The Economics of Art

A theme that continues to pop up in our discussions since reading Woolf has been the material means needed to become an artist.  Before artists can even reach the obstacles of disseminating their works, being recognized, and being appreciated as more than just a woman artist, they must first have the means to master their craft.  If we look at the six artists featured in The Guerrilla Girls’ Bedside Companion to the History of Western Art, we can see how economic or societal advantages allowed them to pursue careers in art.  Rosa Bonheur’s father had an art school, which gave her the opportunity to learn and make connections.  Julia Margaret Cameron was in a financial position where she could afford a camera and maids to help her in a dark room.  She could afford to spend all her time taking photos, and she had the social connections to take portraits of famous men, like Charles Darwin.  Mary Cassatt was also upper class, which enabled her not only to make art, but also to collect art.  Camille Claudel was financially supported by her lover, Auguste Rodin.

Of course the flip side to these stories is how the financial support was often out of the women’s hands.  For example, once Claudel broke off her relationship with Rodin, her popularity as an artist fell into decline.  Then, once her father died, her brother forced her into an insane asylum.  Not only was her art dependent on the financial security of a sexual relationship, but her freedom was dependent on the support of her kin.  Similarly, when Julia Margaret Cameron’s husband was made governor, she essentially abandons her art to serve as a wife, first and foremost.

The stories that do not fit with this trend are those of Harriet Powers and Edmonia Lewis – which are interestingly enough the two Black artists featured in the article.  Edmonia Lewis’s brother had the means to send her to Oberlin, but the experience did not benefit her artistic career.  Harriet Powers was discovered by a white art teacher (who, in a way, used her financial and social means to support Powers’ art), but was not in a position to consider art as a viable career choice anyway.

It’s interesting to think about the Guerilla Girls’ approach to highlighting these women in history.  I personally have never taken an art history class so I am not sure how much their article differs from or subverts the usual textbook layouts, but they focus much more on the artists’ lives than on their works.  Instead of just writing specifically on their artistic contributions and notable styles, or who influenced them and who they in turn influenced, the articles provide short biographies on each woman.  In this way, the Guerilla Girls are emphasizing the struggle each faced and the role of social and financial power in each one’s relative success.

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5 thoughts on “The Economics of Art

  1. Hi Maria, I didn’t notice how Powers and Lewis lacked that artistic kinship network. I wonder exactly how (or if) their race and their class factor into how they were able to become artists and likewise, are there cases of 19th century white women succeeding without this network?

    Also, how Rosa Bonheur was characterized in the Guerrilla Girls vs. Nochlin was bizarrely different. Maybe it’s attributable to the Guerrilla Girls’ desire to appeal to a broader audience but what’s lost in their characterization is how Bonhuer seemed to suffer from that endemic internal feminine guilt induced by creating art.

    • I noticed the difference in the portrayals of Rosa Bonheur as well, but I think that just speaks to the aims of Nochlin vs. the Guerrilla Girls. The latter wants to present an independent and really fascinating woman who found success against the odds, and like you say, that image will resonate with a much wider audience.

      As for Powers and Lewis, I definitely do not mean to claim that their race was directly linked to their lack of an artistic kinship network. It was just a small observation I noted along the way — though I, too, am really curious to know if anyone has cases of white women in the 19th century succeeding without such a support system/network.

  2. I also know very little about your average art history textbook, but the format that the Guerrilla Girls used was really fun for me to read, and I haven’t had that experience with any textbook in any subject. Your post, along with the post on Maureen Johnson’s coverflip, makes me wonder why they chose to present this information (so-called “herstory”) in such a feminized way, and what kind of effect that has on a typical reader. Judging by their gorilla masks, they’re actually putting up a masculine, animalistic front, yet this book is, to me, very obviously written by women.

    • The idea of the animalistic as masculine actually is very similar to a problem I ran into frequently while reading these texts. I would read something about how a woman expressed her individuality (the depiction of Bonheur comes to mind), and I would wonder why it’s so celebrated that a woman is expressing masculine traits, but then I would tell myself that these things have been codified as masculine and that no one has to subscribe to those notions of categories. In general, I feel like discussing these issues is often difficult because of how deep these trends run. It also leads to the question that, assuming we have some end goal in mind, would it be to remove gender from traits (so that wearing gorilla masks is no longer masculine) or to allow people to cross existing boundaries (so it’s no longer strange if a woman likes cars or a man wants to cross-stitch), and in the end, how different are those two goals?

  3. The comment about how the Guerilla Girls portray biographies reminds me of the bit in “Differencing the Canon” about the interest in the artist, as opposed to the art itself. (For Freud, therefore, the ‘public’s real interest in art lay not in art itself, by in the image it has of the artist as a “great man”‘, even though this face is often repressed [Pollock 13].) Looking at the art itself, it can be hard to differentiate between masculine and feminine (this is also mentioned somewhere, I think?), because it’s so based in style, so the problem exists when the artist becomes canonized as well.

    I’ve lost my original point, but I think that might be why Guerilla Girls choose to focus on biographies, as opposed to the art works created.

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