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August 25, 2004

Gals and Art

Dear Vanessa

For fear of feminist wrath, I've never before ventured these thoughts in public, so they may be a lot less bulletproof than are many of the observations I venture here. (Oddball though my p-o-v may often appear, I generally take my ideas out for many spins before I set them before a rowdy crowd.) Still, I'm curious to hear what you think.

I've always thought that the female contribution to culture was 'way undervalued. Even if women often don't have the same drive men do to build monuments to themselves and their egos, they still often provide goals, purposes, desirability and more. They keep the whole project of culture focused on human needs and desires. It's been argued by many, for instance, that the awfulness of so much modernist architecture and urbanism can be attributed to the unalloyed maleness of it -- it's all engineering, math, and abstractions, "machines for living."

It's often women who take responsibility for insistence on the "livable" thing. At its worst, this insistence is all about pleasing them specifically, and can be a pain; god knows that the princessy, self-centered, please-me woman is someone we know all too well. But generally, the culture benefits. Without the keep-it-real energy women bring to bear, male tinkering and competition would run shapelessly riot and would lead to nothing of value, unless your idea of a worthwhile life is the Wild West.

Which reminds me of a day I spent at Microsoft long ago. The place was swarming with brilliant geeks, but what became clear to me in minutes was that these were people with no feeling for what a normal person might want from software. They had no "audience sense" -- that's how we'd put it in the arts, anyway -- and no instinct for what's pleasing and what's not. They were smart and aggressive-enough businessguys to know that qualities like "pleasing" and "usable" are important to customers, so they studied people -- but it was a comical spectacle, like watching Martians try to puzzle out humans. And isn't that autistic-ish quality part of what drives many people nuts about Microsoft's software? Ie., that feeling that it was made by instinct-less committees of robots?

It seems to me that what people find pleasing about Apple's work is less a matter of specific solutions or ideas than a general sense that Apple really does know, on a gut level, what people want, like, and find enjoyable. You connect with their work on a human and instinctual level. On an instinctive level, what Microsoft software feels like is frantic cluelessness and aggression; it leaves you feeling muscled-around.

Now, given that (in terms of usability and attractiveness, anyway) Microsoft has always been chasing Apple, that means that Apple (much more "feminine," much more look-and-feel) is much more the innovator here than Microsoft (geeky-males-galore) is, doesn't it? So doesn't that mean that the "feminine" side of things can drive innovation? It may be that an important part of being a guy is the way we tend to love messing around with what's under the hood. But part of being a guy is also learning how to please your woman, and learning how to take a deeper pleasure in pleasing her than in pleasing yourself, sexual implications intended.

Forgive the Microsoft-vs-Apple digression -- couldn't resist. But, in addition to providing look-and-feel guidance, isn't there far, far more that women do where art is concerned? I'm no feminist except in the most general "fair's fair" way. But it seems apparent to me that we dudes are prone to conceptualizing the arts in our own terms, and then (surprise) announcing that, hey, we do these things better than girls do! Quel surprise.

An example: as many have written, although women do most of the cooking in the world, most top professional chefs are male. But note the "professional chefs" move. Why are we specifying "professional chefs"? What happens if we ask instead, "Who are the tiptop home cooks?" In my experience, eight out of the ten best home cooks I know are female. (The other two are gay guys.)

Of course the top professional cooks are going to be male. Being a pro cook is a physically tough occupation that in most case requires brawn, aggression, and endurance. I've known expert women cooks who tried out the pro-chef world and who found that they couldn't keep up with the physical demands, or who wanted to be able to have a personal life as well as have the fun of cooking. So they dropped out of the field, in some cases to start catering businesses (many of which are run by sensational woman cooks, by the way), in some cases just to enjoy food in their own way. But they remained terrific cooks. By limiting the field to professional chefs, we're almost necessarily handing the winner's trophy to a guy. But the fault isn't with women cooks -- there's nothing wrong with the best women cooks. (Go ahead: eat their food and then tell me there's something wrong with it.) It's with how we've defined the game.

Another example: how about "keeping a home"? I'd guess that women not only generally far out-do guys in this category, I'd guess that the very tiptop experts are women too. Or how about "throwing parties"? I've known a few guys who do it well -- but I've known many, many more women who are good party-throwers.

