Impact of Social and Sexual Changes on Art
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Published: Mon, 05 Feb 2018
Hair has traditionally been cited as a discernibly female expression of sexuality and beauty, an aesthetic composition that exacerbates a woman’s ability to attract members of the opposite sex while acting as a visual demarcation line between the male female divides. Conversely, the fact that men often begin to lose their hair during the middle stages of their life adds further mystique to the power of female hair in popular western culture.
Like her sexuality, a woman’s hair is unrelenting – burning bright like the female passion that has so unsettled male artists for centuries. Symbolically, the difference between male and female hair has been ephemeral versus eternal; short lived as opposed to everlasting, a fantasy constructed entirely in tandem with a lack of knowledge or even interest in female sexuality within intellectual and artistic circles in the past.
The notion of female hair working together with her sexuality as a tool to make a mockery of men was first cemented artistically during the ancient era, where Greek mythology’s most famous exponent of the power of seduction of female hair, the Gorgon Medusa, stands as a warning to all men: to beware the hidden power of a beautiful woman. The punishment inflicted upon Medusa by the Goddess Athena because of her famous beauty and charm was to transform her sensual hair into a nest of snakes: for mortal man to even look at her would cast him, quite literally, into stone.
With such a powerful, traditional starting point, it is little wonder that the issue of women, hair, art and society would continue along a broadly similar pattern for so many years, where stereotypically beautiful women were seen by men as constituting the front line of the ongoing cultural and sexual war – an object to be simultaneously admired and feared. However, according to James Kirwan (1999:73), it is not female sexuality which is destructive but rather male desire for that beauty.
“The passion of the lover is not extinguished by the sight or touch of any body, for what he truly desires and unknowingly suffers is the splendour of God shining through the body. It is a desire like that of Narcissus that can never be satisfied.”
Within the specifically subjective realms of art and visual art, female hair has a long history of conforming to the accepted image of the compliant, recipient woman due to the pervasive, dominant nature of men in art and society. Until the second half of the twentieth century women had become so accustomed to viewing their world through the eyes of men that they had lost sight of the individuality of women as a separate gender and as singular, autonomous human beings.
Yet after the 1960’s, visual art and aesthetics became increasingly interested in the views of the first wave of feminism, continuing along more radical, left wing lines with the introduction of the second wave during the 1970’s. Women were embraced within the artistic community and encouraged to vent and express their sentiments regarding the suppression of the feminine in popular culture. As feminist critic Lucy Lippard (1980:352) details, the true power of feminist art was, logically, in the polar opposite image that it portrayed of modern society’s creative achievements.
“Feminist method and theories have instead offered a socially concerned alternative to the increasingly mechanised evolution of art about art. The 1970’s might not have been pluralist at all if women had not emerged during the decade to introduce the multi coloured threads of female experience into the male fabric of modern art.”
Moreover, women began to change their appearance for the first time in direct protest at the shackles of uniformity that male society had put upon them and hair was at the centre of the re moulding of the image of femininity in the West. The more radical, younger women changed their clothes, re adapted their attitudes and cut their hair in line with the more liberal males of the period who did likewise and grew their hair as a signal of their refusal to conform.
The dissertation aims to examine how traditional social and sexual mores have changed in recent times in order to detail what this means for the visual artistic community, in particular the consequences for female artists in the wake of post modernity. In light of the obvious split in feminist art and culture that has been witnessed since the sixties, the dissertation will necessarily be divided into four main sections.
The first chapter will provide an analysis and definition of the broader socio political framework of contemporary female sexuality so as to provide a better understanding of the power of feminine symbolism in a male dominated culture. The second chapter will look at the history of female hair and portrayals of female sexuality over the broader history of art; the third chapter examines modern visual art and culture paying particular attention to the use of hair as a medium for communicating with the spectator. The fourth chapter will analyse ‘outsider’ art’s views of female sexuality and hair, as defined by technology and race respectively. A conclusion will be sought only after taking into account each of the above headings as well as the necessary citations that must be employed to back up theory with example along the way.
