Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Selected Discussions from ART 270

"Discussion" is actually a misnomer, since very few of the assignments from this art history class required response to other people's posts. Still, the course Women in Art was quite enjoyable, but I wouldn't recommend taking a 22 day college course meant to be spread out over 15 weeks. It suffers from having to focus on nothing else but the material, making it very hard for much of it to sink in and be savored. Thought if nothing else, the course was great for learning more about the long history of exclusion, objectification, and outright abuse of women artists in Western culture, and I don't regret taking it. One of my final projects is on medieval illuminated manuscripts and the other is writing a thesis paper on the movie Brave. I got high marks on many of my discussions, so since art, criticism, and feminism are things I like writing about, well, it seems appropriate to share them!

Fair warning: Long post is long, very heavy with topics of female representation, male gaze, and art terminology. Also, trigger warning for mentions of rape.

So if you're ready, click behind the jump to read about my exciting pedagogy!

Day 2 Instructions: Locate, find online or go to the school library and watch at least one (two movies would be better!) of the following: Shakespeare in Love (1998), Queen Margot (1994), Elizabeth (1999), Artemisia (1997), Girl with a Pearl Earring (2003). Ask yourself the following questions: How were women portrayed in these movies? What were their roles in society? Who had power? How might that be different than today's standards? What are your first reactions to these films?

My Response: I watched the movies Shakespeare in Love and Artemisia. I didn't really care for either film because of the way each work confounds available history and knowledge of the time period in order to make a point, which appeared to consist mostly of "be as misogynistic as possible!"

Shakespeare in Love irritated me the most, as while the story could have possibly occurred, the way it is performed is just not done well. Joseph Fiennes plays a convincing Romeo with his emotions all over the place, but he just didn't "feel" like William Shakespeare, someone who had studied other works of his day in addition to drawing on his own experiences to create the plays and poetry that he became so famous for. It was also really distracting to have so many anachronisms and lack of British accents in characters who are supposed to be from England in 1593. I also didn't like the overall message of this film that women are to objectified and put on a pedestal to serve as a man's muse. The film pushes the idea that Romeo and Juliet is the greatest love story ever and was inspired by real experiences of William Shakespeare. Romeo and Juliet is not a great love story, I read enough of it and literary critique about it even to this day to comfortably say that it is more a cautionary tale of what happens in letting one's emotions take over their life.

There are four women with speaking roles in this movie. First is the character of Viola who is very much a fangirl of theater and especially poetry. She has thoughts and opinions, as well as evidence of some education if she can read and be a witty match to the men she encounters. These parts of her personality are interesting and Gwyneth Paltrow plays them quite well. I was surprised that few of the men ever criticized her acting ability, one man doesn’t even question her cross-dressing! However, Viola’s story becomes one of objectification, as her role in both inspiring the play Romeo and Juliet as well as becoming Viola of Twelfth Night confers all her agency to William Shakespeare. The audience never learns anything more of her other than she probably had an unhappy marriage, and even that is conjecture. Secondly, there is her nursemaid and friend, who is loyal to Viola and protects her lady’s privacy in having a secret affair while being courted by a different man. Third is Rosaline, a promiscuous lady in Richard Burbage’s employ, who appears to be in the story to create sexual tension and be objectified, as there is little beyond her sex scenes in the film. Lastly is the only female with power acknowledged by all the men, Queen Elizabeth I. Elizabeth I is interesting historically, because unlike other women, especially royals, she defied conventional roles for women as she never married or had children, and she was the supreme authority of the land, demanding obedience from all people. Her scenes are also the best, Judi Dench is a treat to watch any day, but confronting the men and laying down the law the way she does is just wonderful.

From the aristocrats, family members, and law enforcers, men are consistently shown to have all the power, except before the queen. The men in this film get away with a lot! No one ever confronts the young boy with the mice for being a sociopath, Lord Wessex for sexually assaulting Viola at one point, or how the theater owner Mr Fennyman has such a change of character from torturing people to pay their debts to doing his best to get this play on stage, not because of the money, but because of his part in it! With all these pieces together, it just didn't work to either entertain me or inform me of Shakespeare's work in a new way.

