Polina Mackay: Beat Feminisms

The ever-expanding field of Beat studies extends our knowledge and understanding of writers within the Beat Generation movement. I have previously reviewed the Routledge Handbook of International Beat Literature here. Beat Feminisms: Aesthetics, Literature, Gender, Activism, a new book from Beat scholar Dr Polina Mackay (University of Nicosia) in the Routledge Transnational Perspectives on American Literature series, examines the role played by women within the Beat Movement. Mackay adopts a division of women which splits up them into waves. Firstly, are the women  (born in the 1910s and 1920s) close to the original generation of Beat writers William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac; secondly, those born in the 1930s who joined (or were associated with the Beats as they reached a public stage; and thirdly, those who were born in the 1930s and were inspired by the Beats but not necessarily personally close to the original Beat Generation. Mackay takes one female writer from each wave and examines them in detail in relation to feminist ideas and practice.

Mackay starts by acknowledging that participation in the Beat Movement – certainly for those individuals not personally connected to original members – was a matter of affinity and allegiance rather than one of conformity of style, theme or content. As Mackay notes, many of the Beat women were isolated from one another, some not meeting until the 1990s. Whether such seclusion was primarily driven by external or internal factors (or both), the point is that male editors and publishers were being exposed to female Beat writings less often and it is therefore unsurprising that little of that material was reaching publication in the 1950s-1980s period. The female absence (in terms of early-era publishing) that could be attributed to male hostility could just as easily be assigned to lack of access to material, no doubt exacerbated by ignorance and indifference. Seeing hostility towards women and absence of interest in women writers as equivalent would be an unhelpful conflation.

There is a thoughtful discussion of the literary place of Joan Vollmer Adams’s death at the hands of her husband William Burroughs in Mexico City. Burroughs, drunk, accidentally shot his wife with his pistol during a game at a party. Mackay outlines the various treatments of the incident. These include a few references in Burroughs’s writings and interviews (he did not present a fictionalised version in his novels), those written by associates and the writings of later authors. It is true but not informative to state that Vollmer’s life is written in her absence, as this is always the case when a subject does not leave any substantial written legacy. The author analyses how Burroughs, Ginsberg and Kerouac used their memories and fantasies regarding Vollmer’s life and death in their writings. Mackay concludes, “A common thread in Burroughs, Ginsberg and Kerouac is the intertwining of female presence in Beat textuality with autobiographical discourses, such as the development of the writer as a process of freeing from the biographical past (Burroughs), the conflation of poetic topic and the author’s poetic self-consciousness (Ginsberg), or the reconstruction of the past in writerly terms (Kerouac).”[i]

The core of the book is a discussion of Diane di Prima, Ruth Weiss and Anne Waldman as key women writers within the Beat movement, whose work exemplifies issues highlighted as feminist and female-specific within literature of the time. In her book Recollections of my Life as a Woman (2001), Diane di Prima wrote of her relationship to the poetry and letters of John Keats, seeing her work as a writer in relation to the ground-breaking output of the Romantic poet. Mackay draws the obvious parallel between di Prima’s inspiration from Keats with the famous incident when Ginsberg had a vision of William Blake, in 1948. Mackay analyses di Prima’s poetics in Recollections and This Kind of Bird Flies Backwards (1958) and Dinners and Nightmares (1961) in terms of a response, extension and revision of Keats’s verse, writing both about him and through him, in a process of intertextuality. “Di Prima’s repurposing of Keatsian poetics [accentuates] Keatsian-like contemplative pieces with the Beat vernacular not only modernizes the meditative poem as a genre but also brings into it a new discourse created by the unique time and space of the work’s production, which was the New York countercultural scene of the 1950s.”[ii]

Ruth Weiss’s Desert Journal (1977) represents two Biblical narratives – of the journeys through the wilderness by Moses and Christ – in a book of 40 poems, symbolising the traditional length of the journeys of 40 days and 40 nights. A reinterpretation of theological stories provided Weiss with a space to explore her journey of spiritual self-understanding. The use of English, German and Hebrew adds to the multi-level sequence, which mirrors the double narrative of the journeys through the wilderness made by the fathers of two religions.