OK, dudes: how about "making you feel better"? Hanging with the guys can sometimes be a help. Good friends are good friends, and sometimes what you really need is a few hours with a bud. But we all know that there's nothing quite like getting sympathy, insight, and a little lovin' from a gal. So why don't we hand them that trophy too?

Given that these describe a few fields where women routinely excel, I think our language needs to be tweaked. It's clear that guys are far more prone than women to go ludicrously far out on limbs; boys just seem to enjoy extreme, if not outright dumbass, behaviors a lot more than women do. Though, come to think of it, how then to account for women's emotional daring? Actresses and gal singers are generally far more emotive and expressive than guy performers are.

But does "extremism" automatically equal "excelling"? Maybe in certain fields, but maybe not in others. For one thing, there are a lot of fields where extremism is idiotic -- homemaking is one -- and where a tendency to push to extremes almost guarantees a failure to excel.

Anyhoo, I think we guys would do well to be careful about how we define fields; I think we'd do well to remember that we have a tendency to do so in our own terms. A lot of gals do a lot of things a lot better than any guy ever will. What women excel at may often be softer, fluffier, more personal, and less measurable activities (at least in guy terms) -- but does that make 'em any less valuable? Let alone valid?

And, hey, did I ever lay my more general theory about women and art on you? It's that it's all a big mistake, this emphasis on women making art in the gallery or movie-theater sense, and insisting on measuring women's creativity in that way. Not that they shouldn't make gallery art if they want to and are able to, of course -- bring it on, ladies. But why are we overlooking all the "women's art" that women have always made: meals, homes, rooms, walls. (Not to mention giving birth to and raising kids.) And themselves, too: god knows there's a lot of art involved in the way women turn themselves into pretty and appealing creatures.

It seems to me, if me alone, that women (some anyway) make themselves neurotic by trying to force themselves to perform in ways they maybe aren't really that crazy about. They wind up "conflicted" in ways that are unimaginable for guys. Having a dick seems to be all about going out there, killing mastodons, and dragging home the meat; we never (or almost never) feel any ambivalence about heading out in the morning. But it seems that many gals do. And maybe rightly so: maybe they aren't biologically as well-wired (or as stupidly-wired) as guys are to go charging out there every day, spear in hand. I think the woman who unreservedly wants to head out into the world, there to star and conquer, is much more rare than the man who wants to do this. The Wife, by the way, is one such woman; she's much more driven in a worldly sense than I am.

Nonetheless, does this mean that female creativity is more rare than male creativity? It seems to me absurd to make such a claim. Which leaves me wondering: why doesn't the culture value the efforts women already make (and the achievements they're already responsible for) more highly? Acting and singing, of course: many women seem to take to performing quite straightforwardly. But also: adroitness with makeup and hair; discipline at exercise class; flair with clothes and food; charm at parties; making homes and food attractive, etc -- after attending to all of this, why should gals be asked (or ask themselves) to go out and paint a painting or write a novel? Why not, of course, if they want to and can manage to? But why require them to? Why judge them according to these standards? Don't they already achieve, and contribute, enough?

And why don't we call the creative things women already do -- the home meals, the self-presentation, the home-making -- "art"? Why don't we consider "the keeping of a beautiful home" to be an art-achievement on a level with writing a novel? Or "throwing a superfun party" to be an art-achievement the equal of a good set of jazz? Why isn't it an art-achievement the equal of writing a poem when a woman serves a satisfying meal, or pulls herself together really beautifully?



posted by Michael at August 25, 2004


"Adroitness with makeup and hair; discipline at exercise class; flair with clothes and food; charm at parties; making homes and food attractive, etc -- after attending to all of this, why should gals be asked (or ask themselves) to go out and paint a painting or write a novel?"

Society used to value these things higher and then the feminist movement came along. They decreed that highly valuing the things women are often best at is oppressive. Instead women should be judged by standards that most will probably never meet or be interested in meeting-- men's standards. It's really not fair and in a way has probably created more "patriarchal oppression".

Martha Stewart was widely loathed for excelling at these things.

