We hear the phrase, “dead white guys,” a lot these days. It disparages a good deal of what has been taken for art and culture for the past 2000 years or so.
Now, we hear instead of women’s art, Hispanic art, Native American art. Identity, whether by gender, race, religion, nationality or even political outlook has splintered the culture, and what was once “universal” is now merely men’s art.
So, if we take there to be such a thing as men’s art, I wondered what that might be.
Surely that is what the rising tide of feminist art criticism tells us: That the so-called “canonic” art of the art history books and the institutional museums is biased in favor of colonialist, patriarchal and, well, male art.
It is seen as aggressive, competitive and with an undue emphasis on what has been labeled “quality.”
In this instance, “quality” is used as a shibboleth to exclude artists of color and gender.
And I would have a hard time arguing the reverse.
Through history, most artists recognized in the West — and by that I mean European artists — have been men.
And the art history texts have conspired to exclude the Sofonisbas and Artemesias, to say nothing of the Angelica Kauffmans and Judith Leysters.
So, if the art world has been a “old boy’s club” it stands to reason that its art must speak for old boys.
Well, let’s look first at what identity art — and identity politics — is all about.
It is assumed, first off, that each person is somehow defined by his race, culture and gender and that an art, to speak for them, must share the race, culture and gender.
I don’t want to argue that at the moment. Let’s assume it to be true.
So, let’s see how that plays out in the art of an artist generally acknowledged to be a woman: Judy Chicago.
Her first notable work was a series called “The Dinner Party” and it consisted of dozens of table settings, each built around a large dinner plate of her own creation. And each dinner plate was decorated with an ornamental vagina. Some looked more like flowers, some like, well, snails, I guess. But each was the female organ.
When they first were shown, at least, the art critics were largely hostile. “This isn’t art,” they all said, “This is a joke. Where is the beauty? Where is the craftsmanship?”
Well, they are fairly widely accepted as art now. I don’t know what else they would be. They aren’t Haviland china, that’s for sure.
Chicago’s feminist supporters declared that since the critics were, for the most part, men, they were prevented from understanding what made “Dinner Party” art.
And they also explained that what made them “women’s art” was the joining of the generative organ with the symbol of nurturance, the food that the woman prepared for her brood.
I’m making the argument particularly blunt, because, after all, I’m a man and wouldn’t understand otherwise.
On something of the same level, there must be something that counts as men’s art, that features symbols of male virtues. And here, I’m speaking of white male virtues, because black male art has its own niche filled not only by such historical luminaries as Romare Bearden and Jacob Lawrence. Or the more modern Jean-Michel Basquiat.
Or, in literature, think LeRoi Jones.
This whole problem is easier to understand, I think, if we use music instead of painting.
If you are Jewish, you have klezmer music;
If you are black, you have the blues
If you are white, you have the famous “dead white guys” — people like Brahms, Beethoven, Mozart.
What, after all, does Mozart have to say to a home-boy in the streets of South Central L.A? What does he care about proportion, harmonic rhythm and sonata form?
He has his rap music that speaks to his condition much more directly.
To his life, Mozart is irrelevant.
Or, let’s think of Beethoven and his Fifth Symphony. It used to be said always that the Great Art, with a capital “A” was universal, that is spoke for all mankind.
But what does a symphony orchestra mean to that same homeboy? Tuxedos? Money? Privilege?
And to a woman? Beethoven is badgering, hectoring, aggressive. It’s a constant wham-wham-wham of tonic-dominant forte chords.
Beethoven is men’s art, if ever there were such.
It is an art about hammering out a place in the universe, hammering out meaning.
Where is the grace? where the gentleness? Can Beethoven be said to be, in any sense, “nurturing.”
The recent spate of pop-psychology books telling us that men are from one planet and women from another would have us believe — and I’m not so sure it isn’t true — that women have a whole different way of processing information.
Women cooperate, support each other and generally attempt to create community and consensus.
Men play a life-and-death version of “king of the mountain.” They are inordinately concerned with who’s on top and where they might rank in the society. They are concerned with competition, with besting the other guy and proving they are the biggest damn gorilla on the block.
Sounds like Beethoven to me.
Who else might count as a male artist?
Michelangelo, with his “divine spark” and ranks of angels.
David, with his morality tableaux and ranks of nobles.
Picasso, surely, for his biography tells us he hated women.
And actually, almost everything in your standard Janson art history text.
The men are interested in manipulating things, altering the environment, creating a rigid social order and making “quality distinctions” that rank the artists’ products.