Diane di Prima’s Loba (1998) is a later book, which Mackay uses as a starting point for a discussion of de Prima’s knowledge of early Modernist verse and her responses to mid-century writers, such as Black Mountain poet Charles Olson. This complex book-length poem includes a cast of well-known women from history and, according to critics, contains contradictory attitudes that put forth a complex idea of femininity, not one wholly laudatory. Mackay’s chapter indicates how dense the levels of mythology are in Loba and, more than the other chapters, makes one wish to read the original.

There is a chapter on female performances at Nova Convention in November-December 1978, New York, held to celebrate the work of William Burroughs. These included Laurie Anderson, Julia Heyward, Patti Smith and Anne Waldman. The event marked a widespread acknowledgement of the influence of the Beats on the New Wave and punk movements and advanced a younger generation of creators to be seen as peers of Burroughs and Ginsberg. The performance of Anderson was a key step from being a performance artist known only to afficionados of the New York art scene of the 1970s to a widely known musician and storyteller, world famous by the 1980s. Tangentially related are Kathy Acker’s cut-ups (as found in her novel Don Quixote (1986)), which were expressly parodic in character and considerably less respectful toward Burroughs than were Anderson and Waldman’s performances.

Waldman’s poetry is considered as a form of activism, mainly through the light of her collection Fast Speaking Woman (1975, expanded 2nd edition 1996) and Iovis Trilogy (2011). Aside from generalised statements in support of women lacking power, Waldman makes explicit statements against war. She has been an outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Waldman’s Iovis Trilogy is a 1,000-page long Post-Modern, post-Beat “cultural intervention into public space”. Although this book is held up as a “clear link between writing as a woman and being an activist against various forms of oppression”[iii], this argument seems slightly light here. At least, we could do with more concrete examples that display how Waldman enacts activism through text, as opposed to simply displaying socio-political engagement. Is Waldman’s activism more explicit or direct here? Are there some distinct literary devices that support Mackay’s thesis or is it simply the prominence and urgency of Waldman’s politics that make Iovis Trilogy a landmark work?

The avoidance of jargon and clarity of argument makes Beat Feminisms a pleasing read, in a field that can become opaque with theory and advocacy. The extensive bibliography and a full index contribute to the book’s use as a study resource. Mackay’s book will prompt renewed consideration of the way prominent female Beats have viewed themselves as writers and is recommended for students of the Beat Generation and the wider movement, as well as for those researching feminist literature.

Polina Mackay, Beat Feminisms: Aesthetics, Literature, Gender, Activism, Routledge, hardback, 172pp + xiv, £120, ISBN 978 0 415 8927 1 1

© 2022 Alexander Adams

To see my books and art, visit www.alexanderadams.art

Feminist art collective in Berlin

“We live in compromised times in which the allegory of an uncompromised self is isolationist, privileged, and dangerous.” So opens this book on motherhood and art-making seen through a feminist lens. The Berlin-based group Maternal Fantasies continues, “We reject the reproduction of social structures, which exclude children from most public dynamics and surrender mothers into domestic isolation suffocated by underpaid and/or unpaid care work. As artists, researchers, and mothers, our economic and political survival demands a recognition of our domestic labor and the context in which we produce creative/intellectual labor (work which is often also poorly compensated).”

The introductory artist statement raises a pertinent question. “How can art exist as a site for thinking of the maternal as a participatory practice, an affective enmeshment, and a situated political prompt – in order to promote new modes of thinking-with?” This raises the following issue for those who wish to appreciate the art documented in this book. If an artist becomes detached from aesthetic criteria, how are those without a personal stake in the art able to assess and absorb the resultant art? How are we to judge the worth of art?

