Oana Catalina Bucur
The Feminist Point of View: A Shifting Breach in the Contemporary Art
Oana Cătălina Bucur
Faculty of History and Philosophy, Babeș-Bolyai University, Cluj-Napoca, Romania
Abstract: The purpose of this research is to analyze the ways in which the feminism has succeeded to bring new perspectives to the aesthetic experience. It is known that the civil rights of women begun to the recognized since the '60s, allowing them to attend art classes and to get involved in the artistic environments. This was not enough for them to gain recognition as artists like their male fellow artists did. One of the problems was the lack of genius (because they are female) and also (but not at last) the way they relate to the art they create or the feminine perspective over the artistic objects. Throughout this paper, I try to identify arguments for and also against these social concepts (or prejudices). Also, we will analyze the way in which female artist relate to the perception of the Body in the Contemporary Art and the impact this perception has on the social and cultural systems in the last decades.
Keywords: feminism; feminist art; contemporary art; gender identity.
Artist's preoccupation with the representation of the female body has played an important role over time, being a very large theme in artworks. The female body played a passive role in the sense that it was the object reconfigured by the subject, respectively by the artists. The female body was used by the artists as a sign, as a means to represent something else: like beauty, sensibility, wealth, sensuality. The female body was not represented for itself. He stood for something else. Contemporary art appears to us as a response to the traditional ways of artistic reporting to body and corporality.
By bringing patriarchal perspectives under the sign of interrogation, feminism draws attention to the ways in which women's bodies are represented. Women-artist seeks to move the center of interest and transform the female (perceived in the past as passive and malleable) into a subject that stands for itself. Another mutation refers to the reconfiguration of the ways in which individuals relate to their own bodies, to the power relations that are established between the subject/own body/political area. "Private space", including one's own body, thus becomes a subject of interrogation in relation to power relations that are established between individuals or between individuals and the way in which a given society is formed.
We will analyze the feminism and the impact it has in the contemporary art especially form a philosophical point of view.
At the present moment, to speak about the feminist aesthetics is to question the nature of the subject or to analyze the ways in which we perceive the subject in terms of artistic objects. Also, is about analyzing the actual perspectives of women's beauty, i.e. the existence of the need for women's beauty. The need for women to be more beautiful, to put effort and attention to be more beautiful in everyday life is also being questioned. Is also under questioning the reasons why women need to do so. Why women feel the need to be more beautiful, to use tricks to enrich the natural beauty. It is because they do not feel good enough? They really are not enough or is only the idea the society send them: that they are not enough?
The ideal beauty, the female ideal to which the women tend to adhere is, in fact, a masculine one, one that comes from a masculine perspective (as feminism asserts), which leads to a subjugation and a passive positioning of the feminine.
In contemporary art, it is visible that the concept of identity, body identity, the disintegration of the concept of identity as it was previously perceived socially, is becoming increasingly problematic. Contemporary aesthetic experiences no longer focus solely on reporting the subject to ideals, aesthetic categories such as Sublime, Beautiful, Tragic and so on. Contemporary art draws attention to what is hidden, refused, rejected, outraged, perceived as ugly, grotesque, etc.
The new mutations in art, even if they appear to be seemingly chaotic and destabilizing for the artistic environment, allow new questions to arise about the purpose of art, but also about aesthetic experiences and how do we relate to them.
It is recognized that feminism took the idea of corporeality (together with the concept of the gendered body ) and highlighted the fact that the body (the gendered body also) is a predetermined social/cultural and "imprinted" concept. Feminist authors like Judith Buttler or even Sigmund Freud speak about the perception of the feminine body as a result of the power strategies existing at the society level. The body is not to be seen as a passive instrument, a reference object for a passive female. More than that, the body it can be used also in the opposite directions. By imprinting the body the power scheme that functions in a given society can be modified.
In contemporary art, feminism claim for women to take control of their own body and autonomy. Female artist uses feminine bodies, or even their own, through different and multiple performances. The '70s are the most "prolific" in moving the artist's interest center to the idea of performance and corporality as a "statement" both artistically and politically. Artist women attack taboos, myths, what is hidden, what is used to create a discrepancy between the woman in the flesh and the bones/woman as it is, and the feminine, iconic ideal to which she must aspire, to which she aspires to adapt, tend to. This tends to create a split, a rupture in the personality of women. They tend to believe that are not enough, they have to change themselves in order to correspond to the social demands.
