Art has forgotten how to revere: ‘For Mary Wollstonecraft’

For over decade, a campaign has been led to install a sculpture of Mary Wollstonecraft on Newington Green in North London. Wollstonecraft authored A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792) and is widely considered to be the mother of modern feminism. Wollstonecraft founded a school for girls on Newington Green, so it was fitting for residents and campaigners to recognise her significance. The resulting work, by British artist Maggi Hambling, was unveiled recently to the bemusement of many. Some criticised the inappropriateness of representing a feminist icon naked, whilst others thought the sculpture simply too ugly to befit Wollstonecraft’s legacy.  

Previously, I discussed another London sculpture whose unveiling prompted popular derision: Heather Phillipson’s The End. In that case, the public objected purely on aesthetic grounds, questioning the ubiquity of ugliness in modern art. I attempted to outline an explanation, suggesting that a renewed faith in beauty (traditionally conceived) could present a win-win for artist and public alike. The Wollstonecraft case is especially provocative, having sparked debates about both aesthetics and the significance of femininity in modern Britain. It seems that art has forgotten how to revere deserving heroes. Furthermore, we are so profoundly unsure about defining feminine virtue in stable terms that it is unclear how an artist could conceive of a broadly satisfactory celebration of femininity.

Perpetual revolution

Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek, though a political leftist, frequently criticises radicals for their romanticised preoccupation with the hour of revolution, lacking any plan to build something stable thereafter. One can imagine a state of perpetual revolution ensuing: continuous destructiveness without any following constructiveness. A similarly permanent revolution recapitulates continually in the art world. Aspiring artists are taught to disavow themselves of traditional aesthetic assumptions, such as the obligation of art to be visibly beautiful. This beauty, they allege, is exhausted and clichéd, and can no longer be used to produce serious art. The purpose of art is apparently to challenge, not to console or inspire those who view it.

What then, should replace the legacy of Monet and Botticelli? The art world has not managed an answer, instead deconstructing, repudiating, and subverting the past without ever replacing it with a stable culture. It has lived the day of the revolution for over 70 years and has no idea what should follow. In lieu of a positive culture, one that affirms something, the art world has found stability only in the negative identity of cynicism. To many artists, merely communicating hostility towards beauty or western culture sufficiently justifies a work’s artistic validity. It is extraordinarily rare to see gratitude, admiration, or forgiveness in modern art, more common to see obscenity, mutilation, or dereliction.

Zumrutoglu, The Architecture of Flesh II (2020) – novelty and cynicism at the expense of beauty.

There is something to the idea that art should challenge convention: to produce clichéd artwork is to allow a set of formulae to think on behalf of the artist. Such works bespeak a poverty of inspiration and technique, having the façade of authentic expression but none of the substance – there is a mask, but nobody is behind it. To avoid cliché is to produce something that is simultaneously beautiful and new. In this sense, novelty is a component of beauty, a key ingredient in the fresh and imaginative artwork. Novelty is not the end, beauty is.

The motivation for much of the art world is more dishonest: it pursues novelty at beauty’s expense. Beauty, it is frequently argued, is merely subjective – a convenient cover story for those who lack the capacity to produce (or even recognise) it. Many such artists would rather produce something ugly under the pretence of superior taste and insight: ‘it looks ugly to you only because you don’t understand’. It is a profoundly vain attitude towards criticism, whereby criticism and praise are simultaneously taken as evidence of the work’s greatness, all roads leading to Rome. Such an artist experiences no obligation to produce art which benefits someone other than themselves. Ironically, it is this self-involved posturing that has become the most worn cliché in art history. How then, could such an aesthetic ever honour a figure as deserving as Wollstonecraft?

For Mary Wollstonecraft

Artist Maggi Hambling, like all successful modern artists, has a knack for dismissing public outrage. In response to her new work’s criticism, Hambling highlighted the radicalism of Wollstonecraft’s legacy, arguing that it merited a sculpture which was similarly innovative. Novel though it may be, does this fulfil her obligation to the residents and campaigners who wished to celebrate Wollstonecraft’s achievements?

