Art, Purpose, and Irrepressible Play

Ukrainian artists — performing artists and creative artists alike – have been coming to the aid of their country, donating time, concerts, etc., and doing so unapologetically for being artists and not in uniform. I find this quite moving, and it got me thinking about women and art.

There’s a somewhat bizarre differentiation that patriarchal critics make between so-called fine art and so-called crafts. Fine art, you understand, is done by white straight men, hangs in museums, and although sometimes brilliant, expressive, and inspiring, does nothing. So-called crafts, on the other hand (almost totally done by female people), usually have a purpose independent of or beyond their beauty: they are textiles for wearing or wrapping babies, woven baskets for carrying young children or tools or vegetables; fired pottery for cooking, carrying liquids, and so forth. Yet they are most frequently stunning in their design and general loveliness. I’ve never quite grasped why, if something has a useful purpose but is still aesthetically pleasing, it gets downgraded to being a craft, whereas if it hangs on the wall and does nothing it’s fine art. Perhaps purposelessness has a value I cannot comprehend?

Moreover, these crafts by women, which have been present in virtually every culture on the planet from time immemorial, have a political purpose. Much of that purpose did not surface until the contemporary birth of a global, cross-cultural Women’s Movement, as well as women historians ferreting out that purpose. Here are only a few examples.

In Chile, during the long military dictatorship, women restored their tradition of Arpilleres (which means “burlap”): textiles–bags and sacks, blankets, decorative hangings—embroidered with images of people going about their daily lives, all rendered in cheerful sunny colors. Only the initiated understood that what these images were doing, and the depicted terrain/territory on which they were doing it, was code to the anti-dictatorship underground. Similarly, during the Intifada in Palestine/Israel, when the word Palestine and the colors of the Palestinian flag were outlawed, women’s embroidery — intricate and sophisticated — dared to use those forbidden colors subtly interspersed among others, yet clearly discernible, and to embed the word for Palestine, in Arabic and English, into the embroidery so it barely could be made out.

This cleverness even extends to large earthworks. In the Cordilleras, the mountainous region in the northern Philippines, women plant rice on flat terraced land cut into the mountainside. The rice is planted in decorative patterns, whorls and geometric shapes. But during the corrupt Marcos regime, you could see from above or the side what was clearly written — in English: words spelling out the protests of Indigenous tribal women against mining and tree cutting for industry: Revolution, Change, Rebel. In Mithila, a province of Bihar state in northeast India, it is the women, and only the women, who paint. They paint traditional Tantric sacred scenes, from the epic poem “The Ramayana,” for instance, but they also paint on letters with which unmarried girls propose marriage to the men of their choice. Many of the images are explicitly sexual, with an open yoni and an upright phallus, because of Tantric religious concentration on sexual energy. (This deeply agitated the British during the Raj because they considered it debauchery!) The paintings include those on mud walls, like picture books from which one learns stories from the ancient epics. The primary reason for survival of this ancient traditional art is, paradoxically, the impermanence of the materials. They’re cheap, the climate is humid, and the walls or floors must be repainted constantly. So mothers instruct their daughters, because only in this way can a continuance of knowledge, of subject matter and technique, be insured.

And we need look no further than our own 18th-century American South and the extraordinary art executed by enslaved African women there, including the great quilts that were collectively sewn at quilting bees. For that matter, the composition of lyrics to so-called Negro spirituals–these were all encoded messages about freedom paths out of slavery. The quilts depicted actual routes leading to the North, disguised as simple village paths or even in seemingly abstract zigzags. The same goes for “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and other spirituals, which could be sung in Black Christian churches without plantation masters having a clue as to their real meaning. The ingeniousness of this, both aesthetically and politically, take your breath away.

Nor does the work having such meaning degrade it to the level of “socialist realism,” reeking of preachiness, what’s-good-for-you, and dogmatism. And it certainly has nothing to do with Hallmark-Card-type sentimentality. This is totally different.

Whoever first thought to divorce art from use and meaning has a lot of explaining to do. Which is not even to begin ranting on about the art market, rich collectors, and high priced galleries making art an industry while artists (still!) live and die in poverty. One of my cherished memories of Kate Millet, who was a sculptor and painter as well as a writer and feminist, was of her making silkscreened images for inexpensive prints because, as she said, everyone should be able to afford a piece of real art.

Art itself stands in a position analogous to that of women. Both seem to challenge common-sense notions of the way the world appears to be naturally oriented, and the power that rationality is supposed to have. In other words, art has been classified as not-theory, not-science, and not-true; like women and like freedom it has been defined (by patriarchy) by its negatives. Art is seen as subversive, and the woman artist doubly so.

That we’ve known a bit more about women writers than their sisters isn’t coincidental, either. Composers require a form of collaboration to produce their art: musicians, an orchestra, an opera house, etc. Visual artists require costly materials. Women were largely barred access to the first area because the cooperation needed for performance wasn’t forthcoming, and because performance is necessarily public. Women were mostly denied access to the visual arts, that is “the fine arts,” because we have been for millennia an economically disadvantaged caste: we rarely have the means to buy materials. Many of the women visual artists now being “discovered” turn out to have been the daughters (or more rarely, wives) of male artists, who developed familiarity with materials in the men’s studios and ateliers. Writing, on the other hand is private and requires at the minimum only a piece of paper and a pencil or pen. (Publishing, of course, is a different matter altogether.)

Yet one steady cross-cultural theme of women’s art through the ages has been the beauty of humble things in all their thing-ness. If that main theme has been one of use–transcendent utilitarianism you could call it–another theme has been the ephemeral quality of the work; it’s not meant to be permanent. Ego is far less important than creating the work itself. Sand paintings are constructed for healing ceremonies; rice paintings are a celebration of religious ritual. Both are done by women, and the point is the doing; that’s what matters, not the preserving for others to passively view. The greatest tapestries of the Middle Ages, produced by women weavers in the south of France, were to insulate stone-walled castle rooms against the cold, but they also encoded esoteric references to Wiccan, Albigensian, and other heretical faiths in their iconography.

Women seem to have got the message that art itself is an endless, eternal, active metaphor–dynamic play, serious play, high play. As the philosopher Susanne K. Langer has asked, isn’t play surely a basic need? This capacity for creativity which demands play, this dogged insatiable irrepressible wild yet disciplined need to delight oneself and others, and to be of use while doing that? To be of use. Not only to make beautiful things, but to make things beautiful. Perhaps we are at last finding our way back in order to move forward.