Georgia O’Keeffe & Feminism

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Linda M Grasso’s aim in Equal under the Sky: Georgia O’Keeffe & Twentieth-Century Feminism (originally published in 2017, reissued this month) is to explore Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986) in relation to two distinct phases of feminism (historically, first and second waves) in the 1910s and 1970s and the way O’Keeffe has been taken up as an iconic figure by feminists during her lifetime and since. This is a significant topic because O’Keeffe is one of the most prominent – perhaps the most prominent – female artists of the previous century; she lived through eras of feminist public activity and responded to it. The difficulty for feminists is that O’Keeffe had mixed responses to feminism and feminists – often decidedly hostile. So although O’Keeffe was a great and successful woman artist – and thus an ideal candidate as a feminist icon – her own reactions against feminism and to being classed a “woman painter” make her a problematic subject for feminists.

Grasso’s position is openly pro-feminist. The difficulty with a politically committed academic following a line of scholarship that has political ramifications is that the academic wants to advance a cause even if the evidence is ambiguous. Bearing this in mind, let us examine Grasso’s evidence, reasoning and conclusions.

“The feminism [O’Keeffe] embraced and practiced ennobled individualism, self-expressionism, and professional achievement as ultimate forms of liberty.” To the average person, this seems a positive good, yet this wilful individualism displays a distinct lack of the class solidarity which is necessary to effective feminist activism. While the ostensible goal of feminism is individual liberation, its nature demands commitment to group goals such as emotional solidarity, directed activism and conformity to shared principles. This is manifest in vehement denunciation of “choice feminism”. This is on the ostensible basis that individual choices of women – to work more or less, have children or not, adopt traditional standards of feminine dress or not and so forth – actually conceal the systematic nature of societal oppression and effectively act as a cover for the coercion of women. Thus choice feminism perpetuates the illusion that any woman is actually free to choose – or at least has equivalent freedom to that granted to men. In reality, one suspects that this ideological opposition to choice feminism is tactical. If women can opt in and out of feminism, express disagreement with feminist principles and enact independent discrimination in everyday life, feminism as a political movement – which relies on homogeneity and unity – becomes splintered.

Significantly, during the formative period of O’Keeffe’s adulthood (the 1900s and 1910s) she was in agreement with first-wave feminism which advocated for legal/electoral rights. It was this position she held throughout her life, that women should have the chance to act in whatever ways men acted and to choose what they did with such freedom. O’Keeffe was unequivocally a “choice feminist”. For today’s feminist, who views choice feminism as selfish individualism which perpetuates patriarchal structures, O’Keeffe’s views are incompatible with true feminism. (O’Keeffe’s responses to later feminism are discussed below.)

In Grasso’s very next sentence we encounter another plank of modern feminism. “Arguably, however, O’Keeffe’s art could have inspired women and men of all races, classes, politics, and statuses to imagine worlds not governed by industrial logic, stultifying labor, and multiple discriminations.” This is an example of intersectionality, the idea that we exist in multiple classes, often determined by demographic factors (such a sex, ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability and so forth) and that these categorisations intersect in ways that frame our existences in multiple co-variant manners. The idea that art by a producer of certain demographic(s) will be understood best by other members of that demographic(s) has become pervasive in leftist cultural theory. Grasso tentatively asserts that although O’Keeffe’s art may have been the result of an attempt to liberate the white heterosexual affluent woman artist, it may have performed a political function for others.

Grasso gathers evidence from the artist’s early years, when she was an indirect supporter of women’s suffrage through her friendship with active campaigners, to show that O’Keeffe later omitted this sympathy from her late-career management of her public image. Grasso may be correct to suggest O’Keeffe wanted to distance herself from the cultural expressions of artists-as-women that had become common currency in the era of second-wave feminism in the fine arts, causing her to neglect to mention activities that could be seen as affiliated to feminism (albeit of an earlier generation). Grasso’s observations seem apposite but the evidence presented is very limited. O’Keeffe was a member of the National Woman’s Party and was a sponsor of the World Center for Women’s Archives.