Artemisia was less irritating overall until I read more about her in our textbook. In addition to sacrificing historical fact for the sake of drama at the expense of a rape victim, the movie punishes women for their sexuality. The main character, Artemisia, is shown to be sexually curious from the beginning, which eventually leads to public shaming and a fallout with her father. One can argue that her interest in the human form is linked to her desire to become a great artist, leading to her sexual awakening and claiming artistic legitimacy for herself. I don’t disagree, and this character arc would be less of a source of conflict in Italy during the 1600s if all the other women weren’t forced into a submissive role by social norms. In this era society would greatly punish women for not being chaste, even in a place such as Italy, where historically the people are stereotyped to be very passionate (see how many plays by Shakespeare take place in Italy, e.g. Romeo and Juliet). This double standard of women expected to be chaste, but also to have difficult to control passions is evidenced by the treatment of the sexually promiscuous women from the orgy scene and the torture scene during the trial. What really angered me, though, is reading that Artemisia was actually raped by an older peer of her father's and during the trial, was tortured for this admission during court proceedings to verify if she was telling the truth! In the movie, this event is restaged, the judge tortures Artemisia in front of (her rapist) Tassi, forcing him to confess to rape because he loves Artemisia and can’t stand her suffering, making him the tragic hero. Even without prior knowledge of history this trial doesn’t make a lot of sense, as it seemed like Tassi had divorced his first wife so he would be free to marry Artemisia to “save her reputation” as it were. Her father just seemed irritated his young daughter was sleeping with one of his artist friends. Plus the age difference with the actors is unpleasant to ponder.
I will agree with the movie, though, that any woman painting a scene like Judith Slaying Holofernes clearly has issues, just not the ones the movie people think they are.

Women today are allowed more access to education or positions of power, but there is still a lot of misogyny. Women still earn less than men, are sexualized to a greater degree than men, and don’t often get as big a chance to have agency apart from their relationships to men. It doesn’t help that there is still the double standard that women should keep themselves chaste while men should freely pursue their sexual urges. These movies were awful and I would rather never watch them again.

Day 9 Instructions: This week's reading... well there are some familiar patterns being developed that inform even how our gender roles are defined in today's society. The basic principle of a woman's role is really being defined in the reading. We've been focusing on how women could not participate in painting the male nude, so they would paint portraits or still-lifes. They were excluded from "important" subject matter relating to religious histories. There is always the underlining theme of the gaze and sexuality of women's bodies. (The seductress vs. the moral matron.) This week's reading concentrates on one, the domestic environment and two, the tension between overt sexuality and refrained modesty and virtue. For this discussion this week, I would like each of you to pick ONE of the artists in the reading and further research her life and work. Share what you learn with the rest of us. INCLUDE AN IMAGE of one art-piece that intrigued you.

My Response: Angelica Kauffman, Self-Portrait,
Angelica Kaufmann (1740-1807) struck me as being not only very talented, but also strong-willed to succeed in painting history and mythology at a time when these subjects were considered "too important" for women to work on. The daughter of a Swiss painter, she was very good at both music and art. Our books and other resources track her  following her dad in the early 1760s and working as his assistant as he toured Europe, enabling her to copy Classical as well as Renaissance works, learning art in this way since Academies limited access to women receiving formal training. She made her living as a portraitist and garnered great success to support herself and fund other projects, such as these lovely paintings of Greek myth:

That look of "oh, sugar honey ice tea on the guy's face is priceless!Angelica Kaufman, Farewell of Hector and Andromache
Excellent family scene here, and the look of love in the couple's faces is charming.

She was elected to Rome's Accademia di San Luca in 1765, and upon moving to London enjoyed further success and patronage from aristocrats and royals. Besides portraiture and historical paintings, she also did decorative and architectural work for Robert Adams and other architects. She was also a regular exhibitor at London's Royal Academy for over 16 years and enjoyed the company of such prestigious contemporaries as Joshua Reynolds, Benjamin West, and Johannes Winckelmann (Link). Her success came with the unfortunate side effect of intense scrutiny of her private life. Guerilla Girls describes that one point she was engaged to a German count who turned out to be fake (44). People talked about her relationships with male colleagues as frequently as they did her paintings. She later married the painter Antonio Zucchi and moved to Italy, which improved her reputation as being a more modest woman. At her funeral, members of the Accademia di San Luca marched in the procession.

I think it is incredible this woman was able to achieve such renown during this time period. Her talent is amazing, and she accomplished a great deal. It's both sad and hilarious how many sources I found that at once elevated her as one of the greats, then called her painting style "soft," "insipid," and she should have stuck to portraiture. What garbage!

Day 12 Think about while reading and write your what you think about the difference of IDEOLOGY (our belief systems) versus REALITIES. You can relate this topic to today's society, too.

