Gender Law + Women in 21st Century Art History

My Bed by Tracey Emin
My Bed
by Tracey Emin. Image via Wikipedia

I recently started working for the Alameda County Public Defender's Office, and it rules. The people are down-to-earth, the work is intellectually stimulating, and it's a diverse work environment--all of these qualities bear much value to me in other areas of life, including Art History. The last thing I want is to ignore underrepresented social groups or to encourage exclusivity to anyone that wants to voice their issues. Where do Art History and Law "meet"?

While I admire artists--many of them women who have enhanced Art History through the advancements presented in the 21st century understanding of art's contribution to society--I often wonder how easy it is to slip into a coded language that does not allow the public to "see" themselves. It's a problem that emerges in legal matters as well; legal practice is conditional upon the need to defend individuals/groups who do not have the resources or historical support that others do. In this way, it is always a two-sided process. Similarly, Art History provides viewers with an opportunity to adopt (or reject) a "case" for a subject.

I thought about this, and immediately considered the linguistic intersection that I became familiar with a few years back; it was a definition that brought the cultural enforcement of gender to my attention, in a way that I had not ever considered--gender law profoundly changed how I perceived life and art in general. In addition, the legal community has not overlooked the necessity for specific attention to inequalites that are created as a result of gender difference and stereotyping.

How do artists contend with this issue? Dina Felluga put it best when she related the social construct of gender to an established construction, which renders it unnatural:
Gender, according to Butler, is by no means tied to material bodily facts but is solely and completely a social construction, a fiction, one that, therefore, is open to change and contestation...Gender is, thus, a construction that regularly conceals its genesis" ("Performative" 273). That genesis is not corporeal but performative (see next module), so that the body becomes its gender only "through a series of acts which are renewed, revised, and consolidated through time" ("Performative" 274). By illustrating the artificial, conventional, and historical nature of gender construction, Butler attempts to critique the assumptions of normative heterosexuality: those punitive rules (social, familial, and legal) that force us to conform to hegemonic, heterosexual standards for identity.
Awhile back, I wrote about Tracey Emin's work, and her role as an artist whom challenges gendered understandings of everyday actions. I recently came across another article (via Art in America) that directly addressed how she examined gender through its art historical tropes. The article briefly noted a genre, Minimalism, which tends to be observed as "empty" in comparison to more readily obvious content that reads as masculine or feminine iconography. Ossian Ward noted that:
co-opted an industrial, masculine material generally associated with Minimal and Conceptual practitioners in America. Those neons hardly convey anything as specific as the bleeding-heart narrative of an oversexed, half-British, half-Turkish-Cypriot female artist from a small seaside town in southern England.
I don't know what to think about that last sentence. If you ever read Anna Chave's illuminating discussion, titled "Minimalism and the Rhetoric of Power," about the hypermasculine subtexts of Minimalist art, it's clear that there's a gendered reading happening in that analysis. Gender (art) law strikes again!

What do you think about this analysis? Emin herself is not averse to discussing her art in terms of sex but that is quite different from discussing her work in terms of gender. Would you say that she represents herself well as a female artist? Should she be considering gendered language? As you can see, she's a favorite of mine, and I think that she incites reactions that expose the complexity of Art History's fairly repressed depiction of women, gender, and sex. Please leave your thoughts below!