Why Women Can’t Paint.

All the portents point to the closure of the patriarchal era, an era in which the definitive male is crucified and later resurrected in a rebirth. Throughout this era, painting has been a keystone of patriarchal religion, not only reflecting the parable of death and rebirth, but actually embodying this possibility intrinsically within the very materiality of the paint substance. That is to say the painter, engaged in a communion with the painterly creative process, can experience an ecstatic conversion in which the mind is forever irrevocably transformed.
It is this innate potential within the very constitution of painting that iconoclasm throughout many centuries was really attacking. The image breaker, who smashed religious and icon paintings, was not attacking the surface figurative symbols of saints or deities, but rather this intrinsic power within the formal dynamics of painting to access another dimension beyond the boundaries of everyday ‘reality’.
Recently it has been shown that the splattered and dripped areas of painterly marks occurring on panels near to, or actually within the scenes of religious icon paintings, embody this pure painterly creative process with its inherent transformative power. Such painterly areas have been directly compared to modern abstract expressionist works such as the ‘drip’ paintings of Jackson Pollock. (1) In Pollock’s abstract expressionist paintings, the painter’s conscious cognitive self is fragmented and dispersed into an infinite space, in a psychic dissolution prior to a psychic resurrection. That this creative process is truly the original prototype for the various narratives and religious parables convened to represent such experience, is validated by the Byzantine portable altars, for personal spiritual use, which consisted exclusively of ‘all-over’ abstract expressionist painting. The actual narratives of the icon painting only describe and explain what happens in a creative engagement with this deeper level of pure material form in the related panels and areas of abstract painting.
But if the patriarchal era is coming to a close, does this also mean that painting, with its archaic cultural and spiritual role, is also redundant? There are certainly plenty of today’s postmodern pundits eager to proclaim the final demise of painting. One prominent critic recently conceded that there might always be painters, but only in the same way as there will always be morris dancers. (2) But the New Age iconoclasts, whether they know it or not, are still really targeting the transcendental and spiritual essence at the core of real painting, an essence inevitably perceived in our politically-correct world as esoteric and ‘elitist’.

Opposition to painting in the modern era really began with Marcel Duchamp, Dadaism and the inception of Conceptual art. Duchamp reacted negatively to the fundamental development of modern abstract painting, considering it to be vacuous in its superficial concern with the retinal and the optical. In fact, like many others, he missed its deep unconscious dimension and its revolutionary project to reinstate the archaic mystical ekstasis at the heart of the painterly dynamic. Modern abstract painting was arguably the most dramatic and radical development in painting since the Renaissance, and the first painting since early Byzantine religious icon painting to embody painting’s essential transcendental, spiritual dimension. This is probably why it unconsciously aroused such vitriolic hostility.
Andy Warhol, for example, was envious of Jackson Pollock’s cultural cachet and coterie of admirers. But being Duchamp’s natural heir and the first postmodern painter, he didn’t try to emulate Pollock’s complex, subliminal ‘all-over’ abstractions, but rather to parody and belittle them. His ‘yarn’ paintings are banal simulations of the real thing, being totally devoid of Pollock’s vital sexual energy and unconscious male psychic organisation which underpins patriarchal religion. Indeed, this was Warhol’s homoerotically motivated ideological objective, to emasculate Pollock and to drain abstract painting of its spiritual energy in a symbolic castration.
His series of so-called ‘piss paintings’ in which he simply urinated on canvas, represent his caustic critique of authentic painting. He also masturbated on canvas to vent frustration and to desecrate Pollock’s hallowed ground with an obscene, sacrilegious act. In the place of the mystical, authentic painting, he put the superficial, simulated decorative patterns which were the precursors of so much of today’s postmodern art. Warhol’s art, like a plethora of postmodern art, was spawned initially by the ideological Anti-Art stance of Duchamp’s Dadaist conceptual art.
