In this guest post, Bristol Feminists question an art show put on by the local Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery
Art from the New World is a “brash, hip” show of young West Coast US artists coming to the Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery (BCMAG) in May. Referencing mass culture, it promises to be popular and will allow the city to continue to engage the new, young audience that the Bansky show attracted in such huge numbers. This new popularity brings new responsibility. A debate has broken out asking is this responsibility being met with the invitation to Dita von Teese, burlesque stripper, to perform at the opening party.
The image of the semi dressed, sexy young woman is a marker for popular culture that surrounds us daily, usually representing a performance of female sexuality for men. She appears again and again in the work of the Corey Helford Gallery (which is providing the show and sponsoring the `entertainment’) but this exhibition isn’t all a celebration of her figure.
In fact, in the work of some of the women artists (who are outnumbered by the men 2 to 1) we are witness to the melancholy and alienation that is expressive of the predicament faced by young women living in our current pornified culture where they are encouraged to perform their sexuality without feeling. A culture in which recent research by West and Sweeting in Scotland found more than 40% of teenage girls are so unhappy as to be defined as experiencing disorders such as depression, body dissatisfaction and low self
esteem, as well as anhedonia (inability to experience pleasure).
Dita von Teese, with her white skin, large breasts and tiny waist, conforms to the mainstream stereotype of the sexual woman, the dominant cultural image that leaves ordinary women with low self-esteem and anxiety, reaching for the cosmetic surgeon’s knife. The burlesque performance at the gallery’s opening becomes an explicit celebration of this porn culture that will overshadow the critique presented in the art itself.
Perhaps in a female-dominated burlesque venue, with a woman compèring an event featuring performances from a range of women with varying body types, then Von Teese’s skillfully exaggerated performance would read differently. But this performance is taking place in a male-dominated context. The majority of the artists are men, the headline promotional material for the show is male dominated, and Dita would be the only person using and revealing her own body. In this context her act inevitably locks back into the old, objectified ‘sexual performance for men.
Even the title of the show raises questions about cultural sensitivity and makes one question whether this was taken into account when the BCC approved the exhibition. Calling an exhibition “art from the New World” would maintain the myth that the Americas were ‘discovered’ by Europeans as an empty space waiting to be populated. Referring to the exhibition as the ‘New World’ effectively renders invisible the presence of the Native American people in the Americas before colonisation.
O, BCMAG, surely you can do better than this? Why bring in this audience if all you do is replicate the dangerous stereotypes that so much research has demonstrated is deeply damaging to our culture; damaging to women and also the psyches of young men; damaging to the possibility of genuinely equal and mutual sexual relationships.
Bristol feminists want to celebrate the real beauty and excitement of female sexuality. But this repetition of the stereotyped view of female sexuality perpetuates the endless stream of sterilised, blank and repetitive sexual representation that permeates our every day cultural experience and that diminishes us all.