Thursday, 27 May 2010

Women in Culture - swept under the proverbial carpet?

Michelangelo, Donatello, Raphael, Leonardo da Vinci...

Where are the female painters in this list?

And hang on... Where are women in our cultural history at all?

I'm listening to 'In Our Time' with Melvyn Bragg on Radio 4, about the lasting influence of artist and biographer Giorgio Varsari's revolutionary 'Lives of the Artists', which he published in 1550. The only female speaker on the programme, Evelyn Welch, Professor of Renaissance Studies and Academic Dean for Arts at Queen Mary, University of London, commented upon the lack of inclusion of women artists in contemporary accounts of art. A point which could probably be applied to the entire recorded history of human innovation and artistic endeavour.

The idea strikes me, perhaps unoriginally, that it isn't the absence of prodigious female talent that prevents women from taking the spotlight in our cultural history, it is the biased coverage that doesn't showcase their talents.

Not a new idea, but sometimes the old ideas take their time to fully percolate the grey matter; a branching element of the point that History is written by the winners, the conquerers, the powerful, the wealthy.

Which of course, equals Men. With a capital 'M'.

The capital 'M' strides across the ruled line of writing, on two legs, leaving 'W' waddling in its wake. Yes, if you place the two together, they form a neatly symmetrical figure, but look where that doodling unity leaves women. On the bottom.

Men, with a capital 'M', because how else to capture the strength, vitality and natural grace of our gender counterpart? As opposed to Women, with a capital 'W', to capture the sturdiness, solidity, and dumpy, uninspiring half of the human race. Woman, the sex with less wit, humour, intelligence, agility, and initiative.

If you didn't know better - if you read the history books - this is the space that women naturally occupy. (Natural is a word that far too often justifies men in their discussion of gender dynamics: Men are naturally funnier, naturally more entrepreneurial, naturally more business-minded. It's boring, and tiresome, and patently untrue. I'll concede that often, men are naturally more able physically, they're faster and stronger, and in that sense, of course, it is natural.)

This sweeping statement on the bias of history books, I'll admit, doesn't take into account some of the creative and pioneering women that spring to mind, who have been represented in critical historical and cultural accounts - Elizabeth I, Queen Victoria, Florence Nightingale, Christina Rossetti, Wilkie Collins, Mary Wollstonecraft, the Pankhursts, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Elizabeth Bishop... (Of course this doesn't cover much of twentieth-century developments, but for the sake of constraints on time, which I currently am spending far too much of on this blog post, I'll omit)
But where are the striking women of culture before the fifteenth century? Before the seventeenth century? In this instance, I can't call any to mind. Maybe that's my fault, but that goes to show that women of cultural significance have not truly penetrated my conscious, have not been as integral a part of my historical education as men, have not existed within the broad base of cultural exchange that I have consumed as a young girl, and woman.

I'm sure that someone with an in-depth knowledge of gender studies in literature and history would be able to articulate this point far better, but I can't hold back from expressing my worry and sorrow for all the women who have been swept under the heavy carpet of History, which they so diligently hoovered/took-out-into-the-garden-and-beat (pick your era) themselves first.


In Our Time, with Melvyn Bragg that can be listened to in a podcast at - follow the links to "In Our Time", feat. Martin Kemp

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Fire and brimstone fury in store for the arts under Jeremy Hunt?

"Tough" or smooth - which one of these options is it going to be for Arts funding under the new Con-Dem Nation?

According to Maev Kennedy at The Guardian, new Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt today "reassured those in the arts community who feared disproportionate cuts" with his promise: "Culture will not be singled out as a soft target."

That's reassuring indeed: but the fact that culture could even be associated with the word "soft", surely more suited to toilet tissue than an energising, powerful medium and expression of human existence, is disappointing. It's exactly the deployment of phrase that comes with the depreciation and criticism of subjects like English, or History. In times like these, surely it's the historians we look to for useful comparisons with past fiscal/governmental/societal solutions, and the literature that we love for reassurance and inspiration. (And let's not forget the excessive Media Studies-bashing. It's like hunting used to be, a condoned bloodsport. I pity the poor sixth-formers who take it, just because it interests them, only to have their future job prospects and all hope of credibility battered before they've even reached their AS Level mocks. )

The notion that the arts are "soft" should be challenged as loudly and forcefully as possible. If there's one thing that would do us good as a nation, it would be disspelling this fallacy forever. Surely Billy Elliot's balletic antics have long since provided refutation of this ignorant criticism of culture. Why reduce to squishy pulp, with one four letter word, something that provides millions (let's say, over 60 million?) in the country with creativity and stimulation every year, every month, every day?

And the idea is completely, moronically wrong, anyway. You'd have to be as dense as a tin of baked beans to see the arts as "soft", when you look at the rock-hard political and social power of writing from playwrights like Harold Pinter; poets like Linton Kwesi Johnson; novelists like Charlotte Perkins Gilman; artists like Picasso (Guernica pictured above). Why on earth was art and literature targeted by the Communist governments of China (see the fall-out after the Hundred Flowers Campaign) and Soviet Russia throughout the twentieth century? Because of the steely threat it had the potential to pose. In apartheid-throttled South Africa, literature was pinpointed for censorship, because of its power to challenge, one reason why writers like Nobel Prize-winning Nadine Gordimer were so important in the anti-apartheid struggle.

So where does that leave the arts in the face of a funding crisis, the "tough" times looming, like a suspicious Reuben Starkadder in Cold Comfort Farm, as The Stage readers have been informed today?

Hopefully not in the fire and brimstone fury predicted by preacher Amos in Stella Gibbon's novel; or relegation to an attic bedroom, doomed to mutter about what we saw in the "woodshed" for the next five years.

So please, Jeremy Hunt, do us a favour, either find a better speechwriter, or go buy a thesaurus. We don't want any more of this "soft" nonsense...

You big softie.

Sunday, 9 May 2010

postcards from the future

they are blank

stippled with electric impulses

that shoot through our fingertips

transposing time’s tale

across the backs of our retina

by tickling the delicate stems

of our ancestral brains.

(The title of this poem is taken from a Guardian article I've just read, called Roadmap 2050, that can be found here I'm not sure if this poem needs some work. It probably does. Let me know what you think!)