MFA Semester 1
1 September 2012
Carol Duncan’s Artifacts of Power
As newly minted MFA candidates, our first inculcation to the world of contemporary art criticism took the form of a history of the avant-garde as seen through a feminist lens. Not surprisingly, a topic of much contention happened to be the female nude. While this did not come as a complete shock, it was interesting to note just how often the topic came up, particularly in our readings, and how vehemently it was decried.
The nude in Western art is a veritable institution, after all. To this day, every art school worth its salt trains its students in the intricacies of depicting the human form. Students spend countless hours in the effort to achieve competency in figure drawing- for good reason, as it is no light task, and is for some the pinnacle of professional draughtsmanship. In reading many of the essays assigned to us, however, it became clear that many see this time-honoured genre as not only being in questionable taste, but as an outright tool used for the subjugation of women. These themes seem especially prevalent in the work of Carol Duncan, a critic whose writing has been so influential that she authored no less than two of our fifteen assigned readings. In our cases as doubtless with countless others, her work is literally required reading for art students. As such, it is essential for any artist considering the possibility of painting nudes to come to personal terms with the messages Carol Duncan has delivered.
In her article ‘The MoMA’s Hot Mamas” Carol Duncan posits the notion that the prominent display and location of several iconic depictions of nude women “specify the museum’s ritual of spiritual quest as a male quest, just as they mark the larger project of modern art as primarily a male endeavor” (172). Not merely milestones presented in a linear presentation of the history of modern art, they are, in Duncan’s words “artifacts of power”(171). As a result, the work “forcefully asserts to both men and women the privileged status of male viewers- they alone are intended to experience the full impact of this most revelatory moment” (176).
I find this view to be problematic. Should I feel excluded from the pleasures and insights offered by the works of Romare Bearden because I am a white male and thereby cannot enjoy 100% participation? Am I to scratch my head in bewilderment and turn my back on Mary Cassatt’s images of motherhood- a state forever denied me by my gender? Obviously not. Like most museum-goers, I appreciate the fact that the miracle of art has allowed a medium through which someone other than myself can communicate something about their life to me.
Far from being open-minded, however, Duncan’s interpretation of these works is decidedly one-sided. In the space of no less than two pages she makes the case that DeKooning’s Woman I is incontrovertibly a timeless Gorgan-type to be overcome. I would argue that the subject matter is more an armature from which DeKooning to hang his paint on, in much the same way that Jasper Johns made use of map imagery. Is it really any wonder that the painting has an aggressive appearance, given the look of DeKooning’s other work during that period? A calm and placid image was simply not in his vocabulary at the time. Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon is similarly reduced to one interpretation. Painted in different styles, each woman represents a different whore-type across human history, in the end forming one timeless archetype of woman. As Duncan puts it, “the awesome goddess, the terrible witch, and the lewd whore are but facets of a single many-sided creature, in turn threatening and seductive, imposing and self-abasing, dominating and powerless- and always the psychic property of a male imagination” (176). Seen through my eyes, the painting takes on less dangerous overtones and looks like an early cubist experiment… but then again, maybe that’s just my ‘male imagination’ talking.
In “Virility and Domination in Early Twentieth Century Vanguard Painting”, Duncan specifically addresses what she sees as the public’s perception of the link between the avant-garde and freedom. In her words, “ the presence of innovation makes a work ideologically useful because it demonstrates the artist’s individual freedom as an artist; and that freedom implies and comes to stand for human freedom in general.” (31). While she does go on to say that ‘the banner they waved was for free, individual self-expression and the rehabilitation of the flesh” (47), her condemnation of how they chose to express that freedom becomes very clear in her assessments of paintings featuring the nude in nature done by the Fauves and by members of the Brucke.
