January 17th, 2019

In the latest issue of Canadian Art magazine, there is a fantastic article by Aruna D’Souza that tracks her trajectory through critical theory, starting in the early 1990s, when a graduate seminar with Linda Nochlin catalyzed her shift from a focus on German art into feminist art theory.

D’Souza writes, “Linda Nochlin’s insistence on admitting to and revelling in the joy she took in even the most ridiculously sexist works of art seems utterly defiant in retrospect.” For Nochlin, it was Renoir whose work she loved despite his sexism. For me…it’s too many to count. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve been gripped by the beauty of a painting, only to find out that its artist was a womanizer, or a racist, or an alleged abuser.

I mentioned this once to someone sitting across from me at a party and they countered, a bit testily, “Yes, but there are so many artists who aren’t abusers. Why even bring this up?”

I think they meant, “Why focus on the negative?” Which is too small a question for me. Why not focus on the negative? Are we not large enough to look at the full spectrum of charges, from the most horrific atrocities to the most delirious joys? If I think a work is beautiful to begin with, learning about alleged abuse does not necessarily make it un-beautiful. It does change the viewing experience, somehow. Maybe it hurts a little more to train my eyes on it. But pain is not a thing to avoid.

D’Souza’s thesis is that pleasure comes in many forms, and one of the most radical forms is when women who’ve experienced the kinds of abuse perpetrated by the men above make works of aesthetically joyous art without explicit political, social or moral content. The two examples she gives are from Alma Thomas and Howardena Pindell, and they are indeed delightful enough to stare at for a very long time, allowing their rhythmic colours to dance and stir up all sorts of antidotes to what ails us.

Here’s Alma Thomas’s The Azaleas Sway With the Breeze from 1969.