the subtle rise of misogyny in the arts & other things – part 1

Originally written on Thursday 8th March 2012

It is International Womens Day or #Internationalwomensday or #womensday and of all the days of this year so far, today I am feeling most angry and repressed. The reason? A presentation given by Jonathan Watkins, Director of Ikon Gallery in Birmingham since 1999 at Connecting Principle at Newcastle University. In true repressed female style I took a deep breath and left early, one question in, and then cried in the car on the way home. I am so ashamed.

I had driven 60 miles north to hear the talk. The synopsis that was emailed out made what he was going to say sound not only interesting but relevent to a lot of current artistic practise. That is, contemporary art practise that references art history, and why perhaps this is a good thing. Having attended Jan Verwoert’s Reference vs Reverence symposium at Frieze in 2010 (see post below) I was very keen to hear what Ikon’s director had to say on this score. On this subject alone he merely said what was in the synopsis and nothing else. No investigation as to why now or where it takes us.

Added to this was a confusion, an apparent contradiction in the synopsis – that is that Jonathan Watkins wanted art to reference the history of art more, but that the same Jonathan Watkins found artists that were free from the fetters of what is traditionally known as “artist” more interesting. He suggests this is paradoxical – I say it is just double values and an excuse to show Japanese pornography instead of contemporary art. Watkins also rather puzzlingly said that he hoped that the “art as religion” phenomenon would soon die out – meaning I suppose the closure of Ikon Gallery and it’s being turned into a chain pub or restaurant. It sounded as though he wanted to dismiss current art production and discourage any future efforts.

Reading the synopsis before I made the decision to drive the distance I could not but take a google at the artist Watkins mentioned, namely Kitagawa Utamaro. This was a rather unfortunate choice for International Womens Day, and I have to admire the girls who walked out of the talk when the screen was filled with cartoons of prostitutes being exploited for the sexual gratification of men. This “artist” Jonathan Watkins is amazed to tell us, never thought of himself as an artist; rather bravely he claims, “art did not exist in Japan until 1850” – what he means is the economic exchange we associate with art did not happen until this date – he blames it, fashionably, on the arrival of the west. In any civilised society these are images that would be covertly passed around, and that is surely why they were “traded” in the way that they were. A whole paragraph of the synopsis is given over to this single artist – which should perhaps have been warning enough – but the lure of what might justify it intrigued me. There was no justification. Jonathan Watkins says these works are “beautiful” – they may be finely wrought, but they are pictures of oppressive pornography, and as one reviewer has already pointed out show none of the ill effects on the prostitute, only the gratification of the consumer – and as such they cannot be called beautiful. There was one which in the thumbnail looked like a man delivering a baby which would have redeemed him slightly in my eyes – as showing the real endgame of sex for women in those days – but it wasn’t a baby just a massive erection. Given that Ikon Gallery is an “Educational Charity” built on principles of enlarging the understanding of contemporary art, I was pretty much at a loss as to why he had shown this artist.

Close to the beginning of his talk Watkins introduced the subject of Relational Aesthetics – which I think is in complete contrast to Utamaro since Relational Aesthetics rely upon the happy, beautiful, funny, mischevious and subversive but generally quite innocent things that happen between people, the sharing of activities, the eating of soup, the free downloading of software, there is something shared, harmonious and (most importantly) equal about it. It was sad that he concentrated on Thai and Japanese artists in this part as so much brilliant work of this kind is being done much closer to home in Newcastle and Gateshead, Sunderland (especially with CRUMB at Sunderland University) even Middlesbrough’s MIMA had Bob & Roberta Smith come up for Make your Own Damn Art World. Leeds is a very active hub for work of this kind. I don’t suppose using an Arts Council travel research budget for trips up North can be so exciting as Thailand or Japan.

The talk commenced with Watkins illustrating the difference between Modernism and Post Modernism and Relational Aesthetics as if it was as simple as this, and as if we didn’t know any better, which was terribly patronising. Modernist movements certainly had the avant-garde(s) and often the central theories were authored by their core members, but Post Modernism is a contended label authored by curators and critics and others sat on the perimeter fence, for lots of things that happened in the past 50-60 years. There were many artistic, creative and revolutionary phenomenon going on – but it will take years of distance to be able to label them properly.

One of the exhibitions at Ikon was of Atsuko Tanaka, an artist we hear more and more of at the moment. Her lit up dress looked quite fantastic, but the later paintings were pitiable and really quite bad, and interesting only in the tragedy of old age that they represent. The colours were ugly and the painting so clumsy but,’Perhaps,’ said Jonathan Watkins ‘if Damien Hirst had taken time to study the History of Art a bit more he might have thought twice about his spin paintings’. The gorgeous colours and inclusion of chance and nature and gravity IN the spin paintings is what makes them: it is in the actual inclusion of nature in his work that makes it so fascinating and heart stoppingly beautiful- it is beyond comparison with Tanaka because it is a completely different thing – I can hardly imagine why he tried. Nothing was said about Hirst’s references to Bacon or to Schwitters, or to his development of ideas surrounding conceptual art and modernism.

The lowest point, apart from the so called “beautiful” prostitution was a soft focus black and white photograph of a very young Japanese woman (girl really as she looked about 16) posing, enticing and naked on all fours. At this point three or four women left the room, and I have to admit that the photograph made me feel very uncomfortable. He followed it up with a picture of a kitten – and rather sickly tried to endear the artist to us by saying that when you see him take cats, it’s a self portrait. The relationship between the images was obvious – the girls were pets or playthings. In his introduction to Ikon Gallery he said it was of the new optimistic post war Britain (which was a promising start to a great subject) and stated that Ikon’s role became one of transgression. Were these works transgressive? No. These pictures are reinforcing a gender identity that women have been trying to transgress ever since the so called free love sixties put them on page three in 1969. These images reinforce women as objects or possessions to be used and enjoyed.

Jonathan Watkins was very scathing about what he lumped together as Post Modernist art, decrying the “camp appropriations” and collage works as aesthetic crimes. He wasn’t very kind about Martin Boyce, who I think is excellent and who I don’t see as Post Modern at all, but like myself continuing in a vein that references Modernism as others reference other art histories. It is in it and around it, not a departure from it. Watkins seemed quite presumptuous about our lacking in knowledge of art history, so I was very pleased when a (female) Newcastle lecturer stood up for the traditional teaching of the History of Art at this establishment. I studied History of Art for two years as part of my first degree at Glasgow 20 years ago but I didn’t say so – I wish I had as it might have loosened my tongue in time to argue with Jonathan Watkins on several points.

This is the first of two blogs that comment upon the subtle rise of misogyny in the arts in Britain.

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