But there is no single all-embracing theory of the subject and social relations in history, and women gain nothing from indulging the humanist desire for one. We have to work with different frameworks in the full knowledge of their incompatibility, testing them against each other, reading through them the historical material that can itself throw light on their usefulness.
"Feminism, Art History, and Sexual Difference"
Between the world wars, four New York City painters from a group later called the Fourteenth Street School added new female types to American Scene painting and produced a distinctive iconography of American womanhood. Taking their subject matter from the Union Square-Fourteenth Street district where they rented studios, the urban realists Kenneth Hayes Miller (1876-1952), Reginald Marsh (1898-1954), Raphael Soyer (1899-1987 ), and Isabel Bishop (1902-1988) portrayed the neighborhood's women as shoppers, office workers, and salesgirls. Known as the poor man's Fifth Avenue, the Fourteenth Street neighborhood housed bargain clothing stores, movie theaters, small offices, banks, and insurance companies as well as the headquarters of numerous radical organizations and publications. These institutions answered consumers' needs and provided jobs or community and political networks for the ethnically diverse population that converged on the district from New York's Lower East Side.
Shoppers and working women were almost unprecedented in American art. Why do they appear at this time? Most obviously because they were everywhere in the Fourteenth Street neighborhood and thus were logical subjects for artists dedicated to American Scene realism—the depiction of modern society as it appeared in their immediate environment. Furthermore, although modern buying and selling patterns had been introduced as early as the 1880s, they finally consolidated only in the 1920s. In the interwar period, with increased mass production, widely available products, and a vastly expanded advertising industry, Americans themselves became conscious of consumption as central to their way of life. Novels, govern-
ment tracts, social science monographs, and articles by social commentators, educators, and activists "documented and dissected, celebrated and abominated the new culture of consumption." As "household managers" (a phrase advertisers coined to glamorize the American housewife) women were the primary consumers.
They also staffed the enormous bargain emporiums and small specialty stores that surrounded Union Square, and they served as secretaries in the banks and insurance and utility companies. Nationwide, the clerical worker and saleswoman were well established in the labor force. Businesses had increased their use of office machines and had developed bureaucracies that required efficient secretarial workers, and the garment and retail industries had expanded. Between 1890 and 1920 the number of women typists, stenographers, and salespeople grew from 171,000 to z million, and among working women the percentage employed in the clerical and sales fields rose from 5.3 to 25.6. By 1930 one out of every five working women in the country held a clerical job, and in New York City the ratio was nearly one out of every three.
In these shoppers and workers the artists found female types who exemplified the New Woman in her public role. Since the end of the nineteenth century the phrase "New Woman" had been the focal point for an ideological discourse on gender difference and the changing social order. Numerous forms of representation—including art, literature, cartoons, cinema, and advertising—shaped this discourse, interpreting and constructing the social relationship between the sexes—"constructing" because sexual identity is neither biologically determined nor fixed, but rather made and remade under historical circumstances. Works by the Fourteenth Street School, which participated fully in this discourse, can be read as part of the process by which the feminine was constructed at the time.
This book examines how four artists developed pictorial strategies that embody changing ideologies of gender during the interwar period. Each painter self-consciously merged features of the contemporary scene with old master conventions: Miller and Bishop adopted images of women from classical sculpture and from Renaissance and baroque portraiture for their subjects; Soyer took images of female workers from nineteenth-century genre painting; and Marsh borrowed sexual stereotypes from contemporary advertising and cinema and placed them in settings that hark back to historical, mythological, or religious subjects. The artists' strategy served several purposes. First, it ennobled the "common man," celebrating the democratic ideals of average Americans during the Depression. Furthermore, it legitimated American painting by placing it within the canon of Western European art. A home-grown American realism that was also part of an established tradition functioned as an antidote to encroaching European modernism. By the end of the 1920s American art critics who despised the work of Picasso and Matisse were calling for a new American renaissance; the urban scene painting of the Fourteenth Street School answered the call. Finally, in conflating artistic traditions and the
contemporary scene, the paintings addressed the issue of female types, one not necessarily discussed by the institutional practitioners of American art. The paintings can thus be situated in the larger discourse on new womanhood and shown to embody dominant ideologies of gender, occupation, and class.
Commentators observing the bourgeois woman's growing engagement with educational, political, and occupational pursuits outside the home began by the 1890s to characterize her as the "New Woman," an independent person with a public role. Successive generations of women and men from various political and social perspectives invoked the phrase in analyzing and celebrating the changing behavior of modern women—or in abhorring and condemning it. Although new womanhood was primarily a middle-class discourse, the phrase "New Woman" eventually encompassed many meanings, accumulated class-specific stereotypes, and, as Carroll Smith-Rosenberg has argued, challenged existing gender relations and the distribution of power.