The authors state that because art production – like childcare – is driven by love, it goes uncompensated. By their own admission, these artists have set themselves to making art that is defiantly not commercial (films, performances, installations, interactive art) and also complain that their art is under-recognised and uncompensated. Of course, it is possible that the art that they consider most appropriate for their maternal interests are best expressed through non-commercial forms. Yet, how could poor income from collective art of an ephemeral nature be otherwise? If one did apply some measurement to the rewards of art, how could any meaningful system of payment exist?

This is a problem which is (at least partly) due to the artists’ resolute rejection of the commodification of art production. If one wishes to live on an anti-capitalist basis then this is admirable but it necessarily precludes an obvious way of funding art production – selling art to private buyers. Readers may be sympathetic to the plight of poor artists, but they may be significantly less sympathetic towards a group of artists who complain of poverty and simultaneously reject the most obvious route towards compensation.  

The egalitarian approach extends to organisation of projects. “In order to form an international and interdisciplinary collective consisting of diverse personas with differing temperaments, talents, and capacities. Maternal Fantasies has developed a rotational format as a working method. Teams take turns in conceptualizing, organizing, leading, and administering the different group projects. During our immersive residencies and studio sessions, we distribute and rotate the individual tasks, which may include conceptual development, directing, performance, pre- and post-production, marketing, grant-writing, and administration, as well as cooking, cleaning, and childcare.”

The poems and extracts from letters and journals present the thoughts of the women. There is a short entry on the practicalities and costs of daily life, which are enlightening and relatable. These outshine the photographs, which are underwhelming. The performances and events may have been more meaningful and satisfying but they cannot be properly evaluated on this evidence. The descriptions of events are rather vague. They seem to range from protests to children’s activities to mutual support. Some of the activities will be familiar to those who know the communes of the 1970s and squats of the 1980s. Many of the projects involved the children. There are some suggested projects outlined in the book. As art, it does not seem very pleasing but then the art was not made for me. As a book, Re-Assembling Motherhood(s) is engrossing and (inadvertently) revealing for the general art follower.

A long essay recounts the making of a group film, interrupted by COVID-19 lockdown. For all the freethinking regarding gender roles and art making, not a single doubt is expressed in this book about the efficacy or justice of indiscriminate lockdown of a healthy and free populace. Authoritarianism seems okay if the excuse is plausible. There is disappointing scarcity of resistance apparent in the writings. (They did not see one another during some stretches of lockdown.) If these mothers had wished to inculcate independence in their children, shouldn’t they have been defying arbitrary and cruel restrictions and presenting brave community action as a defiant response to the authorities?

There seems at least an apparent conflict between feminism and motherhood. The doctrines of female independence work against the maintenance of a nuclear family, which provides – or at least, did previously provide – a home and income to support the mother and child. The demands of motherhood can be viewed as a constraint on self-actualisation. This schism between personal duty and political action create friction. Always there is the contradiction inherent in this project. There is the recurrent focus on the personal experience (pregnancy, motherhood, emotion, memory, practicalities) and the insistent intrusion of politics. “As a collective, we strongly oppose the reduction of motherhood to a singular experience, which our individualistic Western culture tends to do.” In such entries, Maternal Fantasies appears driven by race and class guilt – a purgative, Spartan, communistic sisterhood, done to demonstrate goodness to spite the capitalist society which funds the collective. The obvious enjoyment of the members and their children undertaking the activities is heartwarming but undercut by the relentless feminism. Feminism, as a branch of progressivism/socialism, demands that “the personal is political” in an insistence of enforcing a joyless sex solidarity, contrary to the intimacy and spontaneity of family and parental relationships.  

Another impetus maybe a desire for a disparate (largely expatriate) group to connect. The group is centred in Berlin incidentally. While the group – very multicultural and majority foreign-born – is strongly involved in their own feelings and relationships with their children, they rarely discuss interactions with non-artist Berliners, let alone other Germans. If this group is so concerned to form resilient communities, why does it seem so isolated from the native population? Why does the setting – cultural, linguistic, economic, architectural – not form a greater influence upon their outlook and art work? The collective was formed because of the rootless nature of the lives of the artists, something common in Berlin. “Having moved to Berlin to study more than a decade ago, most of us did not have the social infrastructure and network of extended family, aunts, or grandparents around for support, nor were we fortunate enough or willing to outsource care work to nannies and care workers from more precarious backgrounds than ourselves.” This anger directed at capitalist representative democracy could (perhaps with greater justification) be turned on the chimeras of feminist autonomy and socialist community, with their attendant illusions of self-sufficiency and self-actualisation.

