Women in Art

By Celeste Sousa (Art ’18)

Everyone has been in a crit where a girl is showing her work, when suddenly someone latches onto something feminine they see in the piece—usually something they view as “soft” or “vulnerable”. From there, the conversation gets derailed into discussing the piece in terms of the stereotypes of femininity, with any and all synonyms for “motherly” and “subdued” thrown in. If you’re in a sculpture class, someone’s going to bring up Eva Hesse because that’s the only female artist students feel they know well enough to shoehorn a comparison in with your work. God help you if you’re a woman artist working with fabric. Even if you’re adamant that your work is not about femininity or your gender, I’ve seen other students insist that the association was too strong to ignore. In other words, we as woman artists do not have the agency to separate our work from the patriarchal lens it’s seen through.

“God help you if you’re a woman artist working with fabric.”

One of the issues is that art made by men is considered politically and socially neutral by default. Beyond the art world too, the white man is seen as an accurate, unbiased representative for mankind. Because a woman is ‘other’ than the ‘neutral’ man, her stance in society is seen to influence and permeate everything she does. Therefore women artists are thought to bring ‘being a woman’ to their art in every single instance.  It is really harmful to tell women artists who don’t want their work to be seen through their gender that their identity is too political to make neutral art. Moreover, it
prevents people from experiencing her art for anything other than preconceived notions of gender that are projected onto her work.

The other side to this issue: women artists who actually do want their identity as a woman to be present in their work feel pressured not to explore those avenues. Many female art students fear even trying to touch femininity in their work because they are daunted by the mental exhaustion of sitting through a crit laced with sexist discussion. They are avoiding making artwork about themselves as women because of the negative views of feminism and feminist art. Feminism is an extremely polarizing subject and while in actuality it is complex it is often oversimplified for easier digestion. Feminist work is often read in crits as didactic because everyone thinks they know what feminism is and what being a woman is like. This leads to self-censorship within female artists in fear of being branded a feminist artist and being saddled with all the weight and history that comes with it. We become hyper self-conscious about our identity in relation in our art, and it begins to strain our relationships with other students, our teachers and our own art. It’s not fair to have the historical weight of being a woman imposed on our art when men’s art does not face the same scrutiny through their masculinity.

“Many female art students fear even trying to touch femininity in their work”

I want women artists to be able to make artwork about their body and identity without the fear of being pigeon-holed and I want women artists to be able to make art featuring any
subject/material they want and not have their work be read through their gender. It’s not unrealistic to want both of these.

There is no clear solution to this issue besides asking the entire student body to become more conscious of the way gender is brought up in discussion. Be aware of the gendered language you use! If another student explicitly states that her work has nothing to do with her gender, listen to her. Just because a woman attaches her body to her work does not make the piece inherently feminist. If a student does do work about being a woman, you don’t have to relate to it in order to empathize and digest what she’s saying. Question masculinity more in terms of art made by men, level the playing field, and realize that sometimes men’s art is also affected by their privileged status in society.

The issues women face in the art school are compounded with the experiences of those with differing gender and sexual identities. Anyone who is any combination of things other than the default white male knows it’s difficult enough to reconcile identity and art without the added judgment of our peers. By simply thinking about the prescribed stereotypes that are engrained in our thoughts and being conscious of it during critiques, we can relieve the institutional burdens of the patriarchy off of our peers.

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