BETTY ANN BROWN
|In 1983, Craig Owens wrote an article in which he suggested that feminist artists initiated many of the practices of postmodernism. Owens began with a quotation from Lyotard: “Postmodern knowledge [le savoir postmoderne] is not simply an instrument of power. It refines our sensitivity to differences and increases our tolerance of incommensurability.” He went on to discuss the work of Mary Kelly, Martha Rosler, and Cindy Sherman, among others. Tragically, Owens died a few years after writing “The Discourse of Others: Feminists and Postmodernism.” Other scholars have had to continue his work.|
Judy Chicago, "Through the
Flower," 1973, sprayed acrylic
on canvs, 60 x 60".
Magdalena Abakanowicz, Abakan Red,
1969, sisal and mixed media,
157 1⁄2 x 157 1⁄2 x 137 13/16".
Martha Rosler, "Nature Girls (Jumping
Janes), from the series Body Beautiful or
Body Knows No Pain." 1966-72,
photomontage, size varies.
More than twenty years later, curator Connie Butler’s “WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution” seems to give physical form to Owens’ thesis. Anyone who studies Butler’s exhibition will be forced to acknowledge the pivotal position of feminist artists in the development of postmodernism. “WACK!” brings together artists that, as Butler asserts, “interrogate cultural hierarchies of all kinds.” The artists challenge stereotypes about race, gender and class. They explode the canons of art history, from the idea of male genius to the institution of the masterpiece. Their deconstructive project takes aim at the very definition of art by working in a wide range of media, including many “non-art” materials, and through a wide range of processes, from anonymity to collectivity.
Of course, this is all old hat to feminist artists and scholars. We all know that feminists have been doing these things for decades. We did them. Some of us still do. (We may not know about all the artists Butler has included; indeed, the wide range of her curatorial embrace may be the most important aspect of the show. To assemble 119 artists from 21 countries into a singular cultural effort is impressive in and of itself.)
Butler is preaching to the feminist choir and we are glad to hear her. She says what we’ve long believed and her words resonate because of her prestigious public forum.
Here’s my question: who else is listening? And if there are some non-feminists going to the exhibition and spending enough time to “get” it, what are they hearing?
I guess I’m asking what constitutes success in an exhibition, in particular, in this exhibition. Is an exhibition successful if it’s beautiful or at least visually seductive? Is it successful if it’s a blockbuster, that is, if it sells a lot of tickets and makes a lot of money? Is an exhibition successful if it gets good reviews in the press? Is it successful if it presents an idea and convinces viewers of that idea’s merit?
Well, “WACK!” isn’t beautiful; it doesn’t try to be. Some of the individual works might be considered beautiful (I think Magdalena Abakanowicz’s ten-foot weaving “Abakan Red” is gorgeous), but the exhibition as a whole is determined to challenge traditional ideas about beauty, so aesthetic delight is not a high priority.
It’s certainly not a blockbuster. People may line up day after day to see mediocre Picasso paintings, but not to see art by people whose names they don’t even know. After the first big party on opening night, “WACK!” has not been really crowded.
The reviews have been mixed. Everyone seems to agree that Butler accomplished a formidable task. But lots of the critics are critical as well. Christopher Knight concludes that, “A good deal of the art is finally wanting.” He adds that “painting is a weak link,” and points to the work of Sylvia Sleigh, Judy Chicago, Miriam Schapiro and Joan Semmel, feminist icons all.
(One of the other issues I’ve noticed about the “WACK!” press response is that the dozens of time-based works are rarely discussed. They may be mentioned, but never analyzed at length. Is it easier to talk about static work? Or is everyone so rushed that they just don’t have time to watch enough of the videos to evaluate them?)
So we’re left with the idea and its merit. I started out by saying that the show seems to “prove” what Craig Owens asserted more than twenty years ago. But I said that you would only know that if you studied the show (or its cataloguebut that’s another story that I wil address shortly). Are there non-feminists out there who want to study the work at “WACK”? If there are, and if they study enough to be convinced that Butler proves her premise that these artists initiated many of the strategies being used by postmodern artists today, well, then, “WACK!” is a success for them, isn’t it? I hope that’s the case for hundreds, no thousands of viewers.