There are, of course, plenty of examples of anti-art nihilism and literalisation of the creative process in the ‘neo-conceptual’ contemporary scene. The residue of Warhol’s semen and urine can be detected through Piero Manzoni’s canned artist’s shit into Ofili’s elephant dung paintings. But the real point is that it no longer matters whether art is good or bad, or has any ‘value’ or indeed any point at all. It would in any case be elitist to suppose that someone had talent denied to somebody else. We are all artists now. Chris Ofili’s dung paintings may be dressed up with some superficial decoration of pretty coloured dots, apparently lifted from his tribal ancestors and designed to confer the aura of genuine ethnicity, along with a simulated veneer of authenticity and aesthetics, but this doesn’t make him a painter.
Nevertheless, this is easily enough to satisfy most people in this soundbite culture where deep meaning is shunned in favour of the obvious crass interpretation that everybody can decipher. The earnest and meaningful visitors intently and reverently studying the exhibition by Gilbert and George consisting solely of large images of turds, were clearly blithely unaware of the joke being perpetrated upon them by the celebrated gay duo. As with their gay icon precursor, Warhol, the underlying homoerotic objective is to literalise male creativity, castrate it, and sanitise it in brightly decorated perspex posters.
Artists who once might have offered transformation, healing, even redemption, have given way to the media celebrity who will use any hype and gimmick to get publicity, and have become the performing poodles of the establishment institutions which determine the art which will represent our society and control its supply and demand.
The ultimate objective of this New Age iconoclasm, as indicated, is to emasculate painting and to extract its life’s blood, in an act of vengeance against patriarchy and the elitism of transcendentalism. It was the American critic Donald Kuspit who suggested that the person who razed the temple of Diana to the ground, only did it because he hadn’t built it himself. (3)

In the vanguard of this ideological reaction is feminist art; the feminine has most to gain from the overthrow of patriarchal art. Since women’s emancipation, feminism has searched for new forms to represent female creativity in its unique aspect. This has clearly resulted in much exciting and revolutionary neo-conceptual art, particularly in terms of installation, video and performance art, which have served to reflect the radical otherness of the feminine.
By contrast, painting has traditionally been a male preserve. Certainly social exclusion has been a factor in this and there have been proven cases where women painters have been airbrushed out of history and their work attributed to men to make it more saleable. (4) Also this is not to ignore the fact that there have been many very prominent and unique women painters such as Paula Modersohn-Becker, Frieda Kahlo, Georgia O’Keefe and Lee Krasner, to name but four. But it still remains the case that painting is overwhelmingly a masculine medium, and indeed, its whole activity is connected with projection and expulsion, whereas the characteristics of the feminine might traditionally be more associated with an internalisation or introjection in an attitude of passivity. Jackson Pollock’s ‘drip’ paintings, on one very primitive developmental level, can be viewed as reflecting a male orgasmic projection.
Perhaps it is this male domination of painting, with the spiritual and mystical kudos attached to it, which has so consumed some feminists. A feminist icon such as Germaine Greer conceded in her seminal work The Female Eunuch, first published in 1970, that women hadn’t hitherto produced any great art, and underlying much feminist neo-conceptual art is an ideological agenda targeted at real painting and so at patriarchal religion, which reflects male psychic organisation as its spiritual framework. (5) Male psychic organisation is imprinted in the material substance of the paint medium, in a transubstantiation, as the mind is embodied in the paint, which acts in effect as a psychic mirror in a plastic arrangement of form analogous to psychic structure. If this imprint encodes the potential for psychic death and rebirth in the essence of the creative structure, then how does such a creative process differ in relation to the feminine?
In order to answer this fundamental human question it is necessary to penetrate the inner workings of the creative process in its essence and as it has been generally understood throughout human development and in contexts as diverse as the religious icon painting, or the African tribal ritual, or the modern abstract painting. That is to say, the creative process which offers some real psychic communion, authentic engagement or possibility of real transformation, as opposed to the watered-down version which has infiltrated the postmodern mentality and which embraces crafts and pastimes as well as the ideological and propagandist hype and gimmick which postures as much postmodern ‘art’. Although some postmodern and feminist artists might claim that neo-conceptual art can embody the transcendental, its roots in the anti-art intellectual objectivity of Duchamp and the emotional detachment of Warhol, make such a possibility difficult to sustain.