Having lived in Berlin myself, I know it is possible to separate oneself from German Berliners and from the rest of Germany completely. However, I never did and always made an effort to understand and interact with Berliners, even if I did not have the money or opportunity to travel Germany. Berlin has hardly ever seemed as parochial and tiny as it does in Re-Assembling Motherhood(s). Of course, the totality of their existences cannot be measured in a single short book, but even so, this inward-looking approach is saddening.

The absence of men is expected. Today, for the anti-capitalist woman artist in Berlin, where she supplicates for income from a state-benefits system and artists’-grant panel, the state becomes father. Regrettably, the state is as tyrannically unreasonable as any bullying father, more controlling than any jealous husband, more intrusive than any village priest and more callous than any groping employer. The potential control, independence, dignity and privacy of a nuclear family seem – at the moment – a better bet than the modern authoritarian bio-security state.  

Overall, this is a volume for those interested in feminist art, women’s creative collectives and those studying the sociology of art.

Sascia Bailer, Magdalena Kallenberger, Maicyra Leão Teles e Silva (eds.), Re-Assembling Motherhood(s): On Radical Care and Collective Art as Feminist Practices, Onomatopee, 2021, paperback, 180pp, 60 col. illus., €18, ISBN 978 9493 148574

© 2021 Alexander Adams

To see my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art

Claude Cahun: Paper Bullets


he life stories of Suzanne Malherbe (1892-1972) and Lucy Schwob (1894-1954) are the stuff of fiction. Jeffrey H. Jackson’s Paper Bullets: Two Artists Who Risked Their Lives to Defy the Nazis is a new telling of a tale that has received increasing attention in the last two decades.

The Schwob and Malherbe families were friends and their daughters played together. Suzanne was a talented artist and Lucy wrote prolifically from childhood onwards. They collaborated on a book of drawings (Suzanne) and poems (Lucy), published in 1919. The book was published pseudonymously.

Professionally, Schwob adopted the gender-ambiguous name Claude Cahun; Malherbe chose the masculine nom-de-plume Marcel Moore. They would be professionally known by those names, though their everyday and legal names remained unchanged. As this review is biographical rather than artistic, I, like Jackson, will use their given forenames. Jackson is alive to the way the pair have been appropriated as cons of transgenderism. He points out that although they presented themselves in ambiguous ways (Cahun shaving her head), “they always talked about themselves as women” and used female pronouns. Suzanne and Lucy arrived in the early 1920s from Nantes in search of fulfilment; mainly artistic and literary….

Read the full review of Jeffrey H. Jackson, Paper Bullets: Two Artists Who Risked Their Lives to Defy the Nazis, Algonquin Books, 2020 here: https://thecritic.co.uk/heroes-but-not-trans-heroes-how-two-female-artists-defied-the-nazis/

In Search of Old Mistresses

“”Where are the Old Mistresses?” That was the cry in the early 1970s among female art historians. The Women’s Liberation movement caused a wave of cultural reassessment to sweep through academia and it had no greater impact than in the field of art history. There was a scramble to find overlooked female artists and balance Old Masters with Old Mistresses. Artemisia, the currently suspended exhibition of Artemisia Gentileschi (1593–1654 or later) at the National Gallery, is the most recent attempt to advance the status of women artists. The exhibition is now set to take place at the National Gallery 3 October 2020 – 24 January 2021.

