Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery – you can do better than this!

// 10 May 2010

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In this guest post, Bristol Feminists question an art show put on by the local Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery

bristolart.jpgArt from the New World is a “brash, hip” show of young West Coast US artists coming to the Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery (BCMAG) in May. Referencing mass culture, it promises to be popular and will allow the city to continue to engage the new, young audience that the Bansky show attracted in such huge numbers. This new popularity brings new responsibility. A debate has broken out asking is this responsibility being met with the invitation to Dita von Teese, burlesque stripper, to perform at the opening party.

The image of the semi dressed, sexy young woman is a marker for popular culture that surrounds us daily, usually representing a performance of female sexuality for men. She appears again and again in the work of the Corey Helford Gallery (which is providing the show and sponsoring the `entertainment’) but this exhibition isn’t all a celebration of her figure.

In fact, in the work of some of the women artists (who are outnumbered by the men 2 to 1) we are witness to the melancholy and alienation that is expressive of the predicament faced by young women living in our current pornified culture where they are encouraged to perform their sexuality without feeling. A culture in which recent research by West and Sweeting in Scotland found more than 40% of teenage girls are so unhappy as to be defined as experiencing disorders such as depression, body dissatisfaction and low self

esteem, as well as anhedonia (inability to experience pleasure).

Dita von Teese, with her white skin, large breasts and tiny waist, conforms to the mainstream stereotype of the sexual woman, the dominant cultural image that leaves ordinary women with low self-esteem and anxiety, reaching for the cosmetic surgeon’s knife. The burlesque performance at the gallery’s opening becomes an explicit celebration of this porn culture that will overshadow the critique presented in the art itself.

Perhaps in a female-dominated burlesque venue, with a woman compèring an event featuring performances from a range of women with varying body types, then Von Teese’s skillfully exaggerated performance would read differently. But this performance is taking place in a male-dominated context. The majority of the artists are men, the headline promotional material for the show is male dominated, and Dita would be the only person using and revealing her own body. In this context her act inevitably locks back into the old, objectified ‘sexual performance for men.

Even the title of the show raises questions about cultural sensitivity and makes one question whether this was taken into account when the BCC approved the exhibition. Calling an exhibition “art from the New World” would maintain the myth that the Americas were ‘discovered’ by Europeans as an empty space waiting to be populated. Referring to the exhibition as the ‘New World’ effectively renders invisible the presence of the Native American people in the Americas before colonisation.

O, BCMAG, surely you can do better than this? Why bring in this audience if all you do is replicate the dangerous stereotypes that so much research has demonstrated is deeply damaging to our culture; damaging to women and also the psyches of young men; damaging to the possibility of genuinely equal and mutual sexual relationships.

Bristol feminists want to celebrate the real beauty and excitement of female sexuality. But this repetition of the stereotyped view of female sexuality perpetuates the endless stream of sterilised, blank and repetitive sexual representation that permeates our every day cultural experience and that diminishes us all.

Signed, Bristol Feminists

Comments From You

Frank // Posted 10 May 2010 at 11:00 am

Completely agree. I was disappointed to hear about this on Radio 4 this morning.

It’s great Bristol Feminists have spoken in one voice about it.

Jess McCabe // Posted 10 May 2010 at 11:06 am

@Frank I’m not sure the implication is that all Bristol’s feminists were consulted writing this, it’s more like ‘some Bristol feminists’ ;)

Mary Tracy9 // Posted 10 May 2010 at 11:23 am

It’s actually worse than that. The “New World” was used to refer to the whole american continent. But this “art” exhibition is focusing exclusively on “america”, read the USA. Meaning that everything in the continent below the USA border is presumed to not exist.

This is not art. This is “artenteinment”.

And as for “burlesque”, please. An excuse to show porn and get away with it by calling it “art”. And it’s very old.

What I would like to know is whether tax payer’s money is used to pay for this “exhibition”.

Jennifer Drew // Posted 10 May 2010 at 11:28 am

Yes indeed it appears patriarchal definitions of what supposedly comprises ‘The New World’ continue to be proclaimed as ‘the truth!’

Excellent news that Bristol Feminists are challenging this latest cynical exploitation of women’s sexuality in the name of profit!!

