Why women’s colleges matter (it’s probably not what you think)

I thought I would take a momentary break from art in order to ruminate a bit about the value of women’s colleges.

A few weeks ago there was a flurry of opinion by news pundits (mostly people who have no personal or professional experience in the subject) about the viability of the very idea of women’s colleges. The issue was spurred on by a recent study indicating that graduates from single-sex institutions are not ultimately more successful than their co-ed counterparts. As I’ve observed it in the media, the argument for women’s schools tends to go back to points about the continued inequality between the genders in the work place, in political office, in pay, and the opportunity that an all-women’s education affords young women to step into leadership roles that might otherwise be denied to them. The argument against consistently boils down to the idea that the world is co-ed and therefore the best way to prepare for it is in a co-ed environment. Both of these arguments are probably at least partially true, as far as they represent the needs and perspectives of different individuals. Certainly some women will fare better in life if they are allowed an all-female college experience, just as others will benefit more from a co-ed environment. However, to say that the only way to prepare for the “real world” is through a co-ed university is to deeply misunderstand the benefit of a single-sex education. More importantly, it actually represents the kind of narrow concept of society and our roles within it that an experience in a women’s college serves to buttress against.

I should perhaps backtrack a moment and describe my own decision to attend Smith College as an undergraduate. Coming out of a co-ed public high school, I initially fought the idea of even looking at the women’s colleges—as my mother pushed me to do—and wanted instead to focus on places like Grinnell, Amherst, and Swarthmore. However, in the midst of creating my list of perspective schools, I happened to see a documentary on Hillary Clinton’s graduating class from Wellesley. I was impressed, not just by the accomplishments of the featured individuals, but by the people themselves. They were women I wanted to know and could see myself growing into. So I reluctantly added Wellesley to my list.

Of course, once I allowed myself to look at one single-sex school, there was no reason not to look at them all. When I did, what I found was a group of colleges that catered to my interests better than the choices on my original list. By the time I actually applied, only my back-up school was co-ed. There were many reasons for me to attend the colleges I applied to—high academic standards, incredible facilities, strong programs in my areas of interest, entrance into an honor’s program, gorgeous campuses, far-reaching alumni networks—but what ultimately won me over was a quality that is far more difficult to quantify or describe.

Because they are in the same area, I visited Amherst and Smith on the same day. What disturbed me most about Amherst, which at the time ranked either first or second in the country, was the sense that it offered a social experience not so different from high school. The young woman who took us on our campus tour was well-dressed and in make-up, professional but self-conscious, as were the other female students we passed. Despite their different races and ethnicities, there was nonetheless a strong sense of sameness about the women there, and in retrospect I now see it as a shared willingness to be what they sensed others expected them to be. What was worse was that I saw myself doing the same, and I became uncomfortably aware of my own interest in the young men in my tour group and on campus. In contrast, when we got to Smith the atmosphere was decidedly more relaxed, even free. Our guide was clean-faced and casual, while the other students we passed could not be easily categorized into any one type. Paradoxically, it was only in the single-sex institutions that I saw women who clearly thought of themselves as people, rather than female, first.

And so I went to Smith. Not all of my initial hopes and perceptions turned out to be true. I was not able to avoid the distractions of personal relationships, but I did learn that friendships can be nearly as intimate and painful as any romantic entanglement. The alumni network, combined with Smith’s reputation, has helped me navigate the competitive waters of my career. Yet they have not served as a bulwark against the current financial crisis which has forced me into a cross-roads I had hoped never to reach. I have often wondered how my life would be different if I had gone to one of the schools from my original list, but I have never regretted choosing Smith. The reason is simply this: even as a natural skeptic, being in a single-sex environment offered me the opportunity to see the world in a way I never could have from the standard co-ed vantage point.

That is the real reason why women’s colleges are and will continue to be necessary in our society. They offer a three-to-four year experiment in living, after which those social and psychological norms often taken as natural in the “real world” reveal themselves to be mere constructions, and often harmful ones at that. The experience is not for everyone; I certainly knew people who did not want to be there, should not have been there, and, in some cases, made the lives of the people around them a little worse because they were there. However, if you come with curiosity about the human condition and are flexible enough to ask questions you may not like the answers to, there simply is no substitute for the difficult, troubling, incredible, and singular experience of a single-sex education. To lose women’s colleges would be to lose questions that we otherwise would not know to ask, and therefore to lose knowledge we could not otherwise gain.

