The power of the female spirit and body is the power of the earth. Female power has been visually represented from the Venus of Willendorf to Cybele, Nefertiti to Cleopatra, Sappho to Simone de Bouvoir, Jeanne d’Arc to Aung San Suu Kyi, Sojourner Truth to Rosa Parks, Jiang Qing (Madame Mao) to Judy Chicago. In Maxine Hong Kingston’s novel Woman Warriors she celebrates that spirit in both her personal life and in its historical Asian incarnation, as that cultural tradition reaches back into the ancient past. Women warriors were most prevalent during the Mongol period (Yuan Dynasty), as women in Eurasian Steppe societies had traditionally fought alongside their men.
From another vantage point, a history of Asian women warriors stretches back 9,000 years and highlights a few key figures: Queens Vishpala (c. 7000 BCE), Sammuramat (circa c.811-792) & Zenobia (240-274 CE), and Hua Mulan (4th-5th cent CE), Tomoe Gozen (c. 1157- 1247 CE). But depiction of women as warriors differs when depicted by other women or by men. Also, visual depictions differ from oral and/or textual depictions, whether such depictions are biographical or fictionalized accounts. So too, visual depiction of women in general or as warriors, differs cross culturally, and between male and female artists.
Or does it? In some situations, socially embedded cultural iconography or stereotypes may transcend gender differences. Given the breath of discourses prevalent in this globalized 21st century, whether concerning contemporary issues or historically, such research into visual culture(s) can no longer divide into binary opposites — male-female, as the label “Third Sex/ Third Gender” must come into play. While this research does not specifically focus on sexual identity across any chasm between male and female arts and artists, it must assume that both arts and artists have gender issues woven into their identity, which become more complex when sexual preferences are involved in the artists’ identities.
When women are portrayed as warriors, any such identification of gender faces contradictions unique to each cultural system, and dominant discourses prevalently to specific historical periods. Thus as identities are socially constructed, from birth through infant, youth, and adult stages, what is a socially proper gender differentiation at one stage of an individual’s personal development may not be considered appropriate at an other stage.
Moreover, as social systems are dynamic, with many elements subject to change at different periods of time and rates of change, as well as across geographical and social classes, any single individual may be categorized or classified differently at specific times during their lifecycle. It is also important to note differentials in class structures, and especially an ambiguous line between elites and ordinary people unique to specific geographical and socio-cultural divisions.
What is appropriate or acceptable for one specific social class at one point in time may not be acceptable for other social classes, nor consistent within each social class throughout time, and can also shift back and forth among different social classes. When it comes to the arts, it is necessary to always assume that both production and consumption of artistic products also divide by social class and values contemporary to that period of time. It is also evident that significant variations exist from one culture to another. Yet it is also valid to differentiate aesthetic values and practices between higher and lower social classes. In fact, cross-culturally and over time, distinctions have been made between so-called folk arts and high arts, as well as between arts and crafts. Yet, again, socio-cultural distinctions are necessary.
For example, the elitist Japanese Zen Tea Ceremony privileged rustic stoneware tea bowls over more refined porcelain tea bowls, even to the point that elite artists turned to folk pottery as both a spiritual and socially acceptable occupation. Few ordinary potters, however, attained similar recognition to the same status as potters from elite social classes who produced similar tea bowls. Therefore this research has to approach the whole through its parts, as its premise or underlying hypothesis assumes such enormous complexity that it is impossible to make any more than extremely superficial comparisons across geographies, cultures, societies, political and economic systems, and gender differentiations at any one period of time, much less at different times.
The only assumption close to having any validity across such a range of complexity is that overall, male artists and their products, held a somewhat higher status, and economic value than female artists and their artistic products. Yet again, such assumptions cannot be validated for each and every geographical, socio-cultural and artistic niche in any specific time, much less over the grand historical sweep. Again using a Japanese example, the 10th century literary masterpieces of two noblewoman, Murasaki Shikibu, and her rival Sei Shonagon, not only swept through the literati of their era, but have held power as representing the origins of the novel, and high poetry ever since.
One important note on visual culture, is that all written texts are visual, thus overall, inseparable from representational images. Moreover, in the Sinitic systems of written characters, each brushstroke is in itself a work of art, and what evolved in China diffused to Japan and Korean language arts, and artistic representations.
