The Art world is one of the few true spaces where a discourse around gender and race exists. Art canon is based on a historically perpetuating patriarchal manipulation which impacts all genders and races. The continued support and teachings of Vasari’s writings coupled with the way museums are curated and designed directly impact the way Art is perceived. The oppression of the institution traps the “other” into a cyclical discourse; a system that supports gender biased hierarchy as well as race repression within creative practice, effectively making it seem impossible to reconstruct the construct.
In the article “The Art Historical Canon: Sins of Omission, author Nanette Salomon hits the nail on the head when she says, “The omission of whole categories of art and artists has resulted in an unrepresentative and distorting notion of who has contributed to “universal” ideas expressed through creativity and aesthetic effort.” Difference is a symptom of equality, the sickness of sameness. Universality conveniently stifles the want or need to question.
In Vasari’s famed art history book, penned in the 1500’s precedent was set as to the basis of these biases, thereby creating the omissions. The word omission pacifies the seriousness of the actual situation. Despite the passage of time, Jansen’s writings in the 1960’s on art history are derivative of Vasari’s original writings. This continued ideology further perpetuates the dynamic of a thriving historical hierarchy. Vasari presupposes a true expression of artistic genius can only be achieved by a man—an upper white class man. His biographical endeavors support his genius and propel him comfortably into the construct Vasari created exclusively for him. There were more positive developments derived from Vasari’s writings were the inception of the Art Academy and the explosion of mechanically reproduced paintings. Well, positive for the upper class white male. Everyone else was excluded. Unless of course you were “exceptional,” in which case, once it was purported, the construct would find a way to prove the claim invalid. The term, “exceptional” itself is a derogatory definitive which carries the bias feeding into the hierarchy of insiders versus outsiders. The insiders deciphering whether or not the “other” fits. For example, Artemesia Gentileschi, was an incredibly talented artist whose work is generally associated with her rape at the hands of her mentor. It is always about sex. First, she is a woman, second an artist and primarily a rape victim. Anything she has painted has basis in her trauma; another privilege provided to women via the construct of the canon. A man’s biography makes him a genius and a woman’s biography is only based in her biology. However heroic her work may have been the canon will always imprison her work and her biography as gendered, not as art.
The construct creates a dynamic of white male power which further feeds a structure of power and submission. The “enlightenment” in the context of the European supremacy constituted a reclassification of knowledge—the museum is a product of the enlightenment. Originally access to museums was limited to a specific gendered race. The post enlightenment attitude towards the female nude was very different; once “enlightened” the attitude subverted and women were covered, particularly in the area of the pubis. It is an exercise not only in modesty, but a necessity to protect her from the risk of a violent attack. Through her full exposure she would create temptation, evoking a “natural” response from the male. Instead of the male controlling his impulse it is the woman’s responsibility to submit. Submission shows weakness, weakness fuels aggression, aggression triggers impulse. This proves covered or not—the fire burns her just the same.
There was a famed volume on art history penned in the Netherlands in the 1500’s which focused on Dutch artists, including women artists equally alongside their male counterparts. In fact, female artists were receiving acknowledgements for their creative contributions well into the 1700’s. For some reason this text was disregarded, and the works of Vasari dominated.
The romantic notion regarding upper white class males is blinding at best, operating as a systematic support of superiority, slowly suffocating the collective creative voice of women. By utilizing the “other” as a weapon, Vasari’s construct oppresses women and marginalizes minorities by placating the history to “include” various nationalities. The resulting behavior is sexist, racist and yet somehow acceptable. Feminist attempts to subvert the exclusivity are thwarted by a traditional canon generated over 400 years ago that effectively limits the history of art. These notions today are incredulous as gender is no longer defined as simply male or female. Today’s definitions of gender challenge this tradition of art history and its construct Even still one would have to approach the construct from the aspect of the construct itself. Inclusiveness operates in a similar fashion depending upon the context. “Other” becomes the difference that is introduced. The dialogue is relative to difference versus sameness, and in turn inclusivity becomes exclusivity. It is another trap.
In Sally Price’s article, “The Enduring Power of Primitivism,” she discusses a theory of universality as construct; a construct created by the patriarchal system that distinguishes differences of gender and race. An interesting example of this can be seen at Musee du Quai Branly (MQB). France passed a socially racist law in 2009 allowing young adults from France to visit museums without having to pay admission. This included the MQB, which houses a large collection of “Primitive Art.” The irony being that a young adult from Africa, visiting the museum must pay admission to view artifacts from their own culture. The MQB’s primitive art treasures were procured by thieves justifying their actions with semantics in a language with politics they would not want to understand. This thoughtfully created a feeding system of stolen objects acquisitioned by educated entities who definitively decide neglect and mistreatment of the objects mean they needed the care and conservation only a museum can provide. The object becomes art. The artist becomes anonymous. Their identity is lost, forever. The object becomes property of the western world and its ideology.
When focusing on these ideas it is relevant to add there is no such thing as Primitive Art. Primitive Art buys into the construct, that one specifically gendered race dictates all definitive within western thinking. It also brings one to question what fact is and what truth is based in the academic and cultural context whose origin is placed historically within the “enlightenment” thereby trapping anyone from the ability to decontextualize and reclassify the identity and the truth of so many that otherwise cease to exist within this system of educational and cultural classifications.