Feminism: A Question of Readership
In this issue we publish a selection of the many reader responses to the set of questions on feminism in Issue 15
Question 1 : To what extent is the nostalgia for the early stages of feminism an obstacle to its future?
Question 2 : Uncertainty over feminism in contemporary art discourse is due to its plural directions and multiple points of reference. Does this mean that feminism, as a term, is rendered inactive, or does it have greater agency by working through diverse networks in a dispersed state?
Question 3 : The recent resurgence of performativity relating to the female body is suggestive of a revisitation to historical concerns of feminism. Are there identifiable characteristics of a feminist heritage in contemporary art—where artists seek to refine old conceptions—or does feminism have more vitality within critical and curatorial rather than art-making practice?
Question 4 : Do the rights of women have any connection to a contemporary notion of feminism in art?
The image above has been made by Kate Davis, an artist working in Glasgow, as a visual response to 'A Question of Readership', MAP Issue 15/16, 2008.
Response 1: Who is nostalgic about feminist art practices from the 1970s? Not me. Is this ‘nostalgia’ different from or the same as that for fluxus, conceptualism or minimal art, that also inform contemporary art today? The practices, debates and ideas generated at that time remain a potent resource for many artists today: men and women. Any serious discussion about their impact is an investment in the future of contemporary art. It is the relative silence on the relationship between feminism and contemporary art which is so deadly, in spite of recent major museum shows on the subject in the US and Europe.
Response 2: Feminism has frequently been reduced to a singularism by many of those who do not support its politics, but it has always been a divergent and plural set of movements for, by and about women. The history of feminist ideas, feminist political campaigns and feminist theories is diverse in the last 160 years: from the clashes between suffragists and suffragettes, from feminists who campaigned against prostitution in the name of all women, to those who worked with prostitutes in the sex industry to unionise them, from debates about the rights of mothers or for women to work in any and all trades. Understanding this is the first step towards uncovering what feminism has been and is today. Distinguishing between different feminist politics—socialist, liberal, anarchist and radical forms of politics and, even, conservative—is the next.
Response 3: Judith Butler’s notion of performativity has been discussed now for nearly two decades since the publication of Gender Trouble, 1990. While in the early 1990s feminism made inroads into the museum culture as more exhibitions about different forms of representation of the body were organised, this has become one of the ‘acceptable’ codes for speaking about feminist art. A new relationship between the 1990s and the 1970s was proposed at that time: young women artists were remaking work (especially in video and photography) which mimicked or drew on early feminist art practices (remember Bad Girls?).
In 2008, does this picture of feminist art practices still hold? It is a convenient way to delimit the subject of feminism to the body (more biology-as-destiny!) or to make Cindy Sherman the only feminist artist in the canon. This idea allows the art world to ignore major recent pieces by early feminist artists who are still working: Louise Bourgeois, Suzanne Lacy, Martha Rosler, Mary Kelly, Carolee Schneemann, Marina Abramovic, Sanja Ivekovic, Orlan and Valie Export. The focus on the ‘young’, the ‘new’ and ‘emergent’ may conveniently allow the art world to pay attention to some younger women artists outside the Euro-American mainstream: if and where their work uses an obvious body politic: like Regina José Galindo, Milica Tomic or Patty Chang, but what about other feminist art practices which focus on other themes: love, life and death, war, violence against women, ecology, cyberfeminism, genocide, motherhood, women as industrial workers? Where would Ursula Biemann, Hito Steyerl, Maya Bajevic, Eija-Liisa Ahtila, Pipilotti Rist, Yoshiko Shimada, Jill Scott or Lee Bul fit, if performativity was the only lens for reading feminist artwork? There are so many strong and brilliant women artists working today, feminist curators producing amazing exhibitions for public museums, and some excellent feminist art critics, it is this poverty of historical knowledge, a short term memory loss, which is the major cultural failure of our information overloaded age.
Response 4: The commercial art world does not care about ‘equality’: it does not care about ‘rights’. It is not interested in ‘equal representation’ or in statements like: ‘Women’s rights are human rights, equal and indivisible’, as that famous phrase of UN women’s politics goes. Public museums and public authorities, just like governments, now have a responsibility to consider their role in respect of this and occasionally make token gestures towards this: selecting women artists for international biennials, sponsoring the export of women’s art in touring shows, funding a retrospective. Commercial enterprises continue with business as usual, feeding off more conservative forms of art history and criticism, building ‘cult’ (male) figures for the marketplace and largely following—while hoping to generate—the latest trend’. The strange and ironic hope is that if publicly-funded museums and galleries really square up to their role in representing cultural production without gender or racial discrimination (or as a means to justify ‘quality’ by using art market standards), their symbiotic relationship with the commercial galleries and collector’s tastes will produce some change in the system.