Different ideals of new womanhood came to reflect the accomplishments and the preoccupations of different generations of women. Around the turn of the century, for example, the New Woman had a college education, campaigned for the vote, became a social worker in the spirit of Progressive Era reform, and frequently remained single. By the teens, the emergence of a modern discourse on feminism and debates about sexuality sharpened discussions about the New Woman. After enfranchisement and into the Depression, women and men shied away from the collective demands of feminist political reform in favor of an individualized feminism. The period was one of accommodation between older and newer models of femininity as well as one of divisiveness among feminists, who debated notions of equality versus difference and woman-centered versus heterosexual ideals. The New Woman of the 1920s and 1930s was a moderate sort, hoping to capitalize on new job possibilities and to make herself attractive with the mass-produced products of the clothing and cosmetics industries. Unlike many of her older feminist sisters, she was unwilling to sacrifice the dream of a newly fashionable companionate marriage for a career. This revised New Woman of the 1920s chose feminized activities. At home, she focused on consumption; if she worked, she sought either a clerical or a retail sales position.
The Fourteenth Street School's representations of women both participate in the larger discourse on new womanhood and, for the most part, affirm traditional ideologies of domesticity, heterosexuality, femininity, and motherhood. None of the images, however, can be definitively linked to a single unifying conception of womanhood, or to a particular constituency of feminist viewers. Moreover, despite the effects of combining contemporary and old master conventions, many of the paintings enact or expose incipient contradictions in the positions designated for women in the consumer culture and at work. Through iconography and style—space, figure composition, color, and light—and through nuances in the painterly
surface, the works often question what is imaged and reveal shifts or tensions embedded in the social fabric.
Any discussion of new womanhood and its representations must emphasize the historical and ideological complexity of both. At any given historical moment new womanhood encompasses contradictory discourses on gender difference related to sexuality, motherhood, work, the family, feminism, femininity, and masculinity—to name only the most obvious. New womanhood is thus one site of the continuous production, definition, and redefinition of women's roles and women's behavior. It is where various political and power-related interests intersect. The phrase "new womanhood" can be shown to reproduce or challenge dominant ideologies, depending on when, how, by whom, and in whose interests the term is used and to what ends. Neither the "new" nor the "woman" of this construct is a fixed term. Analyzing new womanhood involves determining whether the new woman is continuous with earlier and more traditional conceptions of woman, or how the notion "woman" at a given moment is understood in relation to the notion "man."
All these considerations shape my study, the questions it raises, its methods of analysis, and my own position as a viewer and interpreter of the paintings. They grow out of recent concerns in feminist art history and, more generally, the relation between feminist theory and women's history. To think about new womanhood (a socially constructed and historically shifting category of woman) and its representations (produced by historically situated makers under specific historical circumstances and shaping our perceptions of social reality) is to ask what notions of sexual difference and gender relations are played out in these paintings, how that process is being accomplished, and to what effect.
To address these questions, I interpret the paintings as both historically embedded and characterized by intertextuality, understanding the two conditions as intertwined. I am using intertextuality here as Lisa Tickner does, conceiving of the work of art as a text rather than a discrete object of value. This visual text as such loses its boundaries and becomes a site where meanings are "constantly circulated and exchanged among other texts [i.e. paintings, writings] and between other sites in the social formation [i.e. new womanhood]." This project involves combining potentially contradictory (though not irreconcilable) insights from poststructuralism, Marxism, and feminism. I share the concerns of materialist feminists who want both to understand language as a source of meaning and the locus of human subjectivity and to grasp the historically specific experience (the social, economic, political, and institutional practices and habits) of individuals who produce or view or inhabit a particular set of representations—in this project, the artists, the subjects of the images, and the viewing audience. I will shuttle in different chapters between the paintings, the artists, and the viewer—both then and now—and their particular engagement with the ideological discourse of new womanhood.
