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Meridians: feminism, race, transnationalism 6.2 (2006) 1-21

Sideline Insurgencies and Gendered Art
Obioma Nnaemeka

Fiction has never been entertainment for me; it has been the work I have done for most of my adult life. I believe that one of the principal ways in which we acquire, hold, and digest information is via narrative.

——Toni Morrison 1993

Every genius born a woman is lost to humanity.

——Stendhal, qtd. in de Beauvoir 1987, 18

From the time I felt ostracized, I became more exacting. I analyzed and criticized almost all that had previously satisfied me.

——Claire de Duras 1994, 17

Political art tends to be socially concerned and "activist" art tends to be socially involved.

——Lucy R. Lippard 1984, 349

In a lecture titled "Women and Creativity" delivered at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign on March 12, 1998, Nawal el Saadawi argued for the universality of creativity: "All of us, whether we are men or women, whether we are poor or rich, young people from the peasant class or from the upper class, whether the governing class or the governed, we are all creative, but then what happens to us is that many obstacles interfere with our creativity. So, we are creative by nature, just because we are human beings. Even animals are creative. Animals, when faced with disaster, are creative to save their lives. So, creativity is universal; it is related to anything that has [End Page 1] life."1 In the decades-old debates about women and creativity, the universality of creativity does not seem to be in dispute. Rather, questions have been raised about genius, the creative process, stature and merit of artistic productions, the social and cultural realities of the producers of art, and the material conditions under which art is produced.

Countering the argument that the paucity and so-called inferiority of women's artistic productions are attributable to women's innate inferiority and lack of natural talent, Virginia Woolf in A Room of One's Own locates the explanation in women's social and cultural circumstances, arguing in effect that the landscape of the literary world would have been different if Shakespeare had been born female. Decades later, Simone de Beauvoir in The Second Sex made a similar argument in the case of Van Gogh. But the gender inequities persist even today, provoking more debates and yielding new interpretations and meanings. In a lecture delivered in Indianapolis on March 4, 2006, Peg Brand notes:

In 1990, while 53 percent of art degrees went to women, 73 percent of art grants and fellowships went to men; and yet, before you suggest that there's a qualitative difference, consider this: Eighty-four percent of invited exhibitions—where gender is known—went to males while exhibitions juried for quality—gender unknown—included only 46 percent men. . . . In 2005, of the 861 works of art offered for auction by Christie's and Sotheby's, 13 percent were by female artists. Of the 61 pieces assigned an estimated price of $1 million or more, only six (less than 10 percent) were by women.

(Thibodeaux 2006)

Brand attributes the inequities to money: "'It all boils down to money. Who's buying?' Brand asserts that men are buying—and when women buy, it's most often with their husbands. When men choose male artists, the value of their art goes up, and on it goes, up the economic food chain—ultimately, for those lucky few, landing them in museum collections, of which women artists are still a dismal minority" (Thibodeaux 2006).

The questions of genius, aesthetics, stature, and quality in artistic productions and the different explanations advanced for gender inequities are certainly pertinent. But equally important are the function and social utility of artistic productions. In other words, the complexity of the issue demands equal attention to art for art's sake and art as an engagement—engagement [End Page 2] in the Sartrean sense of the word. To fully account for women's artistic productions (process and product) in this regard, it...


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