In her most recent novel The Blazing World (2014), Siri Hustvedt raises the problem of sex biases in the art world. One of the central premises of the book is that works of art executed by women are rated significantly lower than the same piece by a man. “Does art really have a gender identity”, asks Hustvedt in ‘The ‘F’ Word’ and what role do expectations and unconscious stereotypes play in the formation of our perception, especially the perception of art? To answer these questions, I look more closely at Hustvedt’s idea of masking and how it reveals these pervasive societal stereotypes. I will also juxtapose the female protagonist of the novel, Harriet Burden, also known as Harry, with the three male artists she uses as fronts for her series of installations. This will show that playing with perception can disclose a lot about its nature.
Female artists are still underrepresented in museums and their works are much lower in price than their male counterparts.
[Image by Franco Folini under a CC BY licence]
It is important to mention “unconscious ideology […] a set of beliefs that we accept implicitly but of which we are not aware because we cannot even conceive of alternative conceptions of the world” (Top, 76). Women have been inculcated with the idea of their own inferiority and men with their superiority. Associations and “pictures in our head” (Top, 78) go together with this “unconscious ideology.” Men are associated with strength, intelligence, and technology and women, with passion, emotionality, and passivity (see Beyer). The major reasons for these associations and “pictures” are parental behavior, pervasive societal stereotypes and media influences. Furthermore, most books on history, including art history, are written by white males who often misrepresent the figure of the artist and, therefore, distort the idea of a woman artist (see Nochlin and Chadwick). The twentieth and twenty-first centuries reflect a change in the cultural imagination, but female artists are still underrepresented in museums and their works are much lower in price than their male counterparts.
Women have often been accused “of snobbery and irrational and unpleasant emotionality” (Sheriffs and McKee in Goldberg, 28). This is exactly how Harriet Burden is perceived by the art world; critics do not take her and her installations seriously. A large and menacing-looking woman in her sixties, overwhelmed with her ambition and desire to be recognized, Harriet decides to conduct an experiment and present her art under three different male masks. “I wanted to see how the reception of my art changed, depending on the persona of each mask,” writes Harry (252). The concept of masking is central to the novel and understanding of Hustvedt’s philosophy of intersubjectivity. Masking is an ambivalent idea: it can both disguise and serve as a means of revelation. By hiding Burden’s identity under someone else’s, Hustvedt demonstrates how easily human perception can be manipulated. At the same time, a mask can be considered a meeting-point where two identities merge. This understanding of masking is close to Bakhtin’s dialogical principle and Hegel’s concept of self-consciousness. The Self must look at the Other and find the reflection of one’s own Self – only thus one can find one’s true Self, one’s own consciousness. Harry’s masks, thus, reveal different aspects of her personality to the reader as well as to herself. They help the character to explore her own identity. “Each artist mask [becomes] for Burden a ‘poetized personality,’ a visual elaboration of a ‘hermaphroditic self,’ which cannot be said to belong to either her or to the mask, but to ‘a mingled reality created between them’” (2). This is why the character of Harry’s art changes depending on the artist she is “hiding” behind.
Anton Tish is Harry’s first choice, her “green mask,” as she says herself (200). Green is the color of youth, spring, and inexperience. Tish is a young artist, so “stupendously, heartbreakingly ignorant” that he has never even heard of Giorgione (38). For Burden, Tish is like a blank page – tabula rasa – so she lectures him about art and attributes her own ideas to the young inexperienced artist. No wonder that the installation Harry makes for him is called The History of Western Art. It is a “gigantic sculpture of a woman. [A] three dimensional allusion to Giorgione’s painting of Venus” (41). The irony is obvious: A boy who does not know Giorgione’s work makes an allusion to him in his art. As a result, he is proclaimed “a prodigy”, “a buff little boy-genius”, “the American Dream” (43/41). He is being photographed for magazines and invited to parties. He starts to believe that he deserves all this attention and money and completely forgets that he has not actually made the installation. He comes drunk to Harriet in the middle of the night and says that without him her art would not have meant anything to anyone and that he has lost his “purity” because of her (108). The experiment turns out to be truly the Pygmalion myth come alive: “Anton [is] Harry’s creation,” as Rachel Brickman, a psychiatrist and Harry’s best friend, characterizes their relationship (106). He is Harry’s mirror, too. The “stories,” a part of the installation, with the character of a boyish girl, disproportionally large for the rooms, are obviously a projection of Harriet’s feelings as a child. The problem is that Burden forgets that her pretty boy is “made of bone and muscle and tissue from the start” and that he is not just a mirror (106). The experiment with Tish, hence, touches upon moral questions and shows to Harry that a human being is not an empty vessel and cannot be so easily used as a mask. At the same time it demonstrates how easily perception can be deceived. It requires merely a pretty young white male face to win the recognition of critics and the general public. The experiment does not shed much light on Burden’s art, whether it is great and she has not been taken seriously or whether the piece does not matter, for what matters is the artist. Harriet tries again.
The mask serves as a means of revelation and fusion of two identities, of the Self and the Other.