Chapters 1-3 provide a historical and methodological framework for readings of individual works by the four artists considered in Chapters 4-7. Chapter 1, "The 'New Woman' Revised," examines visual and verbal representations of new womanhood from the 1890s to the Depression in light of the situation in which the New Woman arose, brought into the public arena by technology and industry, her life reshaped by institutional and political changes. In this initial chapter I take up the multiple senses I attach to my title. The New Woman has been revised—"real" women experienced the world in new ways as a result of historically changed circumstances in the twenties and thirties. The paintings express these historical changes, in part by altering turn-of-the-century conventions of urban realism or figurative painting. At the same time, the discourse of new womanhood is under continuous revision, negotiation, and contestation through a variety of representational/textual practices. Finally, I am re-viewing both the historically situated new women (and men) and the discourse of new womanhood through my own contemporary lens.
In this chapter and throughout my study I interpret paintings as visual texts with fluid boundaries, open and connected to other visual and verbal representations that carry the rhetoric of new womanhood. I use the term language (with special emphasis on pictorial language) as the historian Joan Scott broadly defines it: "any meaning-constituting system—strictly verbal or other—through which meaning is constructed and cultural practices organized." Language becomes the starting point for understanding how social relations are conceived and how they work. Although certain poststructuralists claim that language (and hence texts) have no single fixed meaning, the premise that "all the world's a text" suggests that there can be no understanding of individual texts. Meanings (of new womanhood, for example) are endlessly deferred or totally relativized. I argue instead that there is a range of possible meanings within which a text can be understood. Texts acquire meanings within specific interpretive communities at any given historical moment, and meanings change as those communities shift and bring new understanding to the cultural codes by which the texts are structured. Images of women in the Fourteenth Street School paintings elicited different responses from contemporary male and female viewers; as part of a later interpretive community of feminist art historians, I ask how the various components of these artists' pictorial language came to signify a range of largely conventional and acceptable notions of womanhood within a larger discourse on the New Woman.
Michel Foucault's concept of discourse is useful in answering questions about the role of language and the structure of institutions in constituting meaning. Joan Scott, examining poststructuralist theory for feminism, points out that discourse is neither language, text, nor image but rather a "historically, socially, and institutionally specific structure of statements, terms, categories and beliefs." Meanings
are contested within "discursive fields of force" whose power resides in claims to knowledge—claims that are themselves embodied in writing, in professional organizations, and in social relationships. Since discourse is expressed in organizations and institutions as well as in words (or images), these also function as documents to be read. Art schools and art history, for example, are institutions supporting the discourses of art; the institutionalized discourse of advertising and home economics contributed powerfully to the social construction of womanhood. Finally, Scott points out that discursive fields "overlap, influence, and compete with one another," appealing to their respective (apparent) objective and (hence) unquestionable truths for authority and legitimation.
Foucault's concept of discourse and discursive field makes it possible to show how seemingly different texts or arguments share the same assumptions. Thus, as part of showing how new womanhood is constructed in the paintings, this study will also ask how such representations work within or against other constructions of new womanhood in other texts, other discursive fields, and other levels of ideological practice. These images have been constructed within the discursive field of art—one that includes texts on art criticism and theory, artists' biographies, and the practices of educational institutions and museums. But the New Woman as shopper and worker has also been constituted within other historically specific texts. I set these texts against one another to show how the pictures embody contemporary attitudes and perceptions about women's lives, reinforcing or, occasionally, challenging dominant patriarchal assumptions.
Chapter 2 introduces artists whose lives are neither well known nor fully chronicled and draws on interpretive material ranging from my own interviews with Soyer, Bishop, and surviving friends of the artists to archival, biographical, and critical sources. It contrasts the artists' family and class backgrounds, gender identities, the time and place in which each came of age, and the artistic and social spaces within which they produced their images of the Fourteenth Street neighborhood and its New Women.
I use poststructuralist accounts of subjectivity to frame discussions of the artist in relation to his or her work and the rewriting of art-historical biography. Especially useful are those accounts that insist on both the historical nature of gendered subjectivity in relation to concrete habits, practices, and discourses and the notion of a general subject continuously individuating itself by constructing an identity and understanding itself and the world from various potentially contradictory subject positions. Such accounts allow for some agency on the part of artists and viewers without losing hold of the ways in which both are constructed in language, discourse, and ideology. In other words, the subject cannot construct itself but can choose (from an available set of representations) how it is to be constructed.
These premises are crucial to feminists who wish to "diminish the centrality" of the artist as the humanist subject—the sole originator of meaning and knowledge—
by focusing on the historical conditions of the artist's practice. Chapter 2 discusses the particular and often contradictory ways in which the artists' identities and experiences were shaped or challenged by new womanhood and suggests how various institutional practices and art theoretical or critical discourse helped to mold the critically successful figurative strategies the artists used to give the ideology of new womanhood prominent visual representation.