Contemporary Female Sexuality in Post Modern Society
Female subversion in cultural affairs has led to woman’s alienation in the creative world with the result that her sexuality has only very recently been considered important enough to be the inspiration behind a growing body of academic literature. While feminism in the 1970’s saw to it that gay women were represented in culture and art as much as heterosexual women, the movement of lesbians into the avant garde community only served to act as a dividing line between straight and gay women whereby many heterosexual female artists were seen as traitors to their own sex.
Recent popular works of art and literature have sought to re introduce complexity into an area where theories about the nature of sexual liberty, manufactured largely by men, had become overtly simplistic. The most extreme exponent of the contemporary debate about female sexuality comes from Paris Curator for Conceptual Art, Catherine Millet and her 2002 memoirs, The Sexual Life of Catherine M. In an interview with The Observer (2002:13) newspaper, the French art critic notes that:
“Sexual mores have evolved recently; nevertheless some sexual practices are only tolerated if they are kept hidden. I look forward to a democratisation of sexuality where anyone can reveal their true nature without suffering socially.”
Women in Western society have become more independent, assertive and culturally aggressive during the past twenty five years so that female sexuality, in 2005, although still a topic in transition, is a force to be reckoned with inside of the male corridors of artistic influence. Yet contemporary feminist art is an amalgamation and result of the prejudices and taboos that went before it; it is, therefore a symptom of post modernity – the culture that defines itself as the generation after the initial social liberation of the sixties – implicitly and intrinsically linked to both gender and sexuality. As Christopher Reed (1997:276) implies, feminism was the catalyst for the widespread disassociation that is at the root of post modern radicals’ ground breaking view of sexuality.
“From the outset, postmodernism dislodged the wedge that mainstream modernism had driven between art and life… feminists, in particular, questioned the way the anti authoritarian rhetoric of postmodernism seemed to become itself a form of cultural authority.”
However, although it is true that women play a far more integral role than they did barley two or three generations beforehand, modernity has not constituted a complete break with the past. Modern art, as a direct relation of post-modern society, remains a sphere still largely controlled by men. What it has done is to ask questions where previously only traditional lines of argument were sought. In this way it can viewed as a series of separate branches that emanated from the same initial tree – creating seedlings of avant garde, abstract art, conceptual art, minimalist art and pop art to name but the most famous few.
The sum of the legacy of the schism that occurred in society after the residue of the minor cultural revolution of the sixties had settled was a general approval of art as inversion: that what was previously long was short, that what was previously deemed as beautiful was altered until it became ugly – until, paradoxically, it was ultimately seen as beautiful once again. According to Donald Kuspit (artnet.com; first viewed 13 September 2005), modern and post modern art is obsessed with perverse images of sexuality as a source of constantly finding ways to push the barriers of society’s rigid attitude towards sexuality and the physical form.
“The treatment of (the body) as the be all and end all of existence, and the only thing at stake in a relationship is the source of modern art’s perversion. It extends to a preoccupation with the body of the work of the art itself, which also becomes the object of perverse formal acts.”
Postmodernism, therefore, implies rapidly increasing parity between men and women in all spheres of western culture best viewed in the sense of a blurring of the traditional boundaries of sexuality as opposed to a complete merger. At this point it should be noted that, in the same way that it was white males that dominated western art, so the feminists who influenced the first stages of avant garde art were predominantly white, educated and middle to upper class. The issue of race and religion is equally as significant in the discussion of feminism as it is within an analysis of society at large; cliques and hierarchies are a necessary by product of modern civilisation and their presence (and influence) should come as no surprise to basic students of sociology. Hair, every bit as much as skin colour, is a visible dividing line between the races and in the West the image of the Caucasian variety of female hair as a symbol of women’s sexuality has resulted in a woman’s movement that is fractured and splintered, more so given the brevity of the ideology as a whole.
The essential link between culture and art, as well as politics and art means that nothing created during the early years of feminism was out of the reach of politicisation and none of it would have been made were it not for the wider advent of post modern society. Or, as Gombrich (1986:11) puts it: “not all art is concerned with visual discovery ”. With the backdrop to the arrival of feminist sexuality and art in place, an evaluation of how one of the most potent symbols of feminine sexuality was used as a tool of woman’s subordination in art in the past must now be attempted.
