Saturday, July 16, 2011

Why Have There Been So Few Men Creating Great ArtCloth?
Opinion Piece on Art

Marie-Therese Wisniowski

In the 1970s a book named “Art and Sexual Politics”[1] posed the following question in order to galvanise the thoughts of its contributors, namely – Why have there been no great women artists?[1] The twelve women and a man comprehensively addressed the thoughts penned by Professor Linda Nochlin[2] on this issue as well as propagating their own views on the matter.

At the outset let me write down my axioms with respect to the process in the making of art: it is blind to artist’s gender, sexual preferences, creed, colour of skin or eyes, social status, most handicaps and age; unlike language (which is transiently rigid but evolving in time) it is a fluid and an ill defined communication system that has three necessary conditions – namely, the act of engagement, lack of functionality and an aesthetic quality; it is a wilful and conscious act (i.e. monkeys can paint but do they wish to destroy their art if it falls short of their expectations?); it manifests itself in all human beings – that is, unlike science or engineering (which need to be taught) it is a natural part of our psychology and of our human condition and so does not necessarily need instruction before engaging in the process (vis-a-vie many of the street artists - see an earlier post).

Monkey Artists at Work - Samantha and Charlotte create a masterpiece.

Professor Nochlin's thesis rested on social settings that for over a five hundred year period provided no opportunity for women to fully engage in the process of making art [2]. They were excluded in a number of ways: from not being allowed to draw nude bodies; from being imbued at a very young age to multitask (and so not to specialize); to having no support structures to do art (moral and/or financial); and more importantly, to being viewed mostly in terms of a reproductive being at the exclusion of a more balanced view.

Frida Kahlo, Self-portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird, Nikolas Murray Collection, Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin.

What are often missed in such books[1] are the precursors that are needed to exist before any social settings can be significantly altered. The most significant precursor in Western cultures was the “separation of the church from the state”. Prior to the "separation", gender roles were rigidly defined and punishment was issued for infringements of these roles.

Barbara Hepworth, 
, 1966. 
Accepted in Lieu of Inheritance Tax by HM Government and allocated to Tate, 2005.

At the core of every religion is the reproductive process[3-5] and so the social setting with respect to this function of women became their social straitjacket. For example, within our era when the Taliban governed Afghanistan according to Sharia law, it was the women who were singled out for de-education and to strict adherence to their rigidly defined role[6].

In the West, the “separation” did not immediately alter the social settings of gender but rather over a long gestation period, it enabled the rise of secularism, the latter providing the framework where social settings could be significantly altered[7]. Only in a secular society could the birth control pill be formulated, manufactured and then put into use - without guilt! Women were liberated from their reproductive organs in a concrete operational sense and so could plan their family and lives accordingly.

Mary Beth Edelson, Woman Rising, 1974.

Within the 1960s, social settings were dramatically challenged and then reformed for both genders and by the 1970s with the continued rise of secularism, independent women with their own financial resources could now make further demands on governments to improve their opportunities in education, in vocations, in workforce and in social standing [8] (e.g. Ms. Julia Gillard is unmarried, an atheist, in a de facto relationship, childless, has no dress sense and moreover, is the current Australian Prime Minister!) Female enslavement to the reproductive process was pushed into the recesses of those minds that were left behind during our modern reformation.

Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1975–1979.

Women were on the march and no more so than in the arts. The gender roles of women and men in Western countries have never been so fluid and democratic - as it is in our present times. Let us keep it that way.

ArtCloth Artist’s Present Dilemma
Studio artists in general are rarely paid on an hourly basis the same rate as a check out person in a retail store. Hence financial assistance is necessary and so fledging artists are often underwritten via a number of different financial sources: selling their artwork, benefactors, art patrons, art institutions, government grants, businesses, commissions, casual non-art employment, family and friends etc.

Marie-Therese Wisniowski, Cultural Graffiti IV

The art market itself divides into traditional areas of fine art (Painting, Sculptures, Murals, Prints on Paper etc.) and non-traditional areas of fine art (e.g. ArtCloth, Art Quilts, Performance Art etc.) Marketing outlets and channels for the traditional areas of fine art do not readily lend themselves to the non-traditional areas. The reasons for this are complex and varied, but often it resides in the lack of life-long learning education budgets for curators, directors and gallery owners etc. Simply put, people in these positions are comfortable with the media that they have worked with for most of their lives and so are uncertain of any publically unknown, new or fledging media that they are asked to assess or work with. Hence, for a non-traditional art area marketing the artists and their media is generally a grounds-up exercise and so very time-intensive and costly.

Jeanne Raffer Beck, Written.

The art market is further diluted by three factors: sports memorabilia - suitably framed - now proudly sit on a wall where artworks use to sit; digital prints are available that replicate perfectly the most interesting and intricate artwork (and at a very affordable price); the art hobbyists – who is prepared to sell at very low prices works of art that may have taken years in the perfecting (which is their right).

Laura Beehler, Lambent Thoughts.

It is clear in this type of art milieu, ArtCloth artists often need to rely on supplementary incomes such as: teaching, tutoring, lecturing, giving talks and workshops as well as selling their work. Professor Linda Hall[9] predicted some time ago that with equal employment policies reaching academe, many artists would have their art practice underwritten by universities, colleges, community colleges or even schools.

Jane Dunnewold, Paradise.

