Women and the arts

From the Director of Creative Arts

This week International Women’s Day was celebrated across many countries in the world, marking 100 years of thought and action addressing inequities in the lives of so many women. As a result of a decision taken at the first international women’s conference in 1910 in Copenhagen, more than one million European women and men attended rallies the following year to focus attention on three key demands: the right of women to work; an end to discrimination in the workplace; and the right to vote and to hold public office.

In the twenty-first century it would seem that, in Western nations at least, these demands have been faithfully and satisfactorily attended to, if not always met. But while the day might be a celebration of achievements in the status and lives of women, it is also a reminder of neglect and disparities that still need addressing. In the domain of the arts we might well ask the question: how have women fared in comparison to their male counterparts?

In the world of the arts we can certainly come up with examples of women highly esteemed  in the spheres of music, theatre and visual art. However the statistics reveal a lot of blank spaces concerning the representation and status of women in a domain that continues to be defined by men. In the long line of Western history, it is only relatively recently that women were accepted as performers, musicians or actors, let alone win acclaim for their direction, composition or work as playwrights and artists. Too often women and their achievement in the arts have become a faint footnote in history.

In spite of the progress of the Enlightenment, it may be too soon in history to make the leaps and bounds necessary to bring women to a place of equality. Perhaps the “Nannerl” syndrome even now underlies our mentalities. The recent eponymous French film revives the story of Mozart’s older sister, Maria Anna or “Nannerl”, considered as a prodigy, a gifted forte piano player, composer and violinist.  As brother and sister they performed together as children, but as Maria Anna grew older it was made clear to her that female composers and performers were really only appropriate in the private salons, genteelly performing for family and friends. A violin virtuoso, Nannerl was stymied by the order of the day: the violin was a man’s instrument and the best place for a woman was in the home or in a nunnery. How ironic then to consider that female performers paving the way for acceptance of women into major symphony orchestras were often indeed the violinists.

Times change — the increasing recognition of women’s rights and roles in society in the past 100 years has contributed to greater visibility of women in the arts. However, questions to do with equality and equity remain unanswered. With a few notable exceptions, women are yet to attain the level of kudos and financial reward commanded by the artists perceived as leaders in their field, the majority of whom happen to be men. Unfortunately the exception does not make the rule.  In the Weekend Australian March 5-6 2011, a “Sponsored Four-Page Report” appeared with the title “Women in Leadership”. In the profiled women and the list of “50 Current and Emerging Women Leaders in Asia Pacific”, no women leaders in the arts were mentioned.

Why is this relevant or important to the Creative Arts education at Brisbane Girls Grammar School, as indeed it is? At Girls Grammar, the Creative Arts of Classroom Music, Drama and Visual Art are subject electives that are much in demand in our curriculum. Furthermore, the School has produced many of artists in the fields of art, music and drama. This is an important and treasured role for us, to give students a secure platform from which they may venture into careers in the arts, to nourish and encourage the special talents of our future artists. However, the brief of our Faculty goes beyond producing specialists. Creative Arts holds to a much broader mission and deeper, more complex contribution to our students’ learning and education than sending them to specific career goals, or expecting them all to be stellar trailblazers as artistic professionals, as noble and desirable an outcome as this is.

We are constantly reminded of the dynamic nature of our contemporary and future working life. Career destinations are no longer fixed and reliable entities. Educating our young women is about ensuring they have the skills to make their way with confidence in their education and career path in a volatile and uncharted future. The communication and aesthetic skills which underpin arts education remain fundamental, but there are other exceptional skills to take our students into the shifting landscape of the future.

Contemporary issues and the rich historical content in Creative Arts subjects provide a framework for theories and practices for understanding and negotiating our inner and outer worlds and their concomitant relationships. Practice of the arts imbues students with the willingness and capacity to ask the right questions, to work through processes where trial and error and courage are crucial to gaining understanding. Furthermore, students experience  that the pathway to solution and resolution in any area of life is in itself the construct for achievement.

International Women’s Day could be seen by some as passé in a Western world in which men and women appear to stand on a fairly equal footing. But the need of women to assert their right to equality is in many ways no less pressing than it was a century ago. Our School Intent is about nurturing students in “wisdom, imagination and integrity” and arts education embodies the development and layering of those very attributes. Young women in this School should be encouraged not to lose sight of their role as standard bearers for equality and equity not only from the boardrooms, across all industries and business but significantly in the realm of the arts.

The arts are the soul of society and we should not retreat from this. This is not to say that the arts and arts education are set apart from a world predicated on information and technology, just as the soul is not a separate entity from who we are and how we act. In their diversity and controversy, their pleasure and their pain, study of the arts can inform us philosophically and ethically. Such investigation offers us a moral compass in a world where boundaries are being pushed beyond our imagination and indeed our comfort. The attributes of an education in the arts permeate beyond the museums and performance halls of our society to nourish and sustain the momentous and the everyday of governance and social fabric.

A “renaissance man” is perceived as a person of wisdom, insight and cultural appreciation. On the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day it is time to talk about Renaissance Women.

Ms L Thornquist


International Women’s Day. (n. d.) Aurora GCM Limited. Retrieved 04 February, 2011
from http://internationalwomensday.com/about.asp

Féret, R. (Director). (2010). Nannerl, la sœur de Mozart. France: JML Productions.

Korporaal, G. (2011, March 5-6). Women in Leadership. The Weekend Australian, p. 1-3.

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