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

 

Alberto Giacometti

“Three recent catalogues have been published by Kunsthaus Zürich/Scheidegger & Spiess, Tate and Gagosian on the subject of the art of Alberto Giacometti (1901-66). Giacometti worked in sculpture, painting, drawing and – to a lesser extent – printmaking. The Tate catalogue includes Giacometti’s sculpture and paintings; the Zürich catalogue focuses exclusively on Giacometti’s sculpture, principally original sculptures rather than the bronzes cast from them; the Gagosian catalogue gives us new photographs of classic sculptures by the artist.

The catalogue Giacometti was published for the retrospective exhibition at Tate Modern (10 May-10 September 2017). The selection is representative and many excellent pieces are included. There are early works: the plaster and stone portrait heads, post-Cubist plaster carvings and marble carvings influenced by Cycladic art.

Around 1928 Giacometti formulated his Surrealist style, which combined his sensibility for plastic form with a sense of drama. Using combinations of multiple materials, the artist created violent, unsettling and mysterious psycho-sexual dramas…”

Read the full review online on 3rd Dimension website here: https://3rd-dimensionpmsa.org.uk/reviews/2018-03-13-alberto-giacometti-exhibition-catalogues-reviewed

New Order

“Murder Machines

This year a sculpture by Sam Durant entitled Scaffold was erected in a sculpture park managed by Walker Art Center, Minneapolis. The wooden sculpture juxtaposed elements of playground-activity structures and gallows. One minor aspect of Scaffold referred to the hanging of Dakota Native Americans in 1862 as part of struggles between the Dakota Nation and the American government. That reference had been missed until it was pointed out, at which time a campaign to remove the sculpture was begun by the Dakota. “This is a murder machine that killed our people because we were hungry,” said a member of the Dakota Nation, equating Scaffold with an actual gallows that hanged members of the Dakota. In May the museum destroyed Scaffold and the artist renounced his work.

This year there was a protest by some black artists against the display at the Whitney Biennial of a painting of murdered black activist Emmett Till. Black activists lobbied to have the painting by Dana Schutz, a white artist, removed as offensive and hurtful. “The subject matter is not Schutz’s,” said one protestor, claiming ownership and authority over the representation of a historical event.

In these two cases, activists claimed ownership over aspects of history in order to suppress art works. In one case it resulted in the destruction of art. Pressure groups have noticed the weakness of curators, administrators and politicians and their unwillingness to protect art from censorship. Sympathetic towards notions of social justice, administrators sometimes submit to emotional blackmail by groups which demand censorship…”

To read the full article visit The Jackdaw: http://www.thejackdaw.co.uk/?p=1750

Trouble at the Tate

“With the opening of a new building adjoining the Tate Modern Bankside site, and the appointment of a new director, Dr Maria Balshaw, things seem buoyant at the Tate. Yet below the surface the organisation is headed towards crisis.

“Although you wouldn’t know it from the fawning accolades of newspaper profilers, Balshaw’s appointment alarms art historians. Balshaw, the new director of Britain’s largest fine-art museum, with four venues and £1.3 billion in assets, is not an art historian but a student of literature who attained a doctorate in critical theory, specialising in American authors. Critical theory is an academic branch of postmodernism that, preferring to concentrate on art’s ideological and social role, sees no qualitative difference between high and low (or popular) art forms. This might be a problematic grounding for the director of Britain’s largest collection of high art. Hitherto in her roles as head of the Whitworth and Manchester art galleries, she has demonstrated no detailed understanding of fine art or any willingness to defy fashion, exhibiting and collecting art on an agenda underpinned by identity politics and feminism.

“Indeed, Balshaw is a proactive and politically driven individual who will not be taking a backseat position. She has previously made statements that women and minority artists should be given a more prominent position in the arts world. As explained previously on spiked, the relatively low number of female artists in the Tate collection is due to historical restrictions on women artists that no longer exist. However, for feminists, that statistical imbalance justifies the promotion of women artists regardless of the quality of their art.

“If the Tate was a stable or manageable organisation, then a figurehead leader would be a viable proposition. Unfortunately, the Tate has huge and ever-increasing problems…”

Read the full article on on Spiked (25 September 2017) online here: http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/trouble-at-the-tate/20339#.Wcjg-LKGPIU

This is an extract of a long essay titled “New Order”, available in The Jackdaw, issue 135, available via: http://www.thejackdaw.co.uk

Rene Magritte, Post-Impressionism: Liverpool, 2011

“The effects of Liverpool’s time as City of Culture in 2008 are still becoming apparent as various building projects reach completion. Liverpool has many excellent museums, to which number the Museum of Liverpool is due to be added. My visit to Liverpool was before the museum’s opening on July 19th, so I made do with two significant shows which will run until the autumn: a survey of Magritte and a partial reconstruction of a pioneering exhibition of Post-Impressionist art held at the Bluecoat Gallery, Liverpool in 1911. (The Bluecoat Gallery itself has recently been refurbished. The excellent diverse bookshop and the well-stocked art-materials store have both left and the gallery, which occasionally hosted worthwhile shows, now runs an exhibition programme of the driest and least engaging type. What was once a hub of artistic activity has been reduced to a deracinated husk. Best to bypass it entirely and visit the newly relocated Probe Records next door instead.)

“The 1910-11 display “Manet and the Post-Impressionists” at the Grafton Gallery, London is a celebrated landmark in British Modernism. What is less well-known is that the show (minus the Manets) travelled to Liverpool before the pictures were dispersed. Art in Revolution: Liverpool 1911 (Walker Art Gallery, closes September 25th) is an investigation of the second display, which included local Liverpool artists alongside the French painters. The French artists included Denis, Derain, Matisse, Picasso, Serusier, Signac, Vlaminck and others…”

Read the full review on THE JACKDAW, September 2011 here:

http://www.thejackdaw.co.uk/?p=81

David King: The Commissar Vanishes

“When we think of images of the revolution of October 1917, we often think of the running figures on Nevsky Prospekt, Petrograd and soldiers lining up to fire on demonstrators outside the Winter Palace. However, although the former is a genuine reportorial photograph, the second was a staged reconstruction. Our most immediate associations and impressions are visual rather than verbal or statistical. Canny propagandists have long known that. Part of the work of totalitarian regimes has been not just the creation of useful lies but the suppression of uncomfortable truths. It is an oft-repeated truism that we so easily overlook the appalling famine in China during the Great Leap Forward (1958-61) which claimed the lives of between 18 and 45million people because there is not one verified photograph of the effects.

“Beginning in 1917, the Bolsheviks in Russia – in addition to a military campaign – deployed falsehoods in order to win the civil war. The doctoring of published images was one way of ‘correcting’ history as it was being written (and ceaselessly rewritten). By the time of Stalin’s ascent in the early 1920s, it was already common practice to suppress and alter images. What changed under Stalin was the scale and the necessity of such alterations. One by one, Stalin eliminated old opponents and comrades alike. Being faithful to the party line or being close to Stalin was no protection. Stalin’s paranoia struck down the loyal comrade just as his jealousy struck down the popular comrade. Occasionally the disgraced comrade’s entire family would be liquidated for good measure…”

Read the full review on SPIKED, 13 June 2014, here:

http://www.spiked-online.com/review_of_books/article/the-vanished-and-the-defaced/15161#.Vd-AwPldU5k