Because of the feminism, the artistic experience is at present moment a concept in full change and reconfiguration. This is due to the interrogations on the nature of the artistic objects or the eternal feminine ideal body. The search for the ideal woman, the ideal represented by the feminine body, symbolized in various forms through artistic works, put pressure from the social point of view on women and feminine itself.
Artists like Cindy Sherman draw attention to how the body (especially the female body) and its presentation or re-representation under different circumstances is a way to anchor us into stereotypes and cultural prejudices. In the works of Cindy Sherman self-identity is regarded as a fragile, malleable construct, influenced by the juncture between social pre-existing premises and personal intentions or interests.
2. The relation between Body and Identity
Considered since antiquity in philosophy (and not only) as a vehicle secondary to the spirit, the body remains, however, an unremitting constant in terms of individual relationships with one's own Self. The representation of one's own body or even of the other bodies in one's own consciousness, influences on how a person perceives and look at himself or herself. From a psychological perspective, the relationship with own body is one of the basic points around which the human personality is formed. We are referring here to the concept of personality as a whole. It is known that self-identity is not the same thing as personality and the personality has as a core the self-identity.
As far as this analysis is concerned, what interests us is the way the body (represented in the art) can, in one sense or another, imprint on the formation of self-identity or, on the contrary, whether self-identity is formed by reference to the way in which bodies are represented in the art.
We allow ourselves to interpret bodily representations in the artistic field, as long as they have always been subject to canons (modifiable in time). We also refer to the human bodies because they have always been seen in art as a sign and a symbol (symbolism) and stood for something else (ideal, perfection, beauty and so on).
As an example, we can refer to the representations of Ancient Greece (painting, sculpture). The bodies are built, created with strict observance of certain canons. The bodies (from paintings and sculptures in Antic Greece) tend to be perfect in terms of proportions, they are almost always young, harmonious, We don’t find sculptures or paintings in which the bodies are "non-conforming" to an ideal, i.e. the ideal pursued during that period. The canons, although changing over time, remain canons, and the artistic field remains one of the most important areas in which the representation/attainment, manifestation, expression of the ideal in material form is pursued further.
Regarding the aesthetic theories, Noël Carroll supports the idea that over time art has moved from the imitative model of nature (which we find in Aristotle and Plato writings) to the representative model (in modernity) and it ends (in contemporary art) to a pattern in which neo-representation plays a central role. Throughout all this passage, art undergoes decisive transformations, which is reflected in the artistic „products” but also in the viewer's perspective.
At this point, we are asking ourselves about how does affect the self-identity the perceiving of the represented (or neo-represented) bodies in art? On the one hand, there is the perception of the real model (in flesh and bones) relative to the way it is rendered (pictorial and not only). But, on the other hand, we have the perception (experience) of the viewer/reader/listener. Also, on the other hand, we have the perception/intent/manifestation through an act/artistic object from the artist's perspective. It is appropriate to make this point because each experience is different, including the fact that the artistic "object" is perceived differently even from individual to individual only.
We want to make it clear that we do not question the sensory experience as a way of constituting the empirical (or even more transcendental) ego in the Kantian sense. We are rather interested in the fact that this concept of "self-identity" is presented to us today as a construct that is continuously formed by experiments and exchanges with the environment, which automatically involves the existence of a body that experiences at the level sensory.
The sensory level needs to be taken into consideration when we analyze how an artistic object is perceived. On the other hand, the sensory level is presented to us as just one of the stages of artistic perception. These different stages of artistic perception can impress not only the way an individual relates to himself but also the multitude of objects in the environment. The individual does not stop at perception itself, he is able to give meaning, to give meaning to the objects around him and also to the art objects that he encounters.
We argue that the relationship between body and self-identity is not limited to a certain period of life (such as childhood in particular: 3-7 years) and not only reported at the stage of the Lacanian mirror. The suite of meanings that we give to our own body (or bodies of others) is both a socio-cultural construct and a series of personal "fingerprints" with which people mark and shape their own self-identity continuously. These statements are relevant both in terms of the artistic environment and the society taken as a whole.
As a matter of fact, the body, as Maurice Merleau-Ponty claims, has a double quality. On the one hand he presents himself as an object (for others) and, on the other hand, as a reality (for the subject), as it clears up Elizabeth Grosz.