Katy Deepwell, editor of n.paradoxa: international feminist art journal
Response 1: Fear of the past should not underlie the orientation toward strategies for change. The formulation of the question suggests a kind of unspoken anxiety about the ability to measure up to romanticised earlier moments of an ongoing struggle, in this case for women’s equal presence on the world stage, in all aspects of human life and society. A more sensible tack might be to acknowledge the campaigns of the past and learn from their positive and negative elements. The past has, of course, brought us to the present and is therefore the gateway to the future, but to open a series of questions about feminism with such a question speaks volumes about an inherent pessimism that may well be justified but does not do much to organise a movement.
Response 2: I feel here as though I am blundering into someone else’s discursive moments, since I don’t quite recognise the givens. Feminism as a term seems to be treated as possibly having agency. Or is it feminism as a reigning idea that might have agency? Sorry I can’t answer this—I don’t understand the first sentence! Feminism is a social movement, not an art movement, no?
Response 3: The entire attention to difference and to the connotative and, of course, the political, dimensions of art stem directly from the feminist movement.
Response 4: YES!
Martha Rosler is based in New York
Maria Fusco: Your name’s not quite a ‘brand’ but it does have a separate life from yourself…
Cosey Fanni Tutti: Yeah, totally, yeah. Cosey is a concept.
MF: I like that. Paraphrasing a quote from Finnegan’s Wake Joyce writes, ‘Who gave you that numb?’ with the idea of being struck by your own name, that well, I suppose it petrifies you, or maybe it’s that you’re just stuck with it…
CFT: Very important. You either connect with what someone else has called you, or you don’t. When I was christened, (I was actually christened Christine Carol), my father was hoping for a boy—he would have been called Christopher. I don’t know if my father couldn’t face the fact that I wasn’t Christopher or what, so he always called me Carol. My name has always had a kind of like weird thing about it for me, so when I was called Cosey I just didn’t even think about it, I just thought, ‘Yeah, okay’.
MF: Did you feel Cosey was numbing in a good way, rather than numbing in a bad way?
CFT: Good way, because it came, it tied in with, with me leaving... well, getting thrown out of home. So it was almost like a new life for me if you like, a new identity and one I was more comfortable with. It was, well it was free of everything that I felt I was sort of chained down by…
MF: Must have allowed you a nice ordering system in a way too, when it works well, because you can decide who you are on any particular day. Do you think that names make you freer? I’m obsessed by class you know, an important aspect of what we’re discussing, is about your nomenclature—it’s outside of, it exists outside of class, because it’s not, well there’s nothing average about it, is there? Cosey doesn’t exist outside of language, it’s not a squiggle, it has a form and can be written down (even on cheques!), but still it’s outside of normal naming structures. A weird existence all of its own. Very direct.
CFT: It is who I am and what I do. It’s not just my name. It’s something totally different.
MF: I have a quote for you from Elaine Showalter from her essay, ‘Towards a Feminist Poetics’, on what she called Gynocriticism, I think it could be interesting here: ‘A woman is producer of textual meaning and in that including the psycho-dynamics of female creativity, linguistics and the problem of female language.’ I don’t know if everybody feels like this, I certainly do—does Showalter mean that one feels constricted or fixed in that place that your name is a representation of.
CFT: It’s funny because I don’t, I don’t feel fixed anywhere now, even when I go back to Hull, if I go back I have all the smells and the physical structure is still there, it’s all still there, so that is familiar to me and it has certain... it evokes certain feelings in me, but I can’t relate to who I was then.
Extract from interview between Cosey Fanni Tutti and Maria Fusco in The Happy Hypocrite, Issue One
Graham Domke—curator, responds with an edited thread of quotes on
Marleen Gorris’s A Question of Silence—imdb.com
Quote 1: ‘Why do feminist films always have to be so immature? It’s like watching a movie made by a child... As if being a woman automatically made you completely good and right, and being a man meant you were a dim-witted idiot or a savage rapist with no regards at all towards women or even human life. Who in their right minds would think that the three women from the movie proved they were right to kill that man simply because they broke into hysteric, cold laughter at the end. You could even interpret this movie as being in favor of killing men. I think the feminist movement goes too far sometimes. If it were three men who killed a women and then laughed about it, the movie would have been considered sick and nihilistic, but because they are women somehow they have a right to commit murder.’
