Feminist Aesthetics and Criticism

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As artists in the late 1960s and early 1970s started to produce explicitly feminist works, critics and historians of the various arts began to examine a previously unnoticed gender bias in the Western artistic tradition. Feminists discern this bias on two levels.

First, feminist critics charge that canonical artworks represent women and men in markedly different ways, a difference evident in the organization and scenarios of the works themselves. Whereas men are typically portrayed as strong, active, heroic, and playing important historical roles, women are nearly always shown as weak, inert, and vulnerable; in domestic or nurturing roles; identified with nature; and as sexually available for men's needs. This is perhaps most evident in the visual arts where representations of passive, anonymous, and vulnerable female nudes dominate many historical periods. Drawing on semiotics, psychoanalysis, and Marxist theory, feminists sought to expose and analyze manifestations of gender bias in structural features of traditionally admired artworks. One of the most influential concepts developed in this early period of criticism is the notion of "the male gaze" (Mulvey 1975). Although it is sometimes mistaken for an empirical description of individuals' actual viewing practices, "the male gaze" in fact refers to the viewpoint that many pictures adopt toward women, portraying women as passive objects of sexual desire.

Second, feminists argue that fully addressing gender inequality in the arts also requires questioning the canon; that is, those works traditionally deemed artistically excellent that form the core of a given discipline. Feminists are skeptical of the canon for two reasons. First, although women make up roughly half of the population, they are almost entirely absent from the pantheon of great artists. Second, the kinds of artifacts traditionally produced by womenfor example, quilts, pottery, needlework, and weavinghave not been taken seriously as art but rather have been relegated to the diminished categories of "decorative arts" or "crafts." The coincidence of pervasive gender inequality in the world with the exclusion of women's artifacts from the canon suggests that the canon might be shaped by more than purely aesthetic concerns. But what exactly is the relationship between unequal social relations and women's lack of representation in the canon? What explains the paucity of great women artists and the underestimation of artifacts customarily produced by women?

Some feminists, most notably Linda Nochlin (1971), argue that social, economic, and institutional barriers have prevented women from making art. For instance, in much of Europe in the nineteenth century women were not allowed to attend life-drawing classes and so lacked the training and practice necessary to adequately represent the human form. Although such obstacles and lack of opportunity surely contributed to the canon's one-sided configuration, this explanation has difficulty accounting for two facts: First, despite these adverse conditions, some women have been making oil paintings, sculptures, and the like for centuries, yet none number among the canon of great artists, and second, women still encounter discrimination in the contemporary art world (Guerilla Girls 1998). The historical explanation also has trouble accounting for the exclusion of kinds of artifacts conventionally produced by women.

Such questions prompt a need to examine traditional understandings of art. Might the prevailing standards of artistic excellence be tainted by biases that help explain why women and the artifacts they customarily produce have been excluded from the ranks of artistic greatness? At this point feminist philosophers and theoreticians enter the conversation to scrutinize the philosophical canon itself and analyze established theories of art, artistic talent, and aesthetic experience and value.

In their critical examination of the Western philosophical tradition feminists uncover and analyze previously unnoticed gender biases in theories of art from Plato onward. Some contend, for instance, that central aesthetic concepts such as "genius" and "masterpiece" have been traditionally gendered male (Battersby 1989). Others argue that influential theories of aesthetic perception implicitly take men's experience as their model by favoring sight and hearing, which customarily play a prominent role in men's lives, and by underestimating the aesthetic importance of those senses integral to the social roles assigned to women, namely touch, smell, and taste (Korsmeyer 2004). Finally, many feminist philosophers are critical of a cluster of theories and concepts that assume or attempt to justify the autonomy of art and of aesthetic appreciation and evaluation (for an overview, see Devereaux 1998). For example, some maintain that the common insistence on art's segregation from practical concerns results in the art-craft distinction and hence in the systematic depreciation of the sorts of artifacts customarily produced by women. Others make the case that the related doctrine of aesthetic formalism, which restricts artistic value to a work's formal features, departs in practice from purely formal concerns by reflecting masculine preferences for particular themes (such as the female nude). In these ways feminists argue that the presumed disinterestedness and universality of aesthetic judgment in theories following Immanuel Kant mask standards of evaluation that are partial to men's experience, preferences, and sensibilities.

