Gender and American History since 1890

By Barbara Melosh | Go to book overview

6

ART, THE “NEW WOMAN,” AND CONSUMER CULTURE

Kenneth Hayes Miller and Reginald Marsh on Fourteenth Street, 1920-40

Ellen Wiley Todd

Ellen Todd uses art to reveal the shifting discourse of womanhood in the 1920s and 1930s. Examining the paintings of two urban realists, Kenneth Hayes Miller and Reginald Marsh, Todd finds a typology of female figures that both echo and remake contemporary images of womanhood. Like Christina Simmons, Todd uses these cultural representations to uncover contemporary debate about the sexual revolution and its revisions of gender. Moreover, Miller’s and Marsh’s paintings provocatively suggest the intertwining of the debates about the sexual revolution, the New Woman, and consumer culture. Miller’s matronly shopper suggests resistance to the feminist claims of his time; his female figures have a certain look of modernity, but they participate in public life solely through the contained and limited role of shopping. Marsh’s sirens embody a bolder version of modern womanhood and, at times, suggest a critical stance: Marsh comments on the manipulation of the erotic in advertising and film, and the shifting terms of sexual exchange and negotiation.

Feminist art historians have contributed to the emerging history of gender by arguing that visual images play an important part in reproducing and revising cultural constructions of manhood and womanhood. They interpret paintings not simply as objects of aesthetic value and demonstrations of artistic skill, but as cultural texts that rely on prevailing ideas of gender. This method of interpretation recognizes the special character and conventions of art works, but it also emphasizes that paintings - like books, movies, comic books, or advertisements - are produced and viewed within a larger culture. Skeptical of a view that romanticizes the artist as individual genius, these critics take up theassumptions of a social history of art, depicting artists as historical actors who are shaped by their society even as they influence it. Todd and other revisionist art historians, then, interpret the traditional sources of art history - “fine arts” painting and sculpture - within a larger visual and cultural landscape. She discusses Miller’s and Marsh’s work as part of a tradition of art history, finding sources of their imagery in Renaissance painting. She also sees these painters, however, as observers of the contemporary scene and compares their imagery to the representations of women in advertising, movie posters, and journalism.

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