The Female Painter

In this essay I present the following narrative. First, I make the claim that women who are “made art” seem to be more frequently valued (often by proxy, thru the men who present them in their art) than are women who “make art.” I then seek to find reasons for this beyond the typical (what I call) social approach, exemplified herein by Linda Nochlin, which states that there is a social structure that works in various ways against women being valued as art-makers. The two approaches that I discuss – biological and psychoanalytic – are put forth as thought pieces in an attempt to arrive at other possible explanations for the gap in value and representation between male and female artists. Finally, I present a new term – “the female painter” – to describe women artists who make visual art in which they mark (in some manner) on images (often manipulated) of their own body. Many of the artists in this show are “female painters” in this sense. The call is then made for critics to begin assessing the work of “female painters” according to different criteria than they use to assess the work of male painters. All of the concepts I present in this essay are my initial attempts at possible theoretic inroads to the furthering of that important process.

Leah Schrager

The desire to curate Body Anxiety came out of a deep frustration in my own artistic life. To shed light on my curatorial choices, I’d like to talk about the source of this frustration and the solutions I have come to. At the crux of my personal transformation and the work of the artists I have selected are issues that emerge from the complicated intersections of traditional standards of ownership, established gender structures, and valuation in the art world.

Being a dancer and model from a young age, I started to feel a profound sense of disempowerment in my late teens. The model (usually female) is often seen as just a passive poser who is there to be turned into something beautiful and meaningful through the artistry of the photographer (usually male). And in the default of the trade context, the photographer owns the images and the model owns nothing. This imbalance is indicative of other manipulative, inequitable aspects endemic to the modeling world.

Tired of being disowned of my work, my image, and my sense of self as an artist, I began to move into visual art to gain the agency I craved. In My Modeling Portfolio (2012) I distorted my face and body in modeling photos of me taken by other photographers, rendering them largely unrecognizable. This was the only way I could own these images. In my current work I take on all roles: photographer, choreographer, model, muse, performer, painter, image-maker, producer, web designer, marketing director, artist.

With this shift, however, I met a new limitation. As this show attempts to point out, the art world is more likely to value women who are “made art” over women who “make art.” It is a phenomenon that I call Man Hands. If Man Hands touch a woman (i.e. place her in his art), she can become a valuable piece of art. But if Man Hands haven’t touched her (i.e. she places herself in her art), she can certainly be considered art, but her value is likely to be substantially less, and in the world of value (the world of art?), less and more are all.

In 1971, Linda Nochlin published her now famous essay, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” The heart of her answer lies in its last sentence:

The question “Why have there been no great women artists?” has led us to the conclusion, so far, that art is not a free, autonomous activity of a super-endowed individual, “influenced” by previous artists, and, more vaguely and superficially, by ‘social forces,’ but rather, that the total situation of art making, both in terms of the development of the art maker and in the nature and quality of the work of art itself, occur in a social situation, are integral elements of this social structure, and are mediated and determined by specific and definable social institutions, be they art academies, systems of patronage, mythologies of the divine creator, artist as he-man or social outcast.

This position – let’s call it the social approach – has since become the standard explanation for the great discrepancy between what men and women earn for their art. It’s a sociological view that attributes human outcomes largely to the influence of present social structures (which are historically formed, to be sure, though how so is often left fairly nebulous). I would like to propose two other approaches: the biological and the psychoanalytic. (Both have been important to me personally–I have a biology degree, and have learned a lot about psychodynamics in my online role as The Naked Therapist.) I put them forth in the hope of broadening discussion of the mis-valuation of female artists, to explain some common penchants I see in the artists in this show, and to suggest a critical path toward what I believe may be a new female-gendered artistic practice.

The emerging female-gendered practice that I am attempting to highlight through the artists in this show is a new genre that I call “the female painter.” The female painter is a woman who makes visual art in which she marks (in some manner) on images (often manipulated) of her own body. These women are “painting,” though not like their male counterparts. They do not paint on a blank canvas, and they paint digitally, in and with moving images and/or videos, with paint pigments, or other media. The integral concept is that these “marks” or “paintings” are done onto or in concert with images of the female artist’s own body. By employing the word painting I am trying to draw a distinction between pieces of performance art (which are time-based and often more difficult to resell) and the works of female painters that are permanent and available for resale.

For the purposes of this essay, I will limit my discussion, per Nochlin, to the question of great female painters rather than artists in general. I do this for two reasons. First, since Nochlin’s essay, a number of great female artists have emerged. I will let the reader name their own, but we can all agree that at least some female artists have been crowned with the term greatness. Second, painting is a colloquialism of masterful art; when we speak of great artists, we are often referring to painters, who are the most revered and financially valued of artists, and are mostly men.

Research has shown that women and men not only differ in their biology, but that they possess distinct proclivities developed over millions of years of evolution in wildly varying environments. These are largely due to differences in primate mating strategies based in sexual dimorphism. Sociobiologists use these differences to explain a wide array of commonly observed male and female behaviors.

