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Power and Art

Below are some new thoughts I have for an exploratory paper on gender and power through the exploration of three different artists' work.

“The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone” is the most influential book I read in the past couple of years. The author, Olivia Laing, analyzes the feeling of urban loneliness through the lives of three artists. As an expat of Britain, she arrives in New York fresh out of a relationship– scared and alone. To understand the complexities of her emotions, she looks to the lives of three well known visual artists who worked in NYC years before her time in the city.

I was recently in New York City at the Met Breuer excited to see an exhibit by Anselm Kiefer, a favorite painter of mine. However, what left an impression on me upon leaving was another artist by the name of Leon Golub. His works were of the abstract expressionism style— lose and painterly containing movement in each stroke. His works were dark, in color and theme, depicting men fighting and racial conflicts. Throughout the exhibit, I saw various manifestations of issues surrounding gender, race, and class. A section of the exhibit was entitled “Power and Masculinity” and read the following:

With only a few exceptions, Golub painted men, usually men at war with themselves and one another. Some of these figurers are victims of violence, others the perpetrators. Ultimately his depictions of men– known and anonymous, modern and ancient– amount to a kind of history of power and its abuses across time. “If I had to give a description of my work,” the artist once said, “I would say it’s a definition of how power is demonstrated through the body and in human actions, and in our time, how power and stress and political and industrial powers are shown.” Working from the belief that power corrupted both physically and psychologically, Golub strove through his career to visualize its corrosive force. He did so in part through his signature method of applying paint to canvas and then scraping it away with tools such as meat cleavers.

This visual representation of what we had been learning in my Gender and Sexuality

class brought everything together for me. I am an experiential and visual learner, one who uses art and exhibitions as a means of learning. I was drawn to one collaged painting done by Golub and Nancy Sperro— one of my all time favorite feminist artists. However, I had failed to realize that the two artists were married. Nancy Sperro is one of the most well-known feminist artists of her time. So my question became, how did this hyper-masculine artist marry a feminist artist and how did they collaborate to create art together? What was their relationship and how did they work to analyze and expose the gender framework? I use art as my personal lens through which I see and understand the world. This summer I worked for a contemporary artist, Taryn Simon. Her primary method of working is through photography, but her ideas often translate into books, performances, sculptures, and text. However, each piece of work looks at systems of power. Taryn’s biography reads, “Guided by an interest in systems of categorization and classification, her practice involves extensive research into the power and structure of secrecy and the precarious nature of survival.” Although I believe this definition to be vague, her work constantly brings light to systems of inequality that our world has in place. Much like Olivia Laing, I would like to use this paper to first discuss the definition of power, and use the work of Taryn, Leon, and Nancy to analyze three different perspectives on gender and power in our culture.

Power is generally defined as the ability to influence the behavior of others or a course of events. Masculinity is defined as the possession of traits traditionally associated with men namely courage, independence, assertiveness, and violence.

Taryn Simon’s works look at systems of power, but one of her works looks at the power dynamics as it directly relates to gender. “Birds of the West Indies” is a piece where she indexes every single weapon, vehicle, and woman in the James Bond films. The James Bond series began as a novel called “You Asked for It.” The author named the main character after James Bond, the ornithologist who indexed all of the birds in West Indies; hence, Taryn’s decision to index all of the “objects” within the films in the same manner as James Bond himself. I would like to draw particular attention to her decision of women as objects. The three objects she chose to highlight the idea of the Western man as powerful, alluring, and indestructible– all key elements of traditional masculinity. Within James Bond movies, the women present either help or allure and sabotage him. They are essential to the plot of each film, an expectation in the pattern of each narrative. The biggest feat for Taryn with this project was to approach each woman and ask to photograph them for this index.

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