In certain intellectual spaces, social and academic alike, it often feels like it’s been decided that talking about misogyny in art and literature is a moot point — an extraneous, distracting, overly orthodox and immature interruption to the real conversation. It feels like it’s been decided that the only inquiries there are to be made about artistic misogyny will inevitably be reductive, simplifying and short-sighted, and that whatever conversation there is to be had about misogyny in art and literature will be a short, perfunctory one; something to be gotten out of the way so that we can get at the real meaning.
So, the female student who is preoccupied with, disturbed by, skeptical of or, at the very least, who finds herself unmoved by the aestheticized, unchallenged objectification of a Brian Jones sculpture, the sexual politics of a Woody Allen film or the gratuitous violence against women in American Psycho — and who wishes to engage with and speak aloud about the way she feels — takes a risk of not being heard. As it is with the reactions to many particular realities of being a woman, feeling discomfort and alienation from art is often met with gas-lighting or, perhaps no less toxically, a, “Well maybe, but that’s not the point.”
To voice disgust or reservation; to externalize one’s grappling with gratuitous and unchallenged depictions of female exploitation, violence, abuse, manipulation or subservience in a painting, novel or film — or god forbid, to claim that something is misogynistic — often seems to translate to failure of artistic literacy; an inability to “see past the obvious”: placing critical women on the same intellectual level of the parent who looks at a Jackson Pollack and says, “my kid could do that.”
To be clear, I’m making no claims that any particular art is misogynistic (the examples above are simply art that has been contested on these grounds) and I’m especially not making any claims about what women should read as misogynistic or be troubled by. I’m only saying that, in a patriarchal society, particularly considering that the art and literary worlds have and continue to be extraordinarily male-dominated spaces, women will experience art differently than men — in an endless number of different way, many of which might involve the discomforts of never really having been the intended viewers and readers of the art, at all.
This dynamic that I want to get out, however, plays out on another crucial level, which involves women’s perceived credibility and lived self-doubt as viewers and readers. A few weeks ago, I was flipping through a book filled with the works of visual artist George Condo (creator of the commissioned cover art for Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy) with a male friend. Condo’s art frequently portrays monstrous people and bodies. Halfway into the anthology of pastel, cubist cyclopses, growling, screaming, hysterical wide-open fanged mouths, deformed faces, misplaced teeth, and inflated or deformed body parts, I noticed that more of the paintings, most of the nudes and most of the grotesquely perverted bodies, in the most compromised poses, with the ugliest expressions, were female.
I had an internal, intense reaction to these images, imagining and internally shuddering at the disdain Condo seemed to hold for the female body, imagining his potential, unrealized scorn for my own body, and internalizing an animosity between me and this art. My friend, on the other hand, was enthralled with the art, provoked by its disturbingness — which he certainly recognized, but didn’t seem to be bothered by. I felt distracted and uncomfortable, and on an entirely different wavelength from my friend. Maybe it sounds petty, but I felt excluded but from his experience with the art we were examining together; like he was free to savor and explore it, and that my own subject-position and my taste was somehow limiting. However, I felt equally aggravated about this fact: that my “grappling” made it appear that I was less interested in or able to understand or appreciate the art. I could understand how the art was “working” in the ways my friend described, that simply wasn’t what was most salient or relevant to me as a viewer. This dynamic made me doubt my own credibility as a viewer, and simultaneously become frustrated with my own ambivalence about the art, my “failure” to share my friend’s enthusiasm and the bizarre, all-around gross wish to be a “cool-girl” who didn’t mind (for lack of a better term) the destroyed female bodies in front of me.
I’m not someone who is particularly hesitant to speak about experiences with misogyny or sexism — my own or anyone else’s — or to try to nudge a conversation towards what I find relevant. And yet, in this context, I felt both the need to self-censor and the strange, lurking, uncomfortable desire to vacate my own subjectivity, and step into a male one, in order to somehow “better” appreciate art.
It seems to me that this dynamic of hostility towards and devaluation of female experiences with art can be both an internalized and socially reaffirmed one, one which I’ve found in classrooms, among friends and within my own consciousness.
We need to address the way that women’s credibility as listeners, viewers and readers is undermined by the notion that what women see in art is somehow limited by their identity; that, what it really is, is a failure to see what a man sees (or colloquially, “what is really happening”), rather than a unique and necessary capacity to see and understand what they do see. And thus, that the correct way for women to engage with art is to compartmentalize, “get past” or overlook the violence and hostility towards women that they see; for them to intellectually and emotionally circumvent their own unfortunate, “flawed” reactions to the painting of a woman being raped, and instead develop a more “nuanced and balanced” reading of it.
This is the notion that underpins the widespread reluctance to truly engage with and fully explore criticisms of misogyny within art and culture — particularly the canonical art and literature which has already been declared Great and Important.
On an emotional and intellectual level, misogynistic art excludes and scorns the female viewer or reader. This is not a conclusion that condemns misogynistic art or means that we should ignore art that alienates women — misogynistic art or art that contains misogynistic dynamics has varying levels of value and use, which will always depend on its effect. However, the role of the female reader or viewer, and the way that women feel when they experience art that alienates them, needs to be accounted for in our interpretations and discussions. We need to make space for women to speak these kinds of considerations and awarenesses, not tell them that these feelings are some kind of failure of objectivity.
However, I don’t believe that making space for the female reader and viewer will be a project of charity. Because, right now, the people who are, perhaps the most apt to fully appreciate the moral ambiguities of a novel like Lolita or a film like American Psycho, or the art of George Condo, are the ones who have been repeatedly told that their feelings and thoughts are childish and counterproductive. And so, this space-making and redistribution of credibility might actually be the key to many of our most contested intellectual quandaries. Maybe it is the scorned female reader and viewer who has the answer.