Quote 2: ‘This film captivated me when I first viewed it ten years ago and continues to do so. It captured the sense of living in a hostile world, evident to any feminist or woman who has suffered at the hands of patriarchy, the system, ‘the man’ or possibly even the US ‘just us’ system. It makes obvious the masculinist basis of language and the inability of some women to describe their experience of oppression within social systems that utilize languages designed and created to express the dominant position.’
Quote 3: ‘As a member of the ‘man’ group, it’s a little uncomfortable to view this, to be sure. But at least I could say to myself, ‘Well, I’m not THAT bad! I mean, sure I guess I am a sexist jerk sometimes, but I’m not THAT bad!’ It has been 20+ years since I saw this film... but as I recall, the audience doesn’t really know what happened—the murder is not shown until nearly the END of the film. By the time I actually saw the women kickin’ the living crap out of the guy, I UNDERSTOOD WHY THEY WOULD FEEL LIKE DOING IT. I was ROOTING for them. I think the whole audience was. But I don’t believe the film actually encourages violence... The male clerk... isn’t a real man with both objectionable and sympathetic traits. He isn’t a human at all. He is a member of a group who have established themselves as being without humanity.’
Quote 4: ‘A film like this or any other deeply metaphorical film asks not to be judged realistically, but to make you think. No rational person would judge A Clockwork Orange, or Fight Club by standards that say they are irrelevant because they contain chaos and violence. However, because the killers in this movie are women and not men, it seems to get an unusual reaction out of many viewers who feel they have to defend their stance against murder. It gets an especially strong reaction out of men, it seems, because men are allowed to be anything in films, but women are still very limited.’
Quote 5: ‘This film is NOT anti-male. It is not suggesting that women randomly kill men just for being of that gender. What is does do is use a wonderful technique called reversal. If three men had brutalised a woman, well, ‘society’ might not find that so shocking (maybe more now than earlier years, but certainly not as shocking as the reverse). It doesn’t want to start propaganda, it wants to make you THINK...’
Quote 6: ‘This film pushes the limits of what is allowable under Free Speech, and perhaps even crosses them. It is hate literature, and should be regarded as such.’ Marleen Gorris’s A Question of Silence is a landmark film. I’ve used these responses to it to convey the contemporary relevance of the film in spite of the difficulty in finding a copy these days. As long as contemporary audiences are this baffled or inspired by this kind of film, then we need female artists making provocative and challenging work. Artists and audiences are returning to vanguard feminist practice in a fascinating way. And in Scotland, as elsewhere, emerging artists like Catherine Street and Aileen Campbell are taking inspiration from senior artists such as Alexis Hunter (Street) and Meredith Monk (Campbell) or Marina Abramovic (both).
Graham Domke, exhibitions curator, DCA
Response 1: Focusing too much on the past is an obstacle in general, not only to art or feminism. Roots and certain points of reference are of course important, but they shouldn’t become a burden. There’s no point in repeating ourselves. What I find interesting in contemporary feminist art is irony, very often self-directed. Works too immersed in the past might appear too literal or didactic, which puts art in general at a disadvantage.
Response 2: I think it’s natural for feminism to have evolved into different forms and directions. It doesn’t necessarily result in passivity, rather in dispersion to engage in more subtle strategies. While feminism might appear less distinct now, it works in various spheres, possibly becoming even more effective. Diversification is thus a great value and can be perceived as the success of feminism.
Response 3: I believe that artists, quite naturally, concentrate more on art itself than on art theory. The notion of feminism is a convenient topic for critics and curators. Still, what brings about changes is not so much their distinctly feminist approach, but the ever increasing and noticeable female participation in art and the fact that women hold positions crucial for the world of art. The situation in Poland is a good example: the most important curators, including director and vice-director of Zacheta National Gallery are female, as is director of the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw. It’s similar in other Polish cities.
Response 4: Women’s rights are inevitably related to the concept of feminism, which is mirrored by contemporary art. How important they are to individual artists depends to a large degree, on artists themselves. Sometimes women’s rights are addressed directly, especially when they’re not respected, otherwise they are hinted at more subtly. Like in the case of art devoted to gay liberation, the context of the work very much determines its degree of commitment and para-artistic connotations.
