Tuesday, September 15, 2015

The problem posed by feminist art history for defining art, especially for Danto

"In this hierarchy [a hierarchy of art forms based on art history's organizing of art into categories] the arts of painting and sculpture enjoy an elevated status while other arts that adorn people, homes or utensils are relegated to a lesser cultural sphere under such terms as 'applied,' 'decorative' or 'lesser' arts."  Rozsika Parker and Griselda Polock  "Crafty Women and the Hierarchy of the Arts

Danto in his famous paper "The Artword" says that what he calls "the is of artistic identification" is needed to constitute something as a work of art.  So, the presence of the "is" appears to be at least a necessary condition for art.  The "is of artistic identification" is poorly explained by Danto, although one can eek out basically what he meant by it.  He says that it is featured prominently in statements about artworks, that it is not the is of identity nor that of predication or existence, and that children use it when they say of a drawn circle "that is me."  Obviously, however, this is not enough to make such a circle art.  So the is of artistic identification, although necessary, is not sufficient for something to be art.  Danto does make clear that the is of artistic identification, when it indicates that something is art (unlike the drawn circle case), contains within it some reference to things beyond the physical object apprehended, such things including the presence of the Brillo boxes in an art gallery, the way in which the paint is inseparable from the bed in Rauschenberg's Bed, and the way in which the title, and all of its implications, are inseparable from each of the imagined pair of otherwise identical paintings called Newton's First Law and Newton's Third Law.  I want to keep in mind that the is of artistic identification, in a sense, contains within it the way in which the physical object, what Danto calls the mere real object, is situated within an artworld context, i.e. the gallery, the history of art up to that point, the title, and the intentions of the artist.

Now, when reading this in conjunction of "Crafty Women and the Hierarchy of the Arts" by Rozsika Parker and Griselda Pollock, the question is whether, among all of these other matters, a certain patriarchal stance is also included within the is of artistic identification.  In short, does this feminist critique of art history (rather dated, I admit) pose a problem for the definition of art and also for Danto's definition of art in particular?

One way that the project of defining art can play out is in terms of making distinctions between art and craft.  Another version of this, slightly off center from the first, involves the distinction between fine and decorative art.  The problem that "Crafty Women" poses is not so much that of destroying these distinctions entirely as that it raises some interesting questions about them.  The first thought that comes to mind is that if, as Danto suggests, something is art if it can be seen as art by someone with appropriate art historical knowledge, i.e. someone versed in the ways of the artworld, then how do we deal with embroidery, quilts and Navajo blankets?  It is not at all clear that the women who were so prominent in these various art forms as makers were necessarily able to see these things as art with appropriate art historical knowledge.  And, perhaps more interestingly, when some of these things were moved into the art museums in the 1970s the manner by which they were moved, and the explanation of this, was open to question by such feminist art historians as Parker and Pollock (PP).  So, as PP observe, Ralph Pomeroy (1974) introduced his appreciative understanding of Navajo blankets by saying that he intends to forget certain things about these blankets:  to consider them as "Art with a capital 'A'" he is going to look at them "as paintings - created...by several nameless masters of abstract art." PP write "several manoeuvres are necessary in order to see these works as art."  (50)  For Pomeroy to see them as art requires, as PP puts it, these maneuvers:  "the geometric becomes abstract, woven blankets become paintings and women weavers become nameless masters." That is, although from Danto's perspective, these things become art because they can be seen as art under an appropriate theory, there is a problem of misrepresentation based on certain sexist and probably also racist assumptions.  To be fair to Danto, in later writings, and perhaps even in the artworld essay, he stressed the intentions of the artist, and so the feminist approach to this (of PP) which stresses giving honor to the actual originator might agree with Danto in that the originator is not honored if the work is only seen as art if she and the originating context are abstracted out of the picture.  (An additional feature here is that the original material out of which it is also seen as something else, i.e. dye on unpainted fabric as a kind of painting).  Focusing on the term "nameless masters" which seems to imply that the makers were men since "master" is a male term, even though it is obvious to all that women have produced these works.  So, in order to see them as art Pomeroy had to see them as produced not by women but by men. There does seem something unfair going on when a blanket only is seen as art if these changes are made. Is patriarchy then contained within the is of artistic identification?  Probably today this work can be seen as art without making all of these transformations, and perhaps patriarchy is not now included in the is of artistic identification. However, distinctions between art and craft and between fine and decorative art still hold sway.  

