“Men and Art”
Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Among the many counts in which women have been proven inferior to men in human development is the oft-heard charge that there are no great women artists. Where one or two are proudly exhibited in evidence, they are either pooh-poohed as not very great, or held to be the trifling exceptions which do but prove the rule.
Defenders of women generally make the mistake of over-estimating their performances, instead of accepting, and explaining, the visible facts. What are the facts as to the relation of men and women to art? And what, in especial, has been the effect upon art of a solely masculine expression?
When we look for the beginnings of art, we find ourselves in a period of crude decoration of the person and of personal belongings. Tattooing, for instance, is an early form of decorative art, still in practice among certain classes, even in advanced people. Most boys, if they are in contact with this early art, admire it, and wish to adorn themselves therewith; some do so—to later mortification. Early personal decoration consisted largely in direct mutilation of the body, and the hanging upon it, or fastening to it, of decorative objects. This we see among savages still, in its gross and primitive forms monopolized by men, then shared by women, and, in our time, left almost wholly to them. In personal decoration today, women are still near the savage. The “artists” developed in this field of art are the tonsorial, the sartorial, and all those specialized adorners of the body commonly known as “beauty doctors.”
Here, as in other cases, the greatest artists are men. The greatest milliners, the greatest dressmakers and tailors, the greatest hairdressers, and the masters and designers in all our decorative toilettes and accessories, are men. Women, in this as in so many other lines, consume rather than produce. They carry the major part of personal decoration today; but the decorator is the man. In the decoration of objects, woman, as the originator of primitive industry, originated also the primitive arts; and in the pottery, basketry, leatherwork, needlework, weaving, with all beadwork, dyeing and embroideries of ancient peoples we see the work of the woman decorator. Much of this is strong and beautiful, but its time is long past. The art which is part of industry, natural, simple, spontaneous, making beauty in every object of use, adding pleasure to labor and to life, is not Art with a large A, the Art which requires Artists, among whom are so few women of note.
Art as a profession, and the Artist as a professional, came later; and by that time women had left the freedom and power of the matriarchate and become slaves in varying degree. The women who were idle pets in harems, or the women who worked hard as servants, were alike cut off from the joy of making things. Where constructive work remained to them, art remained, in its early decorative form. Men, in the proprietary family, restricting the natural industry of women to personal service, cut off their art with their industry, and by so much impoverished the world.
There is no more conspicuously pathetic proof of the aborted development of women than this commonplace—their lack of a civilized art sense. Not only in the childish and savage display upon their bodies, but in the pitiful products they hang upon the walls of the home, is seen the arrest in normal growth.
After ages of culture, in which men have developed Architecture, Sculpture, Painting, Music and the Drama, we find women in their primitive environment making flowers of wax, and hair, and worsted; doing mottoes of perforated cardboard, making crazy quilts and mats and “tidies”—as if they lived in a long past age, or belonged to a lower race.
This, as part of the general injury to women dating from the beginning of our androcentric culture, reacts heavily upon the world at large. Men, specializing, giving their lives to the continuous pursuit of one line of service, have lifted our standard in aesthetic culture, as they have in other matters; but by refusing the same growth to women, they have not only weakened and reduced the output, but ruined the market as it were, hopelessly and permanently kept down the level of taste.
Among the many sides of this great question, some so terrible, some so pathetic, some so utterly absurd, this particular phase of life is especially easy to study and understand, and has its own elements of amusement. Men, holding women at the level of domestic service, going on themselves to lonely heights of achievement, have found their efforts hampered and their attainments rendered barren and unsatisfactory by the amazing indifference of the world at large. As the world at large consists half of women, and wholly of their children, it would seem patent to the meanest understanding that the women must be allowed to rise in order to lift the world. But such has not been the method—heretofore.
We have spoken so far in this chapter of the effect of men on art through their interference with the art of women. There are other sides to the question. Let us consider once more the essential characteristics of maleness, and see how they have affected art, keeping always in mind the triune distinction between masculine, feminine and human. Perhaps we shall best see this difference by considering what the development of art might have been on purely human terms.
The human creature, as such, naturally delights in construction, and adds decoration to construction as naturally. The cook, making little regular patterns around the edge of the pie, does so from a purely human instinct, the innate eye-pleasure in regularity, symmetry, repetition, and alternation. Had this natural social instinct grown unchecked in us, it would have manifested itself in a certain proportion of specialists—artists of all sorts—and an accompanying development of appreciation on the part of the rest of us. Such is the case in primitive art; the maker of beauty is upheld and rewarded by a popular appreciation of her work—or his.