Female Hair, Sexuality and Symbolism in the History of Visual Art
As already outlined, the question of women’s hair and artistic expression is deep rooted in all civilisations. As well as the Greek and Roman equations of hair with dormant female sexuality, the pre Raphaelite artists also promulgated the view of feminine hair as seductive conqueror of weak male spirits. Late nineteenth and early twentieth century paintings continued to expand on the association of the snakes or ringlets of the Gorgon’s Head with male fear of female genitalia; the reversal of roles whereby the sinuous hairs of Medusa were inverted to symbolise the male phallic icon of power of women and nature. These notions were underlined by Freud’s analysis that saw the intricate waves of classical female hair as symbolic of female metamorphosis and change – characterised by the uniquely female ability to transcend gender. According to Meghan Edwards (victorianweb.org; first viewed 15 September 2005), the Classical and Romantic image of the female using her hair to devour male libido was a collective and conscious manifestation of fear in Victorian society, one that was transmitted from the ancient period through to the advent of modern visual art.
“The myth of women who carry in their femininity a grotesque vagina with teeth or who have embedded in their being a serpent or snake with the power to castrate took root long before Rossetti’s Lady Lilith but became increasingly unambiguous, bizarrely personalized, and widespread among the Symbolist poets and painters by the end of the [nineteenth] century. Visual and psychoanalytic connections between hair and serpents become increasingly explicit in Fernand Khnopff’s The Blood of the Medusa, Franz von Stuck’s Fatality, and Edvard Munch’s Vampire, wherein we see the complexity and ambiguousness that infused the imagery of earlier artists like the Rossettis, Waterhouse, Tennyson, and many others give way to an unrestrained fear and indulgence in the grotesque.”
Rossetti’s Regina Cordium (Queen of Hearts), which he painted in 1860, began a period of change in artistic perspective on female hair, where it was accented as a means to communicate a woman’s ultimate fragility and dependence on man: the first realisation of her sexuality as the embodiment of man’s annihilation and self destruction. Pollock (1992:132) notes how, “her hair is loose, a decent and suggestive sign of allowed disorder, conventionally a sign of woman’s sexuality.”
It is of course significant that almost all of the most artistic and visual instances of female hair in painting were created by men. Many male artists, such as Manet, who’s Olympia (1863 5) stands as the most obvious popular example, were non apologetic in terms of their bourgeois fascination with lower class women who were able to fulfil the well to do gentleman’s most liberal carnal desires. As the prism through which both men and women viewed society’s accepted ideal of the female form, these works of art (especially significant in the days before photography and other twentieth century means of visual communication) constituted the only truth that women knew.
Artists of the Enlightenment such as Jean Baptiste Greuze, who’s Broken Mirror (1773) charts the social struggle of sexually experienced yet single young woman, as well as High Victorian painters like William Holman Hunt, who’s The Awakening Conscience (1853) details the plight and unique dilemma of a ‘kept’ woman, all converged to create the prevailing image of female sexuality that remained the staple diet of western art for much of the twentieth century: a smouldering power that could be easily sedated by the socio political power of man. As Judy Chicago and Edward Lucie Smith (1999:88) testify, the ‘fallen’ woman was the most popular portrayal of female sexuality for many of the male artists who dominated the pre twentieth century artistic arena with creators highlighting her essential weakness with a minimal visual emotional connection.
“She is the one who has no way out, and the painter contemplates her dilemma with a sort of repressed sadism. With each one of these works one feels a conflict of intention. The artist, will ostensibly sympathising with the plight of his female subjects, in fact enjoys their suffering, and expects the audience to do so as well.”
Where hair was employed as a tool to reference female sexuality, it was used to derisory and derogatory effect, as witnessed in the 1934 sculpture by René Magritte entitled, Le Viol (The Rape), which transforms a mould of a woman’s torso into a distorted image of her face; her breasts are made into eyes, the hair covering her genitals becomes the mouth, while locks of coarse wavy hair protrude from the neck, conforming to the male stereotype of female hair as an instantly recognisable feature of her fertile sexuality.