My response: As I read for today, I kept thinking about women’s magazines. A great many of the domestic ideals still present today originated in the 19th century: order is represented by a clean house, a happy husband, and children are nurtured by a woman who is able to “do it all” in the professional sphere as well as private. Commercial society creates this unattainable ideal both back then and now, but just using different tools to paint this false image. The descriptions of activities “acceptable” for a woman to pursue, the sewing, flower arrangements, or painting domestic life I still see in women’s magazines of today. Crafting, cooking, gardening, or even fashion are what women’s magazines write and advertise as what people should want to do in their spare time, even alongside articles writing about attaining financial stability, dealing with grief, or navigating multicultural relationships. The obsession is still to create a perfect bubble of domestic bliss, even though reality is far from the case.

For example, there is a women’s magazine I enjoy from time to time, Latina. On paper, it seems like a great idea: create a literary space celebrating Hispanic culture and the specific issues of gender and race that Hispanic women face. In addition there's hair/makeup/celebrity gossip that apparently all women want to read about, but that's a different essay. However, there are times when the messages in this magazine are very mixed. Amongst strong editorials about the oversexualized representations of Hispanic women on tv and film are the many ads pushing a very white, very American standard of beauty. In fact, flipping through images from Hispanic television shows very few people of dark skin among the cast. The reality is that women of any ethnic minority receive a double blow of prejudice against their race and their gender. Creating a false ideology like what’s found in women’s magazines is very damaging, both to society and to women.

Day 13 There are three specific topics for discussion. They are Mass Consumption, Changing Roles of Women, and Development of the Modern Public/Crowd. In your discussions, each of you need to address these three topics. How does each of these developments shape your own identity? It’s okay to google these topics and see what comes up in contemporary society. We are beginning to think about identity and how each of us are shaped by what we see in advertising. This could take any direction - beauty, consumerism, fashion, food, etc... Just thinking about American society and how we need to consume and as a result, throw away…we are a nation of waste.

My response: Since I seem to have video games on the brain lately, I thought I'd share this article before delving into the discussion topic. http://www.polygon.com/features/2013/12/2/5143856/no-girls-allowed

This article not only describes how video games became such a gendered pastime but also goes into the science of marketing. It's powerful just for how societal expectations can be shaped by something like advertising. As for mass consumption, what better example than video game culture? It's an expensive hobby, and the value of a game is only worth its entertainment and replay value on top of its rarity. Gamestop alone built up a major component of its business model by reselling and trading in video games. Just a few months prior was the release date of the latest consoles from Microsoft and Sony. The first few pages of running an internet search for either the PS4 or Xbox One has articles listing why one console is better than the other, which video games to get for the release, and which accessories to buy. It's a strangely fascinating thing to see the crowds of people that were lining up for Black Friday shopping in hopes of being one of the first to own one of these new machines. Such events are great examples of mass consumption.

Women have historically had very difficult challenges in regard to video games, whether as consumers or creators. It isn't any easier now, with internet interactions creating a strange sense of proper behavior that sadly allows for a toxic environment to spring up in gamer communities. This situation doesn't even cover the tip of the iceberg in terms of the entrenched sexism found in the gaming industry. For example, two professional women made news in recent months due to being inexplicably harassed online, one for joining a team as the community manager and the other for creating a game exploring depression, which can be read more about in this article: Link. Basically, if you're a gamer and a girl, it can be difficult just to enjoy an activity you like and talk about it with other people, professionally or casually, without a constant stream of negativity, harassment, exclusion, trivialization, or sexualization coming at you whether it's from other people, the internet community, or the games themselves. With the rise of independent developers, though, the dynamic is changing. More women can be creators, different stories can be told, and the conversation can be more inclusive! There's still a ton of vitriol to be found, something that I hope can change for the better the more voices join in to shut down harassment, sexism, and exclusion that can occur in relation to video games. Something I think rings true for many women is that just because something becomes a popular topic, such as harassment, doesn't make it recent in terms of occurrence, or that the debate wasn't happening or wasn't important.