Chapter 3 combines an account of neighborhood history with a discussion of Fourteenth Street-Union Square imagery by other contemporary artists; it also analyzes how the debates about art and politics inflected these representations. I have studied newspapers, periodicals, and guidebooks to reconstruct both the course of events around Union Square and contemporary perceptions of the neighborhood's diverse population. I place the paintings of the four artists among the range of representations of the district, showing that the artists' strategies, with few exceptions, are mainstream and middle-class. I ask how they alternately confront and circumvent the ethnic and class diversity of the area through composition or the selection of subjects. Only Miller among the four artists never portrayed the unemployed men who frequented Union Square Park during the Depression. All four artists, however, unlike their social realist contemporaries, avoided depicting the radical demonstrations that occurred in the district, concentrating instead on the daily life of the neighborhood, especially the activities of women.
Paintings by the four artists construct different kinds of new women and different features of new womanhood. Each artist envisioned a distinct female type that includes some aspect of mainstream new womanhood. In Chapters 4-7—two on shoppers and two on working women—I examine these images of new women in the context of women's domestic lives, a flourishing consumer culture, women's labor, and the feminist movement in the interwar years. For example, the models of womanhood in Miller's and Marsh's different images of Fourteenth Street shoppers have little to do with independence, economic self-sufficiency, or gender equality—values espoused by radical feminists between the wars. In Chapter 4 I present Miller's matronly shopper as a stable nurturing figure contained by carefully constructed settings and modeled on classical and Venetian Renaissance prototypes. She resembles the new stereotype of the professionalized homemaker promulgated by business and by moderate feminists who wanted to accommodate the liberation of the enfranchised woman to her ongoing role as homemaker.
In Chapter 5, I demonstrate that Marsh's voluptuous shopper, placed in settings that recall old master paintings, resembles the popular Siren of thirties movies and advertisements. Although she embodies the glamour and sexual liberation of the new woman, she is a lower-class figure, constructed for the sexual pleasure of the masculine viewer. Marsh's paintings suggest uncertainty about whether women were liberated by consumer choice or seduced by the media to transform themselves into visual and sexual commodities. In some works they tower above men who
appear helpless at their beauty; in others they are de-individualized types, trapped in dense shopping crowds.
Raphael Soyer and Isabel Bishop portrayed two distinctive types of wage-earning women. In Chapter 6, I show how Soyer's image of shopgirls begins to subvert prevailing middle-class conceptions of women's roles. Poses and gestures convey the wearying effects of working life that lower-class retail saleswomen on Fourteenth Street were said to experience. They are the only Fourteenth Street images in which women directly confront the viewer. Using Degas as his prototype, Soyer in the 1930s resurrected the historical stereotype of the exploited shopgirl that contrasts with the 1920s model of the department store saleswoman portrayed by Miller, whose model of middle-class success more closely fit the discourse of new womanhood.
In Chapter 71 relate Bishop's images of youthful office workers to issues of sexual difference, including the problem of spectatorship addressed by the artist as a New Woman representing new womanhood. Bishop reinterpreted Rembrandt to create unsexualized close-ups of office workers, alone or in intimate conversation; atmospheric pastel color and light mask the dramatically changing conditions of the clerical worker's job. Bishop's paintings present women as models of individual achievement—the ideal new woman described by job counselors and employers in the constricted job market at the end of the Depression.
In the chapters on the four artists, I place the Fourteenth Street works in each artist's oeuvre of the twenties and thirties. In addition, I explore the relationship of these works to other artists' paintings of women and men, to media images, and to political cartoons. I draw on women's history and psychological and sociological studies from the twenties and thirties. Shopping guides, fashion magazines, the advertising industry, and career advice literature for women chart the changes in what was deemed appropriate "womanly" appearance and behavior. I look at a variety of representational discourses about the New Woman with the aim of showing how they may inhabit the same ideological sphere.
As an art historian feminist viewer of these paintings I have revised my own position as I located contradictions in the material itself and encountered changing explanations of art, society, and women's history in the 1920s and 1930s. American art historiography itself presented several contradictions. First, depending on the focus of the study and the works selected, scholars place the artists into one of several categories of 1920s and 1930s realism. All four are understood broadly as painters of the American Scene who observed contemporary life without displaying an overt political attitude. I have adopted this understanding, qualifying it, however, to make a place for the nuances of the period's own critical voices. As early as 1934 Marsh was proclaimed the urban counterpart to America's regionalist triumvirate, Thomas Hart Benton, John Steuart Curry, and Grant Wood. By contrast, those who locate a critical edge in certain works by Marsh and Soyer place
them among the social realists who wanted art to take an activist stance for social betterment. Those who see a studio practice at the core of Soyer's art-making activities de-politicize his works and place him, along with Miller and Bishop, in the tradition of the studio picture painters. Finally, especially since the 1930s, apologists for modern abstraction, with its attendant claims of universalism, have dismissed the four artists' works as academic, uncritical, and sentimental.