Clearly, female artists, although very much in the minority were by no means obsolete and painters such as Louise Marie Elizabeth Vigée Lebrun, Rosalba Carriera and Angela Kauffman are but three of a long history of richly talented women artists who showed the intellectual and artistic communities the muted side of female sexuality, beyond the narrow conceptual borders imposed by man. However, in relation to the issue of hair as a vehicle through which to transport female sexuality to the viewer, few of these artists, male or female, made substantial in roads into a deeper philosophical exploration.
It is important to note the significant socio economic shift that beset Europe and the United States after the end of the Great War in 1918. Because of their contribution to the labour force, in addition to the nascent political bodies such as the Women’s Institute (founded in 1915) and the Suffragette Movement, females in the West were for the first time able to exist, albeit nominally at first, outside of the control of a patriarch.
Gradually at first, more completely after the end of the Second World War in 1945, women were able to embrace independency, which necessarily brought with it tremendous consequences for the artistic community. Whereas women artists previously had to pander to male taste in order to sell as well as fund their work, women artists of the second half of the twentieth century were more able to create for the sake of creation as opposed to as a means to fit into male structured society. As Anne Sheppard (1987:97) details, the significance of the release of the socio economic weights of expectation inherently means that essence of the artistic endeavour must change.
“Among an audience’s expectations of a work of art are expectations concerned with artistic forms and conventions. The Greeks of the fifth century BC would expect a chorus in a tragedy. Shakespeare’s contemporaries would expect a Fool in a comedy. Mozart’s contemporaries would expect harpsichord music to be played with trills and grace notes. Giotto’s contemporaries would expect saints to be painted with haloes.”
As a broad rule of all artistic behaviour, artists had traditionally been bound by the expectations of the paying audience. Thus, the revolution concerning female sexuality and the way in which she has been visually portrayed came via economic emancipation first. Attention must now be turned to instances of female hair as a means of expression of sexuality in modern visual culture after the creative liberation of women.
Female Hair as a Medium in Modern Visual Culture
The above background to the advent of the age of modernity, and of the arrival and acceptance of women within the upper echelons of the artistic community in the West, highlights the male dominated nature of notions of female sexuality. Hair was expressed as one of the most seductive of all of woman’s charms – an intricate part of the parcel that was created by God solely for man’s destruction.
Even when woman is portrayed as life giver in art, the act is more often than not displayed as ugly and confrontational, as Jonathan Waller’s Mother No. 27 (1996) testifies. Indeed, the ongoing negative reaction of museums to child birth and maternity reveals more about the still dominant attitudes of females as sex objects as opposed to life enablers – as destructive rather than constructive, which is to the detriment of the art community as a whole.
It naturally follows that while the majority of the (male) art community continued to associate flowing female hair with her ubiquitous sexuality, women artists tied to the first and second waves of the international feminists’ movement would wish to convey a hidden, alternative image. One of the most universally celebrated of twentieth century female artists was without doubt Frida Kahlo. She is famous not only for the wealth of talent and technique that was at her disposal but also for her independent, analytical and honest view of women, given added significance due to her prominent position in Mexican society. Her self portrait with cropped hair (1940), which is housed in New York’s Museum of Modern Art constituted the first mainstream attempt to ‘castrate’ the pervasive female sexuality as characterised by the iconography of ubiquitous long hair. It should be recalled that this painting was created at a time when uniformity of sexuality was the cultural norm: women were meant to have long hair, which meant that the subtle question Kahlo posed to women who viewed it was magnified all the more.
Two decades later, at the dawn of the watershed decade of the 1960’s, the impact of the famous Beatles’ haircut, first styled and professionally photographed by Astrid Kircherr (who exhibits the cropped blonde look in a self photograph in 1961) was universal within western culture and was noteworthy for its inversion of traditional sexual roles. As, during the sixties, young men grew their hair longer so young women were more inclined to cut their own, highlighting a deliberate cultural means of rebelling against the tired sexual mores of the time.
Gay women, in particular, began to associate short hair with sexual freedom. Although contemporary Western society views the stereotypical ‘butch’ woman with short hair as symptomatic of the lesbian underworld, it was indeed a bold move in the sixties and seventies for a woman to cut her hair in such a symbolic gesture. In this way, women such as the avant garde artist Harmony Hammond (who famously ‘came out’ via cutting her previously long, feminine hair in New York in 1974) were using their own hair and body image as their art, to make a statement that, visually and aesthetically, woman was no longer the lens through which man peered at his own vision of beauty.