In the absence of marketing channels and structures for ArtCloth and the expense in forming such avenues from the ground up, ArtCloth artists are now forced to do their own marketing. This is critical since the lack of awareness by the community at large (i.e. the old dictum of “out of sight, out of mind”) is the death knell for any fledging artists and their non-traditional media of choice. Ignorance will stifle any art and moreover, can so demoralize the artist concerned that they may give up their art practice to the detriment of them and to the community at large.

Why Have There Been So Few Men Creating Great ArtCloth?
Splashed over this blog site are great ArtCloth works generated by artists – 99.9% of whom happen to be women. In all my years of tutoring, lecturing and teaching processes used in the generation of ArtCloth, so few men have wanted to learn or even participate (see my students works on this blog site). My women students have ranged across most decades in age and have come from a vast array of cultural backgrounds, vocations and professions - lawyers, teachers, chefs, artists, retirees, small business owners, lecturers and scientists (just to name a few!) There are men producing great Wearable Art and Art Quilts, but where are the men producing great ArtCloth?

Leslie Morgan, Self Talk.

Before I consider this last question I want you to know at the outset that I have been happily with the same man since 1974 and so searching for men is not my thing - at present. Hence, what follows is my search for reason(s) for this unusual dilemma of why there are so few men creating great ArtCloth works. (When I was writing the previous sentence I grinned to myself recalling the words of feminist advocate Elaine de Kooning who challenged women by stating [10]: “Women fill the art schools; men do the painting” - and that of Rousseau: “Women have in general no love of art; they have no proper knowledge of any; and they have no genius”[11]).

Henri Julien Felix Rousseau, Self Portrait (1890). National Gallery, Prague.

We all know that some men are involved in creating great ArtCloth visa-a-vie Ken Kagajo, Tim Harding, Jason Pollen etc. I am sure you could add more men to the list, but go to any Surface Design Conference and how many men are there either as teachers or participants compared to women? It is clear that a flaw has been uncovered in the current social setting for men when it comes to generating ArtCloth. They pursue their art in large numbers in the traditional and some non-traditional areas of fine art and appear to be fairly successful - but what about the non-traditional areas such as ArtCloth?

Ken Kagajo, Discharge Thundercloud, 2008 (see earlier post).

It is clear that men are involved in the manufacture and sales of cloth. If you consider the paints and dyes used on cloths, men are also involved in the manufacture and sales. If you consider the tools used in creating ArtCloth, men are involved in the manufacture and sales. It is not as if men are devoid of any knowledge of dyed fabrics, after all most of them do wear dyed fabrics most of the time - around me at any rate!

Carter Smith, Shibori Textile Artist.

Women, on the other hand, for many centuries were given the task to darn, make and mend clothes etc. It is not surprising that when conditions suited (i.e. when women became a little more labour rich) they turned those items into art and not just into decorations (e.g. ArtCloth, Wearable Art etc.) Women have had a long tradition and agenda of using these media, and since they are thinking reeds, it is not surprising that they converted a chore into an artistic conceptual endeavour – what a human thing to do!

Joan Truckenbrod ArtCloth work: Emerge (see earlier post).

Now back to the men and ArtCloth. Is it because most men do not know how to sew (you know - do needle work and such) that they shy away from ArtCloth? Well they could learn and have learned in making Art Quilts and Wearable Art etc. Moreover, my ArtCloth pieces contain very little stitch work. It is not as if their fingers are not nimble or their eyesight is any different from ours or their minds cannot fathom how to paint and dye fabrics. They have walked on the Moon after all!

Ricky Tims, Quilter and Fabric Designer.

It is often claimed that men are only interested in an art form if it is possible to make a living from it[1]. Well, for most of us ArtCloth has not yet arrived according to that yardstick. If this is the reason, we women should not wake men up about their paucity in producing great ArtCloth pieces. Perhaps in five hundred years from now, women will read the ponderings of men on – Why have there been so few men creating great ArtCloth works? And when we do, we will point to the answer - that we formulated some five centuries previously – it was the social settings within the political framework. We are far too clever to descend to Rousseau’s illogical reasoning!

Norma Starsakowna, Razing/Raising Walls (see an earlier post).

[1] Editors T.B. Hess and E.C. Baker, Art and Sexual Politics, Collier Books, New York (1973).

[2] L. Nochlin, Art and Sexual Politics, Eds. T.B. Hess and E.C. Baker, Collier Books, New York (1973) P1-P44.

[3] Z. He, J. Bu, Y. Tang, K. Sun, An Intellectual History of China, Foreign Languages Press, Beijing (1993).

[4] Ed. A.T. Embree, Sources of Indian Tradition, Columbia University Press, New York (1988).

[5] B. Russell, A History of Western Philosophy, Unwin Paper Backs, Sydney (1984).

[6] P. Marsden, The Taliban: War, Religion and the New Order in Afghanistan, Zed Books Ltd, New York (1998).

[7] A.G.L. Shaw, Modern World History, F.W. Cheshire, Melbourne (1963).

[8] Eds. M. Vetterling-Braggin, F.A. Elliston and J. English, Feminism and Philosophy, Littlefield Adams & Co, New Jersey (1978).

[9] L. Hall, Art and Sexual Politics, Eds. T.B. Hess and E.C. Baker, Collier Books, New York (1973) P130-P150.

[10] E. de Kooning, Art and Sexual Politics, Eds. T.B. Hess and E.C. Baker, Collier Books, New York (1973) P57.

[11] S. Gablik, Art and Sexual Politics, Eds. T.B. Hess and E.C. Baker, Collier Books, New York (1973) P89.

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