Posted by: lindenen on August 25, 2004 12:18 PM

Dear Michael,

I can well understand your fear of feminist wrath on your posting, but Iím glad to read your post. The opportunity for dialog is open, I hope, and remains the in the gentle tones you began with.

We ought to take a look and see what has been accomplished despite our more severe and dominating religious institutions and Madison Avenue working harder than ever to tell women How To Behave and What Not To Wear. A woman does not need a manís credit, she has the ability to buy a house, she no longer has to stay married to a bad man and she can now put him in jail so he cannot harm other women (you may remember a time when a man beating his wife was not a crime), she may marry an excellent man of her choosing, she is less discouraged to study science in school, more careers are open to her than ever before, including businesses run from the home. If women are not drafted and few volunteer for the military, perhaps that could be a sign to men that women are onto something and should be imitated. If fewer women are in jails and prison, perhaps we are onto something and should be imitated. Men have tested the boundaries of the physical world and each other. And I believe they are onto something and should be imitated. Challenges are important for human development and I submit we can do more together than segregated.

As time passes, I hope to see women even more engaged in the world. We donít have to be competitive with each other for the capture and taming of the most wealthy, prominent men available to us which is what our world of menís rule would have women busy doing. Women can be as successful as they want to be and have the talent to be and have the time to be. For the first time we are seeing more young women than men enter college to become doctors and lawyers. We are seeing more women chose not to marry, not out of rebellion, but of choice. We also see women disengaging from clerical and support jobs to start small businesses, not because they are feminists, but because they, like a lot of people, want more control over their destiny.

Art is still mostly about beauty, and in our menís world, specifically the beauty of women. And this has been a very big problem for women and for the feminist movement, most especially in commercial art which is shallow and contemptuous of women, and by doing that, contemptuous of men, too. It keeps everyone in stereotypes and keeps our humanity from growing. I donít believe that kind of thinking can be simply stopped, but rather an enlightenment should begin and the dialog opened and stay opened for newer additions to the definition of art and beauty. Women are here in the artistic world and more will follow. Womenís fine art products are excellent and will evolve and not necessarily follow the art production of men, and that diversity will, Iím sure, be beneficial to everyone.

Sorry this is so long, but Iím sure you can imagine how long it could have been.

Thank you for bringing this up,

Posted by: bridget on August 25, 2004 1:43 PM

Lindenen -- Good point, tks. Not that I had the brains or courage to articulate the thought, but I always felt it was crazy for women to put such pressure on themselves and each other to excel in male terms. Like I say, show me your stuff, ladies. But wouldn't it have been much healthier to see it as a matter of building on what they already had, and already did? Extending from a secure place, rather than fighting what's given in order to excel in other terms? And your Martha Stewart comparison is enlightening -- she was a real women's-creativity impresario, wasn't she?

Bridget -- Neat, yes yes yes, thanks. And I think that your point about the impact of the commercial world is well-taken. And it raises a really big question: how to make the commercial world serve our tastes? And what kind of relationship to foster with it? It fascinates me, horny and artistic guy that I remain even at 50, that Euro actresses are so much more willing to disrobe on camera than American actresses are. Part of this may be that Euros are sophisticates and we're rubes. But part of it may also be that Euro actresses feel less exploited by the moviemaking system they're taking part in; they may feel good about giving themselves to the projects they're contributing to in a way American actresses often may not. But are Euro movies less "commercial" than American ones are? Hmm. Maybe less overtly commercial? What's your hunch about this?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on August 25, 2004 2:15 PM

It's old, it's new!

I've been reading a book I picked up at the used shop for a quarter: "Art in Everyday Life", written around 1920-ish by Harriet and Vetta Goldstein, professors at the Division of Home Economics at the University of Minnestota. (I have the 1932 printing.)

You know all that stuff you complain that art courses don't teach anymore? Harmony, balance, line, color, rhythm, emphasis? Well, in this book the sisters apply it all systematically to interior design, clothing design, architecture, table settings, even city planning.

And it's more sophisticated than most any art book I've read yet, profusely illustrated with do's and don'ts.

Your post made me google. The book is for sale used here and elsewhere; the Goldsteins have a museum named after them here featuring their collection of 17,000 design objects; and a little biography with photo can be read here.

