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Was There Ever a Cavewomxn? Mapping Art and Film in Contemporary Capitalism

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A peculiarity that separates the core of art history as a profession between the 20th Century and the 16th Century is the presentation of female artists – There is virtually no mention. Gender roles in the current mode of production claim their naissance from the Victorian era. It is the Victorian insistence of separate spheres for womxn compatible with a bourgeois patriarchal ideology that has precipitated into the dismissal and devaluation of womxn artists in the 20th Century. This reduces the history of art as a subjective description, not an objective explanation. As the French critic Leon Legrange summarizes:

Male genius has nothing to fear from female taste. Let men of genius conceive of great architectural projects, monumental sculpture, and elevated forms of painting. In a word, let men busy themselves with all that has to do with great art. Let women occupy themselves with those types of art they have always preferred, such as pastels, portraits or miniatures...To women above all falls the practice of graphic art, those painstaking arts which correspond so well to the role of abnegation and devotion which the honest woman happily fills here on earth, which is her religion.” (‘Du rang des femmes dans l’art’, Gazette des Beaux-Arts, 1860)

The essay does not wish to objectively outline remarkable epochs of artistic expression but examines critical nodes which instil a philosophical rupture in perspective and attempts to identify oeuvres unheard of. It wishes to unravel the biased history of contemporary art by reviewing the definition and fulfilment of femininity. Transcending a merely terse chronology of art movements, the scope of the essay also finds snapshots of crucial artistic identities that represent ‘the female’.

To situate ‘the female’ and understand the artwork of female artists, one can look towards psychoanalysis and gender theory that point to gender performativity. Gender as a performance and gender performativity differ in the premeditated action – the former signifies that a subject performs predetermined roles, whereas the latter overturns this role and explains how a subject, say, consolidates the impression of ‘being a man or a woman’. Judith Butler uses J.L. Austin’s speech acts in her theories. Gender performativity is described as an illocutionary speech act that produces perlocutionary effects. The intended perlocutionary effects also conform to societal norms. For Butler’s synthesis, the subject does not produce the performance, the opposite is true. It deals with a Structuralist notion of gender as a discursive practice.

In Butler’s work on ‘Gender Trouble’, an acclaimed book for gender and queer theory, Joan Riviere’s notion of ‘Womanliness as a Masquerade’ is revisited. Riviere’s suggestion is that womxn who wish for masculinity may put on a mask of womanliness to avert anxiety and the retribution feared from men. The nodal point for the masquerade stems from ‘castration’ and the development of ego from the mirror stage, which lets go of some narcissistic authority for the child. Castration here could very well relate to the genital phase of Freudian infantile sexuality with the development of sensory perception that helps the child differentiate between biological sex organs. It is this differentiation, or through a rather patriarchal lens, the lack of a penis for the womxn that is pointed out as castration. Freud goes on to argue about concepts such as ‘penis envy’ and the acclaimed Oedipal desire to ‘kill’ the maternal symbolic and yearn for the father. The mask serves as a correlate for the anxiety that stems from not fulfilling the expectations of being a female and leads to certain performativity to disguise oneself so that the man finds no stolen property within ‘the woman’:

She has confessed to me that even with the butcher and baker, whom she rules in reality with a rod of iron, she cannot openly take up a firm straightforward stand; she feels herself as it were 'acting a part', she puts on the semblance of a rather uneducated, foolish and bewildered woman, yet in the end always making her point.” (Riviere 307-308).

The Recalcitrant Surrealist Project

The Surrealist intellectual circle often treated the female as a muse, as an object for representation. It is in these circles where one finds the first instance of gender performativity through the life and career of Meret Oppenheim. A vivid reader of Jungian archetypes and dream analysis, Oppenheim was the perfect suitor for the Surrealist circle, which claimed much of its artistic liberation to Sigmund Freud and his seminal work on the interpretation of dreams. In many of her exhibitions, critics and patrons, assuming the Surrealist circle to be exclusively male, often referred to her as ‘Mr. Oppenheim’. She often renounced the term ‘feminine art’ and substituted it with ‘androgynous creation’. As the Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi points out:

“Psychological androgyny is a much wider concept, referring to a person’s ability to be at the same time aggressive and nurturing, sensitive and rigid, dominant and submissive, regardless of gender. A psychologically androgynous person in effect doubles his or her repertoire of responses and can interact with the world in terms of a much richer and varied spectrum of opportunities. It is not surprising that creative individuals are more likely to have not only the strengths of their own gender but those of the other one, too.”