“In 1971 Linda Nochlin published the landmark feminist essay “Why are there no great women artists?”. Nochlin theorised that women’s creativity had been sublimated into craft and that, consequently, Western high art was shaped according to male standards. Finding overlooked women painters and reassessing their abilities was beside the point, Nochlin argued, because the standards were discriminatory. It was a bold statement and strategically astute: women artists could never be found justly neglected due to deficiencies because they were being judged by masculine standards designed to exclude them. Therefore there would never be any Old Mistresses. Nonetheless, every year fresh books and exhibitions about female artists appear, evidence of a compact of curatorial, academic and commercial interests….”

Read the article at The Critic here: https://thecritic.co.uk/in-search-of-old-mistresses/

Rosa Bonheur

Catherine Hewitt’s Art is a Tyrant is a lively biography of groundbreaking French painter Rosa Bonheur (1822-1899). Bonheur was the daughter of minor aristocrats Raymond, a portrait painter, and Sophie, a piano teacher. In an attempt to improve their circumstances, Raymond and Sophie moved to Paris when Bonheur was seven years old. It was in Paris that Raymond became a convert to Saint-Simonianism, a socio-political movement of religious character, that advocated communal living, sex equality and spirituality to counteract the perceived alienation generated by industrialisation. Raymond’s attachment to proto-socialist ideas made a lasting impact on the young Bonheur.

“Despite Raymond’s doubts about the financial security of an artist’s life, he supported Bonheur’s decision to pursue painting, providing her with some training and encouraging her to copy paintings at the Louvre. Bonheur was always especially attached to animals, so it was little surprise that they became her principal muse….”

 

Read the full review on Spiked website here: https://www.spiked-online.com/2020/04/13/rosa-bonheur-striking-a-blow-for-women/

“True Feminism has never been Tried, Comrade”

“Before starting Women Can’t Paint: Gender, The Glass Ceiling and Values in Contemporary Art I was filled with apprehension. Having read dozens of books on feminism in recent months, I expected something turgid and dispiriting. I should not have worried. Women Can’t Paint is one of the funniest books of the year and unintentional comedy gold. If Titania McGrath had written a polemic on the art world, this is the book she would have produced. Andrew Doyle’s latest comic creation is pitch perfect. According to the back cover, Helen Gørrill is an “artist, futurist, writer, editor and educator”. In the opening pages, she describes how her article for The Guardian on gender inequality in the arts received so much derision that its comments section had to be closed. By page 2 I was laughing aloud.

In 2018, I wrote a new Access art and design course for a prestigious Scottish university,underpinning the contextual studies design with equality rather than the traditional white heteromasculinist canon […] Two male colleagues made attempts to remove this vanguard, but I stuck to my guns and received a tremendous backlash […] Sadly, as soon as I left the institution the vanguard was immediately quashed, with only a tokenistic selection of women and BME artists (less than 6 per cent of the total) represented […] The white masculine canon alas endures […]

“Moral indignation, grandiloquence, reduction of art to quotas, use of jargon and the lack of self-awareness typify the feminist woke scolds of art administration and university faculties. The author’s imperiousness and lack of humour allow her to deliver towering inanities and spiteful asides in a manner surely not even our most skilful comic writers could contrive….”

Read the full review in The Critic here: https://thecritic.co.uk/true-feminism-has-never-been-tried-comrade/

Suffrage and the Arts

Suffrage and the Arts HD

This book (a paperback edition of a hardback) collects essays by specialists on the relationship between the arts and the movement for female suffrage in Great Britain in the 1890-1914 period. (In this review “suffrage” will used a term applied specifically only to the movement for women’s enfranchisement in Great Britain.) There were a number of organisations supporting the suffrage movement, including the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, Women’s Social and Political Union, Women’s Freedom League, Women’s Tax Resistance League, Women’s Liberal Federation and others. This collection focuses on the role of the arts and artists in the movement.

The production of pro-suffrage arts and crafts spanned the gamut of professional-level material made by skilled specialists to homemade folk craft. Some prominent supporters were artists and designers and they could produce and sell wares directly to their moneyed peers. Illustrated are tea sets, badges, brooches, banners and posters made for the cause, as well as some material opposing suffrage. The material was sold to demonstrate solidarity and also to raise money for the cause. To aid recognition, the movement developed a combination of colour: pale green, purple and white.