Apparently Bristol City Council believe the Gender Equality Duty does not apply to them, since promoting the dehumanisation of women as men’s sexual service stations is acceptable and ’empowering.’ But empowering to whom? Certainly not women since I see no males will be entertaining female guests by removing all their clothes and sexually titilating invited female guests. No, instead a female burlesque performer has been engaged to sexually entertain male guests.

sianmarie // Posted 10 May 2010 at 12:13 pm

hi mary – no tax payers money is being used – we checked with the council. it is all being privately funded. however it is a public gallery space being used, hence the complaints. by supporting the event the council are not holding up to their gender equality promises.

we’ve had a lot of correspondence on this from the council – none of which has been particularly satisfying.

sue tate, who co-wrote the statement was discussing this on woman’s house this morning, you can hear it on the iplayer.

sianmarie // Posted 10 May 2010 at 1:47 pm

woman’s hour, not woman’s house. my mistake!

Frank // Posted 10 May 2010 at 7:49 pm

Jess, thanks for clarifying that, but I’m confused as to why you felt you needed to? The post was signed “Bristol Feminists” and so there was a clear implication that there was a group speaking rather than an individual and said group were defining themselves as “Bristol Feminists”.

I completely understand that contemporary feminism has many voices, and that some feminists may disagree with the post. And I also think the F Word policy of actively not defining feminism is a brilliant one, but (there had to be a but) I think that our corporate voice is a crucial one and a constant hinderance to our collective force is the continuous fragmentation of feminist identity.

So I was really pleased to see a post where that fragmentation seemed to be overcome in response to an issue and I commented on it. But your immediate clarification seems to reintroduce that and dilute the strength of the collective who make their response to this issue.

I know it’s a tricky issue and I know there are no easy answer, but I was genuinely surprised by your response.

Hannah // Posted 10 May 2010 at 7:55 pm

I love Dita Von Teese, and was getting all ready to object to this post until I saw that you say her performance would be fine in a different context. That’s cool. After reading the post, I share your concerns about having her perform in an already really male-dominated environment, and especially since it is condoned by the council. It’s a shame they’re not being co-operative, but well done for getting this discussed on woman’s hour, hopefully that will embarrass them into doing something. Maybe they could make up for it by having an exhibition of the work of female artists.

lisa // Posted 10 May 2010 at 8:02 pm

i think we need to go further and follow this through to its logical conclusion. Why should there be ANY female ‘nudes’ in any art galleries? The preferred female form has changed but the objectification of women’s bodies hasn’t.

Jess McCabe // Posted 10 May 2010 at 8:12 pm

@lisa I think that would be to confuse objecting to objectification of women’s bodies, and objecting to any representation of women’s bodies. It would risk going full cycle into body shaming.

That said, information for gallery viewers on how the male gaze has been problematic in art history and more critical reactions to these art works right there next to them in the gallery would be very welcome.

Jess McCabe // Posted 10 May 2010 at 8:14 pm

@Frank It was a factual correction, as I happen to know the piece was written by two people, a limited sample of Bristol-based feminists opinions!

Frank // Posted 10 May 2010 at 8:34 pm

Jess, ah-ha! Now I am not surprised by your comment. But were the two speaking on behalf of a group? It’s just that if they weren’t why do they imply that they are are speaking for Bristol Feminists?

Sorry, I don’t want to derail the debate about the actual show and I think the post is a good one, but I also think that voices are so easily misunderstood on the internet (and I am aware that I seem to be doing most of the misunderstanding here!). For example, what if the media picked up on the story from the F Word and cited Bristol Feminists’ opinion?

coldharbour // Posted 10 May 2010 at 9:31 pm

“Certainly not women since I see no males will be entertaining female guests by removing all their clothes and sexually titilating invited female guests. No, instead a female burlesque performer has been engaged to sexually entertain male guests.”

