Art with extra ideology

Not everything has to be about gender

Artillery Row Books

“All rise.”

You are standing in the imaginary feminist criminal court. The judge calls the case of R v Art History. Please be seated.

The Story of Art without Men, Katy Hessel, (Hutchinson Heinemann, £25.00)

The elimination of women from art history is the crime. Soon into proceedings, The Story of Art by E.H. Gombrich is brought out as evidence number one. Katy Hessel is the chief prosecutor. She clears her throat, smiles and gestures widely: “His first edition (1950) included zero women artists and even the sixteenth edition includes only one.” 

Gombrich envisaged the work as an accessible guide to art history for the non-specialist reader, but in the imaginary feminist criminal court his testimony does not stand up to scrutiny. Therein is the justification — the gap in the market — for The Story of Art Without Men.

Hessel entered the public eye as an art historian following the success of her @greatwomenartists Instagram page, launched in 2015 and as of October 2022 boasting an impressive 292k followers. Her effusive presenting style and glamorous settings make her the Instagram reel dream. 

The Instagram algorithm is designed to keep users scrolling, which it achieves in part through creating a tech-driven echo chamber of self-affirmation. The Story of Art Without Men is an extension of this echo chamber in printed form. The book paints one version of reality — a world characterised by “the dark years of Trump in the US, the refugee crisis, the looming climate crisis, and the rise of the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements”. In the art world, however, we are told, “Progress is happening.”

Gombrich would question such “progress”. In his introduction, he flags the notion of artistic progress (a possible inference from the linear structure of his own book) as a “naïve misinterpretation”. As artistic progress is increasingly measured in terms of representation based on sexuality, gender or race, to question this moralistic posturing is a fast-track to cancellation. One cannot even raise a suspicion: the catch-all terms used by Hessel — fascism, patriarchy, misogyny — are tripwires in the shadows. Gotcha. 

These ambiguous terms occlude any real meaning. What is certain, however, is that much of this jargon can be related to gender. This is unsurprising given the title “without men”. Hessel begins her book well-intentioned: “To avoid artists only being seen as the wife of, the muse of, the model of, or the acquaintance of, I have situated them within their social and political context, in the time in which they lived.” Great. However, as the pages turn, it turns out that all roads lead back to womanhood.

A contradictory capitalism lurks under the surface

This was always going to be the case due the book’s distortion of history based on the exclusion of men. Rather than aiming towards the impossible — the sublime, the transcendent, the indescribable — criticism is frequently looped back to gender, entrapping its artists in a linguistic category. By extension this denies the unifying potential of art. Subtitles reinforce this suffocating scenario — “Triumphant women” and “Being an artist and a woman has never been easy”. Gender also provides the basis for sweeping speculations without real value. For example, Hessel infers from Girl Composing a Poem under the Cherry Blossoms in the Night (c.1850) by Katsushika Ōi: “Although we can only speculate, the work reminds me of the limitations faced by women writers and artists, not just in Japan, but also across the globe.”

Who even are these “women” across the globe? Despite gender being the focus of the book, Hessel never addresses what a woman is, specifically the difference between sex and gender. Camouflaged by empty terms, the book lulls the reader into a glass maze, hypnotising them to accept ambiguous explanations. Hannah Höch “adopted a distinct queer and feminist stance in her work” and Marie Laurencin is described as “Sometimes painting from a queer perspective”. These seemingly seductive sentences are slippery beneath the surface. If you click your fingers, you may just question what this actually means, with disastrous consequences for profit.

A contradictory capitalism lurks under the surface. Hessel criticises the “right-wing capitalism” of today’s society, references the Marxist-inspired feminist art historians, Rozsika Parker and Griselda Pollock, and makes explicit her intention “to break down the canon”. Yet, this is an apparition: the tried-and-tested successful canonistic methodology structures the book. 

The catchy title is guaranteed to sell like a Frida Kahlo t-shirt

To address the gender/sex question would be to create division, and therefore affect sales. The catchy title is guaranteed to sell like a Frida Kahlo t-shirt to a SOAS student. If this weren’t enough, the book is even accompanied by a commercial exhibition at the Victoria Miro Gallery. Sales driven by lip service-soaked clickbait.

The criticism is not directed at Hessel for wanting to earn money; it is rather a concern about the long-term impact of using gender as a primary lens of analysis for works by female artists. Some artists specifically make their feminist intentions explicit (Louise Bourgeois, for example), but our obsession with gender today doesn’t mean that all female artists — past, present and future — have been and will be.

Some passages within The Story of Art Without Men are specific, and it is these that enable the artists to speak without the reductionism of vapid explication. An analysis of brushstrokes in relation to modernity in the paintings of Berthe Morisot, the influence of flight upon painterly perspective in Benedetta Cappa Marinetti’s Speeding Motor Boat (1923-4) and an interesting passage about afro-futurism — these analyses implicitly challenge the silencing of female artists within art history, offering the reader tools to think with rather than accept.

Unfortunately, these vibrant moments of specificity are limited by the book’s overarching simplistic mission “to break down Eurocentric, white, male-focused curriculums and dominating patriarchal systems”. The case Hessel proposes is clouded by these ambiguous terms, reflecting the contemporary obsession with relevance floundered on social media: a cheap standard of judgement, cashable by anyone who is willing to mouth the right phrases.

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