The Political Role of Gender
Throughout life, questions of sexuality and gender have become essential to our understanding of self expression, communal involvement, and most importantly, our identity as a person. The main purpose for the political role of gender is to resolve and improve an organization that has once rejected and marginalized a certain classification of people. Although over time society has become more forgiving and accepting, we still tend to bring concern to the identity of the marginalized at the cost of seeing their true identity as nothing more than a mere expression. That being said, the female identity inevitably becomes associated with female art.
However, there is no single form or reference for feminist works of art. Many of the more significant feminist works from the last three decades have been influenced by feminist concerns. Those concerns include the social construction of gender identity (including that of the artist) and “the semiotic import of sexual difference” (Art Since the 1900, p. 570). This raises multiple red flags and questions towards the expectations between the female-identified and the male-identified. A key example of this can be said of Barbara Kruger’s work We Won’t Play Nature to Your Culture. Her work brings attention to feminism and the relation between women and culture. Although it can be interpreted in different ways, one representation can be drawn between women and her connection with nature. With the female’s face, on what looks like a magazine ad, facing down and with her eyes covered with leaves, the viewer can see a serene expression.
In one sense, it could be representing the strength of women, but in another, it could be a connection between domesticity and the male dominated culture of mass media. The type suggests though that women cannot be held down by men. The term “male gaze” is often associated with sexual identity. Heterosexuality is often referenced in conjunction with the male’s perspective, specifically towards women. Everyone is entitled to see and interpret things as they may, however, the male’s perspective has often been seen as negative commentary. The male gaze has been viewed as a sort of objectification, or object to be conquered. As if the male is rating and scanning a woman on the spot. Nevertheless, this gaze is still seen as a vantage point from which things are viewed. In terms of gender identity, it is presumed that all males share the same unquestioning vantage point. In terms of sexuality, the male may find himself needing to identify his work along with his sexual identity. An example of this can be said of Robert Mapplethorpe’s homoerotic and hypermasculine photograph, Ken + Taylor (1985). His photograph causes distinction between the male and female traditions by juxtaposing a darker-skinned male with a white object which, in this case, there is another nude male alongside him.
Mapplethorpe’s subject matter made his work a wildly controversial topic that transgressed to public funding for the visual arts during the 1980s. This ultimately terminated the federal government’s support for artists as it was seen as vulgar and profane for showing such erotic images. Nevertheless, his aesthetic brought new-heights to notions of sexual and gender identity. His work gave people the idea that they can test boundaries, even if things don’t end well. They are changing the path of what is and can be art. Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s action pieces on the 1980s HIV/AIDS crisis, “Untitled” (billboard of an empty bed) questioned the construction of identity, especially gay identity. Torres’s billboards seemed nothing more than just a familiar bed containing noticeable imprints left behind. Although physically true, the empty bed holds a greater underlining meaning associated with loss and the denial of same-sex love. “Gonzales-Torres’ memorialization resonated especially during a time when Ronald Reagan (U.S. President from 1981 until 1989) notoriously never uttered the word “AIDS” because of its predominant association with homosexuality” (Khan Academy). This subliminal message of an empty bed transferred something extremely private into a public place. Torres allowed this personal experience and remembrance to be visible for all in order to acknowledge and give a face to the controversial problems of intimate loss associated with gay politics and the AIDS/HIV epidemic.
For those who suffered in silence, it was important for someone to come forward and show that they were people too, and they felt grief just like everyone else. The 1960s and 70s held many major social and political disruptions. This was the time when the rise of Institutional Critique had artists question and analyze the structure of art museums and how they run. In 1970, Hans Haacke proposed a work for an exhibition to be held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. In this, visitors would be asked to vote on a current socio-political issue. The question itself wasn’t shown until the day of the installation. On that day the political question was revealed asking visitors “Would the fact that Governor Rockefeller has not denounced President Nixon’s Indochina policy be a reason for you not to vote for him in November?” Haacke’s exhibition commented directly on the involvement of Nelson Rockefeller, a significant donor and one of the board members at MoMA. The question made viewers question the significance of where the money that a museum receives is coming from in relation to the choosing of the works themselves.
Haacke’s work thus examined the economical and formatic influences of the museum and organized the project to reveal the museum’s architectural plans. “While the rule of the board of trustees of museums in the United States is generally uncontested, the supervisory bodies of public institutions elsewhere have to contend much more with public opinion and the prevailing political climate. It follows that political considerations play a role in the appointment of museum directors.” (Grasping the World, p. 407) This explains how museums have a lot of critique to deal with from the public eye, so they must hold those in political power in high regards with their choices and ideas in first place in order to stay in the public’s good standings. Another example that had a huge impact towards Institutional Critique is of the work of Fred Wilson’s 1992 “Mining the Museum.” His exhibition reevaluated how institutions can be racially unequal by displaying juxtaposing silver metalworks; elegant victorian armchairs with slave shackles and a whipping post. “Wilson has formidable narrative skills and a talent for fashioning installations that pack a punch more powerful than their individual components” (Art in America, p. 113).
Wilson’s unspoken comments on past historical events created a striking language with the viewer. Although his exhibition has been said to have expressed ironic and humorous touches, Fred Wilson’s intentions were to delve deeper into the historical period of slavery and reveal to society how people of color were treated unequal within the household. For people who lived so close together, they were very impactfully different. This work troubled the previous way of understanding a traditional work of art. Instead of outright explaining the impact of slavery, Wilson showed his interpretation by not censoring out the tools that were so commonly used to constrain those enslaved, no matter how disturbing. Artists like Wilson used explicit visuals in order to overcome the political blinds that traditional exhibitions have held in their arms in the past. New critiques wanted to challenge how art is being seen and showcased, and how the location can affect its meaning. Bringing attention to the politics of Institutional Critique meant artists could expose art institution’s true and real judgment towards the various topics in the forefront of art, including economic, social, and self-identification.