Some two centuries after Murasaki wrote the Genji Monogatari Emaki, illustrated versions and hanging scrolls representing E-maki, or images from the story became popular, however, E-maki also represented a gender division in visual arts, providing
Some of the earliest and greatest examples of the otoko-e (Men’s pictures) and onna-e (Women’s pictures) styles of painting. There are many fine differences in the two styles, appealing to the aesthetic preferences of the genders. But perhaps most easily noticeable are the differences in subject matter. Onna-e, epitomized by the Tale of Genji handscroll, typically deals with court life, particularly the court ladies, and with romantic themes. Otoko-e, on the other hand, often recorded historical events, particularly battles … Sinéad Kehoe [Japanese art curator in the Metropolitan Museum Department of Asian Art] Five Thousand Year of Japanese Art. Met. 2010)
A strong tradition of Buddhist art, including Zen poetry and painting, has continued throughout Japanese history, much of which was anonymously painted by priests, monks and nuns, largely coming from elite classes, including Samuri. Ordinary artistic works and reproductions were, however, often produced in factory-like shops by low status workers, especially the woodblock prints that emerged in the 18th century as ubiquitous illustrations of famous historical or fictional events. In the 19th century, however two famous (male) artists, Hokusai and Hiroshigi produced the designs that were reproduced in many volumes of different quality prints by such workshops.
But as modernization swept into 19th century Japan, distinctions between elite artists, calligraphers and poets, began to dissolve with a rise in wealthy urban entrepreneurial classes, although distinctions between female (onna-e) and male (otoko-e) art forms remained somewhat in place, more from subject matter than stylistically.
With postwar transformations of occupied and re-independent Japan, western styles in art mushroomed, with many Japanese, females included, taking lessons in western styles and techniques, and traveling to Europe and America for studies. Today, it is not feasible to accurately differentiate gender in contemporary Japanese artistic production, although a modern resurgence of traditional ink and brush painting has swept millions of women into amateur movements producing high quality works commonly exhibited in local museums. Thus, aside from traditional calligraphy, which is having a universal resurgence among males and females in both China and Japan, amateur visual arts are today predominantly female recreational forms of creative expression throughout all social classes of Japanese society.
Turning back to Gender Questions / Problems in Euro-American Art History
It is also fair to say that current artistic production across Eastern/Sinitic Eurasia, is far less gender specific, and remains more gender equitable among its practitioners and arts discourses, than in the Euro-American world where feminist ideologies more stridently claim gender specificity in demands for equitable representation in higher status gallery and museum exhibitions, art markets, foundation and government funding, and arts media. It is perhaps ironic that feminist art discourses and female employment have taken strong positions among universities, foundations, government organizations, museums, non-profit and for-profit galleries, writing, publications, and editorial positions in cultural journals.
Questions continue over long standing subordinate female roles in Western Art History, with common complaints about current disparities, but slowly feminist discourses merge with post-colonial and multicultural critiques of hegemonic socio-economic policies, ideologies and practices. In this newer, perhaps more refined, critically and analytically informed by post-structural philosophy and theory, especially interventions of Lacanian psychology into literary and cultural criticism by such well known feminist theoreticians as Luce Irigaray, Julia Kristeva, and Helene Cixous. But while France still has gender issues among varied high status positions within the arts world, both non-profit and commercial, such discriminations have generally disappeared into social class differentiations.
Thus it is safe to say, that in France, ‘Class trumps race and/or gender’ except among the topmost administrators of elite institutions, public and private, although those positions are also opening up for both traditionally non-white and female elites. In the UK, a cultural turn has occurred as well, in part through borrowings from Continental philosophy and theory, but also from within an indigenously British born multicultural population. One nexus for changing race and gender relations was the Birmingham Center for Cultural Studies (1964-2002), which produced a cultural turn introducing post-colonialist and subaltern discourses absorbing feminist into an overall critique of hegemony and promotion of hybridity.
A left leaning cadre of critical academics emerged from Birmingham to populate progressive programs in elite universities, further producing an emergent multicultural resistance within arts and literature, both in practitioners, practices and organizational leadership. It is safe to say that many of the UK’s currently most creative, innovative, and productive literary, visual and theatre artists come from minority, non-white, or multicultural backgrounds.
Among feminist discourses specific to visual arts, Americans have seemed to been most able to wrest leadership positions from tightly held, prestigiously male arts and cultural enclaves in academia, museum, gallery, curatorial and publishing sectors. While maybe not the first, but perhaps the most significant breakthrough, came from Rosalind Krauss who took both a most prestigious academic position, and editorial control over Artforum, equally the most prestigious contemporary arts journal targeting an international arts and cultural intelligencia. In 1976, Artforum founder Philip Leider and Krauss separated from Artforum, to found October, a new critical theory journal that broke away from under the influence of a powerful New York clique of male arts and cultural mandarins.