“Although the majority of artistic women did benefit from privileges due to their race and class, we wish to move away from the tendency to celebrate ‘exceptional’ London-based female painters, to instead reference a wider array of voices from across the country, particularly from those working in the applied arts, who often desperately needed to generate an income.” This is in line with the feminist Marxist critique, which holds to an aversion of discusses society in terms of individuals, instead viewing history as the movement of masses. There is a fear of falling into a seeming trap of admiring exceptional achievement.

The suffrage movement was seen – in its manifestations among the artistically inclined middle- and upper-class families – as an extension of the Arts and Crafts movement. The attachment to socialism, collectivism and the moral value of craftwork (for individual, guild and society) translated naturally into the collective action, class solidarity and craftwork in support of women’s emancipation. Authors deprecate “the work of ‘great’ men […] William Morris [and] John Ruskin”. However much the authors dislike veneration for men and exceptional individuals, the ideas of the Arts and Crafts movement did not appear like morning dew; it was thought, discussed, explicated and propagated by Morris and Ruskin, among others.

Despite the active participation of some members, women’s arts societies remained aloof to the subject of the suffrage campaign, seeming in a wish to remain independent. Had the societies become seen as tied to activism, it would have impaired the perception of the societies working to promote art because of its quality and instead of promoting art due to its political content. (This is in direct contrast to the artivism of today, which measures art by its political/social utility.) Zoe Thomas’s essay describes how internal debate raged between the political radicals and those committed to maintaining group neutrality. As the women’s societies were locked into disengaged stances, the Artists’ Suffrage League was founded. The atelier was opened in 1909, producing posters, banners (used in public gatherings), postcards, curtains, book covers and other items. The Suffrage Atelier admitted male artists.

Other essays discuss the interior design work of prominent campaigners Agnes Garrett (1845-1935), Emmeline Pankhurst (1858-1928) and Sylvia Pankhurst (1882-1960), who used their work and social prominence to lobby for enfranchisement. The production of goods specifically aimed at pro-suffrage consumers is covered in Elizabeth Crawford’s text. Makers (many of them women) created newsletters (Votes for Women, The Common Cause, The Vote, The Suffragette), jewellery, leather goods, embroidered goods and clothing. Other pieces cover suffragette badges and portraits of suffragists. Oil paintings and drawings of prominent figures in the movement emphasise the resolution and composure of subjects; they were displayed and reproduced as a counter to the news photographs and negative cartoons which appeared in the press. Other essays consider the responses to the male supporters of male suffragists, the responses of Scottish and Irish women to the campaign in the light of nationalist sentiments in their nations and the representations of force-feeding of imprisoned suffragettes on hunger strike.

The discussion of suffragette attacks on art provides details and background on these public events. The underlying rationalisation was that because the demands of a lobby had not been met that collateral damage to cultural goods – some owned by the general public – was a proportionate response. It was a campaign of cultural terrorism. Feminists have recently written approvingly of these attacks as an expression of opposition to gender roles and class subjugation. Krista Cowman’s essay is clear and broadly neutral, which compliments the readers’ independence of thought on that matter. Her essay is more informative than the essay in the recent Tate catalogue on iconoclasm.

Overall, this book is a handy primer for the scholarship and debates regarding the suffragette movement in relation to the arts in the Edwardian period. The ample source notes, bibliographies and index will assist historians, academics and students. The illustrations are well chosen and complement the text. This paperback edition makes the welcome and affordable alternative to the rather expensive hardback edition.

