The Lady Art

June 12, 2007

There’s been a lot of talk here recently about movies and television (this is what happens when you go on vacation and Netflix starts sending you mail again), sadly dropping us into the breaches of American low culture. It didn’t have to be this way, but I’m sadly not an expert in all things manchot (french for “penguin” or ”one-armed”), and I could hardly offer anything besides protestations and a two-bit riff dans le facon de jemordvosyeux. So, let us raise the discourse, and bring back the old wor(l)d of the day.

A long time ago, I wrote a little bit about English noun gendering, taking a look at the way it can be used for literary effect. Yesterday, whilst reading The Mirror and the Lamp, M.H. Abram’s seminal discussion of romantic theory (ah, the joys of vacance!), I stumbled across this quote from Samuel Taylor Coleridge:

“Art is the mediatress between, and reconciler of, nature and man. It is, therefore, the power of humanizing nature, of infusing the thoughts and passions of man into everything which is the object of his contemplation…”

Although I agree with absolutely everything Coleridge said (especially his cure for hangovers: six fried eggs and a glass of laudanum), the substance of this statement is immaterial for today’s discussion. What’s interesting is Coleridge’s use of the feminine in describing “art.” Art is a mediatress. The OED recorded this quote in which art is also feminine: 1801 FUSELI Lect. Art i. 8 Greek Art had her infancy.  With no formal noun gendering in English (at least of abstract nouns), there’s absolutely no consistency of gender as regards “art”–least of all in Coleridge–and making art, like a boat or a car, a woman is completely at your discretion. All’s fair when you’re hooked on laudanum.