As a new critical venue open to new ideas, October turned toward emerging critical academic discourses among a nation wide resurgence in university arts and cultural programs. Along with Clement Greenberg, Krauss influenced a generation of arts writers, historians and critics, both American and international, but breaking from Greenberg, Krauss posited a post-medium approach to abstract modern and post-modern art, while also opening greater opportunities for females in both academia and publishing. But it seems that Krauss had less concern for feminist theory or discourses, focusing instead on critical appraisal of individual cutting edge artists and arts movements.
Krauss also introduced American cultural and arts communities to French philosophical approaches in aesthetics and criticism, phenomenology, structural, and post-structural theory. At a time in which certain questions challenged dominant discourses in the arts, Krauss famously turned her critical eye to “. . . the question of the commodity, the status of the subject, issues of representation and abstraction, and the viability of individual media.” Krauss produced a seminal work, Bachelors (Krauss 2000. MIT Press), to address these questions through an empirical study of a group of nine female artists, whose discourse and artworks would, with added recognition from Krauss’ book, have immense repercussions in the arts world.
These essays on nine women artists–gathered as Bachelors–are framed by the question, born of feminism, “What evaluative criteria can be applied to women’s art?” In the case of surrealism, in particular, some have claimed that surrealist women artists must either redraw the lines of their practice or participate in the movement’s misogyny. (Publisher’s promotion text, MIT)
Avoiding a gender trap, “Krauss resists that claim, for these “bachelors” are artists whose expressive strategies challenge the very ideals of unity and mastery identified with masculinist aesthetics.” She also claims a broader perspective that recognizes varied aspects and degrees of empowerment among “successful” women artists, without being overly critical of female demands for greater recognition, status, and commercial viability for their work and recognition of their individual and collective feminine selves.
Turning to issues that bridge feminist theory with Third Sex/Third Gender issues of power and representation, Judith Butler is another critical American philosopher whose interventions in visual culture have gained status and popularity. Unlike Krauss, Butler is more a philosopher than art theorist, and while drawing on some of the same Lacanian and post-structural theories as Krauss, Butler takes a different approach to dig more incisive into hegemonic power and discourse over gender identity issues.
As Butler presents arguments both as Feminist and Lesbian, her work on identity, self-worth, domination and suppression, is incisive and points directly to societal impacts on the individual psyche, that inflicts women with what Simone de Beauvoir labeled in 1949 as “the Second Sex. Another noted feminist art historian and critic, Whitney Chadwick, presents an argument much closer to Butler’s than to Krauss, but more knowledgeable in art history than Butler. In her critique of historically inequitable status of women artists and resulting identity problems, Chadwick claims that in Western (Euro-American) Visual Arts, “methodologies based on the ideological and political convictions that women were more unified by the fact of being female than divided by race, class, and history” were not able to adequately represent a realistic multifaceted female voice or identity.
Chadwick further claims “the category woman is a fiction [that] … feminist efforts have been directed toward dismantling [and] … analyzing the ways that images produce meanings that are constantly circulated within the social formation.” While Chadwick presents a brilliant theoretical study, and like Krauss and Butler, draws on French post-structural theorists, especially discussions of power and knowledge, and the production of knowledge, her findings largely mirror other non-feminist theory on power disparities and the ways that information and knowledge, and their mediated representation impact disparate social constructions.
While making a formidable case for a distinctly unique feminist critique, much like Butler, but focused specifically on the discourses of art history, Chadwick’s critique seems dated (1990), and weakens the closer it comes to contemporary understandings and female roles in the arts worlds. Surprisingly, while citing Hal Foster’s Anti Aesthetic, a collection of essays that relies on Rosalind Krauss to a certain degree, Chadwick fails to cite Krauss. While accurately representing a history of gender bias in European art, the UK in particular, and despite her claim that the label woman is fiction, Chadwick seems to downplay modernist schools and contemporary moves toward more equitability for women artists and Arts professionals, such as Dr. Chadwick herself.
But although it is difficult to argue against Chadwick’s Lacanian contention that sexuality has always been, and remains, a contested ground in art and representation. Nor can one argue against a truism that feminist art invokes re-representation of Women Warriors: Challenging Arts, Culture & Beyond 8 sexuality and identity from a female perspective, likewise her claims against a non-universal (gender free) art discourse coincide with a logical differentiation among women as artists and as women who are culturally specific in their individuality. Therefore it may be paradoxical to claim a semblance of feminist commonality through feminine art theory, discourse, production or existential experiences as women, but equally experienced as individuals.