Okay, enough of my ramblings. I will return to art for the next post.

Photo by Renée DeVoe Mertz.

The science of art in “Exposure,” “Talo/House,” and “Lunar” at the Art Institute of Chicago

Lunar (2011) by Spencer Finch on the Bluhm Family Terrace at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Despite ample historical evidence to the contrary, the cliché that art and science necessarily represent contradictory or even opposite approaches to the world continues to thrive. The survival of this fallacious perception is most puzzling because contemporary art, more than any previous moment or movement, persistently reveals a close, if complex, relationship between the two broad disciplines. Indeed, one of the significant shifts between modern and contemporary art has been the increased tendency for artists to integrate the methods of science—such as research, interviews, and experiment—into their productions, albeit with a continued preoccupation with the experiential. This change is in part due to the ever-increasing availability and use of intrinsically documentary media, such as photography and film, as well as a social shift towards personal documentation and data-gathering tied to social media networks, concern over governmental surveillance, and portable devices that offer a variety of ways to collect and track personal information. The extent of this shift is exemplified in three current contemporary art exhibitions at the Art Institute of Chicago: Exposure, Talo/House, and Lunar.

Exposure: Matt Keegan, Katie Paterson, and Heather Rasmussen (on view through March 4, 2012) is the fourth installment of a series of exhibitions hosted by the AIC’s Department of Photography. Although problematically structured around the idea of exploring “diverse approaches to photography,” each featured photographer successfully delivers a coherent and intriguing body of work that raises an array of questions.[i] Given the nature of photography, it is not surprising that many of these issues revolve around concepts of documentation. For instance, although Heather Rasmussen initially seems to present Minimalist images of randomly distributed blocks of color, her series of photographs in fact records model reconstructions of catastrophic freight accidents, which she hand-makes out of cardstock and arranges to resemble found journalistic images from the web. What at first engages the viewer through abstract design slowly reveals itself to be a complex reference to the impact of modern standardization practices in shipping on industry and economics, of which large-scale and far-reaching disasters are a significant unintended consequence. Meanwhile, on two other sides of the room, Matt Keegan’s multi-part installation utilizes several forms of reference, documentation, and presentation—such as artist’s books presenting historical photographs of New York with brief texts related to Chicago’s contemporaneous industrial and social development—to evoke relationships between the two cities. Keegan’s strategic use of juxtaposition directs the viewer without dictating any conclusions, and thereby encourages both intuitive and logical engagement. Clearly, both Keegan and Rasmussen freely borrow from or make reference to strategies of production and evidence-gathering derived from scientific fields. However, neither do so as concisely as Katie Paterson.

In capturing mute expansions of nothingness, Paterson’s slides and photographs of black, empty space are reminiscent of Hiroshi Sugimoto’s visions of the sea and theater, while her meticulous labeling and concern with the mundane suggest the rigorous documentation strategies of performance and conceptual artists like Tehching Hsieh. Yet the interest of her work, History of Darkness (ongoing), does not lie in its relationship to its artistic predecessors, but rather in her adoption of scientific documentation and subsequent disruption of the intended consequences of such documentation. Taken in Hawaii with the aid of “one of the most powerful telescopes in the world,” the images capture points in space that are completely devoid of “celestial illumination.”[ii] Although essentially identical in appearance, they each represent different locations in both space and time, and are labeled according to their distance from earth in light years. In highlighting the negative space of outer space, Paterson draws attention to areas that not only typically go undocumented, but which, as photographs, represent an apparent paradox. By recording literal nothingness, these photographs become information about a lack of information, reversing the very purpose of such documentation and the expensive tools used to produce it. As an additional touch, Paterson continues the light humor of her project and its preoccupation with the untenable by numbering her prints as editions of infinity, a move which similarly makes the numbering of editions meaningless (in the conventional sense of establishing value based on scarcity) while neatly tying back to the underlying concept of the series.

