The Art World Today: Where Have All the Paintings Gone? Or: What the Feminists Have Done to the Art World
Leo Segedin   |   August 12, 2009 |   Print this essay

Anyone who has read about or visited exhibitions which survey the latest trends in contemporary art, or who has read reviews of recent gallery exhibitions in NY art galleries in the New Yorker, might conclude that artists are no longer making paintings. If the 2008 Whitney Museum's Biennial - advertised as "the most important survey of the state of contemporary art in the United States today" - is any indication, paintings now exist only as part of installations. Installations in this exhibition were made of such materials as plywood, mirrors, Plexiglas, metallic paper, drywall, and found fabric. Since as late as the middle 1960s, a national exhibit would have consisted of almost nothing but oil paintings and, perhaps, a few carved, cast or constructed sculptures made of wood, stone or metal, obviously, great changes have occurred in the contemporary art world during the last four decades.

Here are descriptions of some of the artworks in the 2008 Whitney Biennial from an article by Gillian Sneed reviewing the exhibition.

Patrick Hill's constructivist Between, Beneath, Through, Against combines constructivist slabs of glass and concrete embedded with fabric, while the wood, Plexiglas, and metallic paper constructions of Alice Konitz recall Bauhaus furniture design. &hellip:William Cordova's wood beam structure based on the footprint of the house where two Black Panthers leaders were killed in a Chicago police raid in 1969. Lisa Sigal's The Day Before yesterday and the Day After Tomorrow composed of drywall, wallpaper, house paint and plaster combine painting, sculpture and installation practices&hellip: Mike Rottenberg's &hellip:a kind of rickety wooden chicken coop structure containing several monitors playing Cheese, a film synthesizing Rapunzel with farm imagery including long-haired milk maids, goats, cows, chickens and other farm animals&hellip:
Not mentioned in this article is a sculpture by Charles Long "inspired by bird droppings" and a wall hanging by Rodney McMillian, consisting of a large, draped, black cloth, which the official catalog says reflected "his diverse interest in the boundaries demarcating class, economic status, culture, and their relationship to the physicality of the human body."

The same indication of radical change can be found internationally. For example, installations formed a major part of recent exhibitions at the Tate Modern in London and the Centre Pompidou in Paris. You also may remember a BBC report making the rounds in the popular press in 2001 that:
A cleaner (janitor) at a London gallery cleared away an installation by artist Damien Hirst having mistaken it for rubbish. Emanual Asare came across a pile of beer bottles, coffee cups and overflowing ashtrays and cleared them away at the Eyestorm gallery on Wednesday morning.
At the present time, a real, but dead shark, selected by the same Mr. Hirst, and preserved in formaldehyde, entitled "The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living", is on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The Metropolitan is the major American art museum and one of the four major art museums in the world. Mr. Hirst is the highest paid living artist in the world.

Also, Tracy Emin was the 44 year old British artist who represented Britain at the 2007 Venice Biennale. The Venice Biennale is the world's most famous, international art exhibition. Emin is a Royal Academician of the prestigious Royal Academy of the Arts in Britain. In 1999, she exhibited her own unmade, dirty bed with used condoms and bloodstained underwear. She sells well to celebrities such as Elton John and David Bowie.

Since these examples are apparently typical of the kinds of artworks found in contemporary art, several questions come to mind. What makes these objects artworks? How and why did such radical changes in the nature of artworks come about? How can you tell what they mean without labels? How do you go about judging them? More specifically, how do you compare the quality of, say, a dead shark, a draped, black cloth and a dirty bed? In fact, are you supposed to? The absence of paintings in such exhibitions indicates a lot more than a change of taste.