Today it is not generally understood, or perhaps conveniently misunderstood, that the elemental and universal creative process can provide a template through which an individual can transform life by actually re-working it within the creative medium. The earliest human developmental sequences encountered by the infant can in reality be worked through again and reprogrammed. This is not simply regressive, because such sequences can be re-engaged throughout adult life in an evolving maturational process. It is this fundamental reprogramming of the psychic constitution that forms the foundation for the ideas of religious conversion, psychoanalytic therapeutic technique, and more archaic forms of healing and mysticism.
In its most essential form the painterly creative process initially involves a type of exorcism, in which isolated raw and fragmented paint marks are projected on to the canvas. For complex reasons these rudimentary marks can appear intolerable and generate anxiety in the painter. Subsequent phases in the creative process tend to develop a cohesive organisation; the exorcised projections are integrated in a type of support system, which makes a reparation. This happens purely at the abstract formal level, and in an infinitely complex series of intuitive, subliminal and unconscious responses to an imperceptible flux in the volatile and malleable paint medium, the psyche leaves an imprint.
As the mind and its reactions are confined exclusively within the parallel universe of painting’s creative dynamics and are actually externalised within the paint medium, it appears as if the mind vacates the body, inducing a momentary loss of consciousness, or trance in a psychic ‘death’. Religion has labelled this experience an ascension, as the soul appears to float free from the body. It also constitutes the classic ecstatic conversion, the ‘out of body’ experience at the core of ekstasis. In effect it is as if the mind is removed, earlier developmental sequences re-organised, and the reprogramming internalised.
It is significant that this whole scenario is promoted by early anxiety, mirrored in part in the exorcism of initial fragmented marks. Painting can be very much about exorcising anxiety and confronting distress in order to relieve it. This is why psychotics so often have been known to experience a spontaneous creative phase and produce such weird imagery. It is also why Freud at times appeared to dismiss artists as neurotics and art as being little more than the attempted sublimation of neurosis. (6) But it is in the catalytic role of anxiety in the creative process that there is a fundamental dichotomy with the feminine and a possible explanation as to why women would seem to have not had ready access to the male preserve of painting.
Much psychoanalytic theory supports the idea that fear, persecutory anxiety, guilt and general unease and dread in the face of reality, instigates the early urgency to displace such emotions on to other objects and so-called ‘transitional phenomena’. This stimulates the creative urge and promotes the process of symbol formation. Melanie Klein, who worked extensively with children for many years, argued that a failure to negotiate these transitional developmental phases, sows the seeds of schizophrenia and psychosis in later adult life. Her approach differed from the earlier work of Freud in that she dealt with the pre-Oedipal infant in the earliest years of development.
Freud’s analysis related to the Oedipal level of development, but his theory had also concluded that it is infantile anxiety and fear which initiate the creative urge and drive to symbolise. In papers such as: Inhibitions, Symptoms and Anxiety and case studies such as that of ‘Little Hans’ in Analysis of a Phobia in a Five-Year-Old Boy, Freud argues that the imperative to displace threat results in a creative complex. (7) His analysis of the phobia of Hans reveals the ultimate threat of castration as the root cause of his persecution anxiety and need to create an ambiguous abstract construction in order to dissipate such a threat. Freud also understood that it was within the materiality of the word and distortion of the language that Hans mediated his phobia; that is in sound, or homophony and in a type of ambiguous nonsense language, rather than in the narrative or meaning of the dialogue. From this infantile creative organisation it has been concluded that ‘anxiety writes poetry’. (8)
It is important to recognise this fact, that the innate obligation to displace untenable anxiety was carried out in the purely formal and material dimension of the word and the dialogue, in order to avoid any possibility of a re-conceptualisation by the conscious mind which is not equipped to handle such deep emotion. The formal dimension that I refer to here is that of unconscious form, or what Anton Ehrenzweig termed ‘inarticulate form’. It is that type of form beyond conscious perception or representation; it cannot be premeditated or consciously copied; it is accidental, vague, ambiguous, and in terms of painting would be located in the uncontrollable striations within the paint mark, or in the ‘bleeding’ and drips at its edges, or perhaps in the irregularities and undulations of texture and impasto. That is in the anomalies of material facture, elements that cannot be consciously and deliberately executed, but are by-products of the creative process. Such effects escape conscious attention but they can be procured by the painter and subliminally and intuitively monitored.
