Monday, November 16, 2009


That's quite the loaded title, huh? I guess I've always known I would have to unpack my thoughts about that subject (slash methodology) sometime, and, for several reasons you are about to understand, today is that day. The writer's fire is burning me up, and it's burning pink. :)

I am not a feminist. Not really. It feels so wrong to write that down, but it's important to start off there. This morning, when I glanced at the mobile I have hanging in my room-- a little contraption of coat hangers, string, photos, and postcards I collected on my European study abroad-- a strange pattern jumped out at me. Of the ten pictures I've got spinning around in little orbits, seven of them feature women. 70%. I had seven women gazing out at me this morning. I hung them there two years ago upon my return from my glorious art history study abroad in Europe. Obviously, though I might not have been cognizant of it, the idea of womanhood meant something to me.

Johannes Vermeer, Girl with Pearl Earring

Matthias Grunewald, The Concert of Angels and The Nativity

Sandro Botticelli, Venus and Mars

Nicolas de Stael, Portrait d'Anne (Can you see her in there??)

Postcard of Marie Antionette from Versailles

Photo of the sculptor Camille Claudel, who has one of the most tragic and epic stories in all of art history- I fell in love with her story way back in my freshman Humanities class.

Alfred Stevens, Mary Magdalene

I'm refraining from completing the second half of my post about Manet's The Railway this week in order to talk about feminism. Tiny juicy piece of gossip, though: the model Manet uses in The Railway (the model of the older girl) was a famous mid-19th-century socialite and prostitute named Victorine Meurant. She also happened to be the mistress of Alfred Stevens, who painted the hauntingly beautiful picture of Mary Magdalene above. Fun connections!!!

If you caught me offguard and asked me my opinion about feminists, I'd no doubt respond in the same tongue-in-cheek way that the Marxist art historian T. J. Clark did: to me, they're "shrill" characters. And sometimes I think their energy is mis-focused and borders on greed,

Then... if you prod me further, and make me think about it, I'll remember and admit that my field, art history, actually owes a huge debt to feminists. Their work, their determination, changed the way we look at art. They pointed out to the unconscious public that it set WAAAAAY too much store in artwork made by "geniuses," who all turned out to be men. White, rich men that all knew each other. (Tangent: in my opinion, genius is not even a real trait. You've got skill, both inborn and developed, and then there's usually luck involved... and showmanship and business acumen and pure passion and tenacity. THOSE things are responsible for the world's great art. Not some mystically-instilled germ of genius that infects only a sliver of the population. Such a notion is purely the construct of a romanticized history.)

Feminists were the first people to point out that there are other things, other people with unique stories, that are worth studying. What about the daughter of an artist who was denied the ability to study like men but managed to slip her art into her father's fray anyways? (Her name was Artemisia Gentileschi). What about slaves who did not have access to training or museum collections at all, but focused their creative energy and skills on quilt-making, the only media they had at their disposal?

Feminists were the first group of intellectuals to call attention to the fact that our society carries a viral amount of institutional biases. They highlighted very interesting flaws in academia's working vocabulary and tools of analysis. The landmark feminist art text is titled Old Mistresses... which in and of itself points out an immediate, unfortunate difference in society's perception of the two genders. How far the gap is between "Old Master" and "Old Mistress"!! Do you see what they're driving at yet? :) If you get nothing else from feminism, let it be this lesson: there's so much more out there to see and do and understand and appreciate than society and history currently advocates!

But I've been talking about feminism in art history. Feminism in general is an overarching study of how being female impacts your life and the world, and I can't think of a time in history where there is a bigger need for such research. Everything vital to our gender is currently under intense scrutiny and even assault by the world at large: Family structure. Integrity. Chastity. Lady-like grace (see every image of Lindsay Lohan ever published for bad examples). Love. Safety. Independence. Motherhood.

The main reason for this post today was my discovery that my alma mater, Brigham Young University, is severely cutting back (and potentially disbanding) its Women's Research Institute. By doing so, as a colleague on facebook noted, my school is essentially confirming the institutional bias that Accounting and MFHD are the only true lifepaths worth pursuing. PSH. I'm really disappointed with BYU for this decision (although I'm sure there are at least a few legit reasons for it, including lack of budget, interest, and/or qualified professors.) But I can't help but think of the times I've succeeded at that school, how good I felt when I worked hard, and how many girls all over the world lack that same feeling of confidence and hope. I have always been so proud of my school for their international educational focus, for the seriousness with which the faculty and staff takes the mandate to bring light to the world. (There's a link to petition for you to sign if you agree with me at the bottom of this post, in the pink box).

