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The Crucial Role of Gender and Sexuality in The Art History

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Throughout the history of Art and Architecture, the social beliefs within society have deeply influenced the acceptable volume of input and the extent of rejection enforced upon female and queer artists. Although the discovery of female and queer artworks is emerging as a growing contribution to art history, the continued struggle of these minority groups to gain recognition has shed light on the impact of the suppression of certain gender and sexual categories within the history of art. Through the arguments presented by Christine Battersby (1946-), Aaron Betsky (1958-) and Griselda Pollock (1949-) and Rozsika Parker (1945-2010), I will consider, the confinement of women to specific genres of artworks, the concealment of the female gender in relation to unsigned and misinterpreted artworks, and the masked expression of homosexuality within queer artwork. Taking into account each of the arguments discussed, I wish to establish the importance of gender and sexuality in relation to the credit they received and thus their significance in the historiography within art history.

It could not be disputed that throughout history, the female gender has continuously struggled and suffered at the hand of misogyny; art history being a prominent example and advocate of this. In her book ‘Gender and Genius: towards a feminist aesthetics’, Battersby highlights that ‘We still associate the great artist with certain (male) personality-types, certain (male) social roles, and certain kinds of (male) energies’ , emphasizing that ‘Women who want to create must still manipulate aesthetic concepts taken from mythology and biology that were profoundly anti-female’ , confined to expressing themselves artistically through art forms such as needlework. As women were largely excluded from the male-dominated art world, they often needed to use their ingenuity to earn their right to continue creating the little art they could. Patricia Mainardi (1942-) commented that women ‘put their creativity instead into needlework arts which exist in a fantastic variety wherever there are women, and which in fact are a universal female art form transcending race, class and national borders’. Needlework was often used as a way of determining a woman’s social class, and thus it became dominant in the female art world as women could use their needlework to show their social class, and also increase their position in the female art sphere as their work would be aspired to be matched by others, gaining them credibility. However, although needlework has become so predominant in the female art world, it is still frequently dismissed as a mere craft which is part of a tradition, rather than receiving the credit it often deserves for its detail and intricacy, a component of art which can rarely be argued to have been overlooked in the male sphere of art. Pollock in her book ‘Vision and Difference: Femininity, Feminism, and the Histories of Art’ argues that ‘what modernist art history celebrates is a selective tradition which normalizes, as the only modernism, a particular and gendered set of practices’ , thus suggesting that gender has played an important role in the dismissal of female artwork and therefore its contribution to the history of art as it is often overlooked in aspects of the detail it portrays in relation to the praise that is received in artworks created by men. This is further emphasised through Battersby’s observation that ‘the achievements of women who have managed to create are obscured by an ideology that associates cultural achievement with the activities of males’. Thus, it is evident that sexuality plays a crucial role in the way in which we view art history as females throughout time have become ‘linked with a lack of genius’ and therefore their contribution to the art world has been actively limited through the beliefs in the art society.

Within art history, the female gender has, especially in more recent years, become more prominent in the art world, although as Betsky highlights ‘We still live in a sexist society. Women can make a place for themselves, but usually still within a structure set by men’. The level of acceptance towards female artists has grown significantly over time however in the restriction of the freedom of female artists as a form of suppression in the past, the practice of the concealment of the female artist as a means of publication highlights the impact of sexism and gender within art history. In their book Old Mistresses: Women, Art and Ideology, Pollock and Parker stress that although women have established forms of artworks that they may flourish in and contribute to, ‘asserting their value in the face of male prejudice does not displace the hierarchy of values in art history’, which contributed deeply to the misinterpretations within art history regarding the original creators of artworks. Artists such as Judith Leyster (1609-1660) who’s work was attributed to her husband Jan Miense Molenaer (1610-1668) for almost 200 years after her death (and continued to be deliberately misinterpreted in the early 20th century as Molenaer’s work was regarded to be of higher value) highlight the impact of gender in relation to recognition of artworks. The continued struggle to dismantle the patriarchal norms of feminist artwork to shed light upon the concealment of the female gender in relation to unsigned and misinterpreted artworks is highlighted through Parker and Pollock who illustrate that the term ‘woman’ has gained negative connotations as less capable than the actions of a male, thus suggesting that gender matters in art history as the patriarchy embedded within society has led to pieces of art made by female artists being both intentionally and unintentionally misinterpreted in an attempt to maintain prices of artworks higher due to their being made by the male gender and as a form of repression so as to exclude females from genres of art that were said to be ‘masculine’.

The suppression of queer artists has formed a crucial role in the history of art as their repression as a whole has led to masked artworks. Before 1861, the death penalty existed for people convicted of gay sexual acts in and Wales, and in the United States, those found guilty of sodomy could be punished by mutilation in some states. Such consequences meant that any references to homosexuality in art had to be heavily hidden, and Betsky therefore emphasizes that ‘The queer space of interiorized modernism was thus one that passed as old and anonymous’. Betsky highlighted that, in its origins, masked queer artworks were presented in subtle ways that would only have been clear to particular viewers as artists such as Cecil Beaton (1904-1980) would design their pieces with ‘shifting layers of abstracted illusion’ so as to express themselves in as pure a form as they were able without the certainty of punishment, while also maintaining the possibility of popularity and recognition. Betsky suggests that ‘style could be a mask one could wear, and how buildings could appropriate normal functions for sensual purposes’; artists such as Julia Morgan (1872-1957) often included and paid much attention to spaces filled with water. Morgan placed great emphasis on designs including areas with open water, such as a pool or bathtub in her designs as open spaces such as these ‘held central place because of their ability to drain off the reality of the body as quickly, hygienically, and elegantly as possible’. For critics such as Betsky therefore, queer art and architecture was ‘an act of appropriating the modern world for the continual act of self-construction’ as their freedom was not accepted in society and so their work was used as a form of self-expression and as a subtle way of speaking surreptitiously to particular viewers. Therefore, it is evident that sexuality matters within the history of art as the suppression of queer artists has led to the creation of masked artworks which, although were heavily hidden in the past as artworks which followed this form of expression were intensely shunned and thus were unheard of. While queer artwork is becoming more accepted and celebrated in the modern-day world of art, queer artists’ inability to share their work freely has therefore somewhat prevented and distinctly changed their contribution to art history.

In conclusion, it is evident that gender and sexuality have played a crucial role in the history of art as the confinement of women to specific genres of artworks, the concealment of the female gender in relation to unsigned and misinterpreted artworks, and the masked expression of homosexuality within queer artwork have led to their forced inability to contribute fully to the world of art. The deliberate, enforced rejection of female and queer artists highlights the injustice shown towards these groups within art history, emphasising the impact they had on art history as a way of shunning their contributions.

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