While this is not an argument against feminine art theory, nor against a category of women’s art, whether art by and/or for women, it would be appropriate here to refer back to both Nevelson and Krauss who view art as an individual experience. One caveat about any theory of visual culture, however, comes from Marxist critic Terry Eagleton: “… the very idea of cultural theory is a contradiction in terms . . . the whole point of art and literature is their particularity. . . . you cannot have a science of the individual … theory is general, culture is specific … all talk about art is abstract … [but] the assumption that all art is vividly particular is of recent vintage . . . it is highly unlikely that . . . [artists in the past] had any concept of art remotely like what we have today.“ (Eagleton. After Theory, 2003. p.74-75)
Thus Chadwick is best understood in very general terms about the history of European art, and somewhat relevant to contemporary American art, including the importance of female artists as political activists. She should especially be read for her discussion on women artists from ethnic minority, however truncated that part of her book. Chadwick points out Mexican American resurgence of the revolutionary mural tradition expressed in such a politically astute manner in the work of Frida’s husband Diego Rivera. Probably it was sensibly for her not to attempt to discuss any non-Western arts traditions and their differing roles for female artists, and only briefly to delve into Black, Asian or Native American female artists or how women are represented in such arts.
History of European Visual and Graphic Arts in a Eurasian Context
Although in pre-Guttenberg Europe, hand lettered and illustrated literature, whatever their content, were considered artistic products but not produced by ruling elites, rather by an educated clerical class, almost exclusively male, and largely priests, or belonging to religious orders, rather than lay writers or artists. It would be improper, however, to label this class of largely monastic and celibate artisans as belonging to a Third Gender, per se, however much their sexual behavior might have been and continue to be suspect.
Here, we bridge supposed East-West distinctions, as traditions of Monasticism diffused from Buddhist across Eurasia’s Silk Road to influence Christian and later Islamic traditions, as did clerical expertise in translations and reproductions of manuscripts. We might, however, note an Eastern high and western low in the calligraphic arts, in part due to brush versus pen. Sinitic characters and modes of composition and writing were always more open to artistic innovation and individual expression compared to the alphabetic Greco-Roman systems. In between the two, Islamic calligraphy borrowed decorative and ideographic representations of sacred letters and words from Eastern Eurasia, and while retaining unique artistic uses of the more syllabic Arabic and Persian systems, may have interacted with Western European illustrated manuscripts and Byzantine Iconographic arts.
If we block out a historical period of a post-Roman-pre-Islamic, Europe, partially including the Byzantine, the ascendency of a priestly-monastic, artistic-clerical, class serving largely illiterate Germanic elites, predominantly excluded the female gender from participation in production, distribution and production of artistic expressions. Elite class females were largely excluded from public social activity, either as a castle-palace bound class of ivory tower females or confined to convents of nuns. Education, reading and writing were limited among both male and female secular elites. Production of visual representative arts were almost exclusively male prerogatives, and limited in part because of scriptural injunctions against representation of the human form. This originally Judaic Monotheistic command prohibiting “graven images,” carried over to Christianity, and also to Islam.
In the Christian case, the prohibition also served to differentiate this newly ascendant socio-cultural religious system from underlying, polytheist, Greco-Roman, Mediterranean, and Eurasian systems. The ruling political-religious elite recognized that ordinary people might confuse new Christian imagery with their older religious imagery, yet needed to have some way to link new within a underlying previously held consciousness and aesthetic. Thus the sanction of images was carefully controlled and placed in the hands of an emergent priestly-clerical class who would control what and how images were represented, and create discourses appropriate to new interpretations of Christian doctrine and representations. While overall, through the Renaissance, female artistic participation was highly controlled, across class lines.
While elite females displaying artistic talents beyond crafts such as embroidery, were more easily controlled within palaces or convents, ordinary classes were controlled by religious dogma coupled with superstition under the watchful eyes of village and state clerics. Ordinary females were constantly under threat of being condemned for witchcraft when practicing traditionally female crafts using natural herbs, or any attempt at symbolic representation of nature that were associated with devil worship. Thus, female artistic production across both European cultural and class lines was extremely curtailed until a Renaissance era opened up artistic and ideological freedom.
