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Jen Webb

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Volume 1, May 1996

A State of the Arts: Women and Regional Arts Production

The field of arts has traditionally been perceived as a site of masculine activity. Although women have participated actively as members of the arts community, their involvement has been under a caveat, and their activity often hindered or ignored by the institutions and other agents in the field.1 This practical exclusion of women has been justified by the notions that 'art has no sex and 'the work must speak for it self' 2 in other words, that if women have not been represented in the field of artistic production, it is because there have been no great women artists.3

This paper examines arts practice in western Central Queensland with reference to the position of women artists. In this region, in contrast to the more conventional practice, 'the arts' is a feminine activity, and one which is regarded with ambivalence by the local communities. I draw on information gathered in 1995, when some 60 artists, mainly women, spoke to me about their communities and their arts practice. The communities concerned are rural and relatively isolated: Rockhampton, with a population of some 60000, is their regional centre; some are a day's drive from Rockhampton, and two days or more from Brisbane. The communities are small, relatively homogenous, and based on primary production, either agriculture or mining. Tourism is starting to carve out a space, and is being accommodated by the building of large heritage centres in the more isolated communities. These centres, and the tourist literature and other texts by which the communities represent themselves, indicate the production of a local identity based on the dominant myth of Australian identity: that is, as Anglo-Celtic, white, male and rural.

In order to sustain this vision of local identity, differences within the communities must be subsumed. There are two main tactics that appear to be deployed to this end: rendering invisible those whose bodies mark them as Other; or representing them as 'different-but-equal', which contains difference, or at any rate attempts to efface inequities. The first tactic is evident in relation to Aborigines and Asian migrants, who did not participate in any of the research, and were not referred to at all by the focus group participants. The second approach is used more in relation to women, and works on the one hand to produce them as abstract subjects ('without regard to difference''), and on the other to produce them as 'different-but-equal' - naturally fitted to a domestic role. Thus, there is a form of social contract operating to define, regulate and evaluate both subjects within the community, and the relationship of those subjectivities to that notion of community. Hence, the community is represented as comprising abstract individuals, who are assumed to have consented to their role. But the abstract subject of this discourse is, in tact, very much 'with regard to difference'': as Carole Pateman shows,4 he is always male. Consequently, a caveat governs women's entry to the social contract: they are included in society (as part of humanity) and, paradoxically, excluded (as 'private').

While the discourse produces 'the individual' as neutral and unmarked, and the community as homogenous and harmonious, it distinguishes those who do not fit the norm of 'the individual' as unfitted for the social order. In terms of Arts practice, I go on to examine the ways in which this region is marked by inequities, and by the denial or eliding of difference. Specifically, I will focus on women as the exemplars of those who fail to fit the norm of 'the individual', and I will position this argument in terms of two related theoretical positions: Pierre Bourdieu's notion of a community constructed on a shared habitue; and that of Michel Foucault on the workings of power in society.

Bourdieu's term, 'the habitue', refers to 'durable dispositions to recognise and comply with the demands immanent in the field.'5 Habitus ensures a certain consistency of practice, and as a shared way of being, produces norms, beliefs and values which are internalised, which are generally accepted as true and natural. Thus, in a community predicated on social contract, individual members will be endowed with a habitue that predisposes them both to believe the stories of society that this discourse produces, and to comply with the discourse. Further, since habitue is an embodied set of dispositions, it inscribes the body as a social text, written by the community. The consequent bodily taxonomy produces members of the community as subjects differentially positioned in a social hierarchy on the basis of such features as their age, gender, or race.

Foucault too points out the significance of the body in producing and permitting particular kinds of identity. The body, for Foucault, is the site of the manifestation of subjectivity, and both bodies and the subjectivities associated with them are regulated, particularly through institutional discourses. This discursive power, however, can only function in a community which is based on social contract when it effaces itself, or appears as neutral or natural. Consequently, as Foucault argues famously, power is at once everywhere and nowhere; we are imbricated within matrices of power, largely on the basis of how our bodies are coded and regulated.6 In other words, we comply with, and live out, this subjectivity in a generally unconscious way. The effects of habitus and discursive regulation, then, mean that those marked as different to some extent share the general belief about their status, and produce the practice' end identities which are concomitant with that marking.

Arts practice in Central Queensland provides an important example of a particularly and peculiarly female activity in a context where white rural men define the dominant social and cultural practices coded as important or valuable. In Central Queensland the women artists whose practice disrupts the status quo, are not, typically, marginal subjects, but enjoy a dominant position in society in terms of their own status (educated, active members of the community) and their husbands' or fathers' social location (graziers, 'old' families). Nonetheless, they are denied full subject status on the basis of their bodies: as women, they are always both political subjects (like men) and troubling objects (signs that speak); and in consequence are less securely located within the social order, with differential access to local power structures.7

The arts is a potentially 'scandalous' site within Central Queensland communities because it is a field which maps out and exposes differences, and makes inequities visible. It is also an antagonistic site, because the intrusion of women artists and their practices goes against the shared habitus, and hence threatens to disrupt the social order. Thus it comprises the twin trouble of women disturbing the masculine order, and of artists disturbing the homogeneity of a rural and pastoralist economy. This constitutes the point at which the fantasy of a liberal, homogenous and harmonious community can be unravelled.

