Women: subjects or objects

Covered with blue veils, celestial symbol, they were virgin. Blondes with clear eyes. If in the visionary manuscripts they were red or dark-haired and wore it down instead, the sacred texts indentified them at least as ‘the Whore of Babylon, the biggest prostitute of all times’. They deserved to be sculpted in the Romanesque cloisters in the middle of a fire ready to be burned showing their naked bodies, symbol of sin, as good disciples of Eva.

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The years passed and this sin would be socially accepted as a weakness in front of provocation. Only when the eyes of the men the ones that were looking and the legs of the women the ones that remained still, the artists tried to reach with paint brushes the parts they couldn’t reach with their fingers. However, sometimes they reached them too: ‘it is so romantic to sleep together with the models and end up signing the sculptures they make’, Rodin may have thought when he believed he could erase from history his lover, Camille Claudel. The impressionists painted women: in the opera, in the park, at the most chic cafés in the city of lights. All them loaded up with jewels and dresses so that they would show the wealth of an increasing upper-class, that had its position guaranteed thanks to the tasks that, hidden in private spaces, were under their responsibility. Or, in case they had a lot of money, under the responsibility of the servant, who was obviously a woman but didn’t even appear in the paintings. Nevertheless, further on, and mostly since the 60’s, they didn’t want to be models, nor witches or virgins, but combative women referent of the new social movements that were growing as a wave since the Second World War. But the conscience determines the existence, so that it was necessary to start from the knowledge of oneself and of that system of relations that, during some years, had set their predecessors apart from that canon and the official speeches in the artistic world. The patriarchy, this oil stain that had been spreading out since the moment the utility of maintaining a part of the population under the service of the other was discovered, was narrowing now its bonds with capitalism. And at the same time to this taking of conscience by some, the same system was offering the possibility of swallowing the problem and make us believe that it had tools and laws to solve it all together. At the same time, it allowed that, day by day, the mentality of the girls was forged based on the princesses that need to be saved, songs that speak of an unconditional love forever or advertising bombings, which only include a single body model that allow them to be accepted.

Under this faked formal equality and the continuous attempts to discredit the feminist movement considering it a phase already over, or a problem from victimized, hysterical and unsatisfied women, the fight and the organization, also in the artistic world as another sphere where the patriarchy acts, ended up admitting they were right. In 1989, the ‘Guerrilla Girls’ published its well-known poster: « Do women have to be naked to get into the Metropolitan Museum? Less than 5% of the artists in the Modern Art sections are women, but 85% of the nudes are female. » That is, women still appeared in art treated as objects of the masculine view and not as subjects that create artistic contents.


If this was a problem affecting museums, galleries and artistic circles, it also affected the daily life. It was so, that women realized that only they could give visibility to all that was affecting and concerned them. Adopting the premise of Kate Millet “making personal political again”, Marta Roshler or Louise Bourgeois criticized the relegation of women to the private field. The first, with the performance Semiotics of the kitchen (1975), enumerated the elements that compound the daily life of a housewife from A to Z with the goal to look into the language as a system of signs, in which women tend to become another sign we associate to the kitchen field. Bourgeois, with the different Femme-maison, drew or sculpted feminine bodies that, instead of a head, had a house.

Yoko Ono with Cutpiece (1965) and Marina Abramovic with Rhythm 0 (1974) presented the matter of violence and dehumanization. Parallelisms between the two performances are clear. In both cases both artists acted as subjects from the art fact, since they created it themselves. But in order to show their situation as women, they decided to act as passive objects. On one hand, Yoko Ono sat on a stage offering scissors to the visitors so that they could cut her dress. On the other hand, Marina Abramovic went further: standing in front of a table full of different tools, from plumes or roses to knives, during six hours she allowed the public to do what they wanted with her. The situation created in both cases was very similar: as the performance was going on, the public was becoming more adventurous, until both of them ended up almost totally naked, making clear they were treated as sexual objects as they were exposed as puppets. As Abramovic explains, the most curious thing of the case was that, when the 6 hours were over she began to move and all the public run away, unable to face her as a woman, by then an active subject. Nevertheless, the history of the feminist fight is the history of a thousand fights that are intertwined. Carrie Mae Weems, Afro-American, presented these intertwines at Mirror, mirror (1986).

snowwhiteIn the photograph in black and white the artist can be seen looking herself into a mirror. Above the image, a legend: mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the finest of them all? Snow White you black bitch, and don’t you forget it! So here we see how the patriarchy gets also mixed with racism, making an allusion to popular tales as apparently ingenuous transmissions of conceptions from the other. They have made us think: Probably they fulfilled their target by doing so. So simple as having voice. These are some of the examples of how the situation can change when women take control of the artistic world. For the illustrator Ende, for Frida Kahlo, Ana Mendieta, Maruja Mallo, Mary Cassat, Artemisia Gentileschi and for many more, it is important that we remember how women can be active subjects of creativity, beyond objects for contemplation or entertainment of some paint brushes specialized in feminine, white, heterosexual and young skin. Whoever says art hasn’t got power, he or she is wrong. Whoever says it’s used to isolate yourself from reality, is wrong too. On one hand, because it is created by reality itself and, on the other hand, because it is the mirror of worries, desires and fears of each generation.

By Alba Cañellas Canadell

Translated by Raül Gil Alonso


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