Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Women artists in public museums


Tonight, elles@centrepompidou will open at the Pompidou Centre in Paris. It includes over 500 works from its collection, by 200 women artists. elles@centrepompidou will last for a year, with periodic additions and rotations of artworks. A fine addition to any woman traveller's itinerary, along with the European women's film festivals. I've often wondered if somewhere there's travel agent who specialises in women's culture tours. Anyway, you can read about elles@centrepompidou in a great article from the Los Angeles Times by Suzanne Muchnic, & buy a ticket online.

I so wish I could be there, after a week spent writing far too much about We are unsuitable for framing at Te Papa Tongarewa , our national museum and art gallery (until July 27). We are unsuitable for framing, like elles@centrepompidou, includes only works by women, but is presented as an exhibition about identity rather than a women's, or feminist, exhibition.

And, in Suzanne Muchnic's article, Camille Morineau, curator of elles@centrepompidou identifies a problem that reminds me of a problem I had, writing about We are unsuitable for framing. Although, unsurprisingly, the women's works in the Centre Pompidou's collection "show that the history of 20th century women's art is quite similar to what we have in the general permanent collection" some contemporary art movements were largely defined by male artists or critics.
You have to show women who didn't want to be part of a movement or who were formally part of the movement but were not associated with it by critics. So what do you do with that? Do you stress the fact that the women wanted to be out of the movement or do you integrate them? There's a paradox we had to deal with.
The related problem I had was trying to decide whether Unsuitable for framing was a feminist exhibition.

We are unsuitable for framing groups works by women who define themselves as feminists but not as feminist artists with work by women who do not want to be exhibited only with women (some of these are the same women) and work by women who are not feminists. Is an exhibition of women artists only always or ever a feminist one? If some of the artists prefer to be associated with (say) conceptual art does that mean the exhibition cannot be feminist? Does the curator decide if an exhibition is feminist? Or the audience? And I guess that institutions like the Pompidou Centre—where only 17% of the 5,000 artists included in its collection are women—and Te Papa tend buy women's work only if it fits strongly within a category not labelled feminist. So that limits the 'feminist' possibilities from the beginning, for any exhibition selected from their collections.

How does this connect to filmmaking? At the moment, I'm reading about literature and evolution. One study, by Jonathon Gottschall (in The literary animal: evolution and the nature of narrative, 2005) compared data from Western European fairytales with data from many other cultures. It shows, among other things, that the percentages of active male protagonists significantly exceed those of active female protagonists in all cultures.

Gottschall concludes that distinct regularities in behaviour, psychology and gender predominate across human populations and are reflected in the world's folk literatures. This gave me another perspective on scriptwriting and why women may struggle with making movies about the stories they tell about women's lives. And why they may succeed, often, only because they manage to 'fit' a story into a category not viewed as 'feminist'.

Morineau found that as her exhibition evolved, "some segments paralleled mainstream art history, and others--particularly performance, representations of the female body and works with a strong feminist viewpoint--deviated sharply." I guess that in film, as in public galleries, some kinds of women's performance, some ways women represent women's bodies and any strong feminist viewpoint, may be unwelcome because we deviate from the mainstream. Not a new thought of course, no new thoughts here at all, but I was interested in the visual art context.

1 comment:

  1. hullo? hullo? anybody home? a few months ago you expressed interest in a feminist support group...I'd also like to talk to you about a feminist film project...

    madama ambi at g mail dot com

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