Posted by: Brian on August 25, 2004 3:01 PM

Heavens, this I gotta snag a copy of, many thanks.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on August 25, 2004 3:05 PM

Women are under-appreciated?!

Posted by: ricpic on August 25, 2004 6:18 PM

Mrs. Dalloway, always giving parties...

Some of us would love to give parties, doll up or invest time and interest into the secrets of cheese cakes.

That would be really enjoyable creative "for oneself" break from everyday reality.
May I offer cross-polinating (between the posts) remarks here? Dave Lull in his comment to "Mildred Pierce" quotes:
"Hammett's mother, Annie Bond Dashiell, was trained as a nurse, but was at home most of the time looking after her three children."

Here's another quote I present for your attention (fished out of my wanderings in Live Journal land - by Russian women N.L., computer programmer who writes her journal in English):

>I had such a long day yesterday. On Sunday night we brought P. to our place and went to Home Depot without kids (!).

Then, instead of goint out to eat, we got takeout sushi and ran home to spend more time with the zoo. Then everybody had an awful night - we pretty much didn't sleep since 1am - they took turns waking up, having bad dreams and generally being difficult.

Then G. and I got up at 4 and I took him to the airport. Fortunately we didn't need to wake up that early - we were already awake.

From there I went to my mom and tried to sleep a little more with intermittent success. Then to the minor doctor appointment at St.Elizabeth by 8am, 3 hours or so in the waiting rooms, and to work by 11:30.

When I got home about 7:30 I was close to hallucinating. Took P. to the bus, ate the leftover sushi with the kids (their favorite is the cucumber roll), did some puzzles, put the zoo to bed and passed out.

I dreamt that G. and I are going on a cruise, and he did all the packing. I had to beg the captian to wait for him, then he showed up with 4 pillows in the suitcase, but no shoes. And then I had to swim to the ship, rescuing cute baby monkeys on the way... An analyst could have a field day with that one. Control issues, much?

P.S. Baby monkeys are exceedingly cute.>

Control group - women with 3 children. Find three differences.

Posted by: Tatyana on August 25, 2004 7:18 PM

The reason why society does not value these contributions highly is because, by their very nature, most individual achievements of this sort only improves the lives of a few people for a short period of time. These achievements aren't persistent, they don't really help people 20 miles away or 20 years down the line. (When this isn't true, such as mass media allowing beauty to be enjoyed at a distance, society DOES tend to value the achievement.)

However, while they may be small change taken one at a time, billions of women achieving these things day in and day out make an enormous aggregate contribution to society that is practically impossible to overestimate.

Posted by: Dog of Justice on August 25, 2004 7:28 PM

My mother always said she liked to can because when she got done, she had a shelf full of beautiful jars. And after canning for my family for the last 12 years, peaches fresh from the canner in the late afternoon sunlight is a beautiful sight. Stored up sunshine for the winter is how I explained to my once-little children.

Posted by: Deb on August 25, 2004 9:05 PM

Deb, I'm so happy to see you here again!

Not so happy to remember canning campaigns every September in my past life in Ukraine. Scalding-hot marinades, rebellious jar lids having mind of their own, 3-liter jars with pickles waiting to be put on basement shelves...
But what a threat was to open a jar of Apricot marmalade (apricot seeds pitted, shelled, roasted and preserved along with apricots) on a gloomy February day...

Posted by: Tatyana on August 25, 2004 10:31 PM

Oh, sorry - it happened again.
See, treat+ thrill= threat! (well, not really)

Anyway, treat - thats what I meant.

Posted by: Tatyana on August 26, 2004 9:14 AM

"Stored-up sunshine" -- I bet the peaches were wonderful; the description is poetry too...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on August 26, 2004 10:23 AM

The peaches are wonderful, especially in winter. And apple season is coming with apple sauce, apple jelly and apple crisp!

I've been lurking, Tatyana, but a fall off a horse with a fractured clavicle and then the decision to homeschool my daughter has either kept me off the computer chair and or so busy I cant so much more than take a quick peek. Hopefully, both will resolve fairly quickly.....

Posted by: Deb on August 27, 2004 1:55 PM

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