That freedom, which also accompanied Women Warriors: Challenging Arts, Culture & Beyond 10 early Protestant popular and peasant rebellions, was soon once again shut down by the new Protestant orthodox classes of clerics who propagated both an iconoclastic war on images, and regenerated superstition about females and nature as devilish and prone to leading men astray. Thus previous Christian superstitions and prohibitions against any forms of female independence and /or artistic expression beyond utilitarian or decorative crafts, was suppressed across the Euro-Christian world system.
While an even stronger, more Judaic, prohibition on figurative representation and gender based constraint on female artistic expression reached throughout the Muslim world system, extending across Eurasia and into Africa, it began to breakdown the closer it came in proximity to Buddhist, Hindu and strongly Animist cultural systems. As to the Eastern Eurasian mosaic of Buddhist, Confucian, Taoist, Shinto, Korean (Mugyo / Shingo), Siberian Shamanic, and ancestor worship, the greater the freedom of female artistic expression. The overwhelming majority of literature on female arts and artists derives from the Euro-American Christian ethos, history and current feminist ideological projection into art history without distinguishing what has been embedded in so-called Western Civilization, including Modernism, from the rest of the world. Such discourses are overtly Eurocentric, except for post-Colonial discourses that concentrate more on a critical, multicultural anti-hegemonic program directed toward deconstructing the power of Eurocentric discourses.
Here we encounter a divide in feminist discourses between a dominant Eurocentricism, and emergent post-Colonial feminist theory and research. The latter is much more articulate in representing cultural specificity and differentiated values structures among specific cultures, although still weak in analysis of historical change and development, especially among less modernized westernized societies, and in articulating how modernization and globalization have impacted historic trajectories. In a research project related to this doctoral candidate’s dissertation topic, the iconology of Frida Khalo, focuses on investigating contradictions among discursive representations of the artist as producer of visual images and texts, and her artistic products. First, her current celebrity status largely derives from a high production value cinematic fictionalization of selected segments of her life with an all-star celebrity cast.
The artist herself portrayed by Arab-Mexican star Selma Hayak, in a dominant narrative built around Frida’s troubled relationship with superstar Mexican Revolutionary Muralist Diego Rivera. A secondary narrative involves her suffering from physical injuries and disabilities, while a subtext represents her political life through relations with a Mexican and International Communist movement Women Warriors: Challenging Arts, Culture & Beyond 11 strongly influential among artists, writers, and intellectuals of that era. Another subtext concerns her sexuality and well known bisexual orientation, although strikingly portrayed in the film, that thread was never fully developed. In fact, most of the important contextual elements in her life were never fully brought out in the film, which shot an already iconic figure of Frida as female artist into super-celebrity status prompting a commercial and ideological Fridamania into global awareness and commodification. One element of Fridamania generated from outside the film, was celebrity superstar Madonna’s well publicized attraction to Frida, her life, image and work.
Madonna’s collecting of original Frida artworks, also shot the international monetary value of her work up into another league, one usually associated with male artists. While not reducing the importance of Frida or of her status as celebrity icon, the question arises over what it takes to promote female artists into celebrity status, and how much of that recognition has to do with their art, and how much to their personal life and /or association with famous male lovers or partners, and the circles within which they moved. Again, we have to point to social class status, both of the female artist’s origins, and how she was received into the art world, its different circles, and their representation through popular and specialized mass media. One more point on Frida, not only has she been represented as icon of hybridity within post-colonial discourse (Tina Kinsella) but as daughter of a mixed race (Mestizo) Mexican religiously Catholic mother and a European Jewish immigrant father, she was easily promoted in post-colonial discourse as an icon of multicultural hybridity.
Her bisexuality appealed to the mushrooming Gay-Lesbian-Bisexual-Transgender (GLBT) discourses that currently affect a colonizing influence within academia and are currently prevalent among artisticintellectual communities. Thus Frida has been used to represent an iconic Third Sex/Gender (GLBT) image, hence strengthening the value of such identities within both GLBT and generic, artistic-oriented, cultural communities. A further question arises, does a single celebrity cultural icon change / impact social and cultural appreciation for female arts and artists? When we look at the co-branding of Frida and another celebrity female artist, Georgia O’Keeffe, as a recent touring exhibition and associated text, media and discussion has promoted, another question arises; do these two artists represent differentiated aspects of a single genre or category of female art, and artistry? While both share common association with famous male artists, Frida with Diego Rivera, O’Keeffe with Alfred Stieglitz, and although both exhibited Women Warriors: Challenging Arts, Culture & Beyond 12 independence and sexual freedom, O’Keefe was always associated with an American-International elite circle of artists, and as far as is known, preferred heterosexual relations, and was not politically involved, nor suffered from any infirmities.