The arts works as a potentially disruptive site firstly by exposing the fantasy of a homogeneous community made up of abstract individuals, and making evident the way in which members of the communities are clearly marked by their gender, race, and class. The focus group participants stated that in their communities: 'Art is mainly a woman's field. Art is 'sissy stuff' - sports is the big thing. They're very down to earth, the men out here. They don't do art, or if they do, they don't talk about it or let anyone know.' Thus the field constrains performativity along gendered lines. The class issue was made evident in that 'Miners' wives don't do art' - thus it is not just women, but a particular category of women (established, members of local grazier families), who practice art. The race issue was evident in the silence about it - no Aboriginal or migrant artists participated in the focus groups, nor was there any mention of their art forms, although we know objectively that there is a vital Aboriginal arts industry in Queensland, and that the migrant community is present and quite active culturally. So, though the participants in each community insisted 'we're all the same here', their own narratives made evident the exclusionary practices performed both by and on the arts communities

More specifically, the arts intrudes by being a highly visible women's activity; thus, it provides a venue for women to intrude into the public sphere, which in this region is a male space. This causes tensions in the public sphere, because it is generally that which is coded as productive which is accorded value, and in Central Queensland, 'production' generally equates to farming and mining - masculine activities - while art is coded as (merely) expressive. Nonetheless, the artists engage robustly with the public sphere, competing with other communities for a share of the support available from government and the private sector, and demanding the right to have a say in the cultural development of their communities. The artists also manage and account for public funds: they are familiar with, and make use of, state and federal government cultural funding policies and programmes, and typically dominate local government arts funding committees. In Jericho, for instance, it was the local arts community that pressured the Shire Council into setting up a Regional Arts Development Fund (RADF) committee, and thus changed the role of the local council. As they recounted: 'Council thinks they're just for roads, rates and rubbish; until the Council had it foisted on them through RADF, art was just something women did. RADF has forced the council to get involved in art.' They also use standard business and public relations skills - challenging the silence of the local media about art, fundraising, finding sponsors, organising, promoting and selling their work. Thus the presence of art in these communities problematises the status of the public and the productive.

Artistic practice by women also causes tensions in the private sphere. The women artists record their husbands and families as being opposed to their art because it distracts them from caring for the family, and is not viewed as productive: 'The family treats art like a hobby; that's the hard bit, family is the worst, they don't know anything about art, and because it's not real, it's not good, to them. There are always negative vibes from husbands, so it is hard to keep at it. You have to be really determined to do it.' So the women, who struggle to be taken seriously in the public sphere, also have to struggle at home for the right, the time, and the space to engage in their chosen practice. This exposes the fallacy of the social contract, by showing that women are not treated first as abstract social subjects, but as gendered beings; and also shows that women's conventional role is neither natural nor particularly rewarding. In other words, women have to be ideologised and at times face sanctions to ensure they remain as wives and mothers. This role is not 'different-but-equal', but one in which they are required to be at the service of their families, and yet receive little or no public reward, and little support from their families: 'we can only do art defiantly, against our families' wishes. Art isn't seen as a job: you're at home, always available for others' needs.'

Arts practice, then, constitutes a scandal by disrupting the liberal fantasy of a homogenous community, and exposing the violences inherent in this representation. It is also a scandal because it provides a site for women to intrude into the public realm, to critique it, and to offer direction to the community as a whole. Arts practice both challenges and destabilises the social order. Such challenges must be repressed or contained, or at least negotiated, in the interests of maintaining a viable community.

I want to turn now to the tactics and narratives used to smooth over, or efface, the threat of disruption. It is principally the women artists who, having disturbed the status quo, work to adjust and smooth over the disruptions. They do this firstly by insisting on the homogeneity of the community. This indicates the power of the liberal discourse, and the effect of a shared habitus in constraining practice and identity: it is the very people who mark out difference, and who have to struggle to be taken seriously, who produce narratives of the homogeneity of their communities which both rely on, and make possible, an authentic 'we'. They describe their communities as 'close knit', 'very friendly', and with 'no distinction between artists and everyone else - everyone is involved in the arts'. At the same time. however, they distinguish themselves as a discrete community within Central Queensland: thus, though 'everyone does art', artists are a marked group. They say, for instance, 'artists aren't seen as different from the local community; people don't think of local artists as 'artist' but as general members of the community; artists don't differ from the norm.' The fact that artists can be distinguished by being named indicates that there is an identifiable arts community, but one that tactically masks its presence. This can be read as an effect of their habitus: since they are, in fact, part of the community, to a certain extent they share its beliefs and dispositions. It can also be read as a strategic move. If women artists are too troubling, they risk being silenced.