Once the sources of this undervaluation of women's artistic efforts have been uncovered and analyzed, feminists then aim to delineate the positive means to overcome it. Besides providing women with opportunities in the art world, the prevailing conceptions of art and standards of artistic excellence must be revised. On this point most agree, yet several different solutions can be distinguished.


One approach calls for the outright abandonment of the problematic concepts, methods, and categorizations of traditional aesthetics. Artistic autonomy, aesthetic formalism, the art-craft distinction, presumptions of a disinterested aesthetic attitude, and concepts of talent or genius are all to be rejected in favor of a perspectivism that embraces a pluralistic conception of art and artistic value (Hein and Lauter 1993). This approach eschews all pretension to universal standards of aesthetic excellence, leaving no standpoint from which to adjudicate between differing understandings of art and aesthetic experience. In practice this has led some art historians and critics to reject the notion of artistic canons altogether and to replace talk of art with that of visual or material culture (Pollock 1999).

One concern is that this perspectival approach risks rendering any notion of artistic value meaningless, a result that is particularly unwelcome given feminists' efforts to demonstrate the artistic merit of women's artifactual efforts. Another worry is that one ought not mistake the discriminatory and faulty use of concepts such as genius or of methods like formalism for inherent features of these concepts, methods, or standards themselves. It does not follow from the fact that the so-called universal voice of aesthetic judgment has surreptitiously been biased toward masculine concerns that the very ideal of universality in aesthetic judgment is inherently gender biased. Indeed, that traditional theories of art have been criticized for their bias is evidence of feminism's reliance on the notion of impartial standards of artistic excellence.


Some feminists warn against the assumption that all of aesthetic theory has been tainted by gender bias (Felski 1998) and point to developments in philosophical aesthetics, such as the critique of disinterestedness, that are continuous with feminism's aims (Silvers 1998). Others show how at least aspects of certain ideals such as artistic autonomy are actually useful for feminism (Devereaux 1998). These developments suggest that feminism might be compatible with traditional theories of art and aesthetic experience, provided that these theories are purged of their masculine biases. This could motivate revaluation of those canonical works that cater to male-defined assumptions about women, on the one hand, and would allow these theories and their central concepts to be adapted to the kinds of objects customarily produced by women, on the other hand. In practical terms this approach would mean integrating women's artistic efforts into the canon, a process that some historians and critics have already begun (Guerilla Girls 1998).

Difference Aesthetics

Still, some insist, incorporating women into the canon misses what is distinctive about their art. Likewise, they contend, traditional aesthetic theories cannot be adequately modified to capture the uniqueness of women's experience, preferences, values, sensibilities, and modes of expression. Instead, a variety of alternative aesthetic concepts and theories of art indigenous to women is proposed (Battersby 1989, Frueh 1998, Robinson 2001, Barwell 1993, Donovan 1993, French 1993, Lorraine 1993). Some French feminists like Irigaray and Kristeva, for instance, argue that women imagine, express themselves, and experience art somatically or experimentally, and that these distinctive methods require standards, concepts, and definitions of art that differ radically from the traditional ones (See Korsmeyer, 2004, Chapter 6, for an overview). In practical terms, this could lead to the formation of separate women's canons in each of the arts.

Critics charge that this approach rests on false essentialist assumptions about woman's nature and overlooks important differences between women such as ethnicity, race, class, sexual orientation, ability, and age, to name only a few (Felski 1998). Some also worry that separate principles and criteria of artistic excellence and aesthetic experience risk leaving the canon with its biases in tact while ghettoizing women's art (Nochlin 1971, Pollock 1999).

The debate about how to deal with gender bias in artworks, canon formation, and traditional theories of art is lively and ongoing. Many of the disputes rest on the question of how, if at all, gender matters to the production, appreciation, and evaluation of art. Besides these unresolved questions, all approaches face new challenges such as the insistence that one cannot divorce feminist struggles from those of other disenfranchised groups. For these reasons, feminist aesthetics does not involve a particular stance or methodological commitment but, rather, unites a variety of approaches toward the common goal of ending women's subordination in the arts and discourses about the arts.

See also Aesthetics, History of; Feminism and Continental Philosophy; Feminist Philosophy.


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A. W. Eaton (2005)

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