“ For Merleau-Ponty, although the body is both object (for others) and a lived reality (for the subject), it is never simply object nor simply subject. It is defined by its relations with objects and in turn, defines these objects as such – it is ‟sense-bestowing” and ‟form-giving”, providing a structure, organization, and ground within which objects are to be situated and against which the body-subject is positioned. The body is my being-to-the-world and as such is the instrument by which all information and knowledge are received and meaning is generated. It is through the body that the world of objects appears to me; it is in the virtue of having/being a body that there are objects for me. ” (Grosz, 1994, p.87)
The body is defined by the relation with the objects, it defines the relationship with the objects, through it, the being is present and, at the same time, presence in the world. So the body is the "vehicle" through which identity (self) is manifested in the world and also through the body – the identity is crystallized and constantly shaped.
3. The relation between Identity and Aesthetic Experience
If self-identity is a construct that is permanently formed (and restructured) by being in contact with the environment, we can also support the fact that aesthetic experiences can also play an equally important role in remodeling it.
As we have seen before, identity is presented to us as part of self, the self-being a more complex construct, with multiple nuances and valences. However, we can nevertheless consider identity as part of ‟the self-experiencing as incarnate and as an identity indifference”. What interests us in this embodied self is precisely that it functions as an open, malleable, constantly changing and restructuring system.
Self and self-identity, as Peter Burke states, are social constructs, they reflect society, are formed by social interactions. A person through social interactions gets to reflect on himself, to look at himself, to become the object of his own reflections. So, understanding how identity is formed is about an overall reflection and the society the individual belongs to. For this analysis, we will mainly refer to the artistic experiences of societies and the ways in which they can impose their self-identity.
‟The self-influences society through the actions of individuals thereby creating groups, organizations, networks, and institutions. And, reciprocally, society influences the self through its shred language and meanings that enable a person to take the role of the other, engage in social interaction, and reflect upon oneself as an object. The latter process of reflexivity constitutes the core of selfhood (McCall &Simmons, 1978; Mead, 1934). Because the self emerges in and is reflective of society, the sociological approach to understanding the self and its parts (identities) means that we must also understand the society in which the self is acting, and keep in mind that the self is always acting in a social context in which other selves exist” (Stets &Burke, 2000)
What we consider to have effects on restructuring the self is the virtual space, the gap, the distance between what is represented (neo-representations) in art and the way we look at ourselves. The ‟Ideal”, the imaginary even, the ideational structures that form and materialize through works of art or which are captured in different arts-specific embodiments create a distance between what we are (when we look at a work of art, i.e. when we experiment aesthetically) and what is represented in the artistic object.
Do I find myself or not in what is represented in the art object? Which part (identity) of myself can I find /resonate/identify with what appears in the painting/sculpture? Is this part somehow idealized in a generic way? Which part of me is idealized or idealizing?
As far as the artist is concerned, his questions rather concern his own ability to play and create through his works an ideal or what he sees, he feels, he experiences, and so on. The artwork presents itself as a personal interpretation of what the artist perceives (both in the outside world and in the inner world).
In order to better understand the relationship between identity and artistic experience, we will also use Noël Carroll's analysis presented by the concepts of resemblance and representation of traditional approaches to pictorial representations. In short, if the image of a body in a painting resembles a real person, it does not mean that the person represents that image, that that image is the person in itself. The resemblance is not representation, it is not a sufficient basis for representation. We can say rather that the image functions as a symbol for the real object, in our case, for the body, as it appears to others (and not necessarily as it is).
“But representation is not a symmetrical relation. If a picture of Napoleon resembles Napoleon, it follows that Napoleon resembles his picture, but it does not follow that Napoleon represents his picture. For though resemblance is a symmetrical relation, representation is not. Thus, resemblance cannot serve as a model for representation, since resemblance and representation have different logical structures, the one being symmetrical and the other not. Resemblance cannot be a sufficient condition for representation, because there will be many cases of resemblance –such as the fact that Napoleon resembles his portrait – that will not warrant attributions of representation. It is not the case that if Napoleon resembles his portrait, then Napoleon represents his portrait ” (Carroll, 2001)
However, the need to “represent” bodies, portraits, static images of real people/characters has existed since ancient times and continues to be a need for the instruments of satisfying it, to improve it over the time. The body represented is not the same as the person itself. Nevertheless, the need for image/duplication, the look of something that resembles the real person exists.
To get into details, it is necessary to lean towards the psychology of art. On the other hand, for the purposes of the present work, it is sufficient to specify that the need to perceive/visualize/make images of bodies/portraits resembling the original leads us to the need to preserve somewhat unaltered the influence of time on our own body. This can be seen as an attempt to preserve unaltered moments or fragments of one's own life, an attempt to temporize our own body and our own self-image. This attempt can be seen as a way of influencing the way we perceive our own body.