Her most widely acclaimed Surrealist project features a teacup and saucer covered with fur of a Chinese gazelle, titled ‘Object’. With a charming wit and desire to unzip society of its psychological roots, she mixed fur, an object of feminine luxury and status with another object – a teacup. The assemblage disfigures the signified of the teacup, saucer, and spoon, which is of a civilized character. A view of Object often leads to amusement, irritation, and the uninvited sensation of wet fur. It also indulges the viewer into the frenzy of a soft and delicate touch. The ensemble is a fetishized commodity, but from the perspective of a female psyche already under the influence of a performative dynamism. The soft and hollow teacup can invoke female genitalia, further eroticized by the phallic reference of the spoon. By fetishizing the teacup, Oppenheim momentarily obscures its ideological frame of civil life and fills it with a dramatized anticipation of sexual gratification.

Split Allegiances in India’s Decolonization

Simultaneous in temporal landmarks with the changing culture of Parisian intellectual parlours, the history of art in India presents a colonial experience. Even though Mughal courts disseminated illustrated miniatures, the easel was introduced around the 18th Century with a formidable presence of the East India Company and later by the British Crown. Affluent families of the time popularized colonial art in the country via realist landscapes of the Ganges, Nabobs, and everyday life. The most famous amalgamation of the western easel with pre-colonial and ancient Indian culture can be seen with Raja Ravi Verma. Given the time, he was an anachronism for the changing unconscious of the Indian countryside. His easily available lithographs depicted scenes from Indian epics and created a feudal ‘aura’ of a dismissed Indian past during a period where colonization arguably reterritorialized an ancient superstructure with Victorian ideology.

Erotique voilée, Meret Oppenheim à la presse chez Louis Marcoussis , 1933 Man Ray, Fondazione Marconi, Milano

Meret Oppenheim, Object

1936. Fur-covered cup, saucer, and spoon, Cup 4 3/8" (10.9 cm) in diameter; saucer 9 3/8" (23.7 cm) in diameter; spoon 8" (20.2 cm) long, overall height 2 7/8" (7.3 cm)

Museum of Modern Art, New York

Subjects of the colonial experience often present a split allegiance – the interpellation of alien signifiers and ideology, and domestic identity shaped by indigenous discursive structures. For female signifiers, said allegiance is the strongest. Ravi Verma presented a similar duality. The interplay of mannerist and often baroque characteristics to create a realist portrayal of ancient mythology was a scene of awe for landscape enthusiasts among the British legion of painters and the bourgeoisie. However, such ‘outdated’ premises and storylines set the stage for another school of artists in Bengal that not only reacted against Ravi Verma, but utilized religious signifiers to narrate a story for India’s subsequent decolonization. It is here that the first instance of modernism in Indian art is witnessed.

The Bengal Renaissance may as well rival the Medici’s patronage in Italy for it authored a dense sketch of Indian nationalism and regional integrity that still instils its character. The birth of Brahmoism with Raja Ram Mohan Roy is another instance of split allegiance – reformist and revivalist practices within the guise of traditional faith. Abanindranath Tagore’s first rendition of ‘Bharat Mata’ re-signifies the performativity of the female body. Recognizing traditional patriarchal notions that map the female psyche with nourishment and motherhood, Bharat Mata revives, exploits, and magnifies this identity within a national context as the first ‘emotional’ push towards decolonization.

The anti-colonial feminist critique outlines a comparison of the hybridity of the colonial and the colonizer and finds a new niche of performativity in the context of modernity. Among the predominantly male persona of Santiniketan and the Bombay Progressive Artists, emerges the split psyche of Amrita Sher-Gil. Born and raised as a Hungarian – Indian among an affluent bourgeois family, Sher-Gil was instructed at the Academy des Beaux-Arts and admired Cezanne and Paul Gaugin. Perhaps Gaugin’s fetishized Tahitian women proved to be a focal point for her paintings of Indian subjects. The perception of Sher-Gil often remains elusive and fairly foreign, having several British loyalists in her family. However, she remains conflicted between her national identity as quintessentially Indian and a deep persona of ‘being a woman’. She entered a changing Indian art scene where her nationality was a battleground and her gender was a source of symbolism for the nationalist struggle. Amrita’s quasi nationalist palette relates as well as separates her from the likes of the Bengal School and the Progressive Artists with a static albeit neorealist training of the easel that paid homage to Ajanta murals and the Mughal miniature which highlights metaphorical brevity in her work.

