Today, for Blog Action Day, I’m going to talk about art history. A lot of people consider art history to be very boring and dry, but I’m not one of those people, because I see it as a lens through which we can observe the history of human emotions and ideals. Of course, sometimes the history is made dry by the stuffiness of those who write and propagate it: people who have imposed their own morality on top of the truth that lies within these passionate expressions of not only our transcendent nature, but our collective id, as well.
Art history tells us about peoples’ desires and fears, sometimes by what they express through art, and sometimes by what they omit. Because of this, art history is also often a story of patriarchy and colonialism, and there are many amazing artists who have undoubtedly contributed to our understanding of what it means to be human whose names we will never know, whose works we may never know. I’d like to take just this small moment to do my best to point out only a very few, because in truth there are innumerable stories we can never know, and those we can would fill more than just this blog post.
The history of western art is riddled with notions of purity, especially as it addresses women. Color in sculpture was (and still is, in some quarters) considered low and impure. It was deemed acceptable to have statues of naked women made out of marble because it was white, gleaming, and untouchable, but color made the marble statues more lifelike, and therefore more racy. If the statue was a delicate pink, for instance, it seemed more like naked flesh, rather than being tastefully “nude.”
18th century archeologist and art historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann was devoted to this perceived Platonic ideal of purity, saying “The whiter the body is, the more beautiful it is as well. Color contributes to beauty, but it is not beauty.”
This belief flew in the face of actual emerging evidence at the time that ancient Greeks painted their statues for the very purpose of making them more lifelike. These were often the gods incarnate to the people, so the more in life, the better! Quite a few Renaissance- and Baroque-period archeologists even scrubbed away the color they found on sculptures, sometimes out of sheer ignorance, but sometimes out of a desire to repress a non-conforming idea (not that many of the Greeks had such great ideas about women in general, but that’s a whole other story).
Art history is often revisionist history, as the value and contributions of women and people of color were dismissed or destroyed, and conspicuously omitted from the books and teachings of the day (and often still). In a society in love with the madonna/whore complex, that praises only the light and fears the dark, women were/are considered naturally impure, wanton, and dangerous, and people of color were/are considered either dull-witted or devilish by mere virtue of the color of their skin, leading to systematized oppression.
You may have seen Caravaggio’s “Judith Beheading Holofernes,” and it is a brilliant work, but have you also seen Artemisia Gentileschi’s “Judith Slaying Holofernes”? When she was a teenager, Gentileschi was raped by a fellow painter, and she painted this work again and again afterward. It is a ferociously gruesome painting with spurting blood and a calm but determined Judith, and it is equally brilliant, but mostly unknown by the average person now, though she was well-known in her own time (partially because her father was also a famous painter, and because she took her rapist to trial). You may notice the more visceral nature of Gentileschi’s depiction of the blood, whereas Caravaggio’s blood seems rather cartoonish. Of course, Artemisia Gentileschi’s name is now taught in art history classes, but not everywhere and only pretty recently, and she’s definitely one of the more famous women artists.
One woman artist of color you’ve probably heard of is Frida Kahlo. She was amazing: talented, outspoken, politically active, and courageous. During her lifetime, she became at least as famous as her more well-established muralist husband, Diego Rivera; she was something of an Art World “It Girl” (which she detested), and she is worth knowing, to be sure. She has also become rather blatantly tokenized, with her incredibly daring and personal work emblazoned across mouse pads, coffee mugs, t-shirts, etc. Now, I’m not saying you shouldn’t own a something with her work on it, if it speaks to you. I’m just saying she’s not the only thing going, but because she has become so over-the-top famous, she is used as an example when women artists bring up the issue of underrepresentation.
How about Ana Mendieta, though? She was a Cuban artist who made work mostly centered on her own body, and she died in 1985 in an incident, let’s call it, at which her husband was present. Her husband was Carl Andre, a white American minimalist artist who was implicated in her death, but was ultimately acquitted, though he never could explain what happened and even claimed to not really remember. He is still alive and still lauded for the purity of form and materials in his work. More people know his name than Ana Mendieta’s name (though she is more well-known than many female artists) but her work is often only taught in classes about feminist art because of her emphasis on the female body. Most general art history classes never mention her at all, but you can bet they mention Carl Andre because his work is considered by the art establishment as revolutionary (as if women taking ownership of their bodies isn’t revolutionary).
One contemporary woman artist, Annie Kevans, is painting portraits of women artists of the past who have been erased from the history books. Portraits are considered feminine, you may be surprised to know, because women have often been interested in portraying domestic subjects in their work. Never mind Vermeer, that’s different. Despite the fact that there is now a National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, DC, the article about Kevans cites that “In an era when painting, portraiture and the female artist are still regularly dismissed or marginalised – only one in four of this year’s Turner prize nominees are women and none of them work in portraiture or painting, while only 5% of commercial London galleries show an equal number of male and female artists.” Not to mention the fact that it’s a sad statement about the worlds of both art and history that there even needs to be a separate museum for women in the arts, because we don’t regularly get included in the mainstream museums.
