|Women on Art Symposium
Centre for Contemporary Art,
Lorna J. Waite
The passage of the last century has
been a long journey in the history of the writing of the consciousness
of women. This consciousness is both historical and particular, recurrent
and mutable, heterogeneous, in relation to the particularity of the political,
cultural and economic contours of the inscribed mores of women's lives.
Every struggle, language of resistance,
so to speak, is of its time and place, an echo, a continuity with past
struggle, but reactive, responsive to other external forces which do not
solely originate with questions of gender; but with other categories of
identity which shape the expression and reception and production of power
in myriad forms in public and private life.
The articulation and evolution of
feminist thinking this century is often a fragmented story, always being
found again and restored to a significant place which may ensure its recovery
and endurance but perhaps not. Structural inequalities which effect women's
lives remain persistent despite obvious changes in their form and maintenance,
Virginia Woolf's assertion that women require 'a room of one's own and
£500 a year' still holds true but perhaps translates into the contemporary
equivalent of 'a right to a house, no glass ceilings, support for carers,
job security and decent wages for work'.
The desire to discuss the contradiction
between historical progress by women and the success of the women's movement
set against the persistent presence of the institutionalised sexism was
the premise of the Women On Art Symposium held at the Centre for Contemporary
Art, Glasgow. The Symposium, it was claimed, would be the place to discuss
such continuing inequalities and gendering of power relations within 'cultural
industries' which undervalue the major contribution of women's labour,
to their social, economic and cultural function and value. It would aim
"to address a number of key challenges for women working in the cultural
industries at the present time. The main areas of debate would cover areas
-- Gender and segregation; why certain
jobs within the cultural industries are automatically sanctioned as 'female'
and others, frequently those with greater promotional prospects, creative
input and financial rewards as 'male'.
-- Working within the cultural industries
in Britain today in relation to other European countries; are women forced
to adopt a male pattern of working life which does not accommodate their
roles as primary carers? Research has shown that the majority of women
are demanding a personal/professional balance to the quality of their lives;
what are the steps towards changing this culture?
-- The importance of creativity and
lateral thinking for women within their own professional cultural environment;
are women influencing methods of training and education within this field
to the extent of changing the working culture? Can we look at role models
for women within cultural industries from outside Britain, in particular
the USA and Southern Africa.
The creation of a public space to
debate such questions concerning women is necessary, particularly given
the promise of the socio-economic analysis which underpinned the rationale
of the symposium. However, before discussing some of the features of the
symposium, the socio- economic audit of gender equality must be applied
to the symposium itself. Simply put, why was it so expensive to attend?
How many women working in Glasgow and other locations in Scotland could
afford to attend the conference when the fee was so prohibitive? If one
purpose of the symposium was to form some continuing forum then it ought
to have striven to include the participation of as many women as possible
in as many roles and relationships to the arts and particularly from within
the city to which it has civic responsibilities. Attendance fees of this
sort smack of the spectacle of a middle class philanthropy which eschews
the economic and financial austerity, funding cuts and under-resourcing
which characterises the working lives of people in organisations the symposium
was meant to target. The symposium therefore excludes those with the least
economic resources. An ironic fact.
Anyway, if you somehow could afford
to be there, the essence of the symposium's themes were perhaps most effectively
and interestingly explored in the contributions of Sue Innes, Carol Becker,
Angela Kingston and the Goat Island Performance Group.
Sue Innes' talk, Widening the Cracks
and Avoiding the Chasms, was a scholarly presentation of a sociological
analysis of the types and forms of social change which have happened in
the working and domestic lives of women since the advent of suffrage. This
was set against both the cracking face of the dominant hegemony, male defined,
with which it is in conflict and its recurring features of exclusion despite
advances by women to break down its appearance. She quoted from her book
Making It Work,
"what has changed least...is the
habit of measuring things against a male defined standard; we still use
definitions of work and progress, what counts as success, the place of
caring, and appropriate behaviour along a false axis of reason to emotion,
which are a consequence of male pre-eminence (dominance) in the public
The split between public and private
life is still considered the role of women to resolve. State legitimisation
of equality issues has the face of ineffective equal opportunities legislation
exacerbated by the continuing lack of flexible, adequate childcare and
employment practices which take account of the care responsibilities of
its employees. Despite this discrimination, women's relationship to themselves,
she argued, "had changed but an awful lot hadn't, re women's family work
and responsibilities and access to resources (low pay etc.) and also questions
of backlash and the 'crisis of masculinity'".
Paradoxically, the grater presence
of women in the labour market is synchronous with the redefinition and
redistribution of capital and the creation of the flexible, multi-skilled,
multi-part-time, contract culture of the present pay-as-little-as-you-can
labour economy. Economic differentials between women have been exacerbated
and there is a widening gap between women defined by class, ethnicity,
age, and motherhood and use value of their particular occupation.