The homogeneity insisted upon by the discourse of the community is produced, then, by masking difference. This bodily inscription is both imposed on the artists, and simultaneously accepted as part of their own habitus. Difference is sanctioned: 'People who look different are eccentric artists are just regular-looking people - they have to blend in. People look at you differently if you call yourself an artist - you're 'one of those'. No one's anonymous here, so you can't do as you like.' Thus, there is a violence which works to constrain women artist's performativity, and they accept this constraint by effacing their own difference. There is, then, a simultaneous insistence on a 'natural' homogeneity, and a recognition of, and masking of, difference.

The disruptions caused by arts practice can also be resolved by linking them back to the practices which are coded as feminine. Much of the art produced is traditionally part of the feminine sphere - fibre arts, for instance - and the products are practical or decorative rather than 'pushing the barriers.' Thus, more artists work in craft areas, particularly domestic crafts, than in painting or sculpture. The artists themselves tend to present their practice as feminised, in that their narratives of art circulate around the notions of nurture, beautification, and enlightenment; thus, local art celebrates, maintains and binds the community and the rural: 'Bush poetry gives a sense of community, it brings people together, and maintains our history; art is recreational, but it has done a lot, specifically for women who have nothing to do. It's given them a common interest.' The subject matter and style, likewise, reflect and interpret the local area and hence work to support the community - it is 'traditional; conventional; landscapes and gum trees - anything nostalgic; nothing contemporary because locals are a conservative people.' In these ways, the scandal of women challenging the public (male) sphere can be safely covered over by the private.

The third way of covering over the intrusion which arts constitutes is through masking its activity in the public sphere. As I outlined above, the arts community does engage robustly with public institutions, but art is largely kept outside the realm of economic necessity and hence represented as private and domestic. This is done by circulating stories of local art which emphasise its recreational nature, or which represent art as a site for friendship:

'The women's involvement isn't just to learn, but to spend time with friends'. It is also coded as an appropriate volunteer activity; for instance, the arts organisations in Barcaldine and in Winton designed and produced banners for their town's main streets as a civic gesture. Likewise, the artists in Alpha have painted murals on public buildings -'to cheer everyone up' - after a series of local disasters. Finally, when an artist's work becomes economically viable, it is generally re-coded as a support to the main (the real, the serious) activity - her husband's occupation. This is despite the fact that there are rural properties where it is only the women's art income which keeps the farms liquid and viable. Thus the women are still represented (and represent themselves) first as graziers' wives, rather than as artists.

The complex and often contradictory moves by which the central Queensland women artists negotiate their bodies and their practices in a community where they are not valued takes place, then, through a series of 'forgettings'. They 'forget' that they are 'only women' within their arts organisations, where they perform as proficient and professional artists. They also forget that the valued individual is male and rural, and proceed with their activity as though it had an established social position. In the wider social context, they 'forget' their identity as troubling agents, and both reinscribe narratives of the community which emphasise its homogeneity and harmony, and position themselves as engaged in traditional female activities. They also forget their artistic aspirations and their knowledge of what is valued in the wider art world, and produce artworks that please their communities. There is thus a series of what Zizek terms 'fetishistic disavowals,'8 whereby they know what is and is not permitted (or at least valued) in their communities, but they continue nonetheless to practice their contradictory subjectivities. Consequently, the narrative of a harmonious community they offer is constantly unsettled by stories of the ways in which they are suppressed, and by the unspoken stories of the excluded. But, as Laclau shows, nothing can be fully written out or elided; that which is silenced always leaves traces of itself, and returns to trouble the present.9 Thus, in the gap between what the women know and what they do, there is a space in which those silenced differences can erupt, and trouble the narrative of community.


1. Whitney Chadwick, Women, Art, and Society (London: Thames & Hudson, 1990), p.8.

2. Janine Burke, Field of Vision: A Decade of Change: women's art in the seventies (Ringwood: Viking, 1990), p.21.

3. Linda Nochlin, Women, Art, and Power and Other Essays (New York: Harper & Row, 1988), p.l47.

4. Carole Pateman, The Disorder of Women: Democracy, Feminism and Political Theory (Cambridge, England: Polity Press, 1989), p.33.

5.Pierre Bourdieu, The Logic of Practice, trans. Richard Nice (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1990), p.58.

6. Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Volume I, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Vintage, 1978), p.92.

7. Slavoj Zizek, Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press. 1991) p.163.

8. Slavoj Zizek. 'How did Marx invent the symptom?.' in Mapping Ideology, ed. S. Zizek (London: Verso, 1994), pp.296-331.

9. Ernesto Laclau, New Reflections of the Revolution of our Time (London: Verso, 1990), p.34.

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