The work has been referred to as a ‘swirling mass of female forms’ topped by a naked and fully-formed woman, as if emerging from chaos. This figurine is not meant to be a likeness of Wollstonecraft, but a sort of primordial woman, like a postmodern Eve (Hambling calls it ‘Everywoman’). The work at least articulates something clearly: Wollstonecraft’s legacy means that modern woman can carve out her own destiny. This is certainly something to celebrate, and a sculpture that could convey this and be beautiful enough to contemplate would have been an asset to the community.

Sadly, art is about more than concepts, and the sculpture, for all its progressive intentions, is an eyesore. Though mounted on an elegant marble plinth, the ‘swirling mass’ is garishly and intentionally misshapen. The feminine figurine, a tiny proportion of the whole sculpture, has a strange pin-like head with androgenous features, reminiscent more of a pubescent Etonian than anything obviously feminine. Of course, this will no-doubt prompt some praise on grounds of subverting gender stereotypes. My criticism is not on the grounds of its androgyny, but on the grounds of its ambiguity – one is left unsure as to whether this androgyny is intentional, or a consequence of impoverished technique or inspiration. For all the sculpture’s gleaming audacity, Hambling did to not even convincingly sculpt a female face.

How could such a high-profile commission have failed to satisfy those who drove the project? In part, because the modern art faculty no longer seriously trains its students in technique, preferring instead to indoctrinate them into a culture of pretentious ugliness and cynical novelty-seeking. Ugliness is the aesthetic of irreverence, and so modern art finds itself incapable of expressing sincere admiration.

Feminist criticisms

The sculpture prompted animated debate, illustrating how unsure British society is about what constitutes feminine virtue. Traditional feminists criticised the use of a nude sculpture to represent Wollstonecraft. To them, it is demeaning to hold up a naked woman as a symbol of women’s progress, when, they argue, women have fought to ensure they are respected for something other than their reproductive suitability. This argument was asserted most vociferously by the group Object!, who campaign against sexual objectification, prostitution, and the hijacking of feminism by trans lobbyists.

The criticism is misguided on two counts. Firstly, the group erroneously mistook (as many did) the sculpture as a depiction of Wollstonecraft herself, not Hambling’s Everywoman. Secondly, the work presents the feminine form in a manner which is not obviously erotic, much as many traditional paintings and sculptures presented the naked human form as an object for platonic contemplation. The work may be indecent, but it is not for the purpose of confining women to sexual representations.

There is an aspect of Object!’s [sic] critique which is worth acknowledging – what is wrong with depicting Wollstonecraft realistically rather than conceptually? Why could she not be celebrated modestly, much as we have always celebrated influential men? Hambling chose to reject a straightforward, traditional depiction of Wollstonecraft because it would make it substantially harder for her to produce an original work. In other words, Hambling wanted the work to be her Wollstonecraft, not a tribute that happens to be by her:

“I need complete freedom to respond to the spirit of my subject and could not work if constrained by convention or preconceived demands.”

Other feminist factions raised the now predictable critique that the figurine, like a barbie doll, reinforces an idealised body image. They argued that it was fine for the woman to be naked, so long as she was fat enough to support the fanatical insistence that there is nothing unhealthy about being overweight. In this worldview, an artist should never display a woman with some aesthetic interest in mind, and should instead use their art to serve a set of political demands. It is a deeply cynical view of art, seeing it as a mere vehicle for propaganda.  

Ideological spats aside, the question of how feminine virtue should be represented is interesting, and one that feminism is evidently divided over. It is almost baffling that, whilst a mainstream branch of feminism that is offended by a nude feminist sculpture, Cardi B’s WAP was recently lauded as a serious feminist achievement. According to Cardi B, the hyper-sexualisation of women is a form of self-empowerment. Yes, it means that a woman is valued on the basis of her sexual attractiveness, rather than her competence or character, but feminism, they argue, is a broad church.

