Sunday, September 23, 2012

Rethinking Professionalism

“Charlotte Schreiber…couldn’t attend [Royal Canadian Academy of Arts] meetings because it would have meant being alone with 39 men.”

Women. Art. Professionalism. Isolated concepts or a natural combination? I’ve been pondering this question for the past three weeks, ever since I started embroidering in the campus parking lot half an hour before starting work to take advantage of the natural light that has waned by the time I extract myself at the end of the day.

The convergence of women, art, and professionalism is also the subject of the book, Rethinking Professionalism: Women and Art in Canada, 1850-1970 (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2012). To be upfront about bias, I should add that I am a former Queen’s employee and that my former place of work, the Agnes Etherington Art Centre, is mentioned on the opening page of the preface for its contribution to feminist art history.

An outgrowth of the inaugural Canadian Women Artists History Initiative conference, this multi-authored, hefty tome is a very useful addition to academic library collections supporting gender studies or Canadian art history.

While reading Kristina Huneault’s introductory chapter about the ill-fitting concept of professionalism for women artists, my mind kept flitting back to Eunice Lipton’s Alias Olympia: A Woman’s Search for Manet’s Notorious Model and Her Own Desire (1992, Charles Scribner’s Sons). Spurred on by Linda Nochlin, who famously asked why there have been no great women artists, Lipton traveled to Paris to restore dignity to Victorine Meurent, Edouard Manet’s model. Although Meurent was an exhibiting artist and a member of an esteemed professional art society who declared herself an artist twice in the French equivalent of the census, her contemporaries and later art historians dismissed her as an amateur and a prostitute (arguably equally offensive terms). Huneault’s parallel examples from Canada are lower profile but no less gripping. She identifies discrepancies between a census count of female artists compared to the membership in the Ontario Society of artists. And then there’s the case of Charlotte Schreiber, the only female artist accepted into the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts in its first fifty years, who couldn’t attend meetings because it would have meant being alone with thirty-nine men.

If you read this book, the historical references may make you angry, whether it’s the virile description of the Group of Seven or the flipside, emphasis on the feminine stature and fashion of Canada’s first female architect. (Curiously, the impulse to emphasize the gender of artists continues today, as one of the female artists’ techniques in the book is described as loving). At the very least, you’ll probably find yourself annoyed by comments like Group of Seven member A.Y. Jackson calling the arts appreciation show hosted by his former lover Anne Savage “quite a little job” (p. 121).Yet, there’s inspiration to be found in women’s comments; consider Margaret Watkins’ retort about a critic who passionately disliked her photo of dirty dishes: “Evidently the poor duffer knows nothing of Modern art” (p. 170).

Lest you get the impression that art is unique in its gender bias, Jennifer Salahub reminds us that it affects other disciplines too. As a librarian, I found her comment disheartening: “…when I first began to research Canadian needlework in the 1980s, the Library of Congress Catalogue directed me not to needlework, sewing, or even embroidery but to the letter ‘w’—women’s work.” (p. 138). I tend to be angry rather than annoyed when I read such things, but this book helped me slow down and resist a knee-jerk response. Reading the rest of Salahub’s chapter about intriguing artist, Hannah Maynard, I learned that the Victorian artist included textiles in her photos to maintain a lady-like image while pursuing an unconventional career. From a contemporary perspective (read: privileged life—the kind where I am allowed to drive and work and vote), it’s so easy to overlook awesomely experimental work and harp on what’s traditional, like the artist marketing herself as Mrs. Richard Maynard.

The most poignant content for me was Sherry Farrell Racette’s roll call of names of Akwesane artists who practiced basketweaving. Seeing a photo by Mary Kawennatakie Adams, the first artist on the list—of a basket adorned with teeny decorative baskets the size of a thumbnail—had a tip-of-the iceberg effect and served as a strong argument that female Aboriginal artists have been grossly overlooked by the existing model of art history. Add to that other groups like nuns that have historically been heavily engaged in craft and the entire concept of professionalism starts to fall apart.

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