I don't judge or hate men for doing what they're doing, and I firmly believe that gender, and gender differences, are God-given and should be celebrated. Most importantly, I feel that the best and purest achievements of humanity only come when all the disparate parts of our race-- the different sexes, education levels, ethnicities, languages, interests, temperaments, etc.-- work together, something even the field of feminism, colorful though it may be, is very, very right about advocating. (Ps Baby-making! The perfect example of us working togeter to achieve great things! hee hee hee :) People only find their deepest, most satisfying peace when honestly, diligently pursuing the path God has laid out for them. I am grateful for that knowledge, though it comes with great responsibility.
I want to close with a story, one I wish BYU understood better. This is the story of one of the most aha! moments of my entire internship at the Hirshhorn. It is within this story that I hope you will see the need for the research and ideas that organizations like the Women's Research Institute puts forward:

I participated in a 6-week training course to be an Interpretive Guide while at the Hirshhorn (remember how I used to stroll the galleries 12 hours a week and talk to strangers about the art? Yea. That.) Me, four other college students, four older (aka age 55-75) long-time docents (all women, and all hilarious!), and two full-time education staffers all congregated every Monday to discuss the Louise Bourgeois exhibition, and the different methodologies we could use to encourage people to think about her art. The most interesting conversation we as a group ever had, hands down, was when we looked at Louise Bourgeois' art through feminism. The conversation turned to feminism itself, and it was soon discovered that all five of the younger participants were reluctant to claim any adherence to feminism as a belief system. Like I said, it's shrill.

The older ladies were AGHAST. They truly could not believe we eschewed advocacy for womens' rights. "You don't understand," explained the eldest docent, "when I was a newly divorced mother I had to undergo birth control and pregnancy tests before they would even consider me for my house loan!!!" (Can you believe that?? Such an appalling invasion of privacy!!) It was such an interesting dynamic in that classroom; a really tense atmosphere for quite a while, as us the young and they the old poked and prodded each others' stands regarding activism, propriety, and womanhood. Eventually I could see the other ladies start to form this contemptuous assumption in their minds: "Oh. They aren't feminists yet because they haven't NEEDED to be."

I decided to be the brave young one to attempt a reconciliation, especially since the topic was veering towards a veneration of Roe v. Wade as the supreme moment of liberation and triumph for feminism, something I disagree with. "You know," I started, "I think there are various types of feminism today, and our younger generation works within those, without realizing it. I can totally recognize that we build upon the achievements of your generation and we are so thankful for that! I belong to the largest women's organization in the world, and it's called the Relief Society, it's part of my church. Its members meet together weekly all over the world to teach one another about family skills and avoiding domestic abuse. It's also where we make friends and celebrate God, who loves his daughters." Silence reigned for a few seconds. I couldn't believe I'd just said that. I usually let my religion lie low in my art circles, because Mormonism has way too many stereotypes that I don't like people judging me by (it's always a fun moment when art friends find out I'm Mormon LATER, after getting to know ME. I can see their eyes widen as they realize actual Mormons don't conform to stereotypes). Tangent.

The older ladies grudgingly assented to my olive branch of sorts. I swallowed my surprise that the first time I "came out" about my religion was related to feminism of all things. And that moment became the turning point in the day's discussion. Feminism, it was agreed, can analyze and celebrate many different aspects of womanhood. In my final opinion (phew! I've given you a lot today!), its greatest moment of success is when the little people, the regular participants of every-day life, open their minds a little bit and discover their innate ability to stand up for themselves and move forward and do something great, all thanks to that knowledge and confidence they gained from considering gender differences, qualities, and achievements.

This is hilarious, and a fitting final image:

Congrats if you made it through this. You are the few, the brave, the enlightened, and, for lack of a better word, the SEXY!!! Hahahahahaha. Also, it begs to be stated: feminism is not for the ladies alone. I am so appreciative of the many men in my life who take the time to respect women and all the unique things we are capable of. Like I said, we work better when we work together!!

Update: after reading over a lot of the official BYU press releases on this decision, I've come to the conclusion that this move is simply bad taste on the part of the administration, who sees the WRI as a derelict flagship. Time and again they assure the public that funds for research will be more widely available, and I sure hope that will really be the case! Good luck to them.


maggie said...

Do you want to come hear Linda Nochlin speak on Wednesday at 7:00pm? I don't think I can pass up the opportunity.

Judy Anne said...

I hate the word feminist as it conjures up militant images. I love the word feminism as it tells the truth, our soft strength. Yes, I was asked to leave MJC Jrls because I was a woman and should be home caring for my children. Yes, I get angry as I realize the many times unthinking men and women have tried to tell me what to do, feel and think. However, I don't want to be equal (that would lower my standards) but I want to not be discriminated against because of my XX gender. We women are our own worst enemy, back-biting and gossiping instead of lifting and encouraging. How many times have women heard or said, "you are not married yet? or you have only 2 children? or you are only a mom? you are working and have kids?" I hope your generation celebrates the liberties women of the past have fought for and won and you all do what is your passion! (okay, I will get off my soapbox ;->) I sure do love you Lindsey.

rachel said...

I have a program that came with my computer where I can do that. But, there is this website..... can also upload your own pictures to the site.....p.s...I heard Michelle said this about me a few weeks ago to Dorthea, "rachel was on something when I saw her....she was high, i could see it in her eyes."

MOM said...

I've left a message twice now, but they never took. I hope this one does! I have always loved Girl With a Pearl Earring. Thanks for your insights to feminism and feminist. Glad to see your mind and heart united and in a healthy place regarding both. I love you Lindsey! Have a great week!

Raimo and Jessica Laitinen said...

i know that mobile. i loved it! your blog is full of beautiful, inspiring things!