I find this especially distasteful. It sees interaction between the sexes as a zero-sum power game: men may possess patriarchal privilege, but women can, and should, strike back by using their ability to sexually derange men. This, they argue, is empowering. I do not blame women for this, but there is an element of bad faith at play here. Why? Because it is alleged that self-objectifying women are empowering themselves, whilst the men who perceive them (obviously) as sexual objects are oppressing them. The two simply can’t coexist without a degree of denial: you can’t have the cake of being sexually tempting, and eat the cake of not being a sexual object. Moreover, at which stage could men and women cooperate peaceably? Or should the sexes be locked forever in Machiavellian point-scoring until they die?

Intent on presenting feminism as a united front, some attempt to advocate both positions simultaneously: that feminine virtue is presenting yourself in the most sexualised manner conceivable, whilst pretending that the attention derived from this is solely by virtue of non-sexual factors. Such a view has led some to bend over backwards by claiming that Cardi B is not merely someone sexualising herself for money, but a feminist icon by her decision to do so, and hence a sort of philosopher. Such contradictions within radical feminism, and between its sparring factions, are openly accepted as long as they negate something traditional: one type of feminist opposes a sexualised conception of femininity, whilst another opposes men and thus advocates weaponising sex in women’s favour. It gives pause for thought that there is rarely a serious attempt to reconcile these opposites from within feminism. Just like in art, the radical feminists are pursuing the most cynical lines of reasoning, assaulting traditions but with no serious plan for replacing them.

How should feminine virtue be depicted?

Between these extremes, there must be a middle ground of feminine virtue which could be depicted, admired, and held up as something worth striving towards. What would this entail? Perhaps such a woman could possess all the stereotypically positive female traits (grace, beauty, compassion) without being limited to them. They could also have integrated the stereotypically masculine traits of assertiveness and courage, meaning they could be headstrong and independent. Is this not what anyone would want for the women they care about?

Could such art be created now? I would argue that it already has been. Whilst a cynic may view European culture as conspiring purely to oppress women, there are plenty of examples of feminine virtue displayed in classical art, imperfect though they are by modern ideological standards. Take Delacroix’s Lady Liberty leads the people (1830), a timeless evocation of feminine resolve and courage. Her bare chest is not for sexual objectification, but a symbol of liberty’s capacity to nurture the reborn French nation.

Take too Cabrera’s The Virgin of the Apocalypse (1730), in which the Virgin Mary holds new-born Jesus high whilst trampling the serpent of evil underfoot, just as lady liberty holds high the flag of the republic whilst trampling its enemies. What exactly is oppressive about such a depiction? Mary is here fulfilling a stereotypically feminine role, by compassionately defending an infant, but has all the ruthlessness and dominance of stereotypical masculinity by destroying the serpent. Despite Mary’s ruthlessness, she remains abundant in feminine grace and beauty, void of masculine brashness. The majesty of Cabrera’s painting seems to me to indicate a culture which held femininity in a sort of reverence, not disdain, even if it held an inflexible and outmoded view on the position of women in broader society.

Whilst there is much to fairly criticise in Europe’s history, it is important to not imbibe the dogmatic re-writing of history led by ideologues who see Europe’s cultural heritage as unmitigated and continuous oppression. We need to acknowledge that there was legitimate praise and admiration towards femininity, and that this was reflected in artworks which displayed feminine virtue without patronising or demeaning women. These models provide us with a wealth of material on which an aesthetic could be built which is capable of honouring modern women.  

All this depends on an educational culture which presents the past as a source of imperfect wisdom rather than something primitive and naïve (through which one can enjoy smug superiority). It also requires university art departments to teach pupils serious technique so that they become worthy of inheriting Europe’s aesthetic legacy. Whilst modernist movements away from depiction and technique attempted to avoid established cliches, aspiring artists today find themselves confined to the cliched language of subversion because they are not even able to reproduce anything in the classic style. If we want the heroes of our recent past to be celebrated, artists need to be tutored in the production of beauty, not its rejection.

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