaps it's about finding a center of balance that is grounded in our core strengths, but disciplined and developed in worldly terms, rather than personal, circumscribed terms. I think the artists I mention in this post have achieved that, and I'd like it to be a more generally articulated goal for women artists.

Sus said...

So, are you suggesting that communication is the key? That's a tough line to walk, between the intuitive and the articulation of the impulse that renders the intuitive. Or so it seems to me.

As an artist, I struggle with articulating my vision in a cohesive fashion. I think, though, that it is as much because my creative process does not lend itself to pointed articulation.

You make some very good points, PL. It is limiting to use a qualifier in front of "artist".

Anonymous said...

PL said:
"So much so that I don't think we can get to the top of the tree by faking a masculine attitude; we're simply not pushing with our whole minds when we do that."

You're right that we need new paradigms; "the top of the tree" is an old-paradigm metaphor. The roots and branches are just as important as the top of a tree. The roots aren't even visible to us, but without roots, there would be no top. So we need to have a more holistic (wholistic?) perspective on things. The "top", "reaching for the skies", the "brightest star", "pure white light", etc. are all old-paradigm. The round earth, including dirt and mud and worms, the darkness underground, the full spectrum of colors, the field lying fallow in between harvests - all these things should be part of the new paradigm of success.


Pretty Lady said...

Good on ya, Oriane. My masculinist bias IS showing.

When I wrote that, I was thinking more of women artists who feel that they have to figure out a 'schtick' and leave the vast majority of their creative lives out of their actual artwork as a result. I've seen a lot of women artists do this, and I think it causes a huge amount of frustration.

Conversely, I see other women artists who embrace their feminine processes to such an extent that there's a complete lack of rigor, discipline or discrimination in the work; they're in a perpetual 'all is good, all is Flow' mode. I'm agitating for a mode of critique that acknowledges how our minds work, but still doesn't let us get away with sloppiness.

Anonymous said...

Agitate on, Comrade PL!



BoysMom said...

I think--and I come at this from a musician's perspective--that if art doesn't communicate it's not art.
What it communicates is up for grabs, of course, but there are a great many visual art peices that leave me going 'Huh?', and while that can be a sort of communication, it's not the sort that gets me to want to bring the peice home. Which is, after all, at least half of what it's about. Everybody's got to eat.
Visual art often reminds me of modern music. I think it's done for those who are educated to understand it. Most people will never find George Crumb appealing because they haven't learned how to listen to him. But get a room full of music students together and you might just get the impression he's the greatest thing since Bach. Or not (depending on the group). The culture we grow up in prepares us to listen to Bach. The same types of tonal patterns are in our nursery songs and pop music.
I expect to some extent visual artists have it much harder: after all, people are trained not just by generations of what has come before as to what they ought to like, but also by photographs. This is why so many people dislike everything from the impressionists on, I think. We're used to calender pictures and newspaper photographs and so we've learned that visual art should be clear. Obvious. Not requiring involvement or work on the part of the viewier.
I think this relates to what Pretty Lady is talking about--the difference between art produced by men and women--in that the more clear it is what the artist is trying to communicate the more people will like, or at least be engaged, by the work. Women tend to be remarkably good at communicating to other women and not so good at communicating to men, and men are the other way around, on average. Do art critics and art purchasers tend to be male or female? Artists (in the general-all-creative-inclusive-sense) tend to be better than average at communicating, or trying to, than other people. So it's not that we aren't capable of communicating. Maybe it's a focus issue. Maybe we try to say too much at once, like catching up with a friend we haven't seen for a year: at the end of the day we know all the major and most of the minor happenings of her life. Maybe guys are better at being clear because the guy equivelent of an afternoon out catching up after a year is something like "Caddis or May fly, ya think?" "That's a nice big 'un." "Want another beer?" (Then I complain when he gets home and can't tell me what his buddy named the new baby, or even if it was a boy or a girl.)
So are we creating for other artists or are we creating for non-artists? I'm pretty sure the tendency is to create for other artists--but unfortunately, they tend to not be the folks who can pay for what we create. (Modern music composers are particularly guilty of this--I'm sure that's why they all have tenure.)
I'm not trained as a visual artist--so if you all ever want me to give you my untrained impressions of something, just let me know. (I did get an A in Art 101, but that was mostly a matter of showing up and learning to tell the difference between a van Gogh and a Jackson Pollack.) I'm sure you've all seen the blue mandala Pretty Lady has in her shop. That says something to me, though I'm not sure what. Sometimes I think it's a flower. Sometimes I think it's a cross. It reminds me of a stained glass window in a church. But I'm sure it's NOT talking about people or commercialism or anything like that. It's about something bigger, something spiritual.
So whether or not I've gotten what she wanted from it, I got something. I'm happy with it.
If I look at that sculpture in the photo in the blogpost, it's confusing. I think maybe there's a butterfly in there--or maybe it's a refugee from science fiction cover art. But I have no desire to take it home and further contemplate it, or tell a friend that she just has to see it.
Maybe that gives someone an idea or two. I hope.

BoysMom said...

By the way, my husband thinks the blue mandala looks like crystals, and my boys insist it's a blue sunflower.

k said...

Fifth Seed is just gorgeous. My favorite so far in the whole collection. Aha! Oh - talk about communicating! It's like you guys are talking to each other on that one, side by side.

The sculpture is incredibly complex to me. I keep looking at it. I have the feeling I'd really need to see that one in person.

American Genius said...

I am definitely prone to being biased in all walks and forms in life toward the perfection of the beauty of a woman.