Art and Gender: Observational Study

In this multicultural ethnographic research project I sought to identify and interpret any correlation between existing gender roles and artistic expression.

Introduction

In society, gender roles and sexual identity have correlation to many other cultural practices and beliefs. So, too, does art, whether as a result of functional necessity or simply an extension of symbolic thought. Since art is such an abstract thing, it’s hard to quantify it. Everyone has a different definition. The Oxford English Dictionary defines art as, “The expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power” (en.oxforddictionaries.com, Art, noun). So, considering differences of gender expectations and roles in societies around the world, could there be a correlation between gender and the expression, production, and perception of art? This was what I sought to study through cultural anthropology.

Observational Study 

My observation took place at the St. Louis Art Museum (SLAM) on the 13th of September, 2018. The day was beautiful and there were many people exercising in Forest Park, but due to the construction on the road from the recently closed Egyptian art exhibit, the museum wasn’t as busy as I’d hoped. I did an hour of observation in room 218, Impressionist Landscapes. This room had one piece of Monet’s “Water Lilies” series taking up one wall, and I was told this and a few Van Gogh’s on another wall made the room a popular one. There weren’t many visitors, and most of them were upwards of 40 years of age. It wasn’t until my interviews that I gathered conclusive data to craft a hypothesis.  

After an hour I broke for lunch, then went in search of someone to interview. I found a woman who I’d seen in 218, and when I approached her, she seemed reluctant, insisting she knew nothing about art and recommending I talk to her husband, who was standing nearby, or her friends, a couple who was in the next room. According to her, they were the experts. The woman, Marlene, was in her mid-fifties had the appearance of a grade school teacher, nondescript and unassuming. I asked her several questions about her experience with going to art museums, her favorite artistic medium, whether she had a history with art, etc.  

At the beginning of the interview she was reluctant and modest, constantly insisting she didn’t know anything about art. But after some further questioning, she admitted that she sewed, quilted, hand-stitched, and cultivated a flower garden, then seemed surprised when I told her that all of these things were considered art. My final question was for her to tell me about what art is, as if I had never heard of it before. Here is a paraphrase of her words: 

“Art is very personal. It’s everything you see and feel. You can be walking down the street and see something special and attach meaning to it, and that’s art. In my garden, I put flowers and colors together, and that’s art. That’s my personal art. Tradition is also art. My family has heirlooms that we have had for generations and passed down, and to me that’s art. My grandmother bought china that she thought was just so beautiful; she passed it down to my mother, who didn’t care for that style, and bought a different style; she passed the old china, and the new, down to me. I have a different style, and so will my daughter, and her daughter. Art is always changing, and I think that’s what makes it special. My quilts will be passed down, and my art is going to live on through the women in my family, and that connection is beautiful to me.”  

Here we see art recognized as personal and subjective. Marlene sees value in art that is made and collected in the home; it is also passed on through the matrilineal line. This idea of art is on an individual basis, and forges connections through her female consanguineous kin.  

My second chosen subject to interview was a young man in his late twenties named Joel. He was visiting the museum with his mother and was willing enough to answer my questions. In the beginning, mother and son smiled at one another periodically as if sharing a joke, and I didn’t understand until I discovered he used to do photography when he was younger. At this point I wrote in my notes, “I may have accidentally found an actual artist. Darn it.” The purpose of my study was not to learn about art in its technical form, but to learn how everyday people express and define it on a personal level.  

From that point on, I had to word everything very carefully and specifically with him, because he had a habit of being extremely vague and noncommittal in his answers. It’s a habit I have seen a lot in my artist contacts. But, eventually, I did get the wording correct. Joel’s answer to the same final question I posed Marlene reveals a different answer than the one she gave:  

“Art is how humanity expresses its interpretations of life to other humans. It is an expression of feeling and of perception. It is a very big concept, and basically, the less you initially know about art, the better. Look at a work of art from an unbiased and uninformed view and try to bring your own interpretation to it. Once you have that, then do research to see why the artist created what they did. What was the social situation at the time and place it was created? What tools did they use to create it, what was the media saying, what issues were there in the world? I care more about the factors that influenced the art than the art piece itself.”  

This answer is personal, in some ways, but ultimately reflects an objective and social view of art. Joel sees art as external factors influencing internal significance, which is opposite to Marlene’s thoughts on the internal manifestation of art on an individual level.  

Hypothesis  

Marlene and Joel’s thoughts on art piqued my interest. There is a lot of overlap in their perceptions, but also much difference and in significant ways. So, I began to wonder if the divide between genders in the expression of art is seen cross-culturally. My standing hypothesis is, “Cross-culturally, gender is an important correlate of artistic expression.”

This study sought to prove that, cross-culturally, art is determined in many ways by the gender roles of those who produce it. My research was to see if women more commonly practice intimate familial art forms such as sewing and weaving, like Marlene, whereas men view and execute art in a more publicly functional way.  

eHRAF Findings 

For my research in the electronic Human Relations Area Files (eHRAF), I decided to narrow my definition of “art” to visual and decorative art. I figured that such art forms as singing, dancing, and literature would broaden my search too much. Another factor leading to this narrowing was the fact that the people I interviewed were at an art museum, rather than a library, poetry recital, or musical gathering. Since America is a country with highly specialized fine art forms, to tackle research in these areas would be the work of many months. In eHRAF I chose three cultures: The Igbo; The Saramaka; The Huichol. These three had slightly different cultures, and different uses for their art.  

