Monday, 17 June 2019

An art gallery and a feminist: A rant

1/ Yesterday I went to Manchester Art Gallery. Lovely gallery, with some great artworks. But 1 thing ruined the entire experience: The feminist revision. 

(Right click and open in new tab to see in full size). 
And more.
These notes were written by Anne Louise Kershaw. 
There is no enlightenment, no new information—everyone knows that women in the past didn’t have the same opportunities as men, we are talking about the art world centuries ago. How sad and pathetic are you that you’re looking at great art, and all you can think about is gender? This obsession with the identity of the artist shows an indifference to artistic merit and artistic quality. To be honest, people who don’t give a shit about art should stop talking about art and spouting nonsense. 
These notes don’t belong in an art gallery, at least not a serious one. Apart from the bitter tone, pointlessness, and irrelevance, it’s not even good writing—it’s casual, inarticulate, and carelessly phrased. 
People like Anne Louise Kershaw give feminism a bad name. 

2/ Sadly this way of thinking is not uncommon. Identity politics are now the norm. Society is full of people who talk about art, or even create art (or “art”), but don’t care about art. I mean, if you care more about social issues, intentions, and messages, you don’t really care about art. If you care more about the artist’s identity, background, and private life, you don’t really care about art. Does artistic quality not matter? Does talent not matter? Does vision not matter? 
To promote equality and diversity, you don’t have to attack the past and its achievements. 
To promote equality and diversity, you don’t have to wage war against dead white males. 
To promote equality and diversity, you don’t have to fill yourself with hatred and bitterness.
I’m sick of people who see everything through the lens of identity politics, and distort all to fit their agenda. I’m sick of people who like to categorise and label and divide. 
People should be seen as individuals, and art should be judged from the aesthetic point of view. 


  1. Hai Di Nguyen, I agree with all you have said. In particular your conclusions seem to me to be very appropriate:
    "I’m sick of people who see everything through the lens of identity politics, and distort all to fit their agenda. I’m sick of people who like to categorise and label and divide."
    But I would like to offer an alternative argument for why this commentary from Anne Louise Kershaw is so problematic. In a word, it's simply naive. I would call attention to a phrase she uses several times: "They [male artists] really liked looking at sexy bodies."
    What is missing in that statement is three fold:
    1) She does not ask the obvious question of why artists draw the naked human body; instead she seems to have guessed that the only reason could be that they had inflamed libidos -- but for most artists the human body is a touchstone because it is common to us all. It possesses the instruments and organs that we all use to apprehend the world. It contains the self, the individual mind, the capacity to engage the world. It is and has been, since the time of cave paintings, the single most common and central trope in human art.
    2) In the eighteenth century most artist models were male -- which would mean that to fit her theory, we would have to believe that the overwhelming majority of male artists were gay. While it's no great leap to imagine there were perhaps a larger percentage of gays in this career field, even if, at the time, they were rarely out of the closet; still it would be a dubious contention that they were overwhelmingly gay.
    3) For the artist there is a kind of combined objective and subjective activity that goes into drawing -- the model must be seen as an object, measured, shaped, with an outline, and cast shadows and highlights, etc. But the portrayal must not only capture the object-like, not necessarily libidinous, qualities of the model, it must also capture the emotive, expressive qualities of the figure -- it must give us the sense that something alive and animate is present in the drawn object. In the figure drawing workshop I regularly attend we have both male and female models. I noticed once when a new fellow showed up for one session; finding out that the model that evening would be male, he awkwardly fled.

  2. Part 2

    Additional thoughts:
    4) Beauty and perfection, which Kershaw places too much attention on, changed radically in the period she is discussing; indeed, as art became more "modern" it also became more expressive and more inclined to challenge the notions of perfection, both as an aesthetic and as a method for apprehending the model.
    5) She attacks the patrons of the eighteenth century for being obsessed with old masters and the middle class patrons of the industrial revolution for wanting contemporary British art. These two critiques have their place in art histories of these two time periods, but she fails to link either to her own theme of male dominance in the arts Such a linkage could be made, but Kershaw does not provide it; I suspect she says these things to make herself sound more like a waspish social critic. She also refers to buying art as "wasting money" which would suggest that she has a very low value for art in general, making her voice a dubious one to be providing this critique.
    6) Finally, she tells us that "seriousness and morality" remained important in art, and yet the artists still wanted to paint "naked young women" and fell back upon this practice like "a dog with a bone." But the question this begs is what is her morality? It cannot be that she is in possession of no morality. Were that the case, her argument would be moot. She seems to feel that any painting of a naked woman is an obscene act of male privilege. As a morality this would be much easier to understand if it were directly stated. And, clearly, she is basically preaching a sermon for a new morality and doing so in the way of a lay evangelistic preacher who has more vehemence than learning, who knows what is right and wrong in the world, but cares little for coherence and consistency over passion and depth of belief, who expresses her morality as a truth beyond reproach.
    Well, that's all I have to say...

  3. Part 3

    Apparently that was not all I had to say...

    You know, one of the things that struck me as I was piecing together this logic, is that the points I have brought up are really a much better support for identity politics than what she has written.
    She is trying to be a social critic as defined in critical theory, but ultimately neo-marxian critical theory is not fully supportive of identity politics if it is seen only as a means of social criticism and fails to engage itself in cultural criticism. The cultural critic takes culture (all culture, not just the culture of the oppressed) as a reality, not as an evil. Culture is something to be understood and explained before any criticism can be begun.
    Critical Theory too often assumes oppression without checking to see how that oppression is actually playing itself out. As a result in the hands of someone like Ms. Kershaw the critique becomes a grasping at common place criticisms; anything that is in anyway critical of that which appears to be engaged in oppression must be a factor in the character of the oppression under consideration. This, I think is why she reached for irrelevant social critiques which she made no effort to contextualize.
    But ultimately if identity politics cannot explain the fascination we have for the human body in general, the degree to which such a fascination can be both oppressive and humanizing, then it will fail to explain how our identities enable us to be human beings in a sense that transcends the limitations of personal identity.
    I think another problem she has is that she limits herself to attaching one characteristic to each type of human activity. Could she understand and support the notion that drawing naked human bodies is both a kind of oppression and a kind humanizing? The cultural critic (and I'm thinking here of someone like Susan Sontag or Henry Louis Gates, jr. or even Matthew Arnold) would not have missed all the rich questions Kershaw sweeps past. Fundamentally her inability to ask why humans draw human bodies, which has a rich heritage of discourse, is a massive flaw in her thinking.

  4. Whole heartedly agree, poorly written and intellectually lazy opinion peice. Essentially all culture is tainted by "the patriarchy"... A terrible way to view human history. Especially in Britain where there have been so many exceptionally powerful and strong willed female leaders.

  5. Yeah.
    I was expecting either Anne Louise Kershaw or Manchester Art Gallery to reply, but they didn't. I'd like to know what they have to say, especially after Mark's brilliant comments.


Be not afraid, gentle readers! Comment! Discuss! Argue!
(Make sure to save your text before hitting publish, in case your comment is swallowed by the whale and disappears forever).