Amrita Sher-Gil, Bride’s Toilet, 1937, Oil on Canvas, 146 cm x 88.8 cm, National Gallery of Modern Art

Sher-Gil’s subjects and their representation exude an excess of libidinal arrogance and are very private in the setting. (left: Amrita Sher-Gil, Self Portrait as a Tahitian, 1934, Oil on Canvas) Her womxn often mirror the alienated allegory of Hammershoi and Edward Hopper but digress from being alone to play a collective masquerade of femininity. The almost cultic personality of Sher-Gil’s subjects displays the Oriental aesthetic from the lens of a Eurasian body to constitute a feminization of contemporary Indian art. Through the protectionist seclusion of her subjects, she finds criticality that ends up being domesticated by masculinity. The external lack of seduction in these womxn is a response against the desire of a male colonial gaze. She challenges Ravi Verma as both artists attempt to find the Oriental gaze via material representation and devising an indigenous body. Her convoluted narcissism stuck at a crossroads of defining Indian modernity led her to disengage desire from a confessional self and disperse a romanticized class (gender and ethnic) struggle from the material reproduction of myth.

American Expressionism and Cultural Naturalization

A successor of European Surrealism and the protégé of Kandinsky’s palette, Abstract Expressionism after the Second World War established a stronghold of a new aesthetic bourgeoisie in New York City and led to a rather conservative perception of the Parisian avant-garde. The conclusion of Kandinsky’s career with the foundation of abstract art coincided with the War, but chiefly mirrored historical developments that the newly Industrialized Europe witnessed over the years. By the end of the 19th century, many artists felt a need to create a new kind of art which would encompass the fundamental changes taking place in technology, science and philosophy. The sources from which individual artists drew their theoretical arguments were diverse and reflected the social and intellectual preoccupations in all areas of Western culture at that time.

Abstract Expressionism rose to the zenith of non-representation and was materially transcendent. Often nihilist and overtly emotional, the United States as the centre for the movement could not be more obvious as the nation established the foundation of a subsequent cultural and economic hegemony after 1945 and created the personality of the ‘big American (capitalist) dream’. The lack of any material representation in Abstract Expressionism mirrors social alienation that the working-class experiences. It is a close candidate for Ernst Fischer’s stipulation of what art does – make the individual (‘I’) a whole with historical development:

“In the alienated world in which we live, social reality must be presented in an arresting way, in a new light, through the alienation of the subject and its character. The work of art must grip the audience not through passive identification but through an appeal to reason which demands action and decision.” (Fischer, The Necessity of Art)

Dismayed by the decline of the avant-garde in Paris in the 1940s, and with faith in the revolutionary potential of the working class shaken, the leftist critical sentiment was in the U.S. shifted to a post-dialectical materialism that sees radical agency emerging not from “the working class” but rather out of the creative potential of the individual. The most combatant debate on the meaning of avant-garde in New York was between Harold Rosenberg and Clement Greenberg. Both art critics have the same socialist roots but are diametrically opposed in their assumptions and conclusions about American Art. Ernst Fischer expounds on art’s emancipatory expression yet calibrated strategy of filling in the gap of alienation via abstraction. He also explains how the work of an artist is “a highly conscious, rational process by which the work of art emerges as a mastered reality – not at all an intoxicated inspiration.” It is in this duality of artistic expression where Greenberg and Rosenberg speculate and situate themselves.

Greenberg is on the rational spectrum of artwork, an Apollonian formalist, i.e., to judge art by its content, form, and colour. His theory of art claims to have a logical, historical, and progressive development, that autonomy and self-justification make the modern. His progressive theory stems from German philosophy – Kant, Hegel, and Marx. Rosenberg’s position is of an exaggerated Dionysian existentialist. Inspired by the phenomenological discoveries of Camus, Sartre, and Nietzsche, he explains art on the canvas as a process of self-discovery. His writings feature psychological states more than the objective and formal properties of artworks. Rosenberg describes art in post-war America as not just any derivative of Parisian schools, but a clean rupture in worldview and the notions attached with the abstraction of aesthetics. While defining an ‘Action Painting’, he opines, “The act-painting is of the same metaphysical substance as the artist’s existence. The new painting has broken down every distinction between art and life.” Here, the motive of painting changes from the mere representation of objects, or a blueprint of anticipation.