Finally, there are three major ways I believe the idea of the modern crowd can be interpreted in relation to video games. First, there is the crowd of consumers that descend on game stores and the gaming section in department stores whenever there is a widely marketed new release. This type of crowd best exhibits the throngs of shoppers from the reading, where magazines and the internet will do a lot of marketing as well as put up posters and cardboard displays for the upcoming product. Second is also the crowd of gamers who play online, whether through mobile games, social media games, or multiplayer online roleplaying games. These crowds benefit the most from the socialization aspect of the game world and the concept of the absent-minded crowd in the essay. Gaming in this sense isn't just about accomplishing the goal, but the socialization that comes with it. It's easier to take down a monster or gather the items for a quest with other players than on one's own. Lastly are the fanbases for a particular genre, franchise, or console system. These groups can band together in incredibly positive or negative ways, either participating in the market culture or in the socialization aspect of the modern crowd. Most news seems to highlight the negative aspects of gamer society, what with rape culture, death threats, and crazy violent antics more interesting than how gamers have raised money for charities for the disabled or for children in hospitals, such as this article describes: Link.

Video games are a fascinating medium, being one of the newest at less than a half-century old. I agree with the "No Girls Allowed" article linked previously in that marketing has done a lot in shaping popular views in the medium being a male-specific activity. What this view has allowed is an entrenched sexism in both the medium and how women are treated in relation to being players or creators, and the representation of women within games. The same problems have been said about film and comic books. These issues aren't going away, and without inclusion, without that diversity, video games will continue being difficult to enjoy for girls who want to play games. 
In addition, here's another great article about inclusion, http://www.themarysue.com/what-we-arent-talking-about-when-we-talk-about-inclusion-and-representation-and-what-we-are/
Day 14 The history of Westward Expansion: Those of us that have always lived in the Western states, our identities are defined by ruggedness, openness, etc. Think about some of the stereotypes of the WEST. Think about how westward expansion has shaped the history of the United States and how different our society would have been compared to Europe. Remember few week’s ago- the reading regarding the “other”... How does this apply to this section of reading? If you forgot, just do an internet search of "The other" in art and art history. 2nd part - Start to construct your own idea. Are you from the west? If you are from the east, compare the two....stereotypes, etc.

My Response: I took a Western Literature class back in 2006 at UNR. One of the first questions that came up was the definition of “west” when it comes to the United States. The discussion overall eventually settled on the demographic definition of those states west of the Mississippi river, except for small portions of southern California’s coastline, and that Texas was “very west.” West also came to mean the iconography and symbolism that came to be associated with cowboys and frontier expansion, both in literature about the American west and the entire Hollywood genre of Westerns. In terms of the history that I’ve read about, a lot of nineteenth-century ideas about western expansion leaked down into the social consciousness that even today permeates a lot of the Westerns genre, such as the racism, sexism, and the overwhelming push for domestic order. One of these ideas is who was classified as “other,” that heretic, savage, and threatening something that had to be attacked or destroyed to define the hero. In Westerns, the other often takes the form of the “bad guy,” often a person of color, whether a Native American, Mexican, or, if a white person, then they have characteristics that make them “bad,” such as drinking, gambling, buys prostitutes, and violent behavior. Symbolically in these types of stories, the bad guy is defined by dressing in black, while the hero wears white. Sometimes the genre is more complex, but watch anything from the 50s and 60s era of Westerns in television and the cookie cutter iconography is plain as day.

As for Western and Eastern American stereotypes, I’ve lived them all my life. My mother came from upstate New York, and met my dad, a native Californian, when they both enlisted in the navy back in 1978. My mother’s family consists of New York dairy farmers and Texan rednecks, while the entirety of my father’s family are of Mexican heritage from southern California. There have been epic clashes when these two families got together, at least until they bonded over mutual love of drinks and Catholicism. I have seen the conservatives, the liberals, the egoism, the arguments over gun laws, whose sport team is better, and which cheap beer is the best. West becomes something malleable when these two families mixed, more about expressing solidarity and love. I think it got easier when a significant portion of my mother’s family moved to Texas. At least, I didn't keep hearing about the quality of the beer at family gatherings.

Yet in defining the differences of what makes something “west,” something I've integrated into my views is how Neil Gaiman’s novel American Gods shows how the United States is really many countries smushed together. Historically, that idea is a really apt one, because each original colony may have shared regional similarities with its neighbors, but developed its own rules of governance. Think about it: the constitution and subsequently the Bill of Rights was written due to the conflict of whether the states or the federal government should have more power!
Day 15 Research further the term visual culture…what does that really mean? The more you expand on this topic, the better prepared you will be for the next paper!
My Response: Visual culture, from what I found, is the study of culture through visual images, e.g. video games, television, film, etc. Or to put it another way, the study of how people see and experience the world through their eyes.

