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Mining Aesthetics for Deep Gender
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Peg Brand

In 1771 artist Johann Zoffany was confronted with the challenge of executing a group portrait of thirty-six founding members of the British Royal Academy. Modeled on the influential royal academies of seventeenth century France, the British Royal Academy (begun in 1768) served two functions: to operate an art school and hold two annual exhibitions, open to all competitors. Both purposes were tied to education: either students within classes or the public about trends in art. The problem for Zoffany, however, was the fact that two of the founding members were women. How would he depict them? Naturally, they would they be pictured on equal footing with the men, i.e., in the same studio with the male artists who were engaged in serious discussion about the influence of ancient Greece on painting and sculpture. Or would they? Who were these women and what meaning would their presence in the official portrait convey: a painting that served to celebrate the academy’s historical beginnings as well as teach succeeding generations about the ideals of academic art and artists?

The reputations of both women were well established before arriving in England. Angelica Kauffman, already a member of the prestigious Academy of Saint Luke in Rome, enjoyed many commissions and was hailed as a successor to Van Dyck and Rubens upon her arrival in London in 1766. As the first woman to execute large-scale history paintings despite a lack of training from the nude model, she was the foremost painter promoting the aesthetic theories of Johann Winckelmann in England and, along with Benjamin West, Neoclassicism in America. The work of Mary Moser was held in equally high regard; Moser enjoyed the patronage of Queen Charlotte and was one of only two floral painters accepted into the Academy.

Initially appreciated for artistic talents and productive output considered comparable to that of their male colleagues, they were subsequently denied their rightful pictorial role when Zoffany excluded them from the main depiction of male artists casually grouped around two nude male models. This omission proved a clever solution on the part of the artist, since everyone knew that women had been prohibited from working from nude models since the sixteenth century. Instead of being pictured with artists talking about the heroic male nude, Kauffman and Moser were relegated to architectural niches in the wall above the main scene. Portrayed as busts, with less than accurate likenesses, they lost their sense of identity, agency, and creativity. As art historian Whitney Chadwick observed, the artists had become representations, “the objects of art rather than its producers; their place is with the bas reliefs and plaster casts that are the objects of contemplation and inspiration for the male artists.” What message did this send to students and the general public, then and with succeeding generations?

Zoffany’s depiction of female absence is a powerful starting point in teaching the role of gender in the history of aesthetics. The painting visually captures, for historical record and students’ initial enlightenment, the consensus of sentiment of eighteenth century men of taste like Hume, Burke and Kant. It was common knowledge that the only sex to be granted the accolade of ‘genius’ – as painters, sculptors, and those who created ‘master’pieces – were men; women were secondary citizens, dependent and domestic, objects of beauty to be seen and not heard. A woman artist was clearly an aberration from the norm; and a woman in aesthetics? Only men wrote about nature, art, beautiful women and the pleasures they aroused. In spite of the primacy of human experience, empiricism denied women a voice. Women have been notably absent from the span of time from the birth of modern aesthetics until the twentieth century, when – in spite of noteworthy writings about art – women are still often absent from the lists of authors in recently published journals and texts in our field. Students, who seek to identify on some level with the artists and writers they study, tend to notice this absence; as a result, they mistrust the objectivity, fairness, and universality of aesthetic judgments handed down to them. This can be a stepping stone to further study.

Answering the question, “Why so few women?” naturally leads to a feminist critique of art, art history, and the philosophy of art. Sometimes called “feminist aesthetics,” the feminist critique seeks to dismantle long-standing foundations of philosophical aesthetics: to question underlying assumptions both historically and conceptually. One simple answer to the question is that in the past there were few educated women and few women in the arts, both as practitioners and theoreticians. Today’s female students are greatly dismayed to learn that for centuries, philosophical and theological teachings about women justified their exclusion from education and the professions. When they look for mentors, they still find the number of women in philosophy low, hovering around 20% of the total faculty or averaging 18.38% of the faculty at the Top 50 doctoral programs in the US. But the under-representation of women only provokes additional questions that invite an analysis of complex social conditions limiting their access to education, deterring them from graduate study, or affecting departmental hiring practices. Perhaps more women faculty in aesthetics would result in more female students and graduates, but this is not the primary concern of feminist philosophers who seek more meaningful explanations and solutions to the problem of female absence in philosophy. Feminist philosophers – whether in aesthetics, ethics, social/political philosophy, or epistemology – are intent on pursuing the basic questions of their individual fields, but with an eye toward biases that lie below the surface, whether based on gender, race, class, sexual orientation, or ethnicity. Moreover, women’s experiences – and their expression in the arts – can play a crucial role in the discussion of these basic issues, particularly if they differ from those of men.

Feminist content, then, becomes paramount in assessing standard questions in philosophy and critiquing traditional methodologies and solutions. Historical and conceptual issues can overlap and inform each other, as they do in all teaching. Naomi Zack’s case study approach is more historical, relying upon traditional theories and standards of beauty as a backdrop to current cultural paradigms of women as they appear in mass media, poised for popular consumption. Male-created histories of beauty jarred with her students’ sensibilities of women’s autonomy so they criticized the dominant trend of men speaking about and for women. Joshua Shaw’s suggestions for teaching feminist aesthetics are more conceptual, invoking institutional difficulties (biases against feminism) and practical obstacles (too little time to teach all one would like). One threat to feminist pedagogy noted by Shaw is students’ skepticism about anything feminist; perceiving (one, unified) feminism as dogmatic, they prefer to avoid it. But opening students to the possibility of their own biases is crucial to expanding their horizons; exposing them to a range of viable feminisms can motivate them to think ‘outside the box’ of standard philosophical fare. Like all philosophy, feminism questions authority. Instead of simply replicating past methodologies and topics of interest, students can be encouraged to ask new and unconventional questions from an inter-disciplinary point of view. Such investigations offer ideal ways to investigate ‘deep’ or hidden gender within aesthetics, particularly as it relates to aesthetic power.

This fall we celebrate the fifteenth anniversary of the Feminist Caucus of the ASA, a group that spontaneously organized at the 1990 meeting in Austin, Texas, to accomplish several goals: to facilitate the inclusion of more women and feminist topics on the annual program, in publication (e.g., JAAC), and on the Board of Trustees. The role of the caucus was also pedagogical, political, and theoretical, hoping to attract more women into philosophy classes, graduate programs, and the professional ranks. Built into the manifesto of the caucus was a self-reflective proposal to re-assess its future viability when the teaching of feminist aesthetics became more widespread and feminist aesthetics entered the mainstream. Yet there is still much work to be done. Exciting opportunities lie before us. Influenced by new technologies, inter-dependencies within the arts, data from psychological experiments, and new forms of cultural criticism, we are free to shape aesthetics to be more isolationist, or alternatively, more revisionist and integrationist. Being open to the many venues our students can pursue will insure a healthy future for aesthetics, a growing membership for the ASA, and a more public presence within artworld debates, both nationally and internationally.

Whitney Chadwick, Women, Art, and Society, 3rd ed. (London: Thames & Hudson, 2002), 7.

Linda Martin Alcoff, ed., Singing in the Fire: Stories of Women in Philosophy (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2003), 1.

Julie C. Van Camp, “Postscript November 20, 2004” to “Female-Friendly Departments: A Modest Proposal for Picking Graduate Programs in Philosophy”

Carolyn Korsmeyer, Gender and Aesthetics: An Introduction (New York and London, 2004), 3. Korsmeyer also discusses the Zoffany painting and the forced resignation of Thomas Eakins’ teaching post in 1886 at the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts because of his practice of employing nude models in mixed classes, 75-78.

2005 © Peg Brand

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