Had this condition remained, we should find a general level of artistic expression and appreciation far higher than we see now. Take the one field of textile art, for instance: that wide and fluent medium of expression, the making of varied fabrics, the fashioning of garments and the decoration of them—all this is human work and human pleasure. It should have led us to a condition where every human being was a pleasure to the eye, appropriately and beautifully clothed.
Our real condition in this field is too patent to need emphasis; the stiff, black ugliness of our men’s attire; the irritating variegated folly of our women’s; the way in which we spoil the beauty and shame the dignity of childhood by modes of dress.
In normal human growth, our houses would be a pleasure to the eye; our furniture and utensils, all our social products, would blossom into beauty as naturally as they still do in those low stages of social evolution where our major errors have not yet borne full fruit.
Applied art in all its forms is a human function, common to every one to some degree, either in production or appreciation, or both. “Pure art,” as an ideal, is also human; and the single-hearted devotion of the true artist to this ideal is one of the highest forms of the social sacrifice. Of all the thousand ways by which humanity is specialized for inter-service, none is more exquisite than this; the evolution of the social Eye, or Ear, or Voice, the development of those whose work is wholly for others, and to whom the appreciation of others is as the bread of life. This we should have in a properly developed community; the pleasure of applied art in the making and using of everything we have; and then the high joy of the Great Artist, and the noble work thereof, spread far and wide.
What do we find?
Applied art at a very low level; small joy either for the maker or the user. Pure art, a fine-spun specialty, a process carried on by an elect few who openly despise the unappreciative many. Art has become an occult profession requiring a long special education even to enjoy, and evolving a jargon of criticism which becomes more esoteric yearly.
Let us now see what part in this undesirable outcome is due to our Androcentric Culture.
As soon as the male of our species assumed the exclusive right to perform all social functions, he necessarily brought to that performance the advantages—and disadvantages—of maleness, of those dominant characteristics, desire, combat, self-expression.
Desire has overweighted art in many visible forms; it is prominent in painting and music, almost monopolizes fiction, and has pitifully degraded dancing.
Combat is not so easily expressed in art, where even competition is on a high plane; but the last element is the main evil, self-expression. This impulse is inherently and ineradicably masculine. It rests on that most basic of distinctions between the sexes, the centripetal and centrifugal forces of the universe. In the very nature of the sperm-cell and the germ-cell we find this difference: the one attracts, gathers, draws in; the other repels, scatters, pushes out. That projective impulse is seen in the male nature everywhere; the constant urge toward expression, to all boasting and display. This spirit, like all things masculine, is perfectly right and admirable in its place.
It is the duty of the male, as a male, to vary; bursting forth in a thousand changing modifications—the female, selecting, may so incorporate beneficial changes in the race. It is his duty to thus express himself—an essentially masculine duty; but masculinity is one thing, and art is another. Neither the masculine nor the feminine has any place in art—Art is Human.
It is not in any faintest degree allied to the personal processes of reproduction; but is a social process, a most distinctive social process, quite above the plane of sex. The true artist transcends his sex, or her sex. If this is not the case, the art suffers.
Dancing is an early, and a beautiful art; direct expression of emotion through the body; beginning in subhuman type, among male birds, as the bower-bird of New Guinea, and the dancing crane, who swing and caper before their mates. Among early peoples we find it a common form of social expression in tribal dances of all sorts, religious, military, and other. Later it becomes a more explicit form of celebration, as among the Greeks; in whose exquisite personal culture dancing and music held high place.
But under the progressive effects of purely masculine dominance we find the broader human elements of dancing left out, and the sex-element more and more emphasized. As practiced by men alone dancing has become a mere display of physical agility, a form of exhibition common to all males. As practiced by men and women together we have our social dances, so lacking in all the varied beauty of posture and expression, so steadily becoming a pleasant form of dalliance.
