- Aesthetics in Feminist Perspective
Has feminism been hijacked by one lock-step agenda, suppressing all dialogue and debate? Far from it, judging from this collection of seventeen essays on feminist aesthetics. The first such collection in English, it includes eleven essays previously published in Hypatia (1990).
This well-organized volume offers both broad theoretical considerations and applications to specific art forms, diverse methodological perspectives, and healthy debate among the contributors. The section on “The Nature of Art: Some Feminist Alternatives” considers feminist perspectives as alternatives to traditional concepts of art, motivated by considerations of the art of women. Skepticism abounds in the section on “Interpretation and Point of View” concerning a “universal” or “paradigmatic” female voice in literature, film, and visual art. “Philosophical and Critical Legacies” reveals diverse feminist readings of Kant, Nietzsche, Cartesian metaphysics, and postmodernism.
Co-editor Hilde Hein proposes that aesthetics provides a promising road map for feminist philosophy and indeed philosophy generally. Aesthetics has learned to reject foundationalism and essentialism in favor of pluralism, a necessity in the face of the astonishing diversity and ever-changing landscape in contemporary art. This theoretical transition in aesthetics shows how philosophy could fruitfully shed the false security of essentialism to embrace the sometimes raucous pluralism of methods, races, cultures, and genders assaulting all humanities disciplines in recent decades. As co-editor Carolyn Korsmeyer notes, feminist scholarship challenges “the mask of universality and gender-neutrality” (p. vii). [End Page 178]
The myth that feminist scholarship is merely thinly veiled political action, devoid of intellectual integrity, is shattered by this collection. Well-represented is the diversity of analytic and European methodologies that enrich contemporary philosophical dialogue. Many of the articles scrutinize the nature of “feminism” itself, as well as appropriate methodologies and questions. The interdisciplinarity of feminist research also is in welcome evidence, with seven essays by scholars from English, African-American studies, music, and psychology.
Should feminist art and aesthetics be “nondominative”? Should it “endorse” female experience? Do proposals for “ideal” feminist artistic expression inadvertently retreat to the essentialism and uniformity that feminists have sought to dispel? Should feminists reject the tradition of “formalism” in favor of an approach that re-integrates art with the community and the concerns of daily life? This perspective is widespread today in postmodern thought, but feminist considerations bolster the case made elsewhere for the fall of the so-called elite object.
Are there distinctive features that mark the work of female artists, such as group participation, rather than performances for passive audiences? This feature is pervasive in contemporary art, from the happenings of Andy Warhol in the 1960s to the “Messiah” sing-alongs popular for decades. Is feminist art marked by a melding of aesthetic and erotic elements? Surely that is also a trait of the art of most cultures, by men as well as women.
These explorations reveal a paradox in today’s feminism. In highlighting female traits (such as the virtues of being caring and nondominating), are women being celebrated, liberated, and freed? Or are they frozen into roles which not all women consider their most important attributes as persons?
Female artists and theorists deserve enormous credit for encouraging a re-thinking of the ways in which art is created and understood, but many other forces drive these developments as well. Indeed, some of the harshest critics of analytic philosophy are analytic philosophers steeped in that tradition, both male and female. It seems a pointless chicken-and-egg exercise to wonder if feminists caused this re-thinking or were one of several groups in a happy confluence of re-examination from various perspectives. Fortunately, the issue need not be resolved for scholars and students to appreciate this outstanding volume.