As per all cultural de constructions of popular mythology, the actual look of a woman’s hair was the only the first building block of conformity to be removed in the first phase of feminist expression. Harmony Hammond, furthermore, was one of the most prominent users of hair as an artistic material. Whereby hair was previously used to express female sexuality via depicting or painting the length, texture and contours, Hammond and the burgeoning abstract sect of North American artists sought to incorporate hair into their work to bring attention to the social and sexual constraints by which we all live. She used her own hair in the construction of a hair blanket as well as utilising animal hair to make hair bags. Hammond used materials such as hemp, straw, thread and braids to reference the equation of feminine hair with sexuality throughout her body of work. As Paul Eli Ivey (queerculturalcenter.org; first viewed 21 September 2005) explains, Harmony Hammond exhibited the greatest ability to manoeuvre female hair away from its association with beautiful heterosexual objects of male desire, combining ideology and aesthetics in a discernibly feminist manner.
“In the 1990s, Hammond combined latex rubber with her own hair and the hair of her daughter or friends, to suggest landscapes of gendered and sexualised bodies. The braid and the pony tail also took on a life of their own as personified characters: the braid relating to an integration of mind, body, and spirit; the stylised ponytail becoming a flirtatious, sexualised persona.”
Her sculpture, Speaking Braids, plays on the difficulty in forming a singular feminine voice in such a diverse culture, where lesbian and bisexual women still feel cut off from the socially acceptable heterosexual females of the twenty first century. The head is disconnected from the body, mirroring society’s view of woman as an object of passive desire. The most shocking element is the vomit of light brown braids that extend from the remorseless face of the head of the woman, designed to engage the audience in contemporary thought about the disembodied cries of women to whom marriage and conformity are not available. Hair was therefore used to point out essential moral and ideological divisions within female sexuality and, according to Joan Smith (1997:165), the failure of society to recognise the fundamental differences amongst the various sectors of the broader female sex has been to the detriment of feminism and, ultimately, western culture as a whole.
“Women are expected to be different from men but the same as each other. While there is general agreement that women are unlike men in numerous ill defined ways, there is enormous reluctance to accept the idea that women might not be broadly similar to each other. The issue that exposes this distinction most sharply is motherhood, so that a woman who chooses not to give birth is characterised not just as unnatural but as a traitor to her sex.”
Mille Wilson is another feminist artist who has used the symbolism of hair to state a valid view on female sexuality by employing it as the central theme of persuasion. In her ambitious visual art project, The Museum of Lesbian Dreams (1990 2), Wilson speaks to her audience through the fetish surrogates of the typical view of the female body – in this instance using female hair in the form of a series of women’s wigs to underline the essential similarity of heterosexual and homosexual woman’s dreams and deepest aesthetic desires, relying on the long, luxurious manes of the artificial hair to symbolise the traditional notion of hair as standard bearer of vivacious feminine sexuality. As Whitney Chadwick (2002:396) notes in her expansive study of women, art and society; “her work articulates the historical inaccuracy, often absurdity, of social constructions of lesbianism within dominant heterosexual discourses. Such discursive formations often to work to ‘fix’ identity within, and outside, normative paradigms.”
It should be apparent that much of the artistic arguments pertaining to female hair and sexuality emanate from the perspective of the historical outsiders, namely gay and bisexual women. All great art is created from passion and in terms of damaging sexual stereotyping relating to female icons of beauty the avant garde art community has felt the greatest reason to voice concerns over the prevailing attitude of society towards women’s sexuality. However, the real outsiders within the broader feminine artistic debate need to be analysed in order to underscore how hair is culturally understood as one of the most important foundations of mainstream notions of female sexuality.
Female Hair and Visual Expressions of Sexuality from the Perspective of Outsider Art
Beyond the set boundaries inherent within sculpture and painting, photography and performance art have been the most likely to make a physical statement pertaining to female sexuality. Whereas most other forms of modern visual art – minimalism, conceptual art and pop art – concentrate on extracting the content rather than moving towards a lifelike representation of the female body, photography recreates the human form as an artistic facsimile.