As practiced by women alone we have one of the clearest proofs of the degrading effect of masculine dominance:—the dancing girl. In the frank sensualism of the Orient, this personage is admired and enjoyed on her merits. We, more sophisticated in this matter, joke shamefacedly about “the bald-headed row,” and occasionally burst forth in shrill scandal over some dinner party where ladies clad in a veil and a bracelet dance on the table. Nowhere else in the whole range of life on earth, is this degradation found—the female capering and prancing before the male. It is absolutely and essentially his function, not hers. That we, as a race, present this pitiful spectacle, a natural art wrested to unnatural ends, a noble art degraded to ignoble ends, has one clear cause.
Architecture, in its own nature, is least affected by that same cause. The human needs secured by it, are so human, so unescapably human, that we find less trace of excessive masculinity than in other arts. It meets our social demands, it expresses in lasting form our social feeling, up to the highest; and it has been injured not so much by an excess of masculinity as by a lack of femininity.
The most universal architectural expression is in the home; the home is essentially a place for the woman and the child; yet the needs of woman and child are not expressed in our domestic architecture. The home is built on lines of ancient precedent, mainly as an industrial form; the kitchen is its working centre rather than the nursery.
Each man wishes his home to preserve and seclude his woman, his little harem of one; and in it she is to labor for his comfort or to manifest his ability to maintain her in idleness. The house is the physical expression of the limitations of women; and as such it fills the world with a small drab ugliness. A dwelling house is rarely a beautiful object. In order to be such, it should truly express simple and natural relations; or grow in larger beauty as our lives develop.
The deadlock for architectural progress, the low level of our general taste, the everlasting predominance of the commonplace in buildings, is the natural result of the proprietary family and its expression in this form.
In sculpture we have a noble art forcing itself into some service through many limitations. Its check, as far as it comes under this line of study, has been indicated in our last chapter; the degradation of the human body, the vicious standards of sex-consciousness enforced under the name of modesty, the covered ugliness, which we do not recognize, all this is a deadly injury to free high work in sculpture.
With a nobly equal womanhood, stalwart and athletic; with the high standards of beauty and of decorum which we can never have without free womanhood; we should show a different product in this great art.
An interesting note in passing is this: when we seek to express socially our noblest, ideas, Truth; Justice; Liberty; we use the woman’s body as the highest human type. But in doing this, the artist, true to humanity and not biassed by sex, gives us a strong, grand figure, beautiful indeed, but never decorated. Fancy Liberty in ruffles and frills, with rings in her ears—or nose.
Music is injured by a one-sided handling, partly in the excess of the one dominant masculine passion, partly by the general presence of egoism; that tendency to self-expression instead of social expression, which so disfigures our art; and this is true also of poetry.
Miles and miles of poetry consist of the ceaseless outcry of the male for the female, which is by no means so overwhelming as a feature of human life as he imagines it; and other miles express his other feelings, with that ingenuous lack of reticence which is at its base essentially masculine. Having a pain, the poet must needs pour it forth, that his woe be shared and sympathized with.
As more and more women writers flock into the field there is room for fine historic study of the difference in sex feeling, and the gradual emergence of the human note.
Literature, and in especial the art of fiction, is so large a field for this study that it will have a chapter to itself; this one but touching on these various forms; and indicating lines of observation.
That best known form of art which to my mind needs no qualifying description—painting—is also a wide field; and cannot be done full justice to within these limits. The effect upon it of too much masculinity is not so much in choice of subject as in method and spirit. The artist sees beauty of form and color where the ordinary observer does not; and paints the old and ugly with as much enthusiasm as the young and beautiful—sometimes. If there is in some an over-emphasis of feminine attractions it is counterbalanced in others by a far broader line of work.
But the main evils of a too masculine art lie in the emphasis laid on self-expression. The artist, passionately conscious of how he feels, strives to make other people aware of these sensations. This is now so generally accepted by critics, so seriously advanced by painters, that what is called “the art world” accepts it as established.
If a man paints the sea, it is not to make you see and feel as a sight of that same ocean would, but to make you see and feel how he, personally, was affected by it; a matter surely of the narrowest importance. The ultra-masculine artist, extremely sensitive, necessarily, and full of the natural urge to expression of the sex, uses the medium of art as ingenuously as the partridge-cock uses his wings in drumming on the log; or the bull moose stamps and bellows; not narrowly as a mate call, but as a form of expression of his personal sensations.
The higher the artist the more human he is, the broader his vision, the more he sees for humanity, and expresses for humanity, and the less personal, the less ultra-masculine, is his expression.