It is men who tell us Van Gogh is great and that Fantin-Latour is less so.
It is men who tell us Judy Chicago shouldn’t be taken seriously.
It is men who tell us that Beethoven is universal.
After all these years of so believing, I have come to question these assumptions. Perhaps Beethoven is really very provincial and speaks to white German males. Maybe that is why Debussy hated him. Maybe Wagner really does speak for the anti-Semitic; maybe Sibelius speaks only to the Finns.
As evidence for this I search myself.
I come from a Norwegian background. And sure enough, I feel something special, something very personal when I watch a Bergman film. I love a lot of cinema. Fellini is a dear; Kurosawa moves me to tears. But Scandinavian Bergman speaks to me as without a middle man; His images and words pierce directly to my heart and make an effect even before they reach my brain.
There is something perhaps even genetic to this. I recognize those iron-grey skies in his films, those tight-lipped volcanoes raging inside with never a ripple on their surface. That icy intensity is what rages through my own veins.
What doesn’t rage through my veins is the extroverted menagerie of Fellini. His Adriatic sun is not the midnight sun. Even his most sarcastic satire is optimistic. Just the opposite in Bergman, he sings with Brahms, “The grave is my joy.” There is something quintessentially gloomy about Scandinavians.
Lest you forget, the old Norse mythology is the only one, at least as far as I’ve ever found, wherein good battles evil and evil is predestined to win. The good gods will die.
I feel something of the same bleakness in Sibelius — less so in the Norwegian, Grieg, but that has more to do with his cosmopolitan leanings.
Think of the painter Edvard Munch — now there’s a cheerful guy.
The deal is that if your name is Abromowitz or Kelly or Riportella, you may not have that same blood-bond with Bergman. You may feel it for Fellini, or Rossini; or for Chaim Potok or klezmer music.
If you are black, you may feel that blood-tie to B.B. King or even L.L. Cool J.
And I have no doubt the women who tell us they feel a tie with Georgia O’Keeffe or Frida Kahlo and don’t feel the same with Cezanne or Braque are not merely making political points, but are telling us how they honestly feel.
Which brings us to the black briny problem of isolation. Does this mean that we have to throw out our Rembrandt and Renoir? Do we have to give up on 600 years or a thousand years of art history?
Does identity art render all other art null and void?
Well, the truth is that although I feel that kinship with Bergman, I truly do love Fellini as well. He speaks to me perhaps on a different level, and perhaps even a better level.
Fellini speaks to me not on the blood level, but on the level of esthetics. Even if my relatives are those in “Wild Strawberries” and not those in “Amarcord,” that doesn’t mean I don’t recognize the central core of humanity of the people in it. Fellini makes me believe in his people by force of will and imagination. He makes me believe in them as blood and flesh. He forces me to transcend the tribal.
And whether Georgia O’Keeffe speaks directly to women in a way she doesn’t speak to me I can’t know, but I can know that she speaks to me as well.
There is something in the best art that transcends race, culture and gender.
Sure, there is something on the surface that may speak more directly to others, but there is something in the core that speaks to us all.
It is, of course, that universality that I maligned earlier.
All art, of course, comes out of a culture, all art is made by a man or a woman and those roots must be the starting point. It would be as silly for a Chicano artist to mimic quattrocento Florentine art as it would be for me to write a rap song, but the soil, as they say, is where it starts.
And that soil gives birth to a great amount of art that never transcends its origin. That art can still speak to its nation or gender or color.
Most rap songs will never mean anything to me, although I can recognize in the best of it something genuine and true: Public Enemy is making real art even if others are only making headlines.
And Ditters von Dittersdorf writes concertos that really do appeal only to dead white Germans.
But the best of any art, from anywhere in the world and from any gender can communicate something genuine.
It is that nugget that Beethoven attempted to reach in his Ninth Symphony, for instance. “Alle Menschen werden Brüder” — “All men are brothers” or, in more gender neutral terms, as spoken by Willie Stargell: “We are family.”
So, what does all this mean?
First, that we must keep our ears and eyes open to that universal meaning in all art, whether it is Judy Chicago or Romare Bearden.
Second, we should always recognize that all art comes from a tribe, that white males are only one more tribe — certainly a historically privileged tribe — but that the tribe is the starting line, the checkered flag lies elsewhere.
We should never deny our origin, or attempt to suppress our origin as a seed for the art — the terroir we grow in — but we should always attempt to transcend our tribe and recognize not the differences between the tribes of humankind, but their similarities.