For the spectator, the art works as a catalyst for a dual targeting of the perceiver/artist at art level, says G. V. Loewen (Loewen, 2012, p.97). An aesthetic experience position the one who experiences both into the relationship of “identifying” or “mirroring” at a certain level with what is presented in the work of art, and at the same time, the one who experiences can see himself as being different from what is shown in the work of art.
The construction of self-identity is a process that also includes aesthetically this difference, this void or interrogating space that arises from this oscillation of the two hypostases of the individual.
The concept of “mirroring” to which we refer is not necessarily the one in the Lacanian perspective, but rather the mirroring as a relationship and exchange, interconnection and active presence, implication for the establishment of meanings, differentiation for establishing our own identity structure.
Artists such as Robert Morris and Dan Graham have experienced reflection/reflection effects in their works in the 60’s and 70’s. The idea of reflection or fragmentation, mirroring continues to be a fructified topic in contemporary art. Meanwhile, artists such as Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, Olafur Eliasson, and Yayoi Kusama tackle the theme of reflecting the subject in mirror structures, directing the subject of aesthetic experience to internalize through the perception of their own body.
By addressing the theme of reflection, contemporary artists respond, without wanting obviously or willingly, to Jean Baudrilland's criticism of contemporary art. For this, contemporary art has lost its desire for illusion, becoming “trans-aesthetic”. The dissociation of reality, a solid foundation of the existence of art objects is canceled (through cubism, abstractionism or expressions). There must be a mystery (a form of mystery) to stand at the bottom, he says (Baudrillard, 2005, p.25).
But the mystery does not disappear! Through contemporary art, the mystery is re-allocated to other “areas”, the perspectives moves further, and thus, the center of interest is also transferred. The mystery is not the art object or art delimited openly by framing, but the daily space, the viewer, the one who experiences and finds himself in the position of having an aesthetic experience. The very concept of “aesthetic experience” is changing its definition more and more. Contemporary art allows, not by meaningless destruction, but by re-modeling and reconstruction in a new register, access to new forms of mystery, differentiation between registers, to new dichotomies.
The art object no longer appears in contemporary art as a re-presentation of objects as they appear on the outside. The stake is to identify the “spaces” that exist beyond the appearances of objects.
Who is the person/individual/self that experiences? What is the aesthetic experience? Who am I? (eventually).
The very concept of “identity” is questioned through aesthetic experiences in contemporary times and in contemporary art, which allows us to support even the ethical and constructively-educative role of the way in which contemporary artists understand/configure reality through the art objects they bring into the public light.
Indeed, from distance, what is happening in contemporary art is no different from what has happened so far, as stages in the history of art. In fact, all artistic movements have started (in one form or another) to question the existing canons up to a certain point in time, re-evaluating, moving the centers of interest, accessing other areas of interest.
Through a brief analysis of the correlations we established between the concepts we started from (body/identity/feminism) we tried to determine if and how they can reconfigure each other.
The sphere of interdependence between these concepts is open in the sense that the terms can be considered in full remodeling and construction at the present time.
To facilitate the passage is important to be said that we have to take into considerations problems as gender differences. We have to analyze the ways in which these differences are perceived, expressed, conceptualized in contemporary aesthetics. For more precision, we can say that the current feminist aesthetics are much more centered on the idea of bringing into discussion the gender differences and the impact that they may have on the other conceptual constructions so far. In addition, they tend to question the traditional perspectives on body perception and the implications it has for the self-identity and the building of the self-identity.
Another intermediate area that could bring more clarity about the correlation between terms is the language and also what language express, the meaning, the subject, and also the object at the linguistic level. This could be a key for us to determine whether and what is the language of art, its role (as artistic language) in the formation of identity, that goes by addressing gender differences, their integration, and their gradual overcoming.
Baudrillard, Jean. (2005).The Conspiracy of Art. New York: Columbia University.
Carroll, Noël. (1999). Philosophy of Art, a contemporary introduction. London: Routledge.
Grosz, Elizabeth A. (1994). Volatile bodies. Toward a corporeal feminism. Indiana University Press.
Loewen, Gregory. (2012). The rol of Art in the construction of personal identity. Toward a phenomenology of Aesthetic Self-Consciousness. United Kingdom: The Edwin Mellen Press.
Burke, Peter J., Sets, Jan E.(2000). A Sociological Approach to Self and Identity. In: Leary, Mark, Tangney June ed.,: Handbook of Self and Identity. Guilford Press.