 

Miranda Garrett, Zoe Thomas (eds.), Suffrage and the Arts: Visual Culture, Politics and Enterprise, Bloomsbury Visual Arts, 2020, paperback, 281pp, 16pp col./30 mono illus., $34.95, ISBN 978 1 35012867 5

 

© 2020 Alexander Adams

To see my art and books visit: www.alexanderadams.art

Seven Books on Women Artists & Feminist Art

Against Our Will: Sexual Trauma in American Art Since 1970 is a study of one of the planks of the second-wave of feminism: sexual violence. Rape, assault and subjugation are considered manifestations of the second-class status of women, so they are emblematic subjects for feminist art. Vivien Green Fryd writes: “Against Our Will: Sexual Trauma in American Art Since 1970 examines how and why feminist artists, working from the 1970s to the second decade of the twenty-first century, represented and challenged the dominant narrative about sexual violence against women. I demonstrate in this book that for more than forty years, a key group of American artists has insisted on ending the silence and contributed to an anti-rape, anti-incest counternarrative […]” This is a peculiar characterisation. Rape, assault, incest and marital cruelty have been subject to legal penalty and social opprobrium for many centuries. There certainly was a culture of reticence and aversion to discussion of sexual matters and family violence but that does not equate to approval for legal and moral infractions.

Fryd includes art by male homosexual artists in this discussion. The idea is that this art critiques systematic faults of a patriarchal society and therefore aligns with the feminist position. Fryd has chronicled the plethora of feminist performances and exhibitions relating to the theme of sexual violence but cannot detach herself from the subject. The author’s accounts of historical activity are accurate and informative but the narrative becomes partial when discussing recent events. Fryd’s discussion of Emma Sulkowicz (famed as “Mattress Girl”), a Columbia University art student who claimed to have been raped and turned the allegation into part of an art performance, is disingenuous. The university settled with the accused and exonerated him of the accusation. When, at the close of the book, Fryd’s avows that she hope her book has contributed to the feminist cause, no reader will be surprised at this expression of a campaigning intent.

Nancy Princenthal’s Unspeakable Acts: Women, Art, and Sexual Violence in the 1970s covers much of the same ground. Princenthal identifies 1970 and the few years following as a turning point in public attitudes to sexual assault. She nominates (in the American context) the sexual revolution, the women’s liberation movement and the Vietnam war as pivotal events socially and the rise of Conceptual Art, Body Art, performance, Land Art and allied movements as artistic currents that facilitated the adoption by women of the stories of rape and sexual violence. The unspoken element was the rise of Marxism in academia, with university lecturers pledging themselves to the New Left, which would use what we now call identity politics to advance socialism through lobbying for minority rights. It is within such a context that Feminist art would be artistically and politically sanctioned by the New Left. (It would be this very co-option that later gave rise to concerns voiced by some feminist academics.)

The line between sexual liberation and exploitation was a deliberately blurred one – and the inevitable consequence of deliberate transgression by activists at American universities. Within the counter-culture movements and terrorist groups, sex was offered and demanded in the service of the revolution. Princenthal exposes the cool dismissal of women’s issues by hard-line Marxists, the aggressive misogyny of Frantz Fanon and rape advocacy of Eldridge Cleaver and LeRoi Jones. The murders of the hippy commune/cult around Charles Manson were an expression of revolutionary violence, committed by a group including women willing to kill other women for thrills but ostensibly as part of a cultural war.

Princenthal, using quotes from primary sources and new interviews with participants, sets out some touchstones of literature on rape in the 1970s. She discusses early celebrated performances of Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece (first performed 1964) and those by Valie Export involving voyeurism and audience participation. Work by Marina Abramović, Vito Acconci, Ana Mendieta, Adrian Piper and others are mentioned and key performances and publications are deftly summarised. Performance art and the theatre of public protest have numerous parallels and in the case of politically motivated art the two intersect. The importance of collective action and staged spectacle are foregrounded as important components of feminist performances.

New York, New Wave discusses the influence of feminist art of the 60s and 70s on recent artists, explaining that the diffusion of politics and multiple creative approaches are more important that gender politics for today’s postmodernists. The illustrations provide a handy survey of art discussed. The book is clearly written and approachable.