Action Paintings for Rosenberg deviate from satisfying the urge of the onlooker and create a world for artists to discover themselves:

“Criticism must begin by recognizing in the painting the assumptions inherent in its mode of creation. Since the painter has become an actor, the spectator has to think in a vocabulary of action: its inception, duration, direction—psychic state, concentration and relaxation of the will, passivity, alert waiting. He must become a connoisseur of the gradations between the automatic, the spontaneous, and the evoked.”

Wassily Kandinsky, Composition, VII, 1913, Oil on canvas

In two deceptively aggressive essays, Rosenberg takes a subjectivist position in ‘Action Painting, Crisis, and Distortion’ while Greenberg makes ad hominem attacks on exuberant and borrowed existentialism in ‘How Writing Earns its Bad Name’. These attacks come from a purifying perspective of art’s formal qualities – that a work of art must have an internal set of resources to prove its logic and argument. This modern continuum of artworks presents a problem for the public as “modern art”, institutionalized in the art world and promoted solely in terms of its “aesthetic quality” by the bureaucrats of taste, has lost its relevance and fails to reflect contemporary experience. It has become just another commodity. Here, we turn once again towards Benjamin’s lost ‘aura’ and critique its existence through Theodor Adorno and his work on ‘The Fetish Character in Music and the Regression of Listening’. He sees dissipation and the decay of ‘aura’ as a positive effect, either trans-historical or historically specific by attributing technical reproducibility to an exorcism of a work of art from its parasitic subservience to ritual.

Horkheimer and Adorno’s introduction of ‘The Culture Industry’ throws new light on the psychological egotism of art and popular culture by labelling it as an instrument of economic and political control, enforcing conformity behind a permissive screen. Adorno points first and foremost towards popular music and its role of turning the consumer into a passive listener, to listen without hearing. Culture becomes a mere appendage and exponent of society’s socio-economic predicament rather than assuming the responsibility of being a catalyst for change. It abstracts, codifies, and disseminates ruling ideologies and is fostered by a legion of passive consumers. Cultural “goods,” and satisfiers by their very administration, are “transformed into evils” and pseudo-satisfiers. The musical consciousness of the masses today is “displeasure in pleasure” — the unconscious recognition of “false happiness.” If film and photography is the evidence of not just repressing but killing the cultic personality of an artwork, the Culture Industry is evidence of the return of the repressed through the cultic impression of celebrities via sound films.

The Fetish Character of Guilt in Film Theory

The Masquerade of Femininity carries the corpse of society’s skewed sexuality with the onset of female sex symbols in American popular culture in the 1950s. The sexual objectification of women and the rise of pin-up marketing creates and conjoins commodities that lead to a callback of genitalia and the visual pleasure of sexual intercourse, leading to their popularity and the inclination to buy and consume such commodities. The greatest of such symbols is the creation of Marilyn Monroe. Her movies and stories instilled the ideas of the ‘dumb blonde’ stereotype and have subsumed the roles of women as being intellectually inferior, submissive, and under the subservience of a man with another fallaciously universal Jungian archetype of a hero. Marilyn Monroe’s acceptance of this stereotype in her public life broke her private life in shards but led to her meteoric rise to fame but only as a pretty poster girl typecast as a thrifty bombshell in films.

Marilyn Monroe, born Norma Jean Mortenson (1926-1962)

Featured here in the iconic ‘flying skirt’ sensation in New York City, 1954

Within the perception of sex symbols such as Monroe and countless other characters that impugn or describe reality in film, a general theory of apparatus and the gaze – and their interrelation provides a compendium of stories that motion pictures outline for the viewer. Another conception of film theory is for the viewer to perceive the film screen as a mirror. The reality in films – its distortion or lack thereof - is theorized to be internalized or eulogized by the viewer as they metamorphose into the film character. The gaze is a widely acclaimed concept that explains the anxiety associated with the actions of an individual as the subject of the Other. Foucault in Discipline and Punish explains this gaze as originally laid by Bentham, referred to as his architectural plan of the Panopticon:

“The dissociation of the see/being seen dyad [which the panoptic arrangement of the central tower and annular arrangement ensures] and the sense of permanent visibility seem perfectly to describe the condition not only of the inmate in Bentham's prison but of the woman as well. For defined in terms of her visibility, she carries her own Panopticon with her wherever she goes, her self-image a function of her being for another. . . . The subjectivity assigned to femininity within patriarchal systems is inevitably bound up with the structure of the look and the localization of the eye as authority.”