[Image by Victoria Landon used under a CC BY NC licence]
This time her mask is biracial and homosexual, “a member of not one but two minorities” (122). Phineas Q. Eldridge having a black mother and a white father who are separated is, like Harry, despite all his efforts, a disappointment to his father. “I just felt he would have liked a different kind of boy,” writes Eldridge, echoing Burden’s “I did wonder about other paths, the alternative existences […] a Harry who had been born a boy, a real Harry, not a Harriet. I would have made a strapping young man with my height and wild hair” (30). Phineas summarizes the exhibition she makes for him, The Suffocation Rooms, as “the story about her father” (121). At the opening of Burden’s first show in New York, her father kept silent and before leaving said, “It doesn’t resemble much else that’s out there, does it?” (121). Like Eldridge’s father, Harry’s could not understand and support his child. Burden’s identification with him is natural and honest. The mask, once again, serves as a means of revelation and fusion of two identities, of the Self and the Other. The exhibition itself comprises a number of rooms, smaller than usual, so that the viewer has to shrink to enter them. Each door leads into a new room which is warmer than the one before. Everything inside the rooms gets larger as the rooms get hotter and shabbier. The installation reflects the idea of being suppressed, suffocated. Based on Burden’s experience with her father and husband, hidden behind Eldridge, the show reflects the experience of all female artists who have never had a chance to be heard and who have been suppressed by dominating white males. The exhibition is in the Spring after the September 11 attacks and, inevitably, provokes a certain reading. It is not a success, and it is nothing like the previous one. No one notices the inscriptions on the walls saying “Phineas Q. Eldridge is really Harriet Burden,” which Harry calls “inattentional blindness” (129). No one pays attention. As Chadwick points out, “seeing is qualified by greed, desire, and expectation” (22). People see what they want to see and do not notice the things they have no need for. The experiment demonstrates human perception to be reflective of culture and existing stereotypes and biases connected not just with gender, but also with race and sexual orientation. Phineas – black, gay, and poor – has even fewer chances to succeed as an artist than white, rich Harriet. The experiment proves perception to be creative and interpretative. Pieces finished before but shown after 9/11 are seen as a reference to the event. Historical context can influence the perception of art and detach interpretation from the initial idea and intention of the author.
Harry’s third mask reveals how detached the artist’s intentions can stand from perception of the piece. For the last mask Burden chooses an already-famous artist, Rune, who is a direct opposite of Harriet. However, opposites, as it is known, attract. Burden calls this “the pull of the other” (238), a term which summarizes both the whole idea of masking and the relationship between the Self and the Other. Young, charismatic, but robotic and cold, Rune brings out Harry’s anger, vitality, and the desire to be heard. When juxtaposing these two characters, it is important to mention Richard Brickman, Harry’s alter ego revealed in their role-playing. Rune “pulls” her masculine side, which is ready to take risks. Burden and Rune have a lot in common: the obsession with games and role-playing and interest in human perception. Rune is fascinated with people’s reactions, but in a different way. He is searching for the ways to shock people so he can enjoy their emotional response. Rune is cruel and Harry feels vulnerable with him: he reminds her of her father. Little by little, she starts feeling that it is actually Rune who found her and not the other way round, but nevertheless she takes risks, making this “Faustian bargain” (288). The price Burden pays for her show’s tremendous success when borrowing Rune’s name is the piece itself, Beneath. It is a gigantic claustrophobic maze with windows and peephole films. Critics, like Oswald Case, refuse even to believe the two have been collaborators. The show is interpreted in the context of previous art executed by Rune: In Harriet’s “private dance of grief” they see “robotic movements […] in line with his earlier work” which has been “about bodies, technology, and simulation” (164/178). This demonstrates how human perception is connected with past perceptions and memories. Harry’s idea of the maze has nothing to do with robotics and technology, but when she tells that to the critic, he laughs at her and says that it is “obvious to everyone” (178). By choosing Rune as her third and last mask she places her art into a different environment which leads to the discrepancy between the artist’s idea and public’s interpretation. Perception is not a passive process and a viewer is not a passive observer. The experiment says a lot about Burden’s potential as an artist, her extreme intelligence and talent. It allows certain conclusions about the New York art scene as represented by Hustvedt. Burden remains unrecognized in this market-oriented world, open mostly to charismatic, male artists.
The first step towards gender neutral art is to raise awareness of underlying un/conscious stereotypes.
[Image by Kristin Ausk under a CC BY licence]
In The Blazing World, art which “lives in perception only” (219) does have a gender identity and, unfortunately, the stereotype of a talented artist being white and male is still pervasive. Our perception, especially the perception of art, is to a strong degree informed by this unconscious stereotype which results in women being underrepresented in museums and underrated as artists. First, Burden’s project reveals human perception as shaped through expectations and associations. Secondly, a young artist, like Tish, is more likely to succeed than a woman in her sixties; perception is reflective of culture, where masculinity and femininity are driven apart and where stereotypes connected with gender and race can determine the rating of art pieces. Thirdly, based on the example of the Rune mask, perception can be said to be closely related to previous perceptions and memories. So, the context is crucial to the interpretation of art. Fourthly, perception is a creative process. The viewer remains active projecting his/her own impressions, feelings, associations, background, and knowledge onto the work of art. The masks Burden uses for her project prove perception to be easily manipulated and the idea of masking as both means of disguise and revelation serves as a point where two identities meet and merge. The intermingling of Self and Other contributes to interconnection between people and helps Harriet to find her true self and open up new aspects of her personality. In the pieces she makes for Tish, Eldridge, and Rune, masculinity and femininity are societal categories present in every person. That is why anti-female biases have to be eliminated and art should cease to bear a gender identity. The first step towards that would be to raise people’s awareness of their conscious and unconscious stereotypes and biases, to eliminate them from our culture and society so art, being reflective of culture, becomes free of gender tags as well.
CITATION: Diana Wagner, “Siri Hustvedt’s The Blazing World: Does Art Have a Gender Identity?,” Alluvium, Vol. 4, No. 6 (2016): n. pag. Web. 5 January 2016, http://dx.doi.org/10.7766/alluvium.v4.6.01
Diana Wagner is currently writing her PhD thesis on Siri Hustvedt at the Philipps University of Marburg, Germany. Her field of interests includes the relationship between fiction and the visual arts, intermediality, questions of perception, vision, and gender, transdisciplinary approaches to literature.
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