A lot has been discussed these past few days about terms like “the gaze,” “iconography,” and “ideology.” Since much of the focus from the readings has been on Western culture, I wanted to highlight something from an Eastern culture that is quite popular in the United States, both because diversity is always good, and the visual language is incredibly different. The films of Japanese company Studio Ghibli have proven quite popular with mainstream audiences since 1996, when Disney partnered with the studio for American and international distribution of their films. I mention Studio Ghibli because they have continued to have close ties with the Disney name while still maintaining creative control of their output. Thus, it is easier to make distinctions between the cultural patterns found in works by these two different film companies who have arguably made significant cultural impact in their native countries. How often does one reference a Disney movie when describing something for children? Or that something was “Disney-fied” to make it more clean and palatable? Not to mention the feminist can of worms that is the Disney Princess line of products.

Anyway, there are some key aspects to the way Studio Ghibli, and to an extent Japanese culture tells stories that deviates from Western cultural norms. To date, the Walt Disney Company has released 53 animated feature films since 1937, and out of those works, about 25 (47%) have female leads. I say “about 25” because in going through the list of Disney’s animated films one could make the argument that some of the main female characters weren’t really in a lead role, weren’t the hero of the story, or even have much agency beyond advancing what happens with the male characters, such as in Peter Pan or Robin Hood. Then there are the ones that don’t really have a story, such as Fantasia or the Donald Duck musical films. Now Studio Ghibli, by contrast, has released 19 animated feature films since 1986, and 13 of them (68%) star a female in the lead, and even those films that don’t are usually about families, such as Grave of the Fireflies and My Neighbors the Yamadas, and as such still feature a decent balance of female characters. However you crunch the numbers, though, even with more output, Disney still has less than half of their stories star a female character! Plus, there is a great range of variation in these female lead roles in the Studio Ghibli films. There are warriors, girls with magical powers, students, children, mothers, explorers, princesses and one princess even turns into a dragon!

To use a specific example in how stories are told differently among these two companies, I will use the 1951 Disney feature, Alice in Wonderland, which was based on the stories by Lewis Carroll, and Studio Ghibli’s 2001 release of Spirited Away, which has been described by many reviewers as a Japanese version of Alice in Wonderland.

In Disney’s film, Alice dreams of leaving behind her own world and having nonsensical adventures. After chasing a white rabbit down a hole, she gets her wish and wanders around Wonderland, commenting on how strange it all is, passively being drawn from one thing to the next. Once the chaos builds to a fever pitch and threatens her life, she finally wakes up and finds herself back in reality. Her sister is exasperated she fell asleep during their study time, and then they both go home. Alice doesn't change overly much as the story proceeds, and any change that could have happened, seems to have faded when Alice realizes all her adventures were merely dreams. The ending is somewhat inconclusive, though, as there seems to be no resolution to whether Alice will hold onto her curiosity and love of nonsense after all that happened to her.

In Spirited Away, the story begins with Chihiro, a young girl moving to a new town, and is understandably depressed because she’s leaving all her friends behind and remains uncertain of making new ones. Her parents get lost on the way to the new house and they wander through what appears to be an abandoned amusement park. The parents become tempted by food that was laid out, but Chihiro wanders off and comes upon a very luxurious looking bathhouse. Running back to her parents, she finds that they turned into pigs. Trapped by the spirits and magical beings in this strange world, she is helped by the mysterious boy, Haku. He tells her the only way to stay safe and rescue her cursed parents is to get a job from the owner of the bathhouse, a witch called Yubaba. In a series of adventures, Chihiro becomes friends with the staff of the bathhouse, and even saves these spiritual beings from a monster that is eating everyone. She encounters another witch who gives her clues to break Yubaba’s spells and she eventually is allowed to free her parents in a final test of wit and courage. Her parents remember nothing of the spirit world and walk back to the car. The family drives off, with Chihiro certain that her new life will turn out okay. Chihiro is much more active in Studio Ghibli's version, and shows clear change from the beginning of the story by the end.

These two films exemplify the difference between an active heroine and a passive one. Both visually and through storytelling, Studio Ghibli has a better grasp of creating the elusive “strong female character,” one who has agency, complexity,and experiences growth over the course of the plot. Yet as much as I love Disney films, they do exhibit some very troubling flaws when it comes to their female characters. While Studio Ghibli is not without flaw either, in terms of gender they are much more positive when it comes to female representation.