With artists of color, it’s difficult to find historic examples because people’s names weren’t recorded, much work was undervalued and therefore not necessarily preserved, and because non-western artists didn’t necessarily look at art the same way as westerners did. Picasso’s later work was heavily influenced by African tribal masks, though he took them out of context and fetishized them, but the makers of those masks weren’t even noted. It’s worth mentioning that the first architect whose name we know was Egyptian: Imhotep. While Egyptian art is talked about at length in art history classes, western art historians sort of teach it in the same breath as Archaic-period Greek art, effectively whitewashing it. With ancient art history, there is also the classifying of art from cultures without a written language as “prehistoric.” Since written language did not develop at the same time in all places in the world, a lot of ancient tribal art is considered prehistoric, the argument being that history, by definition, begins with the written word. I get that, and also see it as a linguistic manipulation, a way of categorizing much of non-western art as primitive. Bear in mind, some “prehistoric” art is concurrent with “ancient” (mostly western) art, because of the written language loophole, and because we created and defined the terms. And just because western artists didn’t understand the symbolism in stylized art from, say, Central America, doesn’t mean the artists were unsophisticated; it means they used a different, highly sophisticated symbolic language that was widely understood in the context of the culture in which it was made. Just because some old white guy didn’t get it, doesn’t mean it was primitive or meaningless.
In the contemporary art world, artists of color often address themes of racism and inequality in their work, which is then dismissed as too specific or even too angry, and suppressed or ignored. It’s a hard road for most artists to be taken seriously by the world-at-large and to find a way to make a living in a capitalist culture that looks only at the bottom line; there are only a very few artists who achieve financial success in their lifetimes, and those that do are almost invariably white men. To be a person of color and to address racism in your work almost guarantees obscurity, even still. Artists of color sometimes get acknowledged posthumously (see Jean-Michel Basquiat), but often not, too. Have you heard of Betye Saar? She’s alive and producing work now. Her earlier work was largely an angry cultural invective about institutionalized racism. Now, as she’s gotten older, she tends toward the mystical, and explores ideas of memory and perception. It’s all wonderful, whether righteously angry, or gently contemplative, and I highly recommend you check her out. Kara Walker is an artist of color who is somewhat better known, though still gets only a cursory mention in some of the more progressive modern art history classes. Her work is beautiful and unflinching, and she addresses inequality in the language of the oppressor, which may be the reason she sometimes gets acknowledged.
The racism that makes these artists invisible to most is reflected also in the way people of color are represented in, or literally erased from, western art. To those movie makers who argue that there weren’t people of color in medieval Europe, I call bullshit. Europe was actually quite multicultural, and not just because of colonialism and/or slavery. There was that too, of course, and it should not be swept under the rug, but there were many people of color from many different places who held positions of authority in government and everything. While sometimes people of color were depicted as stereotypes, they were depicted as regular people, as well. Malisha Dewalt has a website and blog about it, both called People of Color in European Art History. She’s been accused of ‘attempting to advance a “multicultural agenda.”’ Quelle horreur.
I mean, shouldn’t we all actually be trying to do that?
Speaking of multi-culturalism, have you seen the art Japanese Americans made while they were imprisoned in US internment camps during World War II? It is generally called the art of gaman (gaman being a concept in Zen Buddhism meaning to endure the seemingly unendurable with patience and dignity), and it was made out of whatever people had to hand, which wasn’t much; scraps of wood and paper, the environment around them, their own clothing. The art that came out of this suffering is phenomenal, and mostly unknown. There’s a book about it which you can see in digital format here.
Of course, there are contemporary Asian American artists you’ve probably never heard of, and I suggest you take a look at the Asian American Women Artists Association and artasiamerica websites for a sampling of what kind of work people are doing.
This is such a small sampling of the artists who get ignored, I invite you to look further, to educate yourself, to be open to seeing something that may even shock you or make you uncomfortable. Many artists who have been repressed express anger in their work, and that is hard to see sometimes, but don’t you get angry when you feel silenced? But there is also more to these artists’ works than just their own personal experiences, something that transcends the individual, because we are all fundamentally human together and this is a part of the human experience. It deserves to be seen, and you deserve to be enlightened by it.
Here are a few more links, to get you started on your journey:
As members of CAYA (Come As You Are) Coven many of us are participating in Blog Action Day, each with our own perspective, experience, & approach, much as we approach our various spiritual practices. We hold each of our members’ divinity as inherent and non-negotiable. Despite our varied paths, we are unified in our commitment to equality for all living creatures. While we write in solidarity for anyone suffering #inequality today, we are more interested in what ways we can achieve more equality for tomorrow.