Sunday, 19 February 2012
Women's Words: interview with Professor Tamar Garb
You’ve explored the portrayal of women’s bodies in modernist and contemporary art. Taking into consideration the obsession with women’s bodies in the modern world, do you think that art has historically played a role in society’s attitude towards women’s bodies?
“It’s interesting to think about art’s relationship to society’s attitude to women’s bodies, because it produces and reflects what society perceives as ideal or normative. Looking historically at the way in which art, objects, have constructed certain ideal representations of female beauty, you see something that fits in with a far broader cultural understanding of women. At the same time as it reflects it, it also helps to perpetuate it, so art becomes complicit in a world of constructing an ideal representation of the feminine. You can go right the way back to renaissance representation of female beauty, where art is supposed to be the repository of an ideal, perfect subject; you see particular types – which are not very dissimilar from the types you see in Vogue magazine now – so you’ll see long hair, depilated smooth bodies, flawless skins; almost as if it’s been airbrushed, obviously a long time before airbrushing came into being, but with the paintbrush you get a sort of smoothing over of imperfections. You get this hyper-sexualised view of the body that is at the same time sanitised; pubic hair etc is always absent, for example.”
Do you think that’s changed recently? I’m thinking of, like, Lucian Freud.
“Of course realist ideas of the body that emerged in the 19th century countered this ideal representation of the female figure, so you do get different representations of the body; that look lived-in, or aging, or are not necessarily pale skinned and flowing haired. But I think the glamorous image of femininity that circulates in popular culture, in advertising, in music videos, within the pop industry, within the whole media circus, still perpetuates those very idealised versions. Those Realist incursions haven’t dislodged the broad commodified view of women that circulates in the culture.
Having said that, do you think that art is more celebratory, even in its glamorising of women’s bodies? Is more celebratory than the media, than popular culture?
“No, I think the media is very pervasive in the way in which it traffics in a very limited set of images. It’s usually about the idealisation of youth, it’s about the idealisation of certain body types, it’s about the idealisation of certain complexions, and skin colour and tones; you do have a place for a sort of exotic other occasionally, but there is an overarching and very normative idea in popular of what female sexuality and desirability is and should be.
“I think art is more complex than that, because art offers a space for critical engagement with things that pervade the culture. So where some art practices have historically colluded with and perpetuated these images, there’s also been lots of art practices that have raised them to question, particularly feminist practices. From the 1970s onwards you get a lot of feminist practices that are actually looking at the politics of the body and opening up those historic forms of representation. So I think art is a more complex space. It’s true that art can endorse these dominant notions, but there’s also a space for critical engagement with them.
“For example, you get lots of women artists who refuse to deal with the body, because the body is so compromised. You get some who deal with images and representations of the body, through the media, through photography, through popular culture, and recycle and replay those. You get some who pick up on the language of the music video, and make that the subject of art. So there’s a kind of critical gap in an art practice, particularly in a political or feminist practice, which uses those forms as the material that art engages with.”
Changing tack slightly: I know that you were involved in the Gauguin exhibition recently. I'm afraid I don’t know anything about art, really, but conversations I’ve had with art student friends have pointed to a discrepancy between the depiction of women by Gauguin and his attitude to them in his personal life. Could you talk to me about that?
“There’s been a lot of literature about Gauguin’s personal relationships with women, and there’s no doubt that they’re highly compromised relationships. I mean, he’s a French man who goes on the back of French colonial expeditions to Tahiti and the South Sea islands, because he can live cheaply there, because he’s infatuated with an idea of the exotic. He thinks he’s going to find some perfect paradise. In place in that perfect paradise is an idea of youthful, available, passive, compliant women; brown skinned women. The way he behaves there, by contemporary standards he could be described as a paedophile; but the work that he produces in that context is very complex and very interesting. As historians and critics we have to deal with the biography on the one hand, and the complexity of the work on the other.
