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Beauty, Spring 2005
Fourth Web Papers
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Undoing the Patriarchy in Art

Alice Kaufman

The topic of women in painting and sculpture has traditionally been that of a passive object, the receiver of an active male gaze. Objectification of women in art is first a reflection, and then a continuation of female objectification in society. Modern and post-modern feminist women artists use their work to show anti-objectification—that is, making the woman the active subject of a piece, to end this cycle of objectification while simultaneously creating a new cycle: the feminist Surrealist painting reflects a feminist society which does not yet fully exist, but is encouraged to exist by the painting. In attempting to redefine Woman as an object into Woman as subject, women Surrealists have typically used one or a combination of these methods: portraying women as masculine, disrupting the female body, and women as ironically hyper-feminine.

Using androgyny to de-objectify women is common, but can be limiting in its possibilities for liberation, because Woman has simply borrowed subjective power of Man. Woman is made masculine, and the femininity which marked her for objectification is removed. Alternatively, Man is made feminine, taking away masculinity and thus indirectly granting subjectivity to woman. These ends are often accomplished at the same time. Yayoi Kusama's sculpture is a prime example of this technique, "by interpolating the phallus, symbol of patriarchal authority, into environments composed of familiar domestic objects" (Chadwick, 19). Semi-flaccid stuffed fabric tubes growing out of ironing boards and baby carriages impart masculine authority onto feminine props, validating the feminine, while at the same time demeaning the masculine with cartoonish genitalia surrounded by these props which imply passivity and obedience. It is open to debate which interpretation is the prevailing one, but I believe that Kusama demeans the masculine to a greater degree than she elevates the feminine.

Frida Kahlo's Self Portrait with Cropped Hair is a less jarring example. The artist is painted in drag and with short hair, with long black hairs and a partial braid draped messily on the floor and on the chair she sits in, holding scissors in her hands. The only retained identifiers of Kahlo's typical gender are the earrings she continues to wear. Here masculine power has been dramatically and unmistakably stolen; because of the earrings, and because the figure's face is well known from Kahlo's other self portraits, it is clear that this is still a woman. It is a woman who looks just like a man, and therefore has the subjectivity of a man. In many of Kahlo's paintings, her face is portrayed as more masculine than in actually was, making it clear that the figure in the painting is not to be looked at and objectified, but challenges with her immobile, mask-like and manly features and unrestricted stare.

Louise Bourgeois's early work also reflects androgyny, but to a greater effect. Bourgeois's sculpture goes beyond bartering masculine power from one subject to another; her abstract work abandons binary sexuality altogether, and as opposed to one type of sexual organ, her pieces contain many on one figure. Her sculpture Torso is a very literal illustration, "covered with penile, scrotal, and labial shapes" (Chadwick, 19). Because the genitals themselves are so shocking, particularly in their combinations, the female genitals are not any more of an object than the male genitals. While the subheading of the sculpture is Self-Portrait, the torso is abstract enough that it cannot possibly be a literal interpretation of Bourgeois's physical form. Bougeois's true self is not only unlimited by sex, it is clearly unlimited by her body.

In this way, Bourgeois uses the second technique in de-objectifying women, that of disconnecting the female body. Abstracting the physical body disconnects the body from the self, making it impossible to identify discrete body parts as Woman. Cindy Sherman's Untitled #261 is composed of mannequin and prosthetic parts that are not connected to each other nor form a complete human form, but the subject is technically female, because of the prominent rubber and silicone breasts and vagina. The viewer is then able to question this labeling, exploring societal paradigm that allows us to view an assemblage of parts as a gender/sex. It becomes clear that this form cannot be gendered; it is not even alive. At best the form can be sexed, and this sexualizing brings further evidence that sex is unrelated to humanity. The same conclusions can be drawn from a photograph of a parallel disjointed male form, and indeed Sherman has created a very similar 'male' piece, Untitled #256.

Annette Messager is another artist who makes use of fragmenting the body. In Messager's Piece montee, "Messager's disembodied head vomits forth a cascade of fragmented body parts" (Chadwick, 21) in a gory, almost campy version of early male Surrealists' preoccupation with objects/artifacts and bodies as props. The shock value of this image can be used to further examine how ideas of womanhood and a woman's personhood are connected to her body, which allows objectification to take place. In Messager's photograph La femme et..., particolari; 1974 shows a female human torso with a human torso and pelvis's skeletal pattern drawn onto the skin with marker. The torso's head and crotch is cut off by the edges of the photograph. Once again, this unplaced body part, shown to be a mask or covering of what the form 'really' is by exposing the skeletal structure that lies beneath the skin, challenges what we know as female. Unlike Sherman's abstractions of the body, this is clearly a photograph of a living woman. But the viewer cannot think of this as a picture of a woman; traditionally objectified breasts are there, yes, but without further context for the body, the viewer cannot deceive her or himself into believing that this is a woman. It is a picture of a body part of a woman, nothing more. The objectified body and the humanity that should be respected are helpfully separated.

Cindy Sherman's early work, most famously her Untitled Film Stills series, used a similar, but much subtler method of de-objectifying Woman. In this series of photographs, Sherman creates super-feminine caricatures of Woman, mostly from movies, and just as in the forms of disjointed bodies, these female forms lose all power as hurtful objects. The setting and execution of the series is extremely artificial and each picture is inspired by internalized clichés of American culture. The women photographed, often Sherman herself, are too fake to be anything but objects. There is nothing to experience them with but a clichéd, objectifying male gaze. By doing this, Sherman guides the viewer's attention to the clichés themselves, allowing the viewer to recognize the sex kitten, the lusty good girl librarian, the spirited maid, and see these constructions for what they are. Hollywood and mass media have used these ideals of women, formulated primarily by and for the male consumer, with such regularity that Sherman is able to mock them with the characters' own falseness. There is no person who can conform to such one dimensional specifications; Sherman's playful recreations show that we can use them only if we realize they are severely limited and unreal.

As previously stated, de-sexing or masculinizing women does not appear to be a viable, permanent solution to women's traditional lack of power. Erasing femininity altogether seems limiting. Redirecting this attention to the feminine to attention to the disconnection of a female body appears helpful in recognizing the differences between physical and nonphysical identity. Ironically using clichés can also lead to this enlightenment. But it appears that until general society comes closer to a feminist ideal, most women artists cannot go beyond identifying problems of the male-female power dynamic. The artists examined thus far have not been able to offer any solutions to this problem besides being conscious of it, and acting with the problem in mind. If all in society does, it is possible that it is all that needs to be done.

Chadwick, Whitney. An Infinite Play of Empty Mirrors: Women, Surrealism, and Self -Representation.

Helland, Janice. Culture, Politics, and Identity in the Paintings of Frida Kahlo. Women's Art Journal 11, Fall 1990/Winter 1991.

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