Karol Radiszewski is an artist and editor of Dik Fagazine
Response 1: It is endangered only in so far as it falls out of curating/institutional trends. Its force lies in its ability to generate questions and debate continually, as opinions and issues evolve or not with their time, in and out of fashion.
Response 2: It is its very polymorphy that allows me to form an opinion on it now, that allows me to freely associate myself with it if I wish to, which to me, constitutes some form of action, activity, but maybe not always activism.
Response 3: This question to me seeks to divide a vocabulary or discourses, which essentially means this is to an extent about language (or languages?). I believe what is at stake are ideas, which should permeate and inform both criticism and practice, just as much as terms such as modernism do with their consequences, which I wonder if we question as much...
Response 4: Where do we speak from? Who do we speak for? Are you asking whether the dichotomy between theory and practice is also effective on the way we live our lives and the way we form ideas? I am not sure again that I like the way this question is formulated—the way it creates in my mind a potential of failure, which in itself is an oxymoron. Has modernism succeeded in making us happier or free-er persons? Again, where do we talk from? Who do we talk for?
Jimmy Robert is a French artist for whom performance is a key part of his practice
Sarah Smith—artist and academic
Considering Question 2, I have thought about the ‘fixed’ incarnations of feminism, which were a prism through which to view the experiences of all women. The important revisions, or challenges, to feminism in the early 1990s, notably in the intersections between post-colonial and queer theory sought to undermine these notions of, ‘a woman’s point of view’, ‘a woman’s prerogative’ or ‘women’s art’.
Feminism provided the apparatus to begin to consider situated knowledge, but it has had to respond to its position as wholly bound up with sexual difference.
It seems that the idea of dispersal indicated in the question as ‘inactive’ follows the logic of western society where the most visible is in turn also the most powerful. This is a legacy of feminism which provided the framework for the ethics of visibility and marginality in contemporary art and visual culture.
From another viewpoint, we are now more sceptical of pluralism; whether we find it in the mainstream rhetoric of the political left or the language we have deployed to understand contemporary art.
Specifically, post-structuralist feminism has seemed distanced from the social and economic realities of life and work for women; including the cultural work of women artists.
Art practice perhaps offers an opportunity to encounter both the plural and the situated. The temporal staging of artworks provides a place for feminism to be staged as generational and local. The group work and dialogue between curators, artists and writers maintains the distinction between inter-subjective experience and the fixed position of ‘a woman’s point of view’.
Perhaps feminist art practice continues to be a way of understanding the multiple voices of subjugation, as a linchpin in the understanding of the body. There can be no frame of reference outside of the body; as the ultimate site of negotiation and diffusion, itself a dispersed state.
Sarah Smith is based in Glasgow
Maria Walsh—writer Maria Walsh responds with a text and an image of a work by Hannah Wilke
A question or a series of questions can provoke musings and reflections rather than answers:
Performativity allows for the recontextualisation of feminist-informed artists from the 1970s such as Hannah Wilke, accused then of essentialism and narcissism. Read through the lens of performativity where saying is doing and subject to a ritual repetition that generates the possibility of resignification, Wilke’s poses pose an essential question for feminist-informed and/or inspired art practices today. Not only about how to challenge orthodox hierarchies between bodies and language but how to re-imagine the interrelation between them.
Bodies are always already inscribed by a number of codes: personal, social, and ideological. When I look at ‘What Does This Represent? What Do You Represent? (Reinhardt), 1978-84’, what I see is a question, a challenge: how could these codes signify something other than what we know them to mean in Western patriarchal culture? It is not nostalgia to hold this image up as a foil to the literalist representations of bodies and language in contemporary art practices—Tracey Emin, Cathy Wilkes, to name a few high profile ones. It is rather to hold a virtual mirror to future possibilities of producing new expressive relations between bodies and language.
