Art & Its Time: Theories and Practices of Modern Aesthetics

By Paul Mattick | Go to book overview

4

BEAUTIFUL AND SUBLIME

Ancient writers described artworks in gender terms: Vitruvius called the Doric order appropriate to honor the "virile strength" of male gods and assigned the ornamented Corinthian to female deities. But such terminology acquired a new, systematic character with the beginning of aesthetics as philosophy of art in the eighteenth century. Texts of this period, for example, categorize forms of painting as "virile" or "effeminate," and celebrate poetry as a peculiarly masculine art. What-and how much-is to be made of such expressions? Does the metaphorical application of gender stereotypes to the domain of art simply reflect the mentalité of a sexist society? To look at it this way is to ignore the complexity of metaphor, the extension of a system of concepts from one kind of object to another. Metaphor changes not only the way we think about the new range of objects a concept is applied to, but the meanings of the concept itself.

Anthropologist Judith Shapiro has observed that the qualities a society-such as our own-may think of as distinguishing women and men

belong to a web of metaphors that have, in fact, to do with many things other than gender per se. The opposition between male and female serves as a source of symbolism for a diversity of cultural domains; at the same time, gender differences themselves are defined through categories of the economy, the polity-in brief, of the wider social universe in which they are located. 1

This social universe includes the arts. Ideas about gender, I will argue, beyond providing a conceptual system for describing artworks, have been deeply involved with the very idea of the fine arts; while in the process by which this system was developed in the eighteenth century, the arts provided a sphere for the modern conceptualization of gender.

1 Judith Shapiro, "Gender totemism," in Richard R. Randolph, David M. Schneider, and May N. Diaz (eds), Dialectics and Gender: Anthropological Approaches (Boulder and London: Westview Press, 1988), p. 2.

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