If Frida worked in an overtly autobiographical, generally enigmatically surrealist, and small format, O’Keeffe’s work differed almost totally in form, content and scale. Although Frida’s work was only very enigmatically, rather than explicitly feminist and sexual, O’keeffe’s early work was interpreted as sexual in her display of analogies between flowers and female genitalia, which caused her to change representational directions. In short, the two women artists shared less in their lives and work than comparable fame, yet are paired as iconic North American female artists. The final question in regard to celebrity female artists, whether the Frida-O’Keeffe pairing, a century of well recognized artists from American impressionist, Mary Cassette (1844 -1926).
This list of perhaps the best known and respected, American female artists whose works have been well presented and discussed includes: Louise Joséphine Bourgeois (1911-2010), Helen Frankenthaller (1928-2011), Elaine De Kooning (1918-1989), Lee Krasner (1908-1984), and Louise Nevelson (1899-1988), or more recently among overtly feminists celebrity artists, Judy Chicago (1939-present). It is necessary to acknowledge, that these artists hail from bourgeoisie and elite families, which is historically and globally true of most all artists, and three were married or partnered to famous male artists; Bourgeois to art historian Robert Goldwater, Frankenthaller to Robert Motherwell, DeKooning to Willam de Kooning, and Lee Krasner to Jackson Pollock. Nevelson was a very independent person, married to a rich husband, unknown in the arts world, but who supported her artistic career, and although having had an influence on feminist art, she is quoted as saying “I’m not a feminist. I’m an artist who happens to be a woman.”
Even with her influence upon future generations of feminist artists, Nevelson’s opinion of discrimination within the art world bordered on the belief that artists who were not gaining success based on gender suffered from a lack of confidence. When asked if she suffered from sexism within the art world, Nevelson replied “I am a woman’s liberation”. (B. K Rapaport. The Sculpture of Louise Nevelson: Constructing a Legend. Yale UP 2007). Like Nevelson, a number of these American women artists were either born or educated in Europe, including a great proportion of American artists, male and female, having Bourgeoisie Jewish backgrounds. Women Warriors: Challenging Arts, Culture & Beyond 13 To analyze and/or interpret both national and gender identities in relation to artists and artistic production, it is necessary to deconstruct any specific “national group” at any period of history.
The Euro-American division between male and female would have most importantly to distinguish historical changes among deeply conservative ethnic and class groups over time, especially in the modern rise toward secularism, which freed females from many previous constraints. Secondly, understanding the importance of social class and what changing and continuing traditions impacted female limitations and opportunities. In Pierre Bourdieu’s major study on French social construction of cultural taste, “Distinctions” draws from his broader multicultural experiences, and a reflexive recognition of his own rural, lower socio-economic class background, but soundly situates the arts as embedded in successive upper class social learning processes. European education has never been universally equal, as children are tracked almost from preschool through channels toward higher levels of education, and as is tragically evident at present, children of lower class immigrant populations are falling behind and dropping out from schools which foster an elitist curricula, and if lucky find places in lower status vocational technical schools, where arts are far from the core curricula. Looking at American female artists, it is important to note their European backgrounds. First, although from bourgeois backgrounds, many found that a strong traditionalism in the European Arts Communities restricted their advancement and recognition.
Second, for many, their Jewish heritage also limited their wider social recognition. For some of them, a move to America’s less socially and traditionally class restrictions opened opportunities. For American born women, becoming art students or artists in Europe offered them a similar escape from their own restrictive elements within American culture. Thus it would be extremely complex to assume valid comparisons between arts and artists …To take several case studies from different cultural and geographical locations, we can make some comparisons to assess similarities and differences between the representations themselves in relation to their cultural and temporal context and representation of women by women versus representation of women by men. Thus we explore a dual problem concerning the visual representation of women, first by cultural diversity, and second by gender of those who create the visual representation, hence, assessing how women participate in self-representation. As earlier discussed, China and East Asian societies in general may have had gender differentiation across visual arts, but they have never suffered from iconoclastic movements based on religious injunctions against representing the human form.
