The Art History Newsletter

When Art Grows Genitals

by | 10 May 2012 | Uncategorized

So much to write, so little time. Tempted as I am to relate the story of the 13-year-old who corrected a Metropolitan Museum map, I want to talk today about the new Slate podcast Lexicon Valley, which took an unexpected, fascinating dip into art history last week with its 8th episode, “When Nouns Grew Genitals.” Languages that assign genders to nouns, Lexicon Valley notes, often assign them arbitrarily. But is it possible, they ask, that even in those cases the assignments influence the way we think of those words?

To wit, “Does the grammatical gender of nouns in an artist’s native language enable us to predict how those artists will personify things in their art?” co-host Mike Vuolo asks psychologist Lera Boroditsky:

Boroditsky [and Edward Segel] identified works by Italian, French, German and Spanish artists, all grammatically gendered languages, from around 1200 AD up to today. Artworks that depicted a personification of an abstract entity, things like justice, time, fame, peace, truth. Their sample size was about 800 [drawn from ARTstor] and they found that 78% of the time the gender in the artwork matched the grammatical gender of the word being personified in the artist’s native language. In other words, if in your native language death is feminine you’re far more likely to personify death as a woman.