Friday, March 15, 2013

Back in school -- reflections on feminist art

Another paper written for my art history class:

OK, I’m going to show my age. I was there for the dawning of the Second Wave of feminism, raised in the postwar age of stay-at-home moms doing housework in high heels and pearls, hitting the workforce and marriage just about when women were starting to question their cultural expectations and limitations. I was just as mad as anybody at the dawning realization that the status quo just wasn’t fair.

But I never thought – and to this day, do not think – that the way to protest maltreatment at the hands of the chauvinist pig male establishment is to maltreat yourself.

In many cases, early feminist artists took this maltreatment quite literally. Valie Export walked down the street in different kinds of creative undress, inviting people to feel her up. Marina Abramovic invited spectators to savage her with knives, thorns and loaded guns while she sat motionless for six hours, and they took her up on it.  Yoko Ono allowed spectators to cut her clothing off while she too knelt motionless.

Marina Abramovic, Rhythm 0

In other cases, feminist artists settled for simulated maltreatment. Ana Mendieta reenacted a brutal rape of a woman in her community, and made numerous photo images of herself, both clothed and nude, covered in blood (at least the blood was not her own). Carolee Schneemann allowed snakes to crawl over her naked body.

Ana Mendieta, Body Tracks

And many feminist artists simply offered their own naked bodies in provocative contexts to challenge the traditional view of the passive female nude, laid out for the pleasure of the male viewer/consumer. Some upped the ante by featuring female genitalia in prominent roles, either their own or false, For instance, Hannah Wilke made little genitalia out of bubble gum and stuck them to artworks on paper or to her own face and body. Francesca Woodman stuck masks and photos between her naked, spread legs. Carolee Schneemann extracted a long scroll from her vagina during a performance.

Hannah Wilke, SOS Scarification Object Series

Francesca Woodman

While agreeing totally with the feminist perspective that the art world has historically given women the short end of the stick, and something should be done to challenge this practice, I have a hard time understanding the concept behind giving yourself the short end of the stick in protest.

By contrast, I feel a great deal of sympathy for feminist artists who try to put the show on the other foot, by giving men a frisson of what it might be like to be seen voyeuristically as a sex object. Artists such as Joan Semmel and Anita Steckel painted heterosexual sex from a female perspective, celebrating the activity but presenting it for the benefit and pleasure of the woman, not the man. Perhaps male viewers felt a bit uncomfortable at their depictions of erections and penises, and if so, that was exactly what the artists wanted to accomplish.

But I confess to bewilderment over how putting your body forth as a sexual display to shock, disturb and titillate viewers is a large qualitative improvement over allowing some male artist or pimp to do the same. (I had a hard time finding images to illustrate this post that were at least sort of fit for public consumption.  A half hour on google with the artists I have mentioned will probably be plenty to ruin your breakfast.)

Artists of both genders have always felt free to use shock value as a step toward acceptance (or at least recognition) by the art establishment, and the greater the public outrage, the greater the artist’s satisfaction, emotional if not financial.  I can also see the temptation on the part of young, good-looking women to capitalize on their looks; if over the centuries men have made money off the nubile bodies of women, it’s nice for women to bypass the exploiters and make the money themselves, especially if that also provides a ticket to the higher levels of the art world. But as a card-carrying feminist I wish these artists had chosen a mode of expression that could stick it to the man without treating themselves as meat for the man’s gaze.


  1. Maybe it's more about control...perhaps the point is that when they put their bodies out there,even if it's in a way some might view as "sexual display", they are in control of how they are showing themsleves. The woman herself is deciding what she will, or will not, allow to be done with her body. To a certain extent, that is sticking it to the man by taking the power over her body out of his hands, and keeping it in hers. Just a thought...

  2. Laura Beth -- I'm sure you're right -- that's exactly what they say they are doing. Kind of like "don't hit me, you pig, I'll hit myself!!" I just wish they had thought of a different way.

  3. This is a thought provoking post. I've long had issues with the activities around feminism. I, too, "...was just as mad as anybody at the dawning realization that the status quo just wasn’t fair." However, fighting back with similar ugly actions did not seem to improve the situation, or achieve my goals, which would be acceptance as a human being with my own competencies.

    It's the old truth, of two wrongs not making a right. I've long tried to work within the system, whatever that may be, to try to improve things, rather than attack "the other" as a kind of getting even, or getting revenge. Apples and oranges. Do we want revenge? Or opportunity?

    The question for me seems to be how to achieve a modicum of recognition and acceptance by others, male and female, without stooping to mud slinging, shocking activities, or succumbing to gender and role expectations.

    Your statement, "as a card-carrying feminist I wish these artists had chosen a mode of expression that could stick it to the man without treating themselves as meat for the man’s gaze", to me only perpetuates the anger and the competition, of EITHER a man or a woman, but not simply a HUMAN BEING did this (insert accomplishment).

    I think we need to get past the labels of humans, be it male, female, white, black, gay, straight, or other variations of ways to separate and categorize us into acceptable or not acceptable. I also understand the rage rooted in centuries of maltreatment.

    That said, I also think it is in human nature to see the world through some prejudice, some pre-judging, as a way to understand the chaos that surrounds us. Perhaps that can't be changed, but adding the value judgement of this is good, that is bad, this is acceptable, this is not, based on our essential differences is possible.

  4. Rosemary -- you are a more evolved person than I am. I think it's a lot to ask to go from oppressed (or whatever adjective you would use for pre-feminist women) to acceptance without stopping at rage and revenge, at least for a little while. Besides, why should women go straight to no-labels-all-equal if men aren't doing the same? I wish we could all be without prejudice but we clearly aren't. Some of us are working on it; some not. I think art is as good a place as any to work through these feelings; surely better than porn or violence.