Perhaps the larger issues, particularly relevant to everyday aesthetics, is the one raised by PP when they say that "the feminine spirit in art is ...linked with the domestic sphere."  If an art form is linked to the domestic sphere and particularly to the activities of women within that sphere then it is more likely to be seen (in a sexist society) as non-art, mere craft, or decorative as opposed to fine art.  Moreover, it may well be that women are seen as closer to Nature than to Culture, and that even though, unlike animals, they do participate in the human making of "means of subsistence" transforming "materials into tools, houses, clothes and utensils" they have secondary status because, as Sherry Ortner argued, their activities occupy a position between Nature and Culture, their activities of cooking and sewing being cultural but taking place in the home.  Cooking in the home, as Ortner argues, is seen as closer to nature than haute cuisine which is seen as "real" cooking, and this is done usually by men. Thus, women "perform lower level conversions from nature to culture."  (This may pose a problem for my own arguing forthcoming at the ASA that food can be art based on the work of great chefs.  The feminist claim could be that the very notion of "great chef" degrades home cooking and forces women into the realm of culture, and that my not intending that effect is irrelevant.)

Now the conversion of nature to culture can be seen as something like the conversion Danto posits of a mere thing to an artwork under the application of the "is" of artistic representation.  The place or location of the activity is central here too.  The actual Brillo box does not just appear in a warehouse, but also in the grocery store and in the home, as involved in domestic chores.  The Brillo box as artwork appears however in an art gallery. Warhol in creating "Brillo Box" has taken something from everyday life associated with the traditional domain of women and has brought it into the City of Art through his act of construction (which, interestingly, Danto seriously under-emphasizes:  as far as he is concerned, Warhol could have just made these objects out of cardboard or could have even just appropriated one from the warehouse, since the physical manifestation is not important here...is the very act of making art too close to the natural and is the Dantoian rejection of the act of making as insignificant a manifestation of the patriarchal place of the "is" of artistic identification?).   

Much has been written about the danger of everyday aesthetics setting up the trivial as equal to the masterwork.  Perhaps as PP argue, the endless assertion of the superiority of the distal senses and of the fine arts insofar as they are subject to reflection and judgment is also a function of an anthropological reality, i.e. the endless assertion of feminine stereotype in art history which, they argue, is needed to provide an opposite against which male art can find meaning and sustain dominance.

I don't think that all of this comes down to saying that Danto was somehow unconsciously sexist, or at least not just that.  That would be boring even if true.  What is interesting here is the idea that Carolyn Korsmeyer, a well known philosopher of art (and a feminist), has placed these two articles together in a textbook such that anyone who reads carefully would naturally ask whether the claims made by PP can not only undercut traditional masculinist history of art but also pose problems for Danto's theory of art.  It is not that Danto is guilty of the same thing Pomoroy was when talking about Novaho blankets.  Pomoroy was clearly a formalist much in the tradition of Clive Bell in his transformation of the women's work into abstractions by nameless masters.  Danto would not abide by that, nor would his theory.  The formalist theory of Bell and Greenberg might well be the model for what Danto called Reality Theory of art which, for Danto, is replaced by his own theory of art.  In arguing against what he called purists he was obviously also arguing against formalists.  For Danto the content and context is essential to the artwork's being an artwork.  So when something enters into the realm of art it carries with it the intentions of the artist, including for example the intentions of the women who wove the blankets that are now treated as art.  That said, there may be a residual acceptance of the ideology.   There is certainly a similarity with Pomoroy in that seeing something as art by someone with art historical knowledge brings it into the world of art.  One could say that Danto to make himself clear must add a condition or two, i.e. that the seeing x as art must be constrained not only by art history but also by history of the context and intended content of the item under consideration.  This is undercut a bit however by the way that the history and content of the original designing of the Brillo boxes was undercut by replacement of those ideas by Warhol's own.

PP are mainly criticizing the acceptance of a duality and therefore of an opposition, in this case between the feminine and the masculine, between the domestic and the public, and in the way that we treat the transformation from Nature into Culture (the Nature/Culture opposition is not itself overcome).  And so they say:  "The important questions concern women artists' relationship to an ideology of sexual difference in which the notions of masculine and feminine are meaningful only in relation to each other. What accounts for the endless assertion of a feminine stereotype, a feminine sensibility, a feminine art in criticism and art history?  Precisely the necessity to provide an opposite against which male art and the male artist fine meaning and sustain their dominance."  What I am suggesting is that the opposition between Nature and Culture as understood in terms of an opposition between mere things of the home (e.g. Brillo boxes, etc.) and things in the artworld where the artworld things gain more status reproduces the feminine/masculine opposition that is the grounding of patriarchal dominance.  "Ideology is not a conscious process, its effects are manifest but it works unconsciously, reproducing the values and systems of belief of the dominant group it serves."  

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