Cheri Gaulke reminds me that at the Los Angeles Woman’s Building, she was taught that feminist art can be defined as that which invites dialogue, raises consciousness, and transforms culture. If lots of viewers are indeed changed by their experiences with “WACK!” then the show itself is not only about feminist art, it is feminist art.
The catalogue is, as noted above, another story. I’ll bet lots more people spend lots more time studying it, reading the essays, comparing and contrasting the images, and coming to a considered opinion about the work. I’ll bet the catalogue endures and impacts the field more than the show.
Which is why the catalogue cover is so troubling. It’s a Martha Rosler collage of nude women taken from photographic ads. The women wink and flirt and offer their perfect, large-breasted bodies to the consuming gaze of any viewer--feminist or not. In fact, the catalogue cover is so troubling that it had generated 27 contentious comments on the “WACK!” website when I read it on March 21. (Other areas had many fewer comments on that date.) I decided to show the image to my graduate seminar in critical theory to see how a group of 18 art students might respond.
Some thought it was provocative and interesting, but most felt that whatever Rosler’s intentions may have been, whatever the intentions of the catalogue designer, the image could be read as repetitious objectification of the female form. One student compared the cover to Austrian artist Valie Export’s 1968 performance “Touch Cinema” (“Tapp- und Tast-Kino.”) Export walked through the city wearing a large box over her torso. Viewers were allowed to put their hands through the curtains that covered an opening in the front of the box and feel her naked breasts inside. This student noted that Export stared directly at the (mostly male) viewers, thereby challenging the male gaze and undermining its power. But another student countered: “Yeah, she may have been staring at him, but he was still feeling her up!”
That’s the conflict inherent in controversial art. It has to visualize the controversial issue in order to address it. And visual images are multivalent. Another example is the “WACK!” exhibition images based on pornographic images of women--no matter what the artist’s intentions--can be read as repeating, even reifying, the pornographic debasement of women.
Carolee Schneemann, "Portrait
Partials," 1970,thirty five gelatin
silver prints, overall 26 7/8 x 26".
|Artists can’t control how their images will be viewed. And curators can’t control how their exhibitions will be received. What Butler has done with “WACK!” is enter the conversation on feminist art, a conversation that began in the 1960s but has somehow dropped into virtual silence in the interim. Her exhibition will be successful if people talk about the issues embodied in the artwork, and if they keep talking.
Another project that will keep them talking is the Feminist Art Project based at Rutgers University. If you log onto their website (http://feministartproject.rutgers.edu), you’ll see a list of the many feminist art anniversaries that have been celebrated recently.
2006 was the 35th anniversary of these historic events in feminist art history: Judy Chicago’s Feminist Art Program was begun at Cal State Fresno and Linda Nochlin wrote, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?”
2006 was the 30th anniversary of Linda Nochlin and Ann Sutherland Harris’ “Women Artists: 1550-1950” at LACMA.
2007 is the 35th anniversary of the founding of the Los Angeles Woman’s Building and the Women’s Caucus for Art (at the College Art Association). It is the 20th anniversary of the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C.
To celebrate these milestones, among many, many others, Rutgers has founded and is continuing to host the Feminist Art Project. As the website states: “The Feminist Art Project is a collaborative national initiative celebrating the Feminist Art Movement and the aesthetic, intellectual and political impact of women on the visual arts, art history, and art practice, past and present. The project is a strategic intervention against the ongoing erasure of women from the cultural record. It promotes diverse feminist art events and publications through its website calendar and facilitates networking and regional program development, ensuring women's representation in the cultural record.”
“WACK!” is listed and discussed as part of the Feminist Art Project. So is Judy Chicago’s “Dinner Party,” newly installed at the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum. So is “Multiple Vantage Points: Southern California Women Artists, 1980-2006,” finely curated by Dextra Frankel for the Southern California Women’s Caucus for Art and the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery. So is “Echoes: Women Inspired by Nature,” which I curated with Linda Vallejo for the Orange County Center for Contemporary Art. So are over 130 other exhibitions nationwide and nearly as many lectures and symposia.
I guess this all means the conversation IS happening. Are you part of the dialogue? Are you listening?