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Review of Gender and Aesthetics
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Carolyn Korsmeyer, Gender and Aesthetics (Routledge, 2004)

Reviewed by Ismay Barwell

This book is the product of three decades of feminist attention to art theory and practice and, as such, it is a mature reflection on the many ways in which gender influences not just art theory and practice, but also the philosophical area that is known as ‘aesthetics.’ Although she deals with some very difficult theories written by theorists who are not easy to read, Korsmeyer presents both their arguments and her own clearly. Gender and Aesthetics is a pleasure to read.

The many ways in which gender influences art theory and practice are knitted together by their relation to a gendered value structure that Korsmeyer calls ‘deep gender.’ This structure is either at least partially responsible for art theoretical concepts and practice, or it is that which some art theories and practices aim to subvert (or, some art practices can be understood fruitfully as attempts to subvert it). In her opening chapters, Korsmeyer demonstrates its responsibility for specific art theoretical concepts and practice in the western tradition from Plato through Burke and Kant to Jerome Stolnitz and other theorists of the twentieth century. In her final chapters, she focuses on its continuing influence on contemporary art theories and practices that oppose it and attempt to move beyond it.

‘Deep gender’ is constituted by the now familiar set of binary oppositions between ‘male’ and ‘female,’ ‘mind’ and ‘body,’ rational’ and emotional,’ ‘active’ and ‘passive,’ etc. These symbolic associations place a higher value on attributes aligned with ‘male’ and thus, a lesser value on those aligned with ‘female.’ One way this structure operates is as follows. It supplies the attributes constituting ideals such as those involved in traditional concepts of art, artists, artistic creativity and aesthetic response. These are masculine because they are those associated with ‘male.’ As a consequence, the making and appreciation of art is made difficult, because inappropriate, for women (or, at least, for feminine women).

During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, aesthetics as a philosophical enterprise was either invented or at least, profoundly modified, because it was during this time that a constellation of concepts came into use. This constellation has been the subject of devastating criticism, but has not passed out of circulation. It includes ‘fine art,’ ‘aesthetic value,’ ‘aesthetic pleasure’ and ‘artistic genius’. ‘Deep gender’ is implicated in all of them.

For example, works of fine art were produced for their aesthetic value alone by an artist who should be capable of autonomy. He should be able to think independently of tradition and social norms, able to transcend the realm of ordinary life, because only then would his work be original. This was a masculine ideal, not appropriate for women. Women should not aim to transcend domestic life or to produce fine art. They did and should produce things to be used. It was appropriate for them to produce applied art or craft. Their only other recommended role was that of passive beautiful object of the male gaze and male desire. Given these conceptions of artists and fine arts, it is no surprise to find that the model of the ideal aesthetic judge is male, because men’s greater mental capacities enable them to appreciate more profound and difficult art than women can. Women, who should be pretty and charming, have a taste for what is pretty and charming.

For another example, the two paradigmatic aesthetic values of the time were the beautiful and the sublime. In Burke’s account of the qualities that make objects beautiful and sublime the gender associations are overt. He explicitly modelled the qualities of beautiful objects on the qualities of female bodies (as he perceived them) ‘small, bounded, curved, soft, gentle in contour, and delicately coloured.’ Sublime objects, on the other hand, were ‘rough, jagged, unbounded, powerful, fearsome and dark.’

In these examples, the role of gender symbolism is not difficult to see. However, Korsmeyer claims that the same gender associations work covertly and in subtle ways to produce theoretical effects that do not seem to have anything to do with gender. For example, theoretically significant distinctions unsupported by good arguments are often a sign that symbolic associations are at work. Distinctions of this kind are easy to find. Kant’s conceptions of aesthetic pleasure and aesthetic value, together with the ideal of aesthetic contemplation that followed from those conceptions and which was widely espoused during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, supply examples of more subtle operations. Kant explicitly separates aesthetic pleasure and value from the pleasures and value of sensual gratification. Aesthetic pleasures have nothing to do with the body or with the satisfaction of desire. Deep gender is playing a role here because, in it, ‘woman’ is associated with ‘body’ and ‘man’ with ‘mind.’ Thus, it is no surprise to find that, amongst the five senses, only sight and hearing yield aesthetic pleasures because they are perceived to be less ‘bodily’ than taste and smell. (Touch had an ambiguous status because its ‘bodiliness’ was ambiguous.) After her discussion of this conception of aesthetic pleasure, Kormeyer makes some interesting recommendations. Taste and smell should be included in the domain of the aesthetic. However, this does not mean that food should be understood as an example of fine art and cooking and eating as the production and appreciation of fine art, because this concept is not worth maintaining or reviving.

The Kantian model of aesthetic attention is gendered in a similar way to that of the creativity of the artist. Aesthetic attention should be disinterested. It should transcend desire and personal interests and thus, all connections with the body. It is either not possible or not appropriate for women to attempt this.