“The work he produced was difficult. It was not easily absorbed and understood by audiences back in France. It was not the same as the kind of schlocky pornography that came back from the Pacific islands, which produced a highly sexualised and racialised view of these “available” brown women. What interests me as an art historian is how we both take account of the broad sexual politics that Gauguin was participating in – he’s not unique, he’s not an aberrant individual, he’s typical of 19th century French attitudes – how we think about him as a man on the one hand, flawed, compromised, absolutely colluding with these very sexist and racist notions; and then this extraordinary body of work that revolutionises European painting. You cannot think of 20th century painting without thinking of the way he uses colour, the way he uses flattened areas of paint, the way he uses line, the way he imagines and fantasises this incredibly rich landscape, which he doesn’t see, because Tahiti’s nothing like that. That’s the difficult task of the feminist historian, and there isn’t a simple solution.”
Obviously you grew up in apartheid South Africa, and I know that you’ve been involved in looking at post-Apartheid South Africa (in art, politically, etc.). I was wondering how you think growing up in apartheid SA affected your view of women’s role in society.
“The thing about apartheid South Africa was that it didn’t only curtail people’s lives according to race. It policed sexuality, it policed identity, in a number of ways. It legislated about who you could live with, who you could marry, who you could sleep with, who you could drink with, who you could eat with. It absolutely circumscribed living experience. When we think of apartheid South Africa we think of those very vicious race laws, but one also needs to think about how human sexuality was so absolutely curtailed. It was a highly puritanical, Calvinist society; anti-pleasure, anti-mixing and mingling of peoples and groups of all kinds. At the same time as inter-racial sex was illegal, so homosexuality was also illegal. So one of the things that growing up in South Africa made me confront and try to understand was the way in which the State curtailed human experience; I think that was very politicising.
“Questions around sexuality, sexual preference, freedom of expression; those things are very important to me. Take pornography: I grew up in a police state, in which censorship was everywhere, and of course pornography was illegal, as was anything that went against the dictates of the State. Later on when I became politicised about pornography, from a feminist perspective, I was always cautious about supporting the complete outlawing of something like pornography. I feel very uncomfortable about the way in which women are represented in pornography, but I nevertheless feel that to have a State that exercises censorship in that way is...problematic.
“It’s also important to remember that when I was growing up in South Africa the women’s movement was only regarded as a very marginal, tangential concern. Real attention went to the bigger question of racial tension and the apartheid laws. It was only after coming to live in England that I could really become involved in the women’s movement. It was only in England, in the 1980s, that I was provided with a forum in which to think about the politics of women, and subjectivity, and representation, in a very different way to how I had been able to in South Africa.
Do you think women’s being almost sidelined in apartheid South Africa, as a result of focus on racial issues, has affected women’s role in South Africa now?
“There have been very powerful women in South Africa all the way through. Even during the apartheid years, even though women’s issues weren’t near the top of the agenda, there were always women’s causes; women who marched against the passbooks, there was Black Sash, for example, there was the women’s league of the ANC. There were powerful women, and I wouldn’t want to take away from that. But those issues were subsumed into much bigger issues around racial discrimination.
“The post-democratic constitution in South Africa is very progressive in relation to women’s rights, and in relation to sexual preference. The problem is that it’s dealing in the post-apartheid moment with many different factors: one of which is the beliefs of traditional African societies in relation to women. This was a brutalised society that was arguably “emasculated” – to use an old fashioned concept; where African men felt so brutalised by the apartheid laws that often women became the butt of their anger. Sexual violence was rife, child rape, domestic violence – all huge issues; also the issue of AIDs, and the way in which AIDs has affected women’s lives and women’s relationship to children. These are huge issues of sexual politics. I think a lot of these can be explained sociologically, in this very traumatic post-apartheid society. Now, gender politics has come onto the map in a big way, and as I say the constitution enshrines those rights, but it’s in a society that’s so damaged and so in the throes of almost a post-traumatic disorder, that women bear the brunt of all kinds of violence still. You have to understand the situation in these complex ways, taking into account both the sociological side and the political side; it’s going to take a long time to readjust. Not least because women are so adversely affected by poverty, by illness, and by violence. There are powerful groups now in South Africa working for women, but odds are stacked steeply against them.”