Such inconsistency suggests the complexity of each artist's vision, the failure of totalizing categories, and the need to examine individual works in their particular historical configuration. It also suggests a need to highlight the centrality of debates about the relationship between art and society in this period without losing sight of art as in some way constitutive of both "social" and "political" ideologies—in this study, of ideologies of gender. In the Depression, artists and critics alike called for greater social responsibility on the part of the artist. Demands for an intelligible pictorial language (some form of realism) that would portray the local and specific habits of life for the average American viewer became the order of the day. Artists on the Left in the early years of the decade took the demand for realism further, arguing for an art made by a community of worker-artists that made the plight of the proletariat visible. By mid-decade, government programs for the arts embraced the more centrist ideology of American Scene realism and gave the artist a public role as decorator of the nation's government buildings. On post office walls across the land, artists, who for the first time were given a major public role in picturing the nation's past and future, celebrated the virtues of democracy in monumental images of urban and rural life as well as life within the American family.
In portraying the daily life of average Americans, the works I discuss here share certain aims with the public art programs. At the same time, however, they are easel paintings, made in the private space of the studio for a bourgeois audience that went to galleries and museums and purchased works for private consumption. Moreover, the artists who made them held different positions with respect to the prevailing gender system and class structure and, as a result, were interpreted variously according to the ideology of American Scene painting: one woman (Bishop) and three men; one Russian Jewish immigrant (Soyer) and three middle- to upper-middle-class artists born in different generations.
I wanted at first to reclaim these images of Fourteenth Street women for a historical account of an era when the marriage of culture and politics gave men and women at all levels of society a more equal stake in American life. But such an explanation came quickly to seem unworkable, not only because of the pictorial presentation of these subjects but because of the period itself. Whether seen as the time when the welfare state began or as a time when a more conservative version of industrial capitalism was maintained, the interwar years produced great social upheaval; but this upheaval, unlike that in other progressive eras, was accompanied by no major feminist reform. In chronicling the period, feminist historians have
cited as evidence of the demise of feminism the defeat of the first Equal Rights Amendment (E.R.A.); a vociferous back-to-the-home movement; and, in the Depression, government-sanctioned campaigns against married women workers. At this time, nonetheless, more women worked in government administration than at any other period in American history; in the art world, more women artists found employment on government projects. My interpretation of interwar feminism follows that of Nancy Cott in The Grounding of Modern Feminism , which charts the diffusion of the women's movement after suffrage into a multiplicity of organizations, voices, and conflicts. In the 1920s the feminist movement did not end; there was a shift to a modern feminism, in which tensions between modernity and tradition, equality and difference are always in flux.
In developing an interpretive model for the Fourteenth Street School paintings, I am drawn back to the works themselves. Their pictorial language simultaneously accommodates and conflicts with the feminisms and gender ideologies of the inter-war period. Because I see the works as sites of contradictory discourses on new womanhood, I use a model of analysis that allows me to encompass the contradictions and to see history as a process of transformation rather than as a totalizing triumph or failure on the part of one group over another. Even as gender relations were negotiated and changed during the period, power remained unequally apportioned. The images must be analyzed with that inequality always in mind.
One final note about my discussion of these paintings. My primary concern here is not to reassess the position of these artists in American art history, or to evaluate their aesthetic achievements. All four artists were well known in their day, and most art histories treat them as among the important urban realists of the period. This is a feminist project whose goal is not the recovery of lost women artists but rather an engagement with what Mary Poovey calls a "historicized demystifying practice" whose goal is to "chart more accurately the multiple determinants that figure in any individual's social position and [relative] power and oppression." Thus my task is not to make Isabel Bishop as good an artist as the men. Nor do I want to mine the paintings for some kind of pure feminist content, condemning those that fail to meet my criteria. The aesthetic and feminist standards to which these paintings are held are themselves socially and historically constructed. My concern is to understand how the conventions of visual representation work within a historical constellation of events, material practices, and ideas to construct the unequal relations of power that are part of the ideologies of gender in the interwar period. To do this is come to a provisional understanding of the historical relations of gender. From that may follow some understanding of ourselves and the possibilities for change.