In addition, there is another connection between the model of disinterested aesthetic contemplation and gender, but not just between it and gender. This connection is between a work and any social relations in which power is implicated and so, it is a connection between aesthetic appreciation and the power relations constitutive of race or class, as well as gender. An object of disinterested contemplation is isolated from the world; only its internal formal properties are significant and so, proper aesthetic appreciation should ignore any power relations in which it might be embedded and any power relations it might set up. For example, if vision involves power then many works of representational art set up power relations by virtue of the variety of ways in people depicted in the work are positioned by the gaze of others in it and the ways in which these position the spectator. If aesthetic attention is disinterested contemplation, then these relations, along with any other contextual relations, are irrelevant to appreciating aesthetic worth. Korsmeyer describes this theory as an aesthetic ideology because it disguises art’s ability to inscribe and reinforce power relations and divorces aesthetic value from moral and political assessments.

Korsmeyer is not the first to identify the value structure she calls ‘deep gender’ or to claim that some of its effects do not appear to have anything to do with gender. Those chapters in which she shows connections between deep gender and art theory and practice rely upon the work of other feminist writers and her contribution to philosophical discourse is largely that of clarification. She demonstrates clearly how gender marks the concepts that frame some philosophical debates and thus, the way in which issues worthy of investigation in this area are distinguished from those that are not. If she is right then she has shown that gendered symbols and the values attached to them, rather than reasoned argument, determined the scope of the subject matter of ‘aesthetics’ as a philosophical area, its theoretical approaches and even the content of its theories.

To my mind the final chapter, ‘Difficult Pleasures’ contains the most interesting, original and challenging discussion. Korsmeyer notices that in much contemporary feminist art, attention is dramatically drawn to bodies with ‘unsettling even revolting effect.’ This not confined to feminist art practice. ‘The body in its terrible vulnerability has become a major presence in literature, television and film as well.’ (p. 130) In philosophy, mind/body relations have been the focus of sustained interest that has led to the rejection of traditional conceptions of those relations.

These observations lead her to ask whether the disgusting might be the twenty first century parallel to beauty and the sublime that were ‘the touchstones of aesthetic value in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.’ (130) The evocation of disgust on the part of art is a shocking disruption of traditions of aesthetic value, but at the same time it may be seen as continuous with a venerable and exalted aesthetic category: the sublime. Korsmeyer had previously argued that the eighteenth century concept of the sublime was masculine. Her current proposal is that some feminist art might be fruitfully understood as an attempt to create a feminine sublime.

Experiences of the masculine sublime were complex and ambivalent. Their objects were things of great size and power which inspired terror. This terror was not fear for personal safety in the literal sense, but fear following from recognizing that they threatened human capacities to conceptualize, order and control. The sublime exceeded attempts to imagine or understand it. The sublime induced not just terror, but also excitement and attraction. The sublime thrilled while it terrified. This oscillation between the pain of fear and the pleasure of the thrill is resolved into awe or reverence by the recognition that we have within ourselves something as great. For example, we recognize within ourselves the power of freedom, our power to do as we think we should and thus to act according to a law which whose origin lies in our power to reason. This recognition is an awareness of that within ourselves which exceeds our understanding

The theories that Kormeyer uses are those which constitute the architecture of postmodern thought and in several one finds the suggestion that the sublime requires only minor alterations, such as shift of focus, to be an aesthetic value particularly suited to a postmodern consciousness. Lyotard suggests that the postmodern sublime is to be found in art that ‘presents the unpresentable.’ Kormeyer proposes that art which draws attention to the female body is presenting an unpresentable which disgusts rather than terrifies.

I am not sure that disgust or revulsion can play the role that fear played in the masculine sublime because terror or fear thrills, but disgust does not. People seek experiences in which fear is a component just because they thrill. Disgust does not seem to have this kind of dimension. We are sometimes fascinated by that which disgusts us, but it does not have the potential for elation and heightened awareness.

However, it seemed to me that the complex emotional responses Korsmeyer describes include terror as the reason for the disgust. The female body represents that which preceded the structures through which the self is formed and as such, represents a threat to that self. Amongst the objects that can be the trigger for an experience of the sublime Kant included those that are formless, such as fog. Perhaps a fear of formlessness that is tied to a fear of loss of self is the reason for the disgust that is a response to bodies that leak and drip and rot and lose their shape. If this is acceptable then the postmodern (feminine) sublime involves the complex emotion described by Noël Carroll in The Philosophy of Horror and given the name ‘art horror.’

Horror constituted by disgust combined with fear is an appropriate response to art that aims to destroy the symbolic associations constituting deep gender since these underlie the symbolic order, entry into which is an essential stage in the development of the self. Moreover, because of the presence of terror in it the emotion might be thrilling. Even so this is not enough for an experience of the sublime. The perception enabling the conversion of an ambivalent emotional state into awe or its analogue is still missing.


2005 © Ismay Barwell

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