As well, also as earlier discussed, painting emerged Women Warriors: Challenging Arts, Culture & Beyond 14 from writing, or vice versa, but the use of ink, paper and brush allowed for free expression in both calligraphy and representative images, abstractions of nature as much as attempts at naturalistic imagery. Again, social class was more a determinate to female writing and painting than gender prohibitions or restrictions. For the rural peasant population, historically, well over 90% of China’s population were rural and illiterate, but maintained lively folk art traditions, especially coupled with crafts such as sewing, were common for females, whether naturalistic paper cuts or embroidery, in villages where perhaps only one single family could afford reading and writing lessons for a single son. Overall, females were less valued, often viewed as bad luck, and traded or sold when a family faced financial difficulties. Boys, however, were not only prized for continuity of lineage and their labour, but especially if they were bright and quick of mind they were worth an investment in their education toward potential sitting for government exams. Passing regularly held exams, would secure a future in Civil Service that would benefit their extended family, clan and village.
Often a clan or village would collect funds to educate their brightest boy from whatever family in hopes that his success would benefit all. Thus aside from decorative arts and crafts, education and brush painting were only for the daughters of Civil Servants, nobility or scholarly families, extending occasionally to rich mercantile or rich peasant families. Thus Chinese female artists were historically very few and not well represented in high arts. With western introduced modernity in the late 19th century, came education in Christian Mission schools and a slow rise in private academies for females, often including visual arts curricula and lessons, partially in imitation of what was known about western education.
The brutal Japanese invasion and occupation, and then the civil war that followed, wreaked havoc across China, curtailing artistic production and the loss of many art treasures to looting by Japanese, bandits, and the Nationalist elites and army officers as they retreated to Taiwan. After the Communist takeover, visual arts were resurrected as propaganda tools, first modeled on Soviet style Socialist Realism. As society revived and education spread through the new simplified characters, the 90% illiterate peasantry slowly gained literacy and simple inks, brushes and paper were made available to most all villages, even though many of the teachers had only recently become literate and had minimal education themselves. Although literacy was taught in schools, so too were visual arts, with talented boys and girls gaining access to simple art tools, first for big character propaganda banners, then for illustrating posters, flyers, brochures and books. The most talented were plucked from obscurity and sent to academies for further training, mainly by Soviet trained art teachers. But such progress in arts was interrupted once again. The Great Cultural Revolution tore society apart, suspicion and punishment meted out to the more educated sectors of society, and even Soviet style arts, music, dance and theatre were banned, and such artists sent to labour in rural areas. Thus a generation of educational progress was lost.
Yet, midstream in the Women Warriors: Challenging Arts, Culture & Beyond 15 Cultural Revolution, Jiang Qing (Madame Mao) took charge of Cultural Affairs, and reintroduced visual and performing arts albeit in even more heavily handed didactic messages. But visual arts flourished both with ubiquitous revolutionary social realist posers and murals, mainly depicting Chairman Mao as the great father figure, and in conjunction with Mme. Mao’s use of theater and dance for propaganda purposes. Jiang Qing’s model repertoire labeled Eight Model Plays spawned a rich mix of elements from ballet, Bejing Opera, folk and martial arts. Criticized as overly didactic, yet visually exciting and acrobatic, with names like White Haired Girl and Red Detachment of Women these plays featured heroic women warriors, heroines of the Socialist and Cultural Revolutions.
Although this artistic phase of the Cultural Revolution was short lived, it had brought back opportunities for talented people to participate in cultural production, however stilted in propaganda. Internationally, during an era that experienced a surge of leftist youth movements, films of these Chinese Theater pieces became cult classics shown in art cinemas throughout Europe and America, not to mention throughout the Tricontinental countries of Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Likewise the little red book, Mao caps and jackets, and especially posters widely circulated along and were commonly worn and displayed among youth, competing with the ubiquitous images of Che Guevara, gaining global cult status. The Chinese visual arts of that era, also became commodities appropriated by art collectors and galleries, with originals selling for high prices, and pirated copies commonly available alongside equally pirated poster reproductions featuring images by Picasso or other celebrity artists and photographic images.