Although some people are distressed by what they see in contemporary art museums, many art critics, art museum administrators and university academics find this "openness and freedom" a positive development. In making a case for the influence of the Feminist movement, they claim that Feminism is the primary force responsible for such changes. For example, according to the Washington's Post's art critic, Blake Gopnick, in reviewing the international exhibition of Feminist art, "Global Feminism" Ð which, in 2007, was part of the opening celebration of the Brooklyn Museum's Elizabeth A. Sackler's Center for Feminist Art - the Feminist movement is "&hellip:The most important artistic movement since World War II.". Professor Peggy Phelan, who is the Ann O'Day Maples Chair in the Arts at Stanford University, wrote that "Feminist creativity has brought about the most far-reaching transformations in both artmaking and art writing over the past four decades". And the New York Times art critic, Holland Cotter, said that "The best American artists of the last 30 years are as interesting as they are in part because of the feminist art movement of the early 1970's. It changed everything." He went on:
One thing is certain: Feminist art, which emerged in the 1960s with the women's movement, is the formative art of the last four decades. Scan the most innovative work, by both men and women, done during that time, and you will find feminism's activist, expansionist, pluralistic trace. Without it, identity-based art, craft-derived art, performance art and much political art would not exist as it does, if it existed at all. Much of what we call post-modernist art has feminist art as its source."
Such descriptions of Feminist influence thus are not marginal or extremist views in that they represent the consensus of such mainstream, professional observers. If they are right, and the 2008 Whitney Biennial is an accurate survey of what is going on in contemporary art, then the Feminists can legitimately take credit (or are responsible) for what was exhibited in the Whitney Biennial. Contributing to this view is the fact that, although women artists in the Biennial represented less than 40% of the 81 artists in the show, the 2 curators who selected the works and organized the show and 2 of its 3 advisors were women.


Most art historians give initial credit for this radical change in the definition of an artwork, not to the Feminists, but rather to Marcel Duchamp. A former painter himself, in 1916, he attacked the high status of the traditional Fine Artworks, such as paintings like the Mona Lisa, by demonstrating that a work of art was just an object with no intrinsic aesthetic value. He did this by exhibiting a bottle rack and a urinal in an art gallery. In 1946, he noted that:
I threw the bottle rack and the urinal into their faces as a challenge and now they admire them for their aesthetic beauty.
And later, in 1961:
A certain state of affairs that I am particularly anxious to clarify is that the choices of these Ready-mades were never dictated by any aesthetic delectation. Such choice was always based on reflection of visual indifference and at the same time total absence of good taste.
By 1967, Conceptualism, Duchamp's ideological inheritor, dominated the art world. As a result, the assumption that art required any art object at all was virtually eliminated. Since according to the Conceptualists, the art object itself no longer had any intrinsic meaning other than what was given to it by our concept of it, no particular kind of object was necessary. The act of looking at an object in a particular space, not any unique character or quality of the object itself, turned it into 'art'. "Documents, photographs, maps, records of everyday, basically meaningless activities" became art. As philosophy and art theory became involved in explaining, justifying and, in a sense, actually creating this transformation, art became "deconstructed". Art became what was said about it. (There is now a Department of Art Theory and Practice at Northwestern University). Thus, from this point of view, the idea of 'quality' became irrelevant. Art critics became unnecessary in that there was nothing to interpret or judge. In 1968, Richard Kostelanetz, in an interview with John Cage, said:
Why do you waste your time and mine by trying to get value judgments? Don't you see that when you get a value judgment, that's all you have. Value judgments are destructive to our proper business which is curiosity and awareness.
By the 1970s, the restrictive sequence of styles - Abstract Expressionism followed by Pop art, Color Field art, Op art, Minimalism, and so forth - that had dominated the art world during the 1950s and 60s, had run its course. The time in which each of these styles was its central focus became shorter until the notion of art styles itself had disappeared altogether. As a result, the period from 1968 to 1981 became what was described in the title of Corinne Robins' text as 'The Pluralist Era.". As Andy Warhol put it, "Art was anything you could get away with".


While acknowledging the influence of Conceptualism, some art historians maintain that the present state of the art world is really the long term result of protests and demonstrations by radical art organizations during the late 60s and early 1970s against what they considered to be a racist, sexist and insular art establishment. Although Feminists initially joined with militant Black and anti-Vietnam war art organizations in attacking this 'system', they came to emphasize their independent impact. Through the constant pressure of their organizations, they were able to gain wider recognition for women's artwork in mainstream art museums, galleries and critical reviews. However, as they claim, their major influence was ultimately ideological in that their conception of art eventually transformed contemporary art practices and perception.

Taking advantage of the directional indeterminacy of the 70s, Feminists challenged many traditional assumptions of the art world. They did away with the long established belief in progress in the arts and, with it, the striving for style 'breakthroughs'. They charged that the previous succession of styles was the consequence of competition between white, male artists to be first with a new, historically influential, art style. This was why, they claimed, so few women and minorities were included in this competition. In criticizing the Metropolitan's exhibition, "Harlem on My Mind" in 1969 as demeaning colonialism, they raised the issue of biased perception and representation of the works of such artists. Rather than having mainstream authorities explain their work, they contended that artists in such exhibitions should represent themselves. They condemned the negative impact of such discrimination on the market value of their work. They also exposed the lack of recognition of women artists in traditional art history, the suppressed traditions of goddesses and historical periods of female dominance. Especially, they confronted the lack of female political and cultural power in their articles, books and artworks. In implementing their ways of thinking, Feminists introduced a whole new range of subject matter which had previously been rejected by mainstream museums and galleries. For women artists, the new content emphasized female identity, the female body and its functions, its difference from the male body and the social context of such differences. Their subject matter was often shocking, provocative, often with a sexual content, which, in other contexts, might have been considered pornography.

