The Student
Review
Your Favourite Art Sucks – History of Art Society x Feminist Society
by Laura Baliman, 7/12/20

Content warning: sexual violence

As the first in a three-part series hosted by Feminist Society and History of Art Society, this event explored the presentation of sexual violence against women in art. Professor Jill Burke made an excellent speaker, offering nuanced commentary on the attitudes towards women in the Renaissance and how this affected their artistic presentation.

Such a survey of the feminine form in Renaissance art can be damning, considering the great aestheticizing of sexual assault that deliberately eroticises violence. It was also upsetting to learn about the status of women as property at the time, that this was seen often as a crime against male possessions rather than against a human. Burke touched on the use of rape as a weapon in the Italian wars, but also drew attention to the human cost of such violence. As seen in the multiple depictions of the rape of Lucretia, it often felt better to die than to be raped. Although many presentations of sexual violence focused on harsh avengement of the crimes, one can’t help but feel that this again shifts the attention back to men. Pathos was used as a tool to draw in feelings of sympathy to the woman, but there is something unsettling about using violence as an artistic device. Even today many women fear speaking out in case their violence becomes a spectacle for the media. The presentation of women as victims simultaneously underestimates female agency whilst aestheticizing their suffering.

Burke went on to speak about presentations of Europa – a woman who became the pivot for the founding of the entire continent. This image creates a sense of hope that suffering can be transformed into something greater, but this still leaves us with an unsettling feeling that violence is seen then as ‘contributing’ in some way to society. Europa’s suffering is made not only public but political and mythological; although we do not ‘know’ her, we are led to feel in some way that her personal healing must be harmed in some way by the public spectacle of her suffering.

So where do we stand with this art? It does definitely seem to ‘suck’. Even if we were to focus only on painterly style, this would still be an act of glorification of an artist who takes advantage of female sorrow for artistic or even monetary gain. It feels uncomfortable to enjoy the observation of such paintings, which are so visually beautiful but so morally questionable. Burke does well to not provide any reductive solutions to this issue, posing questions rather than answers. It may be an individual judgement as to how we interact with such artworks, but these decisions have a public effect on women who see their violence played out on the walls of great marble museums, rather than in law courts.

It will be interesting to see how the rest of the series plays out, and whether any answers can be provided at all, but this event was successful in providing a space to think about these issues in the context of both art and feminism.

Image: via Flickr