Feminism seems a bit passé nowadays. It belongs to a resentful minority, part of a slightly embarrassing episode in History. Women, on the whole, are now happily emancipated, and certainly do not need screaming bra burners to champion their cause. This is the attitude, I fear, that many take to the philosophy – I maintain that it is a philosophy, a set of values, despite its occasionally political agenda. Certainly, this negative view is held by most adolescents, for whom the 70s is a forgettable era, rather than an actual memory. Mention your allegiance to the feminist cause to the average teenage boy and they recoil. You might as well add your membership to a right wing military organisation.
This misunderstanding is a serious problem. Feminism has become too attached to the extremity of the Second Wave – the Suffragettes, in contrast, belonging to the First Wave are generally respected. What they achieved – the vote- is solid and tangible. The Second Wave inspired a more general cultural change. And whilst it was important, crucial even, to female equality, it is not the only notable aspect of Feminism. Feminism is now much more rounded. The idea of female Suprematism is, rightly, a laughable notion. The state of Feminism now is the promotion of choice. Choice to stay at home, choice to go out and work.
But this article is not intended to display the social benefits of Feminism, but rather argue its remaining importance for Art. Feminism is important because of the reappraisal that it forces. It is not content to accept one way of looking at a picture, but will challenge and contest. It is therefore pivotal in ensuring the History of Art is not determined by individuals of power. Manet’s ‘Olympia’, for me certainly, remains the clearest example of the utility of a Feminist approach.
Much has been written about the gaze of Olympia, the sad and vulnerable prostitute that Manet has displayed (proclaimed?) on the canvas before us. Critics of Feminism might assume that a Feminist approach would be concerned with trumpeting the evidence of male oppression upon the figure. Certainly, that may be one aspect. You could read Olympia as a victim of bourgeois hierarchy, fighting the oppressors through her insistence on looking straight out, confronting every member of the Salon. But is this Manet’s real concern? Is he not instead fundamentally rewriting the rules of the artist-model relationship? Woman as Muse had dominated Western Art for centuries. Beauty, slowly abstracted from the actuality of the body, has been shown through the female form for both earthly and divine purposes. In her template, therefore, Olympia is a Goddess. But in her substance she remains a street walker. She may be receiving flowers, but these are wrapped in cheap newspaper. The sordid oozes in the painting. Whether Manet feels any empathy for her situation, I do not know. She is raised just high enough to remain out of compassionate reach, and it is Olympia, the model, who watches Manet, the artist. It is this critical eye that flips the traditional relationship on its head. And it is feminism that examines this issue. Feminism that is interested in human relations, in the transference of power.
Feminism is like ultimately ‘Olympia’. It will not look away, and indeed it forces us to look again, to challenge accepted culture. It fights against complacency, protests against accepted ways of seeing. And for that, it still matters a lot.