More importantly for working artists, Feminists developed the idea that subject matter itself - what the work was about - was more significant than its form - what it looked like. Whereas the Conceptualists eliminated content from the art object, the Feminists made it central. To the Feminists, the message became more important than the medium and, as a result, the 'art' in the artwork became incidental. The appearance of the art object, its aesthetic or formal character and, therefore, the viewer's experience of the object as an art object were minimized. For the viewer, then, the issue of quality was irrelevant and discounted. "The Feminists cared less for art than the important things it could be used to talk about." "It pushed instead for work that talked about crucial issues in the world outside."

Here is Peter Schjeldahl, art critic for The New Yorker, describing the content of Elizabeth Sackler's international "Global Feminism" exhibition:
The German Julica Rudelius videos young Muslim men displaying new clothes and nattering about brands and prices, in the stereotypical way of mall girls&hellip:&hellip:.The Iranian Paraston Forouhar's sprightly wallpaper drawings reveal figures, mostly female, being tortured or killed with whips, ropes, and stones. A Palestinian, Emily Jacir, uses a hidden camera to record her daily commute, on foot, past a sinister Israeli checkpoint. A video by the Israeli Sigalit Landau seems to accept guilt in this connection: naked on a beach, she twirls a hula hoop made of barbed wire, incurring bloody injury&hellip:.
Along with the introduction of this radical, new subject matter, traditional painting and sculpture were downgraded as the media of an elitist, old boy culture. At the same time, the neglected traditions of women's techniques, such as stitchery, quilt-making, weaving and other fabric arts were recognized and elevated. Also, any of the new technologies and approaches which they felt might serve their objectives, such as photography, film, video, performance and installations, was utilized. Although women did not introduce these new ways of making art, they made them dominant. Since permanence is no longer a requirement, there is no longer a hierarchy of materials. Time tested materials like oil, even acrylic paint, canvas, stone, marble and bronze no longer have the status they once had. Thus, contemporary artworks are often fragile and transitory.

Gopnick described the "Global Feminism" exhibition as having:
the same mix of media you'd find in any contemporary biennial: Lots of video, installations of all kinds, ranging from a feminist "clubhouse" built from mattresses to a room-size sculpture made of sand-filled pantyhose, plenty of photography, staged as well as documentary, detritus and documents left over from performances and conceptual projects; a smattering of idea-driven painting&hellip:
Under these circumstances, since contemporary art has no dominant period style with definable characteristics, traditional art history as the study of chronological relationships between styles becomes problematic; only descriptions and comparisons of individual artworks, personal responses by critics and quotes by artists and curators seem relevant. The Fine arts as a category distinguished from the crafts and popular arts have almost disappeared, except as a high status label in the art market. Since there are now no restrictions as to what art can be about or out of what it can be made, the art world has become a vast, all inclusive arena in which anything can be said to be meaningful. Thus, if any subject and object or construction of materials can be the basis of an artwork, then the only thing identifying an object as a work of art, other than the artist's intention, is its location in an art context such as an art museum or gallery or in a deconstructionist essay. As can be seen in the kinds of objects displayed in these art exhibitions, artists have to go to extremes to be noticed.


How then do you judge such objects? Should you? Can you? Is the primary issue the validity of the political or social content of the work? Are all works of art equal in value if their artists are sincere and have the right attitude? Mainstream and Feminists art critics and historians both recognized the changing canons for judging Western art, but respond to it differently. They both supposed that no artwork had 'stood the test of time'. They knew that, depending on the taste of the time, even artists like Rembrandt and Monet were in and out of the art market. A painting by Rembrandt was called "ludicrous"; Monet was called a "lunatic", but once the shock of the new had passed and their works became familiar, many of them have come to be seen as mainstream masterpieces.