Despite the contradictions of the
economic evidence, Sue Innes argued there has been an 'epistemic shift'
which had seen perceptions and values change and spaces, psychological
and material, where women could assert new values which are neither drawn
from traditional prescriptions of 'femininity' nor from uncritically adopting
male personae in working life which alienates other women.
This latter point--of the nature
of female behaviour in positions of power--is the meeting place of the public
and private self for women. The qualities, tensions and relationships between
the inner self and internal authority and the external self and female
expressions of leadership were one of the areas of analysis undertaken
by Carol Becker, Dean of the Institute of Chicago, in her inspiring talk
which, for myself, was the key contribution of the symposium.
The power of her thesis lay in the
importance of a psychological analysis of institutional behaviour by men
and women and the exploration of the symbolic meaning of those institutions
to the identity of its community. It is one of the tasks of a feminist
project to encourage imagination of leadership roles, yet in a manner that
does not collude with patriarchy nor use power in an unconscious, unhealthy
dynamic to repair unacknowledged wounds which result in bullying, harassment,
emotional abuse at work, hierarchical non-nurturant ego-laden environments
in which people in power project onto others their unresolved conflicts.
If women and men were to be good leaders, they must be conscious of their
own symbolic role. What is a psychologically healthy working environment
for a woman to create? It was essential for women she argued, to develop
a public self. A woman in a leadership position must demonstrate her lack
of fear of men to other women. She must show other women her comfort with
her own authority, owning her decisions and responsibilities. She must
not be the 'psychoanalytic monstrous mother' for women will look to her
for guidance of how to be comfortable with their own creativity and through
this her own sense of entitlement, a giving of psychological permission
to be, to develop power and creativity.
Carol Becker articulated her thoughts
on leadership with reference to her working class background and her relationship
with her father. It was for her more significant in an adult sense: the
assumption of equality which characterised her father's treatment of her.
In her conjoining of the psychodynamic and the public, her work is reminiscent
of Valerie Walkerdine and Carolyn Steedman, work through which women from
working class backgrounds can find themselves included.
Other highlights of the symposium
were contributions by Angela Kingston and the Goat Island Performance Group
from Chicago. In her paper Brushing Sindy's Hair, Angela Kingston informed
her ideas on the interiority of 'girlhood' from a psychoanalytic perspective,
tracing the lineaments of female identity in its totality as expressed,
rehearsed and displayed in the act of play. This centredness of identity
was not of an essential femininity, but a deeply sensual and active engagement
with the meanings of imaginary places in which the self kept order, was
in charge and effective, had power. The sustaining of this sense of self-assurance
and efficacy can be difficult for women to do, the obstacles to healthy
self-esteem are numerous. It is important for childhood parts to be integrated
into the adult woman to create the good mother internal object which it
is vital to feel if you wish to mother your own creativity and sense of
value despite the fact this does not translate into economic well being
for most women.
Lin Hixson and Mathew Goulish of
the Goat Island Performance Group from Chicago articulated the phenomenological,
philosophical method to the theory and practice of their group. They explore
the aggregates of consciousness; sensation, perception, association are
the objects of subjective analysis, the constructed unconsciousness the
source for the taking apart, digestion and rebuilding of ideas which generate
performance work. This 'first principles' approach to creativity eschews
an essentialism which interprets experience as solely prescribed by gender
and was a contribution to the symposium which had its intellectual and
linguistic roots in phenomenology and spirituality.
The symposium featured contributions
from many other women across diverse fields of interest; Janet Paisley
talked of her life in balancing writing and motherhood, Paddy Higson displayed
a shocking lack of preparation and any interest in even thinking about
womens' issues in relation to the economy of film and television, Sam Ainsley
talked of the lack of women teachers at Glasgow School of Art.
Women On Art is to be welcomed because
the paucity of public and political spaces with power which are effective
in the elimination of inequalities requires some form of initiative, action,
forum for analysis at least. The economic rationalism and the turning of
all processes of culture into products in a market place has dominated
the economy of the arts, education and health; has created new forms of
poverty, inequality, criteria of value. The inequalities in distribution
of wealth in the arts merely mirrors the broader societal context in Scotland
within which it is located. Curiously, the symposium felt placeless as
the particularities of the social, political and economic base of power
in the arts in Scotland and the consequences of not having a parliament
did not feature much in discussion. If there is to be any radical change
in eliminating discrepancies in power, the wider political picture is of
great significance to women living and working in Scotland. The potential
for a new social and political formation in a Scotland with a parliament
should have excited greater enthusiasm in the minds of the organisers.