The question headlining today’s column was posed in a poster put out by the Guerrilla Girls, an anonymous feminist art collective, in 1988. And last week, the group offered an answer to their question when three members in their signature Gorilla masks visited The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. As one of them put it, “Unless all the voices of our culture are being heard in the history of art, it’s not really a history of art–it’s a history of power.” Colbert chimed in by noting that while 30 years ago there were no one-woman shows at the Met, the Guggenheim and the Whitney and only one at MoMA, today the number only increased by one in each museum.
The Gorilla Girls aren’t the first group to notice the problem. Fully three years before the group raised the question on their poster, British art critic Edwin Mullins thought up an answer. In his book “The Painted Witch” he pointed out that most of the art on view in the 276 art museums in the U.S. and Europe are by men for men about women. And when male artists picture their fantasies, which he describes as “relief from repression,” they end up describing women without clothes. He said that seeing art in museums is like holding up a mirror to male response to woman through the ages. You not only get reflections of how men choose to see women, but also what men expect of them.
Examples are easy to identify. By the look of paintings by French artists Boucher and Fragonard, who constantly described naked women frolicking in gardens, it’s clear that they and their patrons didn’t take women very seriously. Or else they were just taken, as seen in the long parade of rape paintings through history. The list includes work by the luminaries of the art world: Titian’s “The Rape of Lucretia,” Poussin’s “Abduction of the Sabine Women,” Bernini’s “The Rape of Prosperpine,” Delacroix’s “The Death of Sardanapalus” and Rubens “Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus.” Even on the subject of rape, the descriptions don’t seem very serious. Rubens’ version of a gang rape comes across like some rousing road romp.
Given all that, Mullins decided that there wasn’t any excuse to ever think that when male artists paint women, they’re offering an adoring tribute to the female sex. Germain Greer made the same point some 80 years ago when she wrote in “The Female Eunuch” that “women have very little idea of how much men hate women.” This column sees “hate” as inaccurate. Cavalier or lordly may be the truer words.