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Heroes and Housewives: The Language of Kitsch

October 22nd, 2007 by roblog · 1 Comment

Jasper Johns’s subtle manifesto Painting With Two Balls (1960)

The most interesting findings of my research to date for my “Gender and Kitsch” paper have been, surprisingly, more connected to vocabulary than painting. While women were, at different times, admitted to the highest circles of Greenbergian painting, the language used to discuss those that were and those that weren’t was uniformly tied to gender. For instance, the male Abstract Expressionists are invariably depicted as archetypal struggling artists, supported by the workaday wages of their wives, while all women attempting the same effort were described as housewives or hobbyists. (Janet Sobel, a female painter from Long Island in the 1940’s served as the primary inspiration to Jackson Pollock’s distinctive mark, and yet, was disregarded as a housewife). Meanwhile, even the Abstract Expressionist women artists such as Helen Frankenthaler were labeled second generation Abstract Expressionists even when their work premiered at the same time as some “First Generation” male painters. Similarly, in a husband-and-wife painter exhibition, the women were described as “tidying up” their husbands work.

The smoking gun, however, is in Greenberg and Rosenberg’s writings, where the former defined the feminine as the tendency to employ the elements of great art for practical uses, essentially his definition of kitsch, and the latter derided the pop artists for being afraid of a “masculine” struggle.

The painter Jasper Johns, perhaps Rosenberg’s arch-nemesis, in turn retaliated with the wonderfully tongue-and-cheek Painting With Two Balls, which satarized the gender roles of Greenbergian art while committing all of the mortal sins: corrupting abstraction, including words, employing symbolism (and in a vulgar way!) and most of all, denying the messiah of painting, flatness.

Tags: Art · ARTH460 · Women and Art

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