Artists instinctively recognise that such elements have profound significance for the unconscious mind and that they generate the emotional vitality and force of painting. The mature painter engages in a sensitive dialogue with the painting to facilitate the development of its own peculiar inarticulate characteristics and associated emotional power and mediation of anxiety. The over-refined painting, in which those representatives of conscious engagement and deliberation in terms of surface shapes, pattern and decoration gain ascendancy, loses vitality and is emotionally diluted. Such works are ultimately the stuff of cliché and mannerism and their stylisation has often been employed by the postmodern conceptual painting to simulate, ironise and debunk authentic painting.
Whether in terms of music, poetry or painting, this is why the emotional power of art resides in its material form. Indeed, as I have indicated in reference to the dripped and splattered panels of ‘inarticulate form’ in the religious icon painting, the surface parables and narratives only serve to describe what is happening at this deeper level of the creative process. This is the archaic relationship between form and content which has been so misunderstood in recent times. It is the emotion embodied within unconscious inarticulate form, which determines the surface narratives, symbols and shapes of consciousness. This holds true for the dream, which forms a compromise between potentially overwhelming unconscious emotion and a conscious organising mind constitutionally incapable of containing it. The dream offers tentative conscious access through ambiguity and displacement. But it is the force of unconscious form that determines the character of the dream, just as the inarticulate dimension of the icon determines its symbols.
Similarly, it is the unconscious creative tension experienced in the creative trance and psychic ‘death’ of the tribal ritual that determines the form of analogous tension in the tribal sculpture or artefact, which in effect was designed to encode the creative tension and mystery of the transformative ritual for future generations. This is why in such a tribal context there was no concept of aesthetic beauty in relation to such objects, always a source of perplexity to Western observers. The tribal artefact had a purely functional role to preserve the ritual experience at the heart of the culture.
Psychoanalytic theory acknowledges the key roles of anxiety and the dimension of unconscious form both in human development and in the initiation of creative displacement and symbolisation. Freud recognised that the threat of castration arouses the deepest dread and anxiety in the infant and whether or not such a threat is ever actually uttered by a parent it is nevertheless ever present. Threats of this nature are all the more powerful in the suggestible infantile mind where they are literalised. The parent who threatens the child with: ‘I’ll murder you if you do that again…’, rarely understands that the infant can take such a threat literally. However, if castration is the most fearful menace then inevitably there will be an ultimate difference of degree experienced by the male or female infant.
The male child’s urgent need to displace anxiety through abstract form is symbolised in the fable of Jack and the Beanstalk, where a long formal chain is fashioned so that it can be both climbed and descended; that is to say, the male child can regress through art’s form in order to re-engage with earlier developmental sequences and return reborn. This is what led Pollock to claim: ‘I am nature’. It can be shown that infants actually develop a purely aesthetic sense and the ability to perceive pure form during the dangerous Oedipal phase of development around 4-5 years. (9)The aesthetic sense is very much a defence in displacing the threat implicit at this level of development. Freud said that: ‘the motive force of defence is the castration complex’, and that ‘ethical and aesthetic barriers’ are created as a defence. (10)
In a short paper entitled: Some Psychical Consequences of the Anatomical Distinction Between the Sexes, written in 1925, Freud recognised for the first time that there was no parallel between the sexes in terms of psychology and sexual development. (11) In fact there were fundamental differences in relation to the castration and Oedipus complexes, and importantly, in the make-up of the inner conscience and what Freud had termed the ‘super-ego’, which he defined as the residue of parental discipline and authority. Crucially, whereas in the male infant the threat of castration destroys the Oedipus complex, in the female this threat actually initiates and consolidates it. That is to say the male obliterates the Oedipus complex under the threat of castration, and sublimates it, and incorporates the severity of this threat within a severe super-ego, conscience and morality. Accompanying this development is the displacement into the anaesthetic defence of abstract aesthetic form, and hence the intrinsic connection between ethics and aesthetics, or between beauty and truth.