From my point of view, because these now acceptable works were made according to presumptions which we had learned to recognize, they could ultimately be compared to other works. Such works had analyzable, formal characteristics, which reflected the skill, sensibility and knowledge of the artist. Thus, it was possible to discriminate between the quality of such works and their thousands of mediocre imitators. The canon might change, but there always was a canon. Works were judged, not on whether we agreed with or were provoked by their subject, - with what the work was about - but on the effectiveness of their form. We did not have to be a Renaissance Catholic to stand in awe before Michelangelo's 'Last Judgment'. We responded to Rembrandt's self portraits, not because they were pictures of a sad, old man, but because of the way Rembrandt painted them. We were able to determine their high quality because their form enhanced and, in a sense, created, their content. There are thousands of lousy paintings about Motherhood, Brotherhood, Love, War and religious theologies, but we could still recognize the great ones. We tried to apply the same kind of criteria to works of contemporary artists.

Many Feminists, however, reject such judgments as the function of a biased, white, male dominated, Western canon. They claim that this kind of judgment was discriminatory, especially when applied to women and minorities. In leveling the playing field, perhaps the most controversial impact of the Feminist movement was the result of its attack on traditional ideas of 'taste' and 'quality'. Although such terms have an aura of snobbish elitism, they also legitimately refer to the ability to discriminate, in that they suggest that some works of art may be better than others. Some Feminist critics have gone so far as to argue that such notions of `quality', when used by museum curators, art dealers and art critics, were really deliberate strategies for keeping women and minority artists from `making it' in the mainstream art world.

In 1990, Betty Ann Brown, in the New Art Examiner, wrote that:
Quality is a term that has a specific history. Linked for centuries with the European concept of aesthetics, it was bound in the 1960s to Clement Greenberg's formalist dictates. The concept of quality, as the exemplar of the elitist canon of the art world, has been used institutionally to exclude women and artists of color, particularly through the machinations of the curatorial process.
And in the same year, the well known Feminist critic, writer and curator, Lucy Lippard, in the essay, "Mapping", in her book, 'Mixed Blessings', wrote:

Ethnocentricism in the arts is balanced on the notion of Quality that "transcends boundaries" - and is identifiable only by those in power. According to this lofty view, racism has nothing to do with art. Quality will prevail; so called minorities just haven't got it yet. The notion of Quality has been the most effective bludgeon on the side of homogeneity in the modernist and postmodernist periods, despite twenty-five years of attempted revisionism. The conventional notion of good taste with which many of us were raised and educated was based on an illusion of social order that is no longer possible (or desirable) to believe in.

Thus, rather than being an educated response involving a value judgment, the focus on the 'aesthetic quality' - in other words, the form - of an artwork, for these Feminists, was rejected as a biased, sexist act. In reviewing the Feminist exhibition, "Making their Mark", in 1989, Arthur Danto, until recently art critic for The Nation, wrote:
This is not, for the most part, work that is easy or even important to appreciate aesthetically. Or rather, the demand that art be judged strictly by aesthetic criteria is itself not a politically innocent demand. In its own way, especially today, it is as political as the explicitly political art it condemns in the name of aesthetic purity. And often the willed impurity of feminist art is a rebuke to aestheticism as being, in the end, a form of repression. On the other hand, this is art that will mean different things to those of us on the other side of the gender line, and this difference is internal to the meaning and force of such works. It is work that would have failed had I, as a male, not felt myself under attack.
Some critics, like Roger Kimball, an editor of the conservative culture magazine, The New Criterion, reject all such art without discriminating differences in quality between the various exhibits. In his review of the 1997 Whitney Biennial, Kimball says that:
There is no point in trying to 'review' such an event. It is unreviewable. It would be like trying to review a heap of old clothes - no, more than that; it would in fact be reviewing a heap of old clothes; Louise Bourgeois's old clothes, as it happens, which have a room to themselves at the biennial, clothes that this seasoned artistic huckster "collected over a lifetime and arranged provocatively".
He closes his essay with:
At the very least there ought to be some sort of warning that upon leaving the exhibition the first thing most people will need is a drink. Those with weaker stomachs will need the plumbing fixture I referred to earlier.
On the other hand, Danto, in commenting on the same show, wrote:
There is a marvelous piece by Louise Bourgeois - best in show - if I were handing out prizes - that most saliently consists of stiff, worn female garments, some presumably intimate, said to have belonged to the artist herself, hung on a rack. It is a work suffused with some deep human feeling&hellip:..the power evoked by these works derives in part from the fact that we are confronted by real garments&hellip:
And, 10 years later, in 2007, in bringing this issue up to date, the veteran Feminist art historian, Linda Nochlin, said:

A lot of women's art has been accepted, but an awareness of the feminist edge (has lagged behind). For instance, our leading sculptor, male or female, in the United States today is by all odds Louise Bourgeois. And she is a feminist, but a lot of people buy her work, praise her work without paying attention to the strong feminist component of it.