The Igbo are a society residing in Western Africa. They are horticulturists, and while their society uses a matrilineal descent pattern, there is a large influence of patriarchal standards. Gender roles are regimented and almost seen less as identities and more as status titles. For example, in Ifi Amadiume’s ethnography Afrikan matriarchal foundations: the Igbo case, she explains how, when certain rituals demand it or fathers want to continue their line of descent but have no sons, women can take on male roles and become “male daughters” and “female husbands.” This also occurs when women wish to marry women. In a similar way, men can take on more feminine roles and become “female sons” and “male wives” (Amadiume, 30).  

This way of shifting gender roles to suit the situation also carries into a significant artistic ritual in the Igbo tradition. It is called Ikpu Okwa and is an all-male event meant to be a celebration of the deity Aho’s emergence from the wild. An important element is the use of masks worn by the titled men (“titled” in this case meaning high-standing men who were chosen by divine possession to fill these roles). The masks are made and dyed by one of the titled men, but because the task of dying things is usually women’s work, and this man is performing tasks in service to the other male participants, for the entirety of the celebration he must only be referred to as “wife.” I found this interesting because rather than have a woman do it, or simply acknowledge it in this instance as gender neutral work, they change the gender identity of the chosen man to reflect the medium of art he is working with. 

The Saramaka make use of calabashes for their art. A calabash is a kind of gourd that many cultures around the world dry out and use to hold water or other things. With the Saramaka, native to South America, the calabashes hold great cultural and artistic significance. Originally a common material used by many Native American nations to make tools, cookware and art, the calabash was introduced to the Saramaka when they escaped slavers after being transported from Africa. They utilized the method used by the Natives to cure and prepare the pods, but according to Sally Price in Co-Wives and Calabashes, they incorporated unique African tribal designs in their carving of the calabashes. In the mid-to-late 19th century, things changed. Calabashes began to feature designs on the interior rather than the exterior, and instead of chisels, these designs were carved with pieces of broken glass. The carving designs were “relatively clean, fluid, and unified, rather than complex, textured, and composite” (Price, 95). And they were all done by Saramaka women. This was due in part by the fact that less men were around to do the carving, choosing instead to find work away from home. For the men who did stay home, they found a new medium that allowed for greater creativity: wood carving. So, while men decorated canoes and house fronts, women produced more and more of these carving-inlaid calabashes. Eventually, they became adept enough at it that they were permitted to make bowls that were used at men’s meals.  

My third chosen culture is the Huichol of Northern Mexico. Admittedly there is not much in the way of a binary between female and male art. However, the yarn paintings and the colorful patterns of this culture are widely known, mostly produced for outside consumers and tourists. Stacy Schaefer’s Culture Summary: Huichol explains that for rituals, both men and women produce art, but while the men make things like prayer arrows, women are more likely to provide votive bowls. Patterns are exchanged and shared regularly, and it is not uncommon for women to use their friend’s designs in their own art.  

Analysis and Conclusion 

Was my hypothesis proven? Yes, and no. It is true that in all three cultures, visual art has some sense of gender identity involved in its production and expression. However, in eHRAF there was a distinct lack of data on consumers of visual art, so I had to focus more so on producers of art, which was not the original intention.  

Marlene’s tendency toward art that can be used in the home for a purpose, as well as her fondness for art that can be passed down, reflects the traditions of the Saramaka and the Huichol with their carved cookware and weaving. Joel remains a bit of an irregularity when compared to males of the Igbo, Saramaka, and Huichol, but as I have said before, his specialized artist status places him as a statistical outlier.  

One flaw in my research was the decision to limit my eHRAF searches to visual art, because in a lot of the societies listed, such as the famous Trobriand people, the biggest diversity was in music and dance. I believe this is because many of the cultures in HRAF produce physical art that has a functional purpose, such as calabash bowls or ritual masks. Popular American culture shows privilege in its ability to produce widespread art for art’s sake, independent of the need to satisfy a functional or ceremonial purpose.  

If I were to conduct these interviews and research this topic again, I would choose to focus instead on more common ground, such as artistic activities, so as not to limit myself again. This is a topic I’m very interested in, and I have a feeling there is something big that can be discovered by further research. After all, art is everywhere, and its importance is seen not only throughout history, or throughout the regions of the world, but also throughout the contours of gendered society.

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Sources Referenced:

Definition of Art. https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/art. Accessed on December 6, 2018. 

Employment as a Percentage of the Population, 2016. https://www.stats.gov.sa/en/819. Accessed on December 6, 2018.  

Labor Force Participation Rate, Female and Male https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SL.TLF.ACTI.FE.ZS?end=2017&start=2017. Accessed on December 6, 2018. 

Schaefer, Stacy B. “Culture Summary: Huichol.” 2016. Web. 7 Dec. 2018. 

Amadiume, Ifi. “Afrikan Matriarchal Foundations: The Igbo Case.” 1987. Web. 7 Dec. 2018. 

Price, Sally. “Co-Wives And Calabashes.” Women And Culture 1993: xxxi, 224. Web. 7 Dec. 2018. 

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