Visitors exiting Exposure can step directly across a narrow hallway to enter the exhibition space of Talo/House (2002; on view until November 27, 2011), a three-channel, semi-immersive video installation by Finnish artist Eija-Liisa Ahtila. As the portrayal of a woman whose concept of time and space is collapsing due to her perceptual inability to filter, place, and logically organize sounds, House represents an updated, more sympathetic, continuation of Surrealism. Like the early 20th century movement, Ahtila is concerned here with the portrayal and experience of people diagnosed with psychotic disorders, and similarly attempts to recreate the sensations associated with these alternative states for her audience. Also like the primarily male members of the earlier group, she has chosen to relate this experience through the eyes of a woman. However, far from the mental freedom Surrealists associated with such conditions, Ahtila portrays her subject as increasingly isolated. Over the course of the film, the character tries to block-out the outside world from her home and head as a means of gaining some sense of quiet sanity.

More important for the topic at hand is the way in which the artist gathered her material. While the Surrealists were intrigued with the ideas of Freud and tended to form romantic relationships with women who operated as their muses (some of whom later spent time in mental institutions), Ahtila composed her story based on research and interviews. Although more clinical than her predecessors, Ahtila’s method and subsequent product is perhaps more sympathetic and grounded in reality, resulting in work that seems to give her subjects a voice beyond that of mere muses.

Viewers who also had the opportunity to see the 2008 exhibition, Arctic Hysteria: New Art from Finland, at PS1 in New York will be reminded of the contemporaneous videos by Ahtila’s compatriot, Veli Granö, whose work in that show consisted of the recreation of scenes or moments described as real by his subjects, but are more likely understood as signs of mental illness or delusion by the general public. Perhaps to an even greater degree than House, Granö’s productions suggest sympathy with his socially alienated subjects by withholding critical comment and allowing them a neutral space in which to relate their singular visions of the world. Ironically, the neutrality also suggests a similar level of clinical detachment, suggesting—as a scientist would—that it is only through such disinterestedness that the subjects’ experience may be fairly expressed and understood.

Finally, the multi-media, sculptural installation, Lunar (2011), by Spencer Finch represents yet another attempt to merge aspects of science with art. However, in this case the final product tends to both mine and mimic technology and design rooted in the forward-thinking sciences of the 20th century. As a kind of earth-bound lunar module, the sculpture utilizes solar-power to reproduce the moon’s luminosity, which the artist has measured using a colorimeter. At night, the collected energy shines as light from a large buckyball, a form that automatically references environmental experiments in geodesic domes, as well as the shape’s visionary namesake: Buckminster Fuller. Although visually engaging, Lunar is ultimately less rigorous and satisfying than works like House or History of Darkness, because its engagement with science is more cosmetic than conceptual and its apparent goals—to create a different way of depicting moonlight and suggest a fanciful narrative of a space module landing on the museum—is more novel than probing. Nonetheless, the very idea that simple references to the “hard” sciences can spark the imagination of viewers and therefore enhance an artist’s work is itself an indication that scientific thinking and its markers are not only acceptable within contemporary art, but are actively sought by current artists.

Lunar will remain on the Bluhm Family Terrace until April 8, 2012.

Additional readings and useful links:
Exposure: Matt Keegan, Katie Paterson, and Heather Rasmussen

Katie Paterson

Eija-Liisa Ahtila, Talo/House

Veli Granö

Arctic Hysteria
Exhibition website: http://www.momaps1.org/exhibitions/view/164

Catalogue: Framework: The Finnish Art Review (Artic Hysteria Special Issue), No. 9 (June 2008) [ISSN 1459-6288]

Lunar by Spencer Finch


[i] http://www.artic.edu/aic/exhibitions/exhibition/exposure4

[ii] Exhibition wall text.

Where nature meets Surrealism: Images of Vienna’s Naturhistorisches Museum

The related article on the relationship between Surrealism and the Naturhistorisches Museum, “The Art of Displaying Life and Death,” was published in the Spring 2010 edition of Anamesa.

All images under copyright of the author. No reproduction without permission (please).