Some years ago the Springville Art Museum in Utah had show called “Out of The Land,” an opportunity for female artists to show their art. The Springville Art Museum was not taking the lead with such an event, rather they were following a trend. This was one of many such events calling special attention to art created by women. Sadly, the main criteria were the gender of the artist, whereas the quality of art came second.
The unfortunate aspect of this type of event and attitude was and still is, that the art of these artists hold a relevance far beyond their gender. This wasn’t a show specifically about the experience of being a woman, and that wasn’t the requirement either. Rather, being a show for female artists only—it could viewed as a pity show, with the subtext statement that here was a collection of artist’s work without sufficient merit to qualify in an art show, so a strictly female art show was arranged? As I looked around, none of the art or artists were in need of favors or special treatment to be considered worthy for an art show—they deserved better than a pity show.
Male or female, it comes natural and neither gender really deserve any credit over the other; Every female can’t be an artist and therefore the artist part must outrank the gender, only then can the female artists of today get recognition for the artwork that they create, and not for the gender that their parents created.
One work stood out from the rest, an installation called “Disposable Society,” by Helene Fischer Elbein—again, her credit is not to her gender but to her art. The message of her work is clear, direct and as appropriate today as at the time of this show.
The installation was placed in a space defined by cement bricks covering an area on the floor. Many of the bricks carried various synonyms for garbage such as waste, elimination, trash, etc.. Shelves made from wooden planks were standing by the wall, in one end of the installation. These shelves had numerous cardboard trays with the writing “Keep America Beautiful” and “Please don’t litter.” These trays were filled with an assortment of white plaster castings depicting human hands. Placed in a central line on the cement bricks covering the floor was four metal garbage containers filled with more castings. These garbage containers also held normal elements of refuse such as small cans of several sizes. The assortment of castings is also getting more varied, distorted faces are now included. On the right side of the installation is a source of sound-effects such as various factory sounds, this is all covered with a large burlap sack held tight with rope.
That disposable products have become a problem in our society and is no longer news, nor is it news that the issue is now more dominating than ever before. What was new here was how Elbein treated the subject by choosing to make hands the most dominating part of her display.
Without hands are helpless individuals dependent on others around us. Our “throw-away society” has allowed our disposables to take so much space, nature and nurture away, that we are competing with our own garbage for a place to live and breathe. Whatever we might do for our ecological conscience, we’re already drowning in so much garbage that a complete recovery could be impossible?
With that picture in mind, we arrive at Elbein’s rendetion of us “without hands,” or helpless. Have we not “thrown away our hands” by our past lack of ecological concern? As I look further in this mixture of castings I also see a couple of faces. One of the faces appear to be of asian origin. Thinking that any element included in a work of art is a deliberate decision, regardless of level of spontaneity (and nothing here seems spontaneous,) the face being asian must be significant? In asian cultures, the idea of “loosing face” suggests an issue of embarrassment, and is our waste handling or lack thereof not an embarrassment? We have indeed “lost face” when we took out the garbage. I think we have much to be embarrassed about when it comes to our “Disposable Society.” As we produce all our waste, are we perhaps not giving it first priority by thinking about where we might go, after filling up our cities with dirty air, waste piling up in the streets, overloaded toxic landfills and water that we can no longer drink with confidence?
Elbein’s artwork made a strong statement, was ahead of its time (early 90’s) and with a worthy purpose. It was well stated, and the artist should consequently have deserved credit for creating this installation. It is great that a woman created such a work of art, but by giving the artist more credit for being a woman than that of being an artist, are we really not degrading both the woman, the art and the artist? Are we not saying “good work, and it is even created by a woman?” Is such a statement not more degrading than anything else that could be said? Women are not less capable artistically than men, maybe more, but not less. Men are sometimes considered thick headed, insensitive and shallow (sometimes even by women, clearly capable of making such an observation,) and that would in my mind make men less capable as artists?
When in 1792 Mary Wollstonecraft wrote “A vindication of the rights of woman” there was a need for attention to be drawn to the rights of women, –or to be more precise their lacking of rights. History indicates the same inequalities to have been present in ancient Rome and Greece, where women did not have the right to vote.
In most places I have traveled I have seen reasons for the existence of a feminist movement. Webster’s Dictionary describes feminism as “The theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes.” Both the female society and society as a whole would benefit from such an implementation.
I am not opposed to equality of the sexes. I owe my life to my mother, and the reason for it to my wife. That makes the two most important people in my life females, and they deserve better than equal rights; They deserve the best, but I made the choice to feel that way by my own free will.
There are many reasons for me to treat the females in my life with the utmost respect. There are still good reasons for the existence of feminist movements around the world, after all, how could anyone go wrong with a credo like “equality of the sexes?” — Well, I suppose it must have been easy for something to go wrong; because in the wake of many feminist movements (equal rights movements), one can find a trail of privileges available only to those of the appropriate female gender.
That we have a “National Museum of Women in the Arts” in Washington, DC., indicate government support for the idea that gender is a qualifier for national artistic recognition before artistic merit. Every year new books are published featuring artists, where one of the main qualifications is gender, books such as Woman Artists in the United States 1750 – 1986 by Paula Chiarmonte, featuring a thousand pages listing 2500 artists or more, or the two volumes of American Women Artists by Eleanor Tufts to name just a few. I read about numerous competitions in various art magazines exclusively for female artists on a monthly basis. I have not yet seen one book listing male artists exclusively, or art competitions for male artists only, nor have I heard of any art museum not allowing art based on the artist being a female. When Nancy Reckler of The Washington Post on Feb. 22, 1991, interviewed Sara Brown of The woman’s caucus for the arts, Brown stated that their purpose was to “make sure the history books recognize women, and to make sure these women are represented in the arts.” Again it appears that gender is a bigger merit than merit by itself.
Maybe one day equality will become equal, and merit can be based on merit alone. Artists can then be recognized for the artistic quality of their work, and not on something that even the greatest of mortal artists could never take credit for.