Paradoxically, these relations may depend on the artwork’s creation of a universal space. While the ‘universal’ was taboo in past feminist discourse as it was deemed to be synonymous with ‘the male subject’, it also has another meaning as a potential space in which anybody might find themselves addressed (and here I’m loosely paraphrasing Barbara Kruger). This is the universal as a virtual concept rather than a stable category. Wilke’s image takes me to a place where categories are dismantled and the universal, as I mean it here, is probed…
Maria Walsh is a writer, lecturer and co-convenor of the subjectivity & feminisms research group at Chelsea College of Art & Design
Response 1: Nostalgia can aestheticise issues, strategies, discourses, in a self-indulgent style, making them sterile or attenuated in terms of politics. In order to be constructive for the future, nostalgia itself has only one option: to exaggerate those issues, strategies, and discourses, to use them in a theatrical, parodic, or even allegorical manner. Quoting feminist discourse and appropriating their aesthetic legacies will automatically create a transformation of its original integrity.
Response 2: I see feminism, in the way that it questioned and challenged masculine domination, as primarily linked to other minority revendications. Today, it may seem that most of these revendications have been acknowledged and that there is a specific niche organised for everyone, although this may not be true at all. The danger could be separation, specialisation, and even a certain segregation between the different minority discourses. So maybe this dispersed state and this multiplication of networks is indeed a quality, as long as it is used as a tool for confusion and reunion. Uncertainty over identity and over the exact meaning of identity is fundamental to the development of an art practice that can address not only its own producer, as a tool for self-construction, but also to an audience considered radically unknown.
Response 3: Gender and cultural studies haven’t fully integrated art practices, although there is a mutual influence between them that is essential to the progression of both fields. Art and culture are always linked and separated, they inform and deny each other, they come together and move away from each other in a constant movement of attraction/repulsion. To be more specific, although I don’t consider that the critical and curatorial agenda should necessarily respond to what is actually going on in terms of art practices, I don’t think feminism should be abandoned by artists to profit curators and critics. Feminism is a tool as well as an attitude, a way of positioning oneself in a complex world, so I imagine feminism should be able to take various forms in order to continue growing—enigmatic or theoretical, allegorical or realistic, conceptual or documentary.
Lili Reynaud-Dewar lives in Bordeaux
Dan Fox & Jennifer Higgie—editors
We decided to devote an issue of frieze [Issue 105, 2007] to feminism because despite overwhelming amounts of women now studying art and working as professional artists, museums and major galleries still devote a very small percentage of their shows to women.
Also, the work of women artists is shamefully under-represented in major collections, and most major commercial spaces represent far fewer women than men.
As frieze likes to reflect upon and investigate trends in contemporary art, it became obvious that the role of women in art is still, despite decades of debate, urgently deserving of analysis.
Our decision to bring out an issue on Feminism was not based on nostalgia but on the real statistical discrepancies that still dominate the art world. Around the time we were discussing devoting an issue to the subject of feminism it was announced that the exhibition WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution was to open at LA MoCA and the Elizabeth A Sackler Center for Feminist Art was opening in the Brooklyn museum in early 2007.
This provided a timely impetus to bring the issue out.
Dan Fox and Jennifer Higgie are editors of frieze
Response 2: The agency of a feminist artwork lies in its ability to re-investigate a gendered notion about history and materiality, place and space. Feminism gives us the potential to address predominant power structures, aesthetic assumptions and theoretical trends.To do so, it must have plural points of reference. While certain social conditions unify a political feminist agenda, feminism has always existed as a dispersed state. Feminism as a set of political ideas, as an ever-expanding visual language and therefore as a term, must be diverse to be meaningful. Otherwise, it suggests that all feminist practice, opinion and gesture come from the same trough.
A poignant example of emerging contemporary artists passionately exploring different ground under the umbrella of feminism are those working within a transgender paradigm in the US. Although these practices draw from feminism’s historical roots they are using performance, literary production and the representation of transgender bodies in non-linear and non-prescriptive ways.
The New York artist collective LTTR have a project–oriented practice. Collectively they produce an annual art journal, an ongoing performance series and one-off events. LTTR’s self-proclaimed focus on queer pleasure and critical feminist productivity is an eloquent example of the real agency that feminism has when applied to diverse practice.
Although feminism can be about the rights of women and role of women artists, it is also about questioning gender as whole. The shifting nature of the term itself is imperative. It indicates a basic set of priorities which value the radical re-evaluation of our visual and social landscape and which cannot be defined by one set of aesthetic or practice-based values. It is this effort towards multiplicity that cracks open the assumptions and expectations of a gendered universe and that leaves the idea of feminism as a destination behind.
Alhena Katsof is founder of A.Vermin, an artist-run curatorial project in Glasgow