In the case of the female, the urgent demand for the elimination of the Oedipus complex is lacking; there is no castration threat, as this is perceived to have been carried out already. The female is rather locked into the Oedipal situation by her desire for compensation in the form of a baby, a desire initially associated with the father. Furthermore, as Freud points out: ‘The fear of castration being thus excluded in the little girl, a powerful motive also drops out for the setting-up of a super-ego…’ (12) Again in relation to women: ‘Their super-ego is never so inexorable, so impersonal, so independent of its emotional origins as we require it to be in men.’ (13)
Freud draws the somewhat erroneous conclusion from all this that the more benign conscience of women leads them to show less sense of justice than men. Perhaps to a degree we can excuse Freud’s sexism as he was of course working in a much earlier unenlightened and less politically correct time. Nevertheless he did miss the opportunity to show that it is in fact the more severe conscience internalised by the male that paradoxically leads to the overwhelming preponderance of rapists and murderers in that sex. That is to say, a severe conscience can not only lead to ethics, high moral ground and aesthetic purity, but in some cases the overly severe restraints of conscience can lead to more drastic and violent measures to break free from such paralysing restriction.
Just as a severely repressive political regime can often foment a revolutionary insurrection within its subjects, so too can a strongly repressive conscience and super-ego engender a violent ambition to eliminate it altogether. It has been an archaic role of art and ritual to mediate such issues. For centuries the tribal ritual facilitated the transition of the initiate through to adulthood. I have argued that within the manic trance, which forms the creative core of the ritual process and the essence of a trance-formation, the residues of parental control and conditioning internalised as guilt and conscience can be neutralised and overthrown, in a psychic rebirth into a more independent and adult frame of mind.
Through his worldwide research of such phenomena, William Sargant was able to conclude that the trance experience formed the basis of such transformative rites. He furthered acknowledged the findings of the Russian physiologist I.P.Pavlov in relation to the nervous systems of dogs. Pavlov had showed that under conditions of stress dogs could reach what he termed an ‘ultraparadoxical’ phase of behaviour, during which all prior conditioning was eradicated and often totally reversed. Such a complete psychic transformation (or rebirth) is akin to a brainwashing and Sargant also drew parallels with such conversion experiences encountered in religious fundamentalism and in revivalist gatherings. In such contexts where prolonged threats of eternal damnation and hellfire were absolutely believed, levels of hysteria and stress could be whipped up and the ‘ultraparadoxical’ state of brainwashing and ‘conversion’ could be induced. (14)
So there are correspondences within such apparently diverse experience and the relationships that I have indicated between aesthetics in art, ethics and morals that often find voice in religion, along with the clear parallels between creative transformation and religious conversion, testify to the connections between art and religion. (15)
I have put the case that the creative tension or stress encountered in the transformative ritual, which ultimately can induce the manic, omnipotent trance in which conscience, guilt and restraint can be negated, is the same creative tension and stress that is the catalyst for a type of conversion experience encountered in the abstract painterly creative process. Such ‘psycho-spiritual’ painterly experience led many modern painters to instinctively recognise its ‘spiritual’ nature. Indeed, in the abstract painting, where the ‘slate of reality’ is wiped clean, there is the deep potential for an encounter with the ‘ultraparadoxical’ dimension of conversion where all prior conditioning can be eliminated.
In the paper: Guilt in Painting, published in 1998, I outlined how guilt and conscience can be dealt with in the material processes and dynamics of painting. (16) The modern painter Philip Guston said that within the drama of the painting he was the prosecution, defence, judge and jury, and I show how in the parallel universe of the painterly medium, this happens. In effect, at the crux of the creative process those fragmented and unrefined projections of raw form, which exorcise anxiety, can be integrated with those clear and refined shapes and lines, which represent conscious deliberation and order. Such elements of clarity and order are used by agencies in the mind to ensure that rational organisation maintains dominance and to this end guilt feelings are induced if such surface cohesion and refinement is threatened. Hence the guilt and disgust attached to unrefined ‘inarticulate form’. However, when these two types of form are integrated in the creative core, both anxiety and guilt are subsumed within the creative matrix and the painter can experience the momentary ecstatic freedom from all constraint and an omnipotent unchallenged control of all forms and what they represent in the mind.