The Art of Feminism studies women’s art from Victorian times to the present day. Although most readers will be interested in art from the 1960s onwards, the most interesting material is the art produced during the suffrage and world wars periods. Skill and ingenuity were used to advance the case for women’s rights in posters that are brilliant, effective and beautiful; that art contrasts with feminist art of recent decades, which is intentionally ugly, angry and confrontational. (The authors mischaracterise the anti-suffrage movement, which in part was an earnest attempt by women to protect their privileges (exemptions from the draft, jury duty and debt liability) which it was assumed would be lost if they were made equal to men.) Oddly, the leading women Abstract Expressionist painters are omitted underlining the political scope of the survey, which limits its usefulness. The quoting of “gender pay gap” statistics indicates the lack of clarity when it comes to political hot topics.

The Bigger Picture: Women who Changed the Art World inspires mixed feelings. It is an attractive and informative book (including brief questionnaires with living artists) that will appeal to younger children. It does a good job explaining art to children but some of the art is tiresome and obscure even for informed adults. It also fails to acknowledge legitimate objections to feminism in art. Feminism has not changed art practice other than by promoting existing attitudes and approaches. It has failed to produce much art of worth. Plausibly feminists could claim that these were never their intention. What they have succeeded in doing is entrenching politics in art. Feminism has also shone a light on women artists (past and present) but at the cost of turning women artists into tokens.

The subtitle of “400 artists, 500 years” gives the outline of the dictionary Great Women Artists. This attractive hardback devotes one large-format page to a substantial illustration, biographical data and a paragraph devoted to a different artist. There is much material here that is unfamiliar – some of it very weak – but there are some real finds among the lesser-known figures: Ellen Altfest, Louise Jopling, Katsushika Ōl, Zinaida Serebryakova, Uemura Shōen. The artists share nothing in common except their sex.

Breaking Ground: Architecture by Women follows a similar format, with one to four pages devoted to buildings by women. The book contains a great breadth of architecture in diverse buildings, styles, sizes and locations. For those not following architecture, the names will be unfamiliar even if some of the structures are already known. Architecture allows less potential for expression but the startling, impressive and inventive designs – marrying function and aesthetics – are more satisfying than the majority of the art in Great Women Artists. Of the two books, it is Breaking Ground that is the more surprising and delightful book. This is a beautiful and essential book for anyone interested in modern and contemporary architecture.

 

Sophia Bennett, Manjit Thapp, The Bigger Picture: Women who Changed the Art World, Tate, 2019, hardback

Kathy Battista, New York, New Wave: The Legacy of Feminist Art in Emerging Practice, IB Tauris, 2019, paperback

Helena Reckitt, The Art of Feminism, Tate, 2019, hardback

Vivien Green Fryd, Against Our Will: Sexual Trauma in American Art Since 1970, Pennsylvania State University Press, 2019, hardback

Nancy Princenthal, Unspeakable Acts: Women, Art, and Sexual Violence in the 1970s, Thames & Hudson, 2019, hardback

Rebecca Morrill (ed.), Great Women Artists, Phaidon, 2019, hardback

Jane Hall, Breaking Ground: Architecture by Women, Phaidon, 2019, hardback

 

“Painting by Numbers”

“Last year, troubled by the way a common narrative did not seem to mesh with my lived experience, I set out to assess the obstacles women face in the fine-art world. As we all know, thanks to the tireless work of disinterested campaigners, supplemented by exert academics and repeated by an objective press, women face prejudice in society, including in the arts. Yet the findings of mandatory reporting to the British government purport to show that in 2018 women comprise 56% of the workforce in the UK arts sector, with an unfavourable earnings differential of only 2.6% towards median income women, mainly due to fewer women in top positions. What about the artists themselves?

“Starting in July 2018, for 12 months I collected data from press releases that I encountered as a critic in the form of emails, publisher catalogues, magazine advertisements and notices on specialist websites regarding the international art world…”

Read the full article on The Critic website here: https://thecritic.co.uk/are-women-discriminated-against-in-contemporary-arts/