Making the feminist case in art
When Texas Tech University professor Dennis Fehr’s eldest daughters (twins) Shannon and Shenoa, were born, a black woman running for President was considered a joke by many people.
Thirty-five years later a black man is President of the United States, a female almost became President, and Mr Fehr’s youngest daughter, Lauren, 18, and about to go to medical school on a full scholarship, rolls her eyes when he talks about gender inequality.
How things have changed and not changed since the 1970s when Dr Fehr first started teaching. He recently gave a talk as part of the Bermuda National (BNG) Partner Re Lecture series at the Bermuda National (BNG) called ‘Womens Indentities in Post Modern Visual Culture’. He is the author of ‘Dogs playing Cards: Powerbrokers of Prejudice in Education, Art and Culture (2004)’ and is an associate professor in art education and media studies. In 2000 he was named United States Western Region Art Educator. He is also an artist in his own right, often using his art to draw attention to gender issues and imbalances.
“My area of expertise is in how women are depicted in the media, including the fine arts,” said Dr Fehr. “We look at media images, at things like how women are portrayed in constantly submissive or disempowering kinds of situations which happens all the time in the media. I have compiled a large image library. I talk to people about those kinds of things.”
He said many times people are very startled or say they never noticed the things he points out. They say they never questioned why women are still pictured holding a vacuum cleaner and household cleanser with a huge smile on their face, when in reality few women grin from ear to ear while cleaning a toilet bowl. “Men and women say they haven’t noticed how, for example, in lots of advertisements that feature a man and a woman, the man is more likely to be closer and larger and occupies a larger percentage of the picture space,” he said.
“That is very common. Very typically, the male is shown in a way that implies leadership rather than the two being equals together. Typically, the male is shown in a leadership role, and the women is shown in a submissive role. And very often the woman in her submissive role will be shown with a happy smile on her face. The advertisement implies ‘This is good, I like being in a submissive position.’ That is very common. I point that out to people. Most of the time they say they have seen those kinds of things a million times and never analysed the power imbalance.”
Dr Fehr admitted it was a little unusual for a man to be so passionate about women’s issues. He said he has spent a lot of time thinking about that question of why he is interested in the topic. He has concluded that it was probably partly because he came from a very strongly male dominated family.
“I was not the jock type guy in school,” he said. “I wasn’t good at sports. I was good academically and had a hard time fitting into the guy role that other guys admired. I did better with the girls in school. That might have been part of it. Then I had three daughters, before I had a son, Austin (age 15). I also have two stepdaughters, Amanda and Katie. I think that attuned me to these issues, because as a father I wanted my daughters to be strong women.”
He said when his twin daughters were little they went through the princess stage just like many other little girls. He didn’t fight it.
“The Barbies and stuff meant so much to them,” he said. “I let them have Barbies and things, but we also talked. There was never anything for them to push against coming from me, but there was plenty of talking coming along and asking of questions. I made it a big deal to myself that I talked them through these issues. They ended up embracing them and they both have great feminist consciousness and are politically active. My third daughter is just a force of nature. Nobody is ever going to mess with her. She is going to study medicine and just won a full scholarship.”
Unfortunately, his talks about feminism don’t go over very well in Texas, which is still very conservative. He is asked to speak all over the United States and all over the world, but not so much in Texas. “In my teaching at the Undergraduate level I do get the 20-year-old mostly female Texas gals who either are shocked by what I say or are angered by it,” he said. “There is a lot of anger when I start talking the feminist line. I never use the word ‘feminist’. It is toxic to them. But when I make the feminist case there is a tremendous amount of anger. I am one of those ‘liberal Yankees’.”
He finds many young women, today, resistant to seeing how they are diminished in portrayals in art and media.
“They think that it should be that way because God said so,” he said. “I get a lot of that. Or just skip the religion part, ‘this is how I like it. I like having to depend on my sexuality for power’. That is a very self destructive attitude. We see the backlash as the hypersexualising of women on the Internet and in video games and graphic novels, and in a lot of the youth culture.”
He said he would like to reach out to young men in his son’s generation, the ones who don’t attend his lectures. He would like to work in schools to raise teachers’ consciousness about gender issues. After his lecture in Bermuda at the BNG, he was approached by someone in Bermuda’s education system about returning to Bermuda to talk with local teachers. It is a prospect he eagerly embraces.
Part of his aim is to bring female artists into the spotlight and given them credit they are often denied. He often starts out his talks around the world by asking the audience to name the world’s top ten artists. Inevitably, he gets back Picasso, Rembrandt, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and so on all male, European and white. Sometimes he gets the answers back through a translator, but no matter where he is in the world, the answers are the same.
In defiance of that, he spoke to a group at the BNG for an hour about the history of modern art without naming a single male artist. The audience was blown away. He talked about artists such as German expressionist Suzanne Valadon, cubist Liubov Popova, surrealist Leonora Carrington, high modernist Elaine de Kooning, photorealist Audrey Flack, Installation artists Sandy Skoglund and Jenny Holzer, and Postmodernists Hung Liu and Hou Shu-tzi. If you are like most people you are going to have to google at least some of those names. He also included local artists such as Sharon Wilson and Katherine Harriott in his talk.
“At the BNG I talked about the modernist century from the French impressionist in the 1860s to the minimalists and conceptualists in the 1960s. I told the entire history of that using only women artists.”
He said he went through every single ‘ism’ cubism, post impressionism, for example, and talked about the female artists involved. Although he had a savvy art crowd listening, it was still mostly all new to them. “One women came up to me and said she had never heard of a single one of those artists,” he said.
He partly blamed the way that art is taught in highschools and colleges, where students the world over are taught to revere white, male European artists, and erroneously taught that women have played a minor to nonexistent role in the history of art. “The whole point was to prove that women were in the game right there with the men,” said Dr Fehr. “They had just been erased from the history of modernism because they were women, and for no other reason.”
In his talk he included Bermudian artists Sharon Wilson and Kathy Harriott, whom he praised highly. He said he was disappointed to find that the number of serious artists in Bermuda is very small.
“Most of the art being made on this Island is very touristy,” he said. “A lot of it tends to have technical skill but really no depth, or anything to make you stop and contemplate your preconceptions. Those are the kinds of things that great art does. That is to be expected in an island that relies on tourism. I have seen it in Jamaica, Key West, Grand Caymans and Cozumel. The whole Caribbean is all about touristy art which I loathe.
“I did find Kathy Harriott and she is just a treasure. I also think Ed Smith is a very strong artist. I was also put on to Sharon Wilson whose art I love. I think she would perhaps deny it is political, but it is highly political in a quiet way. She portrays men and women equally, boys and girls equally and gives all of her figures dignity and sort of a softness. Because she doesn’t directly address feminist issues, she addresses everyone equally, she is making her own feminist statement. When you present everyone in an equal way, that is a political act.”