Turning toward an image of woman warrior, it is ironic that Chinese Socialist realism should become an iconic symbol for radical feminism. But today’s female Chinese artists are less heroic women warriors, and their art works more likely to mimic latest trends in postmodern art installations and performances. A recent New York Times feature on a trend toward contemporary Chinese cutting edge arts and artists, featured a headline “China’s Female Artists Quietly Emerge” featuring 16 new wave artists and their work, not a single one having any proximity to either traditional Chinese arts or its socialist revolutionary period. Labeling the 16 as “Beijing’s Less Well Known Artists” one photograph portrayed “Xing Danwen in her home, which is also her studio in Beijing,” commenting that: “The 1995 series “Born With the Cultural Revolution,” by the photographer Xing Danwen, who was born in 1967, examined the status of her generation of women: heirs of a Maoist principle of gender equality now living in a market economy that undermines that equality.” Has the reopening of China to contemporary Western culture, arts in particular, destroyed an ancient tradition of female artists, however much they had previously come exclusively from high status elites, Women Warriors: Challenging Arts, Culture & Beyond 16 or during the Cultural Revolution from extremely talented individuals of lower class backgrounds?
Only time will tell, as it will for the next question concerning the deep traditions of both Chinese high arts and folk arts that have become so valuable to international collections, purchased by both individuals and museums. It seems that a new Chinese industry has emerged to produce multiple cheap export copies of traditional paintings, sculpture or decorative arts, or locally produced art objects that simulates traditional images and are intended as souvenirs for tourists. But, as this research has demonstrated, Modernization impacted different places and cultures in different ways, and though different processes, time frames and rates of absorption, change and/or rejection. In the case of China, we have a critical example of how such a change took place at the advent of a second stage of Western influence and modernization. As Doris Sung points out in her paper “Chinese Women Artists’ Global Presence, 1900-1937,” presented at New Geographies of Feminist Art: China, Asia, and the World, (Seattle 2012) … … art practices of Chinese women artists [were transformed] in the early twentieth century [as] … notions of virtue, talent and women’s rights were drastically changed and redefined in Chinese society … women started to step out of the confines of the inner quarters and express their artistic talents through various channels in the Chinese art world … also gaining opportunities to showcase their works in western art world centers. Some … women artists working in traditional Chinese painting medium . . .were chosen to represent China in international expositions …while others . . . who took up western-style painting … managed to exhibit … in prestigious art venues such as the Paris Salon … Sung also critiques the way in which those works were represented in Western media, in their reception, and consumption of their works.
Also significant about this is the fashion of Orientalism prevalent at that time, and the exotic aspect of Asian women artists, which crated somewhat of an arts media feeding frenzy that rolled over the fact that Euro-American women artists, were not allowed the same treatment, exhibitions and press coverage. In conclusion, are all artists warriors of aesthetics or have aesthetics disappeared from the contemporary world of visual arts, in which post-Warhol, Keith Haring or Banksy, anything goes? Do women have to become warriors in order to challenge still male dominated arts establishments, or do all women have to become warriors to challenge this male dominated world system.
Breaking though glass ceilings is not for sissies. In a globalized, modern world capitalist system dominated by value structures derived from Euro-Christian cultural systems, gender equity is challenged by history, theology and ideology in which Women Warriors: Challenging Arts, Culture & Beyond 17 they take a second place, de Beauvoir’s second sex. But each societal, ethno-cultural system presents its own unique challenges to gender equity, to which some women will respond, while others shrink back into an illusive security of domesticity. What are the iconic role models for women warriors? Where are the contemporary depictions of heroic women, where are Valkyries, the Joan of Arc? It seems that Jiang Qing’s operas could celebrate heroic women, whereas the West had few female heroines outside of media celebrities. Two striking iconic images portray heroic women outside of socialist realism, or the Fascist portrayal of woman as strong domestic bedrock of society. The first is the continual French representation of Liberty charging across the revolutionary barricade holding the Tricolour in one hand, and a rifle in the other.
The second image is the American WWII “We can do it!” image of “Rosie the riveter”. Both these iconic images have been reproduced in so many forms that they have almost become religious icons of feminism. The struggle for equity, not necessary equality, has continually evolved its forms and images and modes of representation, from crude angry demonstrations to sophisticated “Branding”. But how do both commercial and “fine” artists continue to evolve in their representation of women, and how do those images influence how women think of themselves, and/or see themselves in those images? On the other side of the coin, how do women artists portray the female form or produce images that represent women from a feminist perspective. But all that may be obsolete in that new media artists seldom refer or return to painting from models or even consider human forms as fit subject matter. Probably the single most spectacular art work that presented the female both as an object was Niki de Saint Phalle, French artist, sculptor whose giant body of a woman with her legs open and a human height entrance through her vagina into a cavernous inside shocked many, but made a point about the female body. With a tsunami of women entering art schools and graduating in both studio and theory, as we progress further into the 21st century, it will be interesting to see what evolves, as there is no going back.