I’m not really opposed to nudity or any form of erotica per se but I can understand where J-Drew (and other woman are coming from) when it is so lopsided gender-ratio wise. I hang out with a lot of gay guys in London though where I guess there is a much bigger gay scene than maybe a lot of places in the U.K. so I’m probably exposed to a lot more male objectification than most. I did actually see a gay burlesque act a few months ago, thought it was tacky rubbish but it’s all subjective i suppose.

sianmarie // Posted 11 May 2010 at 9:05 am

hi frank – just to second what jess said. i co-wrote the post with sue tate after discussions and debates and co-operation from a large group of feminist voices in the city. However we wanted to make clear that although this was coming from a group of feminists in bristol, we aren’t representing the unanimous voice of the Bristol Feminist Network. there are lots of divergent views in BFN on this issue and we didn’t think it was appropriate to sign the statement as coming from BFN as it wouldn’t be fair or representative.

hope that clears it up!

the discussion on women’s hour was great! think the points sue made came across really well.

Frank // Posted 11 May 2010 at 10:29 am

Sianmarie, thanks for the reply and for making things clear for me. I completely understand where you are coming from and can see how you were addressing the nuances of BFN on this issue. Who would be a feminist eh? Far too complicated…

Yes, I do think the WH discussion was good.

lisa // Posted 11 May 2010 at 8:41 pm

how do you define the objectification of women’s bodies?

which of these are objectification:

1. a picture of kate moss dressed in her underware doing an erotic pose in vogue?

2. the sort of thing you commonly see in lads’ mags?

3. nudes in art galleries (often sexualised images in their time)?

Jess McCabe // Posted 12 May 2010 at 11:42 am

@lisa I personally think it is impossible to say across the board what is and isn’t objectifying, it depends on the image. For me the cues to what makes an image particularly images of women objectified/objectifying include: does the photograph/image chop the photo so it doesn’t show her head, or only shows a limb or something; is she literally compared to or used to represent an object; is any nudity or sexuality in the image gratuitous (cars with women draped on them, an obvious example); that sort of thing…

There is also a difference between sexualised and objectified, an image can be sexual and show a person as a subjective person, and not objectifying at all. Likewise, objectification does not always take the form of representing the person as a sexual object.

Sue Gilbert // Posted 12 May 2010 at 12:38 pm

There’s nothing new in this, depressingly. There is a huge precedent in art for the use of the naked body to attract punters/patrons, set over thousands of years. Paintings of Adam and Eve were acceptable as giving a religious message, but did the sixteenth century congregations looking at them in rennaissance churches feel titillated? You can bet some of them did! And there’s no other possible excuse for the naked bodies (mostly male) all over the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

In a modern Britain however, the use of a stripper to promote the opening of any exhibition is probably only justified if the exhibition is about the art of burlesque. Otherwise, it seems irrelavent.

coldharbour // Posted 12 May 2010 at 8:56 pm

“There is also a difference between sexualised and objectified, an image can be sexual and show a person as a subjective person”

I would say this is a complete misuse of the term subjective and objective. A human exists as a physical being and a sentient being at the same time. What aspect of a physical image could you portray as being subjective? It’s existence as a sentient being?

sianmarie // Posted 13 May 2010 at 1:20 pm

just rejoining the debate…

it’s interesting this discussion about objectification in other art forms. someone who i won’t name for form’s sake actually sent us a list of all the naked women in paintings in the Bristol Museum, as if to say – if you’re complaining about one form of nudity why not this form. which i thought was very surreal. i absolutely love what the guerilla grrls do around this issue, but i don’t think that was the reasoning behind this helpful (!) list.

anyway – the opening is tomorrow. i agree sue, this would maybe be appropriate if the exhibition was about burlesque but it isn’t. the council keep telling us that the exhibition includes images that challenge objetification, but the logic as to how ‘this makes it ok’ to have the performance i don’t get. the exhibition is 16% female artists. dita von teese has written to us saying that she is ‘entertainment’ so the council’s response that she is part of the exhibition doesn’t add up. it seems they are scrabbling around looking for excuses.

and don’t even get me started on the new world angle…

i think i speak for everyone involved in this campaign that we’re just so disappointed that the council just didn’t question this event and don’t want to recognise that in this context the performance pushes no boundaries, raises no questions. it’s just so dull! there are heaps of amazing challenging and daring female performance artists that could have performed. it’s just so sad that instead of showcasing these women, we’re letting the same old stereotypes reign.