The things that jumps to my mind when you talk about that, is the relationship between body image in Africa and body image in the West. Obviously women are facing these traumatic circumstances in Africa that we don’t have any understanding of in the West; yet we punish ourselves in terms of things like eating disorders, and that’s not something that is so rife in Africa.
“It’s interesting how eating disorders are emerging in Africa. Eating disorders did not used to be part of the scene in Africa, and of course to look plump was to exhibit prosperity; indeed, to look thin in Africa may indicate that you’re sick, or suffering from AIDs. There are those issues, and therefore different norms for female beauty. But at the same time, in urban areas, where people are networked in the global media culture – all watching the same videos on MTV, the same internet porn – so you’re getting a curtailing, a scenario where young, educated, metropolitan woman are beginning to manifest some of those neuroses and pathologies that absolutely characterise women in the West.
“Probably in rural areas, and amongst older women, that’s not the case. But amongst the young fashionistas of the metropolitan African cultures, you’re beginning to find a recognisable normative notion of female beauty. It has certain kinds of racialised permutations: for example, having a nice round arse might be fine, because there’s this obsession with “booty” that comes out of African-American culture. [African-American culture is] profoundly influential because of the way in which music videos circulate. One can’t underestimate how globalisation, the global media, has created a new construction of same-ness; this affects women in Africa as much as everywhere else.”
Just to finish: taking into consideration the role of art in the way that we look at women, do you think that young women need to be encouraged to become more involved in art...because of all of this...to make them more aware?
“Getting involved in art is always a good thing, because it provides a means for people to gain agency. By ‘getting involved in art’ I don’t mean just going to see ‘great’ art, or famous pictures, or going to life drawing classes; I mean trying to think about a space where one can invent meaning. It doesn’t matter if it’s visual art, or writing, or music; these forms of expression provide a context in which people can reimagine themselves. They can invent languages that articulate new desires, new thoughts, new ways of being in the world. That is absolutely crucial. To be able to think, ‘what would it be to imagine an image of woman that wasn’t already over-determined by all these generations of inheritance?’ It’s a really interesting and exciting prospect. To use the means that are now available, whether it’s Flip videos*, or cameras, or purloining stuff from the web, reconstituting – creating new languages to empower, to speak to the future, that could break away from some of these old, circumscribed conventions and images. That’s a matter of life and death. That’s what it is to be young. That’s what it is to be able to reimagine a world.
“I think it’s okay for girls to rearticulate and rehearse all the received influences, but that’s not going to get you anywhere. All these obedient girls doing lovely magazine-derived images of big-eyed, passive-looking females. Maybe it gives you technical skill, but it’s not breaking boundaries. Art, at its best, is thinking ‘how can we invent a new language?’ How can we get out of these oppressive narratives that tell us who we are? And that’s for each generation to do for itself.”
Tamar Garb is Head of Art History, Durning Lawrence Professor, at UCL. She has an MA in Art Education, and an MA in Art History from the Courtauld Institute of Art. Her published works include: Sisters of the Brush: Women’s Artistic Culture in Late Nineteenth Century Paris; Bodies of Modernity: Figure and Flesh in Fin de Siecle France; The Painted Face, Portraits of Women in France 1814 -1914. Her latest publication in this area is The Body in Time: Figures of Femininity in Late Nineteenth-Century France. She has curated numerous exhibitions, including 2008 exhibition of South African art Land Marks/Home Lands, and 2011 South African Photography exhibition at the V&A, Figures and Fictions: Contemporary South African Photography.
Interview conducted by Harriet and Edgar, 5th December 2011, at Professor Garb's office in central London.