I may be as the Boy describes me, a Radio 4 Woman’s Hour enthusiast, but a few weeks ago, and more recently they highlighted the crafty work of four women. I only wrote down two names, unfortunately. Penny Anderson embroiders samplers, but in a very modern way. Sarah Greaves embroiders household objects (stitches on the object, not stitches a representation of that object). They also discussed the artwork of other women determined to break free of their gendered boundaries and striving to rewrite art history, including women this time. The ideas discussed greatly interest me for a few reasons: I love a good underdog (I am American), I’m a woman, and I’m an artist working in traditional craft technique (of one sort or another).
Now before this becomes entirely uninteresting to at least 50% of the population, I want to explore the idea of discussing feminist-related topics at all. I mean surely, we’re all equal now. Yes, well I think for the most part we are equal in overt terms, which is pretty good considering the historical precedent. I also think there is some work to do in the covert arena of equality. Equality itself brings about all sorts of discussions about equality and fairness and the sort, which won’t be discussed here, now. My point is that despite that women have it pretty good in England (even with good old David), let alone the western world , despite this, it is hugely important to maintain that discussion. Within language is the ability to express thoughts, feelings, and ideas. To keep this up and to maintain and improve out society, a discussion is important.
So discuss I will. Art and craft and men and women. Is art the realm of men and craft that of women? And where is its place now? I’ll be discussing this through a several part blog post, published over the next three weeks or so. In regards to its academic merit, I studied Art History at university, albeit I have not yet done specific research into this topic nor am I an expert in feminism. In reality, under an academic guise, this series is essentially slightly more than my own musing.
In the western tradition, painting and painters were thought of more like carpenters. They worked with their hands, unlike the poets who were primarily employees of the specifically cerebral. So at this point there was no difference between art and craft, but women’s work, such as knitting, stitching was just that, women’s work. Occasionally it made its way into some still life painting or a portrait. Then came the big name celebrity brands of the Renaissance and enter the artists of Leonardo and Michaelangelo. However, these artists were still essentially public sector employees. They worked for a powerful family, usually also the head of state, bringing admiration on the family for being so clever as to have employed such a man. After a while, there were the romanticists (19th century I believe?) during which time it was okay for artists to be more than employees. The more eccentric the better. This was only encouraged during the modernist period. Artists are now AAArtists, with free reign to do whatever they like, preferably irresponsible, poor, and working with traditional methods.
And then, with great help from Duchamp’s readymades, Braque’s illusions in cubism, and political changes making their way into the art world, less-traditional materials became proper art as well. See the Happenings, environmental art, and installation art. A lot of new materials started to be used during the 1970’s. the 1970’s was also a great time for feminists and women artists started to make more noise and traditional ‘women’s work’ not only became the subject of art, but the materials became used to make art. The boundaries between personal and political, personal and artistic really broke down. Knitting, Macramé, fabric became less materials in and of the home and more acceptable to express the inner feelings of artists.
The majority of art history, however, is punctuated by male artists, for whatever reason using traditional techniques (paint, sculpture, etc). And this is not to say female artists don’t exist or that they didn’t find their way into posterity, but that there are far fewer. Probably that proper women didn’t do art and improper women were too busy working. It could also be that women are muses, not artists. Women are the subject, not the do-er. Women are the noun, not the verb. (Try to find a male nude that isn’t super feminine, and bonus points if you find a male muse prior to 1960. Seriously, I’m interested in that!)
Women could also not be in the art history books because they traditionally haven’t been. If there was overt sexism when the history was being written, then women weren’t included in that and because primary sources form such a basis of modern history, this type of information just wasn’t saved.
I hope that this very fast, impatient, and musing history gives a bit of a background for the next set of rambles. The next part of the series will discuss if this has changed and by how much in the contemporary period. It will also involve craft in order to explore if this could have helped the female to male ratio of artists.