Psychoanalysis also posits core differences between men and women. Freud posited that men exhibit “a marked sexual overvaluation which is doubtless derived from the child’s original narcissism and thus corresponds to a transference of that narcissism to the sexual object.” Women, on the other hand, tend to develop during puberty an “intensification of the original narcissism” and “a certain self-contentment” such that “strictly speaking, it is only themselves that such women love with an intensity comparable to that of the man’s love for them.” Freud goes on to say “such women have the greatest fascination for men…for it seems very evident that another person’s narcissism has an attraction for those who have renounced part of their own narcissism and are in search of object love.” This conjures up John Berger’s statement from Ways of Seeing that “men act and women appear.”

I don’t need to point out in this setting that sociobiology and psychoanalysis have been abundantly contested by feminists (and others). I also fully support the idea that psychological and biological templates for genders are fluid and changing. Nothing is set in stone when it comes to the possibilities of the human character over time, and putting forth opinions as to “set” characteristics can often be as much poetry as it is science. There are of course cases of women with “man hands” and men working as “female painters.” So, in using the terms male, female, man, woman, I am engaging archetypes and power relations, and my proposition is based on the existing societal structures in which we live. I believe that understanding this as vestigial valuation is something we are working through and from as we explode gender binaries. As Tobin Siebers’ explores in “Disability Theory,” narcissism is important to minoritarian identity formation. In short, I believe the theories in this essay provide a positive platform to gender-queer persons and can be used to further various feminist agendas.

That said, I believe that painting, as we have come to understand it, is a process that favors the psychoanalytic and sociobiological urges of the male sex. Consider: the ejaculation of paints onto a blank canvas, often using the female body as model, is something that it makes absolute sense for men (and, yes, I am speaking here of straight men) to want to do and for a large portion of society (both men and women) to revere men for doing well. But what about women? Could it be that there are so few great female painters because women do not feel equally compelled to ejaculate paints onto a blank canvas, often using their sexual object – the male body – as model, and we (both men and women) do not feel compelled to revere such skills in the female sex?

My point is that we must not assume that great female painters will emerge from women painting like men. In fact, being the opposite sex of men, it might make sense for them to paint in the opposite way. And that is where I come to the idea of the female painter and the artists in this show. They have come together to call attention to the issue of male appropriation of the female image. Yet this issue exists, as I see it, as a kind of fulcrum around which many female artists are currently spinning in the hopes of one day landing squarely in their own space – the space of the female painter.

Many artists in this show use their bodies as their canvas. Their bodies appear as fantasies, mutations, glitches, nightmares, mundanities, dating profiles. Thus, the artist is the model is the canvas, and the kind of “canvas” this confluence creates is critically significant. Most are decorating, scarifying, branding, marking, manipulating, deforming, or otherwise visually dialoguing with their bodies. This is something that women have done for many millennia (and is also critically significant), through physical decoration and make-up, and more recently performance art and artistic selfies. This sort of productive narcissism seems to be something many women feel strongly compelled to do, yet the men and women of the art world (who may adore it in the “real” world) do not seem strongly inclined to respect it as art. Again, critically significant.

Men are today being given high level shows and value in the art world for taking the images of women off the Internet and placing them into their art. And some women are upset about it. Why? Because it feels to these women that the lack of attention to their work – work like that of the female painters in this show – is not due to an absence of quality, but to vestigial valuation. Vestigial valuation means valuing something because it touches us instinctually, yet the instinct represented through the valuation is no longer actually relevant to the times we live in.

For instance, there are many reasons we have had only male presidents, but one is the presence of the adaptively valuable conviction that a big strong man is good to have as a leader. Yet “big” and “strong” are increasingly vestigial values, not least of all in our political world. Further, it certainly makes adaptive sense to value a man who possesses the power to “claim” a woman. In less civil times, such a man was good to have on your side, but valuing him for it today is vestigial. Finally, there seems to be something in us that is bored/repulsed/threatened by women who take it upon themselves to present sexually provocative images of themselves and other women; it’s usually seen as pornography and not art.

Perhaps the man who artifies a woman creates a love story, while the woman who artifies herself creates a…what? A self-centered mess? A political protest? A social critique? Artistic suicide? Perhaps the woman who exhibits her arousal is a far greater threat to society (read: marriage) than the man who does so, since biologically men have far less to lose from being sexually promiscuous. Either way, such valuations are increasingly vestigial.

Vestigial valuation in the art world leads to a lack of critical curiosity that leaves men valued for their kind of painting more than women for their kind of painting, and only granting women who paint like men the right to call themselves great painters. It is time for critics and curators to delve into the aesthetic variables that make “female painting” different from male painting and to begin the process of figuring out how to judge each genre according to its own histories, goals and methods.

It is my hope that this show is a start in that direction.