Feminist critics, thus, do make judgments, but although they claim to have rejected traditional canons for judging art, they have not replaced them with consistent or usable new ones. While Kimball refuses to use any criteria, clearly, Danto, who is sensitive and sympathetic to the issues raised by the Feminists, is trying to. But if, for Danto, the significance of such work, along with its human associations, is its capacity to attack, to shock or provoke, it was because of its subject, not any formal quality it might have. This raises the question of how, from this perspective, women are supposed to respond to such familiar, intimate, feminine garments, or men who are not shocked by or even sensitive to women's underwear, or who accept the politics of the work.

Nochlin, on the other hand, in judging contemporary American sculpture, praises Bourgeois as the most important American sculptor working today. In doing this, she must be comparing Bourgeois's work to the work of other American artists, many of them male and not Feminist. Unless she is claiming the superiority of its Feminist content or intent, she can't be using Feminist criteria. In fact, she complains that the Feminist content in Bourgeois's work is not recognized in the mainstream. What criteria then is she using? It is unlikely that she is comparing the degree of shock in the works of these sculptors and, since human associations can be made with anything, she can't be using them as criteria either. What then makes Bourgeois's work better than the others? Could it possibly be Ð'quality' Ð its capacity to communicate its content over time, something that makes us want to return to it again as anything other than a dated curiosity (if it still exists)? Feminist critics still use terms like 'the best in the show', 'not as strong as', 'derivative', etc. acknowledging that there might be bad Feminist art. What criteria are they using if not mainstream canons? Why is it that many women artists have refused to be identified as Feminist artists, and have 'made it', on their own terms, according to mainstream canons? What canon is Danto using when he wrote in 1985 that "Were I to be asked to select the most innovative artists to represent this particular period (1970-85) through having come of age in it, most of them would probably be women." But, he is referring to Cindy Sherman and Jennifer Bartlett, women artists who have been successful in that competitive, mainstream art world. Maybe these women have 'made it' because they were 'good' or "better" artists.


The problem, as I see it, is that responding primarily to the content of a work of art, as the Feminists propose we do, may, at best, result in an immediate, intense recognition of 'crucial issues' It will not, however, lead to any long term, rewarding experience. I believe that a serious work of art should. Video reports of war atrocities, as disturbing as they might be, are not works of art; Goya's series of etchings, 'The Disasters of War', is. Without denying the potential power of subject matter, repeating such experiences in themselves, even if we were initially moved by them, is ultimately tiresome. We don't return to videos of the My Lai massacre. We are not horrified by insurance reports of automobile accidents, or Andy Warhol's multiple pictures of them, for very long, if at all. I am not suggesting that we turn artworks into politically neutral, aesthetic decorations or that we judge works of art as we do restaurants or even the price of paintings in the art market. My contention is that once we get the point of such presentations, we don't need to return to the presentation anymore. Their impact (as well as often the work itself) is temporary. On the other hand, taste - the capacity to discern quality - is based on familiarity, on long experience with the forms of that particular art and, if the artwork "works", results in the desire to repeat that experience (just as we return to concerts of music we like). We go back to see such works as often as we can; there is always more to see, experience, reinterpret, reevaluate &hellip:

There is no real issue that I can see as to whether form or content is more important, as the Feminists maintain. Form is the non-verbal 'language' of art. There is no art without form, any more than there are novels without words, sentences, paragraphs and plots. It is through its form that a work of art communicates. Since form and content are inseparable in successful works of art, the question is, would we return repeatedly to an artwork which is not concerned with its form - with what it looks like? Can we eventually adjust to such art as we have to controversial art in the past? What would probably be left of the work to respond to if we tried to return to it after a year or two? It may be that the Feminists can take credit for opening the art world to new, unconventional materials and previously unacceptable subject matter, but, from my point of view, they have not justified eliminating or diminishing form and visual quality as essential aspects of works of art. I would still rather look at a 115 year old oil painting, on a canvas stretched on four wooden sticks, of a basket with apples, by Cezanne, than a recently dead shark selected by Hirst, or an anonymous video of a bleeding, naked woman hula hooping with a barbed wire hoop.

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© 2009 Leopold Segedin. All rights reserved.