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.
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.
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.
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.