Art interprets the world

We covered a lot of material in this module! We began by learning about how feminist art historians have come to understand the under-representation of women artists in galleries and museums. In a nutshell, feminist art historians have argued that women – and indeed other folks whose life experiences are shaped by systems of domination including capitalism and colonialism – have not been great artists because their greatness has not been nourished. We learned that although women’s work has not always been in galleries, their bodies have often been represented in these spaces. Our lecture on the nude drew attention not only to the long standing objectification of women’s bodies in visual culture, but also, and more importantly, to the observation that art does not simply reflect or reproduce the world, it represents the world. Looking at a painting of a woman figure reveals so much about gender, power, and desire. Big Ideas like the male gaze and to-be-looked-at-ness, which continue to be used to explain contemporary visual culture, emerged from early feminist analysis of painting.

In addition to exploring the history of art, we also explored some of the most important and critical art being produced by Canadian artists today. We learned that art has the capacity to expose and challenge systems of power in ways that are thought provoking and, sometimes, a little bit mind-blowing. Governor General’s Award winning Anishinaabe performance artist Rebecca Belmore, for instance, moves art off the confines of a gallery wall and into public spaces where she makes visible the trauma and fury of Indigenous women whose lives are so frequently misrepresented. We heard also from a number of Canadian artists working in different mediums (drawing, painting, performance) and on different topics, they all share the knowledge that art practices play a vital role in social movements. In art, we can begin to imagine new worlds.

Test Yourself

Art and Activism

CHALLENGE ONE: Select one of the artists featured in the Canadian Art “In the Studio With…” videos. Find out more about their training, their practice, and their work. Where is their work exhibited? Do they exhibit their work with groups of artists? What sorts of themes emerge in their exhibitions? Is the artist you selected a “great artist”? Do you think that the category of “great artist” is a useful one?

Art and Activism

CHALLENGE TWO: In the book Ways of Seeing, John Berger analysed some of the classical images of female nudes that we explored in this week’s lesson. He also argued that we ought to analyze images of women in popular culture with the same focus and care that we take when analyzing art. For this challenge, you are asked to apply a critical art historical perspective to a contemporary image. They don’t have to be images of women, but they do have to be images of gendered bodies. You can choose a billboard, an advertisement, or a flyer for a store. How are bodies posed? What sort of relationship does the image invite you to have, or to imagine having, with the figure? If there are multiple bodies in your image, how are they related to one another? What stories about gender, race, class, age, ability, and beauty are being told in the image or series of images that you’ve selected?

If you want to learn more about art, and how art historians look at and interpret art, take a look at some of the short videos produced by Dr Steven Zucker and Dr Beth Harris at Smarthistory. Be forewarned, it’s a marvellous rabbit hole! 

View Time: 4:02 Minutes

Khan Academy, Titian, Venus of Urbino

View Time: 4:10 Minutes

Khan Academy, Ingres, La Grande Odalisque

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