For the very condition and substance of the subject's subjectivity is his or her subjectivation by the law of the society that produces that subject. Thus, the female subject under the panoptic gaze performs discrete subjectivities and lays ground to her anxiety as implantation of the law. She internally monitors herself under a patriarchal eye. The localization of the gaze has been a mainstay in film theory but lacks in explaining another facet of its production by virtue of which the viewers reconstitute themselves.

The gaze in film theory, as Joan Copjec argues, is a “Foucauldization of Lacan.” The argument can be elaborated through what Lacan terms the big Other – Knowledge that knows itself completely, the totality of knowledge that remains distant from us. The Darwinian maturity that constitutes discourse puts human intelligence at a pedestal. Conscious labour kept aside, Lacan argues that humans are born rather prematurely, they have a constitutional lack. Subjectivity is hence, defined as ontological unconsciousness, a gap between the premature subject and the world. The original Hegelian dialectic that speaks of an idealized spiral of synthesis distances the Pure Concept from its material reaction that arises as human thought. A similar argument is opined by Bachelard’s ‘phenomeno - technique’ which provides the establishment of science as purely structural and explains the gap between theory and the absolute concept across epochs. The lack of not knowing the absolute truth generates a desire commensurate with anxiety and doubt. The problem with mainstream film theory’s conception of ‘the screen as a mirror’ is that it does not really leave room for criticism – we are what we see/sense. By turning the assumption around, ‘the mirror as a screen’, Copjec constitutes a Lacanian foundation of what is not said/described. The predicament of a character in film unable to express themselves in its entirety makes them culpable and is the right place to criticize film’s indeterminate nature of an intersection of discourse into the viewer which is never monolithic.

Art and Culture need more than an objective description. Through the psychoanalytical façade of ideology and consciousness, this essay leaves out further gaps to criticize as it rightly should. The presence of nonknowledge presents a battleground to devise short-circuits in discourse and everyday life. Everyday life needs argumentative demystification to elevate the banal into what it could be – a rupture in thought, traditional concept and form. Criticism and the constitution of sexual cathexis lie in asking the question, “What is it that you are not telling me?”


By Kunal Panda

Kunal Panda is a final year undergraduate majoring in Economics from Hindu College, University of Delhi. A Pushcart Prize nominee, he strives to pursue intersectionality in his research. His academic interests include Political Economy and Gender Studies, having recently reviewed the psychoanalytic façade of ideology and aesthetics, under a broad view of fetishism and gender performativity. He is also an ardent reader of epic literature. He aims to be an educator one day.


1. Greenberg, Clement. “How Art Writing Earns Its Bad Name.” Encounter, December 1962, 67 – 70.

2. Rosenberg, Harold. “Action Painting: Crisis and Distortion.” In The Anxious Object: Art Today and its Audience. London: Thames and Hudson, 1965.

3. Kapur, Geeta. ‘Body as Gesture: Women Artists at Work’ in When Was Modernism: Essays on Contemporary Cultural Practice in India. New Delhi: Tulika, 2000.

4. Copjec, Joan. ‘The Orthopsychic Subject: Film Theory and the Reception of Lacan’. In

Read My Desire: Lacan Against the Historicists. London: Verso, 2015.

5. Ruth WJ, Mosatche HS, Kramer A. Freudian Sexual Symbolism: Theoretical Considerations and an Empirical Test in Advertising. Psychological Reports. 1989; 64 (3_suppl): 1131-1139.

6. Gay, P. Volney. ‘Art and the Organization of the Self’ in Freud on Sublimation, State University of New York Press, Albany, 1992

7. Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. Routledge, 2007

8. Pollock, Griselda. Parker, Rozsika. ’Critical Stereotypes’ in Old Mistresses: Women, Art, and Ideology, pg. 3-6, I.B.Tauris & Co Ltd, London, 2013

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