It must be noted that photography and visual performance art highlight the issue of female sexuality via concentrating on the entirety of the hair on her body as opposed to detailing only the stereotypical view of female hair emanating from her head. Indeed, no examination of the subject of sexuality and hair can be complete without an analysis of the art world’s view of female body hair per se, which is – culturally speaking – hidden, shaved and moulded in a far more stringent and severe way than any style of hair upon the head, a fact that Germaine Greer (1999:20) expands upon.
“Women with ‘too much’ (i.e. any) body hair are expected to struggle daily with depilatories of all kinds in order to appear hairless. Bleaching moustaches, waxing legs and plucking eyebrows absorb hundreds of woman hours.”
Feminist adherents in the art world have inevitably challenged the claustrophobic views of society towards female body hair with pictures created to shock and induce academic debate about a needlessly taboo topic. Sally Mann made a series of explicit photographs of herself and her daughters during the 1990’s, including Untitled (1997), a photograph that focuses the viewer upon the dense vaginal hair of the artist, whose legs are spread open in a bathtub with the subtext of highlighting how women enjoy exactly the same bodily functions as men, however much society shuts itself off to biological reality. Moreover, by making the camera concentrate on the nexus of pubic hair the spectator is likewise advised to consider the cultural reasons as to why women must shave every other part of their body where hair grows naturally.
The most shocking and moving of all photographic imagery involving female hair tied to the notion of sexuality is Hannah Wilke’s self image taken during her demise from cancer, the disease having robbed her of her hair though not of her female organs, as the naked photo in a wheelchair, selected from the Intra Venus collection (1992 3), graphically illustrates. The power of the visual focus is centred upon the artist’s wish to show how hair does not make a woman feminine – and that the human spirit is more powerful than any facet of the physical body.
Visual art enactment reserves the greatest power of persuasion and audience manipulation. Post Porn Modernism, a performance art show that was exhibited in New York in the late 1980’s, is the most obvious example of a visual exposition of contemporary female sexuality devised to shock the audience, concentrating in this instance, on the artists’ pubic hair and genitalia. Playing on the historical artistic obsession with the female whore, Rebecca Schneider (1996:161) declares that Post Porn Modernism was merely another way to de mystify the myth of female sexuality, in particular highlighting the fragile nature of consumer capitalism where the prostitute is both buyer and seller merged into one.
“In theory, the real ‘live’ Prostitute Annie Sprinkle lay at the threshold of the impasse between true and false, visible and invisible, nature and culture as if in the eye of a storm. As any ‘whore’ is given to be in this culture she is a mistake, an aberration, a hoax: a show and a sham made of lipstick, mascara, fake beauty marks, hair and black lace.”
However, the art most likely to capture the absurdity of the persistent link between granted notions of female hair personifying woman’s innate sexuality is that which is created by African women: artists who have to cross strict racial as well as gender and sexuality lines in order to portray women from their culture in an aesthetically acceptable light. These women are the true outsiders of Western artistic expression.
Leslie Rabine (1998:127), for example, declares that: “western slave culture and economics invested the arena of skin, hair and make up with political struggle,” with the result that African women born in the West have had their body image dictated by colour and gender, which creates a kind of schizophrenic effect on the black women to the extent that the naturally curly, short African hair has been usurped in fashion by wigs, extensions and artificially straight hair.
Typically, it has been left to the avant garde community to ignite the backlash against the marginalisation of black female sexuality. Alison Saar, daughter of African American feminist artist Betye Saar accented the widely accepted view of natural black female hair as the cultural antithesis to feminine sexuality in her sculpture entitled, Chaos in the Kitchen (1998). Saar used coarse iron wiring to mimic indigenous African hair, on top of a female face that has been deliberately denied eyes to highlight the cultural blind spot that black women have towards their own vision of female beauty. She means to state that, in attempting to copy white man’s image of feminine beauty via hair, black women have only succeeded in hollowing out their historical selves.
African American artist and photographer Renée Cox made an even more challenging alternative to the prevailing paradigms pertaining to female sexuality and race when she made, Yo Mama (1993). The photograph places the artist standing up naked except for Western high heels – the stereotypical twin symbol of hair as the autograph of heterosexual female sexuality. The hair on he
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