Through Duncan’s eyes, the fact that depictions of nude females in these return-to-nature scenes far outnumber depictions of naked men is evidence of a general cultural assumption that women were closer to nature, while men were seen more as agents of culture. This is an interesting theory, although a number of other factors may be responsible for the relatively few male nudes seen in works of this type at this time, most of which have to do with money. First and foremost, as a young and avant-garde group, they were not exactly raking in the money necessary to hire models. I would reason that it may safely be assumed that many of these works were done from life, with the artists’ wives or mistresses modeling. These are scenes of idyllic beauty, many of which do not have an aggressive bent. Could it be that these artists deliberately avoided mixed-gender scenes in deference to the mores of their times? Certainly, the presence of both nude men and women would have sexualized these scenes considerably. Avant-garde or not, I do not find it inconceivable that these artists might have taken their patrons’ tastes into account.
Short of that, perhaps they just painted what they wanted. Is there no room for fantasy in the art of man? One must cow-tow to the prevailing social order? Are artists to present a vision of human existence free from sexual drive, desire, and tension- because that, in itself, would be a fantasy.
Regardless of how one interprets these works, however, it is undeniable that these are very real emotions these artists are conveying. Whether or not one agrees with the messages they impart does not detract from their success in communicating them to other humans. As Duncan states (sans source or evidence), “feelings of inadequacy and vulnerability before mature women are common (if not always salient) phenomena in male psychic development” (174). Well, if so, why bridle at their depiction? . If a painter, avant-garde or otherwise, is not to indulge himself, then to whom does he owe allegiance? To the bourgeois ideals and pressures they railed against? Or to the societal ideals of a woman living thousands of miles and roughly a hundred years of day-to-day human history away? Artists are not equipped nor should they be charged to become visual polemicists or social engineers; that is the role of the propagandist.
Duncan presumes that the presence of female nudity in so many ground–breaking works was a calculated choice meant to link the creative urge with male sexuality. I would like to propose a different underlying motive. Artists, particularly painters, apply themselves to the ideal of being Timeless. It’s tied up in their very medium. Witness artists’ attention to archival materials, the exact mixture so-and-so used, etc. In no other profession are its practitioners so caught up in the tools, methods, and materials used by their forebears. So, too, with the subjects artists undertake. Consider the still life: what really, on the surface, could possibly be more boring than yet another a still-life? Yet a painting never stands alone. It is always seen within the purview of art history. The very fact that thousands of other still-lives have been painted over the millennia breathes life into new ones.
Nudes, too, trade in this association to the past, especially nudes in nature. With their lack of connection to fashion or other clues that would indicate a specific moment in time, nudes allow for a Timelessness few other subjects could hope to attain. Nudes in nature remind us of our time in the wilderness, braving the elements, and of our own artistic history. Evocative of both our natural and our cultural histories, it is an ideal form for establishing a link between the past and the present. For the painter, the nude affords a unique opportunity to measure oneself against the past and its heroes.
Many of the nudes Duncan decries may have their motives in clichés associated with masculinity, but not in the way she supposes. It is artists’ innate insecurity and spirit of competition which drive them to take up antiquated materials with which to banish the spirits of their predecessors. To sweep the art of the past under the rug, the artists of the avant-garde had to beat its practitioners at their own game. What better arena than the human figure, arguably the most difficult of subjects? In treating an old subject with new methods an artist’s innovations are made all the more clear.
In the end, artists must trust themselves and not doubt their intentions. Familiarity with the work of critics like Carol Duncan is an essential component of an artist’s growth, but care should be taken to avoid the temptation to self-censor that these works might encourage. One wonders if some of these essays have become in Duncan’s words, ‘artifacts of power’ in their own right. How many great nudes and expressions of sexuality from either gender have gone unpainted out of fear for critical reprisal? If artists are too scared to reveal something honest about themselves then wherein lies the worth of their record? Whitewashing one’s conscience to sanitize one’s work does a disservice to art and bears false witness to the human condition.
Duncan, Carol. “The MoMa’s Hot Mamas”. Art Journal Summer 1989: 171-178.
Duncan, Carol. “Virility and Domination in Early Twentieth-Century Vanguard Painting”. Artforum December 1973: 30-39.