Louisa // Posted 13 May 2010 at 6:59 pm

I heard the Radio 4 discussion between Julie Finch, Director of Bristol City Museum, and Sue Tate. From what I can gather, Dita von Teese will be ‘titillating’ at a private party thrown by the Corey Helford Gallery who have supplied some or all of the art for the ‘art from the new world’ exhibition. Julie Finch justified the appearance of DvT by linking her to the, quote ‘plight of women’ represented by some of the artworks being exhibited. (?)

I have to agree with Sue Tates brilliant argument that the appearance of DvT is more of the same, tired, overused sexualization of women to sell ideas.

If Julie Finch and those she represents are confident of the value of this exhibition why do they need a sex worker to advertise it?

Louisa // Posted 13 May 2010 at 7:01 pm

I heard the Radio 4 discussion between Julie Finch, Director of Bristol City Museum, and Sue Tate. From what I can gather, Dita von Teese will be ‘titillating’ at a private party thrown by the Corey Helford Gallery who have supplied some or all of the art for the ‘art from the new world’ exhibition. Julie Finch justified the appearance of DvT by linking her to the, quote ‘plight of women’ represented by some of the artworks being exhibited. (?)

I have to agree with Sue Tates brilliant argument that the appearance of DvT is more of the same, tired, overused sexualization of women to sell ideas.

If Julie Finch and those she represents are confident of the value of this exhibition why do they need a sex worker to advertise it?

lisa // Posted 14 May 2010 at 2:02 pm

Jess

You ask “is any nudity or sexuality in the image gratuitous” But who is to judge what is gratuitous – the church, the Taliban, the artist themselves, the people who produce porn?

Jess McCabe // Posted 14 May 2010 at 2:15 pm

@lisa What’s your point? All of the above will certainly have an opinion.

A J // Posted 14 May 2010 at 4:10 pm

@ Jess – I think Lisa is making the point that whether nudity is gratuitous or not is almost entirely a matter of individual opinion, so it’s not all helpful in judging whether something is ‘objectifying’ or not, as you were suggesting.

And it’s even less helpful in determining whether its good art or not.

We do slightly risk sometimes getting into a rather crazy ‘nudity is awful’, ‘the human body is awful’ type of viewpoint (Not that I’m accusing you of that, Jess!) Nudity in art is a huge part of our artistic heritage, going right back to the Greeks and beyond (and just as often focused on male nudity as female). There’s always been an erotic element of sorts to that, and often it is actually integral to the art’s power, gratuitous or not. Nudity and the erotic are as legitimate subjects for artistic endeavour as anything is.

That’s not to suggest an opinion on Dita Von Teese, incidentally, given she’s not claiming to be art in the first place, as far as I’m aware!

Jess McCabe // Posted 14 May 2010 at 4:22 pm

@A J Of course it’s a matter of opinion, all criticism is opinion.. I am well aware of the role of nudity in art.

We are getting far from the point! As you note, Dita von Teese is not an artwork.

gadgetgal // Posted 14 May 2010 at 4:59 pm

I’m not the best judge of art – I can’t tell you if something has merit, just whether or not I like it. Some of what I like includes nudity and sex, some doesn’t. But overall, whether it’s a drawing, painting, sculpture, photograph, video, installation, etc. etc. and whether it appears in a gallery, magazine, tv show, film, opera house, etc. etc. I have to say I’m getting a little “nuded out”. And that’s whether the piece has been judged to have artistic merit or not! I’m even getting a little sick of it if it’s considered a feminist work to empower women generally – I just think it’s been done to death now, and because most nudity in art today focusses on the female form it’s just ceased to have a lot of meaning for me. The shock value has gone and I’m bored with naked ladies being considered to be the ONLY beautiful form to depict.

I agree with A J that whether nudity is gratuitous or not is in the eye of the beholder, but I reckon if the majority of beholders are ogling rather than looking then it’s more likely to fall into the category of gratuitous from most people’s perspectives. An example of that would be a naked woman with a body surgically enhanced to give a sexual thrill to onlookers in a room full of fully clothed people who are mostly men – I reckon this one falls into that category! And I say that with regret, because I adore Dita, and have no problems with what she does. It just makes a difference to me that she’s been hired as a glorified stripper popping out of the proverbial cake rather than the fabulous performer she is!

Speaking of which, do you reckon she’ll actually pop out of a cake? Because then the irony of the piece could possibly save it in my mind…

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