Lee’s willful flaunting of her ignorance about the stakes, aims and histories of the feminist movement is startling. It illustrates the dangers of assuming that all that exists is where we are right now, and that we know what we see. Lee does not seem to recognize that she would not be able to make the work that she has produced were it not for the generations of feminist artists, activists, and theorists working hard to create that welcoming space for her work to be viewed and understood. If she feels she is “treated fairly,” her debt to previous feminisms is all the greater.
Exploring the recent return of feminist art to public view, then, I am struck by how important it is once again to tell the histories of previous feminisms. To that end, it is worth casting an admittedly partial glance back to the late 1960s and early 1970s to explore filling the void with at least one variant of how this “past” might be retold from the present point of view. The feminist critique of Western models of viewing was central to the rise of feminist visual theory in the 1970s. The European Renaissance notion of human individuality was instrumentalized in relation to painting and architecture by theorists such as Leon Battista Alberti, who theorized a model of perspective that positioned the painter, architect, and viewer at the apex of a cone of vision.10 Effectively, this produced a subject of vision and knowing who was centered in visual knowledge. This subject was implicitly a white male subject of a high enough class to situate himself in such a privileged position of seeing and knowing. The power of this implicit, mythical subject (never of course attained in full by actual individuals) reached its apogee in the modern period in figures such as the modernist artistic genius even as it began to break down as a concept and belief system under the pressures of colonialism and industrialism. However, this mythical figure (or, more accurately, concept) came to dominate feminist critiques of the “male gaze” in the 1970s.
- As Leon Battista Alberti argues in his 1435 treatise “On Painting,” “gathered together within the eye…; the eye is like a bud which extends its shoots rapidly and in a straight line to the plane opposite” and painters should reconstitute this visual knowledge in the following way: painters “know that they circumscribe the plane with their lines. When they fill the circumscribed places with colours, they should only seek to present the forms of things seen on this plane as if it were of transparent glass”; in Leon Battista Alberti, On Painting (1435-6), tr. John R. Spencer (New Haven: Yale U. Press, 1979), pp. 46, 51.↵