Alfred Stieglitz’s role in refining her ideas and promoting O’Keeffe’s art is looked at in a gendered way. O’Keeffe’s acknowledgement of the encouragement, ideas and publicity that Stieglitz’s provided her professionally is seen as a comparative dismissal of Anita Pollitzer, a friend who supported her before she met Stieglitz. An objective assessment of the relative amount and nature of the help Pollitzer and Stieglitz provided the artist must favour the latter. To cast Pollitzer’s role in O’Keefe’s career as valuable but subordinate to Stieglitz’s – as O’Keeffe did – is not unreasonable nor is it evidence of systematic privileging of man’s power over woman’s friendship. Grasso is correct in suggesting that O’Keeffe was begrudging in overlooking her friend Pollitzer in retrospective accounts. The artist blocked Pollitzer’s biography of her and used that manuscript to source material for her subsequently published autobiography.

Generally, the artist refused association with societies and events relating women’s art.  She refused permission for feminist writers to use her art and declined interviews with them. She was dismissive of the idea of women artists being distinct and claimed that her career had never been impaired sexual discrimination. Certainly, in public she wished to be known as a painter, a modern artist and an American artist but not as a woman artist. O’Keeffe’s view was that to achieve equality, her accomplishments should not be limited as “female”. She had to have her art accepted as she wished it to be: genderless and hung among the art of men. Other female artists thought the same, considering separate art to be a way of avoiding competition with the best and accepting lower standards. Of course, to many feminists O’Keeffe’s denial of her sex was a concession to earn acclaim as a desexed artist in a male-dominated field.

The book summarises the lifetime articles written about O’Keeffe, with a focus on how her gender was discussed. Special attention is paid to the attitude of female journalists. Wealthy women, including Elizabeth Arden and Abby Rockefeller, were among the artist’s collectors. The collection of fan letters written to the artist (and preserved by her) is mined to examine what women of the time found to admire in O’Keeffe and her paintings. In old age, she was a national celebrity and an icon of a liberated woman.

Although much of the information is useful, and discussions about O’Keeffe’s actions are plausible, these rest on a foundation of contentious assumptions. The idea that society is a system of mechanisms developed to suppress opponent groups (rather than a complex evolving structure of traditions, systems, values and hierarchies that favours people with different qualities in varying ways that alter over time) seems to be a goal-orientated assessment directed by political allegiance.

These assumptions can be seen in instances of over-interpretation.

In 1970 the Whitney Museum of American Art did not practise “exclusion of white and black women artists in their annual exhibition”. Declining art submitted to an open-exhibition jury is not exclusion. When feminists targeted the museum by “conducting sit-ins, demonstrating outside the building holding placards and blowing whistles, and utilizing theatrical tactics such as planting uncooked eggs and sanitary napkins inside galleries,” is it any wonder that O’Keeffe wished to disassociate herself from such a movement? An artist who had conquered the art world through tenacity and talent and who had never benefited from – or had need of – quotas had nothing in common with these activists.

Grasso concludes that O’Keeffe systematically stripped her autobiography of all traces of feminist example and enablement in order to present her achievements as being personal ones. Grasso’s position echoes the slogan “You didn’t build this”. She suggests that O’Keeffe’s work could only have come about following the advances in education, emancipation and empowerment achieved by pioneering feminist and proto-feminist activists generally, as well as the help certain specific associates of the artist (including critics, journalists, teachers and artists) whom Grasso classes as feminists. Well, so be it. Should O’Keeffe have acknowledged the scientists, engineers, doctors, politicians, soldiers and educators who made her country safe, prosperous and free? Grasso’s criticism is – most pertinently – implied criticism of choice feminism and a deprecation of O’Keeffe’s apparent lack of gender solidarity.

Grasso concludes that O’Keeffe’s life, art and example enacted a form of feminist practice. In aspiring for equality, even though she eschewed identification as a woman artist, O’Keeffe was a feminist in Grasso’s view. However, the artist’s distancing of herself from her gender, makes her “incomplete” for many feminists. With all its ideological limitations, even neutral readers will find Equal Under the Sky a thought-provoking book full of useful research and new perspectives.

 

Linda M. Grasso, Equal under the Sky: Georgia O’Keeffe & Twentieth-Century Feminism, University of New Mexico Press, 2019, hardback, 336pp, mono illus., $65, ISBN 978 0 8263 5881 3 (other editions available)

 

© 2019 Alexander Adams

To view my art and books visit: www.alexanderadams.art

 

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