The Gender of Paintings / by Chris Hall

Christopher Hall, General Douglas MacArthur:  We Pray For Your Erection, c 2009

Christopher Hall, General Douglas MacArthur:  We Pray For Your Erection, c 2009

In his book The Invisible Dragon, Dave Hickey writes an essay on the perceived gender shift of art (most especially paintings), from Renaissance to Modern times, and then again in our contemporary times.  To do this, Hickey sets up two aesthetics, “masculine” and “feminine,” and assigns them attributes appropriately (though perhaps using “aggressive” and “passive” in place of “masculine” or “feminine” may have been more appropriate).  Critical language is important when setting up gender aesthetics in art.  Hickey writes that “The demotic of Vasari's time invested work with attributes traditionally characterized as “feminine”:  beauty, harmony, generosity.  Modern critical language validates works on the basis of their “masculine” characteristics:  strength, singularity, autonomy.”  Hickey explains later that the illusionistic painting of Renaissance times is more receptive to the viewer's gaze.  When looking into a painting with illusionistic space, the viewer's eyes penetrates the picture plane, which is generously offered, shared, and ceded by the artist.  In this regard, paintings with illusionistic space do have “feminine” qualities.  According to Hickey, beginning in Baroque times, paining began a march toward a more “masculine” aesthetic, gradually encroaching on the viewer's space.  With the rise of Modern Art, the “masculine” aesthetic of flatness began to dominate, with paintings seeking to reclaim the illusionistic space, at times even seeking to penetrate outside the picture plane, and overwhelm the viewer.  Modern painting, then, can be said to have an aggressive aesthetic.  

About 50 years ago, beginning with the so called “Death of Paining,” masculinity and Modern Art aesthetics have come under fire.  Postmodern critics have disparaged painting, instead favoring conceptual, photographic, three-dimensional, installation, and time based practices.  This criticism of patriarchal tendencies in the Art-World was, perhaps, made with the best of intentions.  Yes, there were a few assholes among the Modern artists and Modern Art supporters, and yes, it was a bit of a patriarchy – but it doesn't follow that the Modernist, “masculine” aesthetic is sexist and patriarchal.  If we follow Hickey's logic of assigning gender attributes to illusionistic depth - or the lack of it as the aesthetic goes in Modern Art - couldn't we also assign gender attributes to color theory?  Red (and warm colors) are aggressive and advance in space, while blue (and other cool colors) are passive and recede into space.  Surely it would be madness to suggest that a painting dominated by the color red is an affront to sensitive eyes and thus an example of patriarchal tendencies in the Art-World, but sadly that is where this logic carries us.

So I have to ask, what is exactly is wrong with the “masculine” aesthetic, with celebrating masculinity?  What harm does it do?  Why is it so damned?  Sometimes it seems to me that art with so called “masculine” attributes is too quickly dismissed and damned by critics, dispatched without much investigation.  If a work of art has “masculine” attributes, it is sometimes assumed that author is an insensitive pig and on the wrong side of history.  Even Hickey, a man who is himself sometimes accused of being a chauvinist, compares Modern Art aesthetics to a “dysfunctional male parent in the tradition of the biblical patriarch.”  But just because a work has a “masculine” aesthetic, it shouldn't follow that the artist is a neanderthal male chauvinist pig.  Sadly, though, that is the impression I sometimes get from critics, as if a Modern Art painting is capable eye raping their grandmother and leaving her corpse in a ditch.  The last time I check, neither Van Gogh nor his Starry Night, has ever raped anyone.  Someone should take the time to remind Sherrie Levine of this.

Surely we can each have our own tastes and opinions concerning what we may find beautiful or useful, whether it be “masculine” or “feminine” aesthetics, and Hickey sets up his argument in this way, sharing with us his preference for painting with a “feminine” aesthetic, that is paintings with illusionistic space.  While there are many gender politic issues that still need to be addressed, (pay inequality, for example), Modern Art aesthetics is not one of them.  I fear, though, that by assigning gender roles to art and aesthetics, we are only giving more ammunition to the deconstructionists who already look for any excuse to dismiss Modern At aesthetics based on gender politics.

I have been thinking about the subject of masculinity in art quite a bit recently, as I submitted a short statement along with images of my work for a future show entitled #Masculinity at the Low Museum in Atlanta.  I was excited about the prospect of participating, as I think the time is now ripe to re-examine our positions, and re-open an honest dialogue on what exactly it means to be masculine in our contemporary culture.  I think we will find that it may be safe to once again celebrate and reclaim some aspects of masculinity while at the same time also being careful and critical of some of its more ridiculous and, perhaps, more harmful aspects.  My proposal was turned down, which was kind of hurtful, considering how important the subject is to me and my work (I offered them 60 drawings directly related to the subject -  it is hard to believe they couldn't find at least one drawing that would have worked).  But you can't always win.  It would make for a pissed off Chris, though, if all the art in the show ends up being dismissive and critical of masculinity and masculine aesthetics in art, which considering today's critical climate, is a distinct possibility.