A recent visit to the National Gallery of Art in D.C. afforded me the opportunity to view some of the most striking and important paintings in the world, as well as an opportunity to eavesdrop and people-watch. Some die-hard aesthetes might gasp to know that I can easily spend long moments with my back to world-famous paintings by Rembrandt or Picasso, choosing instead to surreptitiously observe what I call “art in action”—the attitudes, poses, and behavior of visitors in the gallery. “Wannabe Connoisseur” and “Tourista Mama” are sources of endless amusement, while “Highschool Field Trip, #37” tends to depress me with its celebration of banality and barbarism. One of my all-time favorite subjects is “Dreamy Girl with Journal.” If you’ve been in an art museum, you know the subject I’m referring to. Young, usually between the ages of 16 to 24, unaccompanied, and dressed alternatively in chic-hipster or artsy-bohemian, these girls sit and fill their notebooks with curious and rapid-fire reflections on the artwork hanging in the gallery. I have yet to be personally acquainted with one of these subjects so, no doubt, my interest is largely due to the fact that the contents of the journals remain a complete mystery to me, allowing me to float a variety of interpretations, ranging from amusing to terrifying.
While wandering the halls of a terrific exhibit a few weeks ago (From Impressionism to Modernism: The Chester Dale Collection, if you must know), my usual activity of collecting specimens of “art in action” was interrupted by a fascinating comment heard in front of Mary Cassatt’s “Portrait of a Lady.” The painting, reproduced here for reference as much as for eye candy, is one of two portraits thought to be of Mary Ellison and focuses on the subjects contemplative attitude rather than any physical and feminine beauty. The comment was made by a woman who, if she must be classified, would fall in that category of women who are intentional about defying traditional appearances of femininity. However, her remark, as much as her attire and persona, conveyed that sensibility.
“…you can see what is remarkable here is that Cassatt painted this portrait from a woman’s view…there is nothing sexual in her pose and all the normal attempts at objectification made by male painters of the era are completely absent.”
While the monologue to an obsequious male consort continued in the same vein as they moved from painting to painting, no doubt with an eye towards exposing the chauvinism in artistry that slowly dissipated as art become more modern (and egalitarian and just, at least by inference), I stood transfixed, attempting to feel the power of the apparent cultural explosion hanging in front of me. However, the more I tried, the more nettled I became with the interpretation I had overheard. The painting is a fascinating character study of its subject, and Mary Cassatt’s endeavors in the suffrage movement help explain the presence of this and so many other feminine subjects in the corpus of her paintings. Still, I thought it a bit unfair to the droves of brilliant male artists who have painted women with equally endearing and congenial sentiments to categorically impugn their motives and efforts simply because they ever dared to paint a beautiful woman wearing beautiful clothing, or nothing at all.
The dual assumptions underlying the comment—men see women as sex objects and the exploration of female sexuality is a privileged insider endeavor—are false and dangerous, though widely accepted. The first assumption, that men are pigs, makes the same mistake as that made by male chauvinists. It reduces men to their sexuality and refuses to acknowledge that a man might be interested in a woman for reasons that include, but are not limited to, her sexuality. If reducing human beings to merely sexual objects is wrong (and I believe it is), then we must not allow a reaction to male piggishness to indulge in a similar activity. The second assumption, that only women can understand femininity, can leave our conversations regarding gender in the same place post-modernism has left our conversations about anything—in complete isolation, with no hope for meaningful dialogue. One of the greatest dangers to intellectual growth is the inability to learn from others, or the Other. If knowledge of the feminine (or the masculine, for that matter) is believed to be the exclusive domain of only one gender, we can only look forward to a misunderstood co-existence at best, and strife, abuse, and ceaseless enmity at worst.
I haven’t given up on the possibility of knowledge of the Other yet, and the varied work of artists like Cassatt gives me room to indulge the belief that men and women are capable of nuanced understanding of themselves and others without reducing human beings to sex objects.