Inside the dynamics of the paint medium, the painter can deal with the severity of conscience and guilt and effect a metamorphosis and transfiguraton. It has to be within the material formal process because this is where the true language of unconsciousness is expressed and where the deepest emotions and vitality of art are located. It may involve a violent manic destruction of those defined forms, which represent order, law and conscience, and momentary trance ‘death’, as those representations are dissolved in a conversion. But such severe responses are only invoked by a deeply entrenched threat.
As Freud pointed out, in the case of the female infant, the urgent demand to eliminate the Oedipus complex is absent, and Germaine Greer’s female eunuch will not have the desperate urge to paint, an urge which has formed the motivation for so many male painters. The intolerable conscience that in reality may lead to murder or patricide, in the creative process can be the catalyst for great art. The healing and transformative power of art, whether in the ritual trance with its intrinsic power to transport the initiate on to a higher psychic plane, or the transcendental power of painting to effect a conversion and rebirth, has for countless centuries been recognised cross-culturally and universally. As I have already suggested, postmodern art often has an ideological objective to castrate authentic painting and to substitute in its place the facile superficial hype of much of today’s ‘art’.
I have said also that feminist art has unfortunately all too often been in the vanguard of this ideological reaction. But feminism risks ‘throwing the baby out with the bathwater’. The feminine search for new and exciting forms of representation and creativity, should avoid getting embroiled in New Age sorcery and nihilistic opposition to forms of art which have stood the long test of time and which can genuinely offer healing and transformation.


Georges Didi-Huberman, Fra Angelico: Dissemblance and Figuration. (University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 1995), 30.
Waldemar Januszczak, Painting is Dead. Article published in the Culture supplement of The Sunday Times, 6 July, 1997.
Donald Kuspit, The Cult of the Avant-Garde Artist. (Cambridge University Press, 1993), 25.
Artemisia Gentileschi (c.1597-1651/3), daughter of Orazio Gentileschi, a follower of Caravaggio, is a case in point.
Germaine Greer, The Female Eunuch. (Flamingo, 1993), 116.
Sigmund Freud, Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis. vol. 1, Lecture 23: The Paths to Symptom-Formation. Pelican Freud Library. (Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1981), 423. (SE 16).
Sigmund Freud, Analysis of a Phobia in a Five-Year-Old Boy ‘Little Hans.’ In Case Histories 1, vol. 8, Penguin Freud Library. (Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1990), 165-305. (SE 10). Inhibitions, Symptoms and Anxiety. In On Psychopathology. vol. 10, Penguin Library. (Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1993), 227-315. (SE 20)
Geoffrey Hale, ‘Little Hans’ and the Poetics of Anxiety: Taking Analysis to Task. In American Imago, vol. 51, no.3 (1994), 276
Anton Ehrenzweig, The Psycho-Analysis of Artistic Vision and Hearing: An Introduction To a Theory of Unconscious Perception. (Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, 1953), 169
Sigmund Freud, Inhibitions, Symptoms and Anxiety in On Psychopathology. vol. 10, Penguin Freud Library. (Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1993), 269. (SE 20).
Sigmund Freud, Some Psychical Consequences of the Anatomical Distinction Between the Sexes. In On Sexuality. vol. 7, Penguin Freud Library. (Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1991), 323-343. (SE 19).
Sigmund Freud, The Dissolution of the Oedipus Complex. In On Sexuality. vol. 7, Penguin Freud Library. (Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1991), 321. (SE 19).
Sigmund Freud, Some Psychical Consequences of the Anatomical Distinction Between the Sexes. In On Sexuality. vol. 7, Penguin Freud Library. (Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1991), 342. (SE 19),
William Sargant, The Mind Possessed, A Physiology of Possession, Mysticism and Faith Healing. (Heinemann, London, 1973).
I discuss these connections in much greater depth in my latest book: Painting, Psychoanalysis, and Spirituality. (Cambridge University Press, 2001).
Stephen J. Newton, Guilt in Painting, In Art Criticism vol. 13 no.2, (State University of New York at Stony Brook, 1998), 16-24.

Stephen J. Newton, 2000