The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2011

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SEPT 2011 Issue


 A woman cutting her hair while losing her mind…A wrathful earth goddess and a yeshiva queen fighting rabbis... The innocent voice of a female sociopath vibrating through the bodies of others… External ovaries and fallopian tubes surrounded by blood and eggs flying into space...

Sarah Young, “As Old as the World.” Archival prints on canvas. 20 x 30”, 2011.

In the face of such forceful female imagery in the work of the graduate women artists I teach, I’ve had to wonder if there isn’t a renewed discussion hovering around the subject of feminism. Cynically I think, “Here we go again.” As the French Existentialist Simone de Beauvoir aptly wrote more than 50 years ago in her seminal work, The Second Sex, “Enough ink has been spilled in quarreling over feminism, and perhaps we should say no more about it. It is still talked about, however, for the voluminous nonsense uttered during the last century seems to have done little to illuminate the problem.”

What is very much evident in my female students’ work is a prolific use of the visual vocabulary of the body, the goddess, the worker, the narcissist, the mother, the sister, the daughter, and the martyr—imagery that willfully echoes the visual language of feminism to address “embodiment” in all of its political, aesthetic, historical, and psychoanalytical manifestations. Surely these women know and have absorbed the lessons of feminist art history, which included a multitude of images of the female body and the politics of embodiment: women in popular culture; ownership of craft as it wafts amidst painting, design and architecture; eco-feminism and all of its connections to femininity, the earth, and the goddess. So why are these visual tropes popping up again? Could this imagery simply be an expression of what I would call “contemporary deficit disorder”: an amnesiac tendency in regard to history? Contemporary culture, born out of pop culture with its diminished attention and memory spans, is very much alive in the studios of my graduate art students. Is this the same short-term memory that celebrates the awesome superstardom of Lady Gaga as an original phenomenon, without any realization that there probably would be no Lady Gaga without Madonna, and no Madonna without Tina Turner? To look at the work of my female graduate students, one could assume that feminism would be found at the core of their thinking. But, in fact, I’ve found it to be more at the fringes.

While de Beauvoir refers to the problem as unilluminated, these students understand the whole point of feminism as creating a space where women were able to make their own way in the world, to make their own decisions about how to live their lives, to be able to think and act for themselves, and to be judged by their merits or lack thereof. So they get that the merit part is still problematic, and that there are issues that plague the military, and some large problems in the Catholic Church. But as far as these young women are concerned, the bulk of this work has been done, is done—in this country, at least, in their world. As a result, the great feminist causes and controversies—the awakening to the consciousness of misogyny in the ’60s and ’70s; the feminist preoccupation with postructuralism and psychoanalysis in the ’70s and ’80s; and the ’90s debate on essentialism—are seemingly nowhere to be found on these students’ minds. Have they taken a chapter straight out of October magazine, circa 1995, indicating that feminism and feminist theory have reached their final acts?

When I ask my students if they are feminists, a puzzled look appears. When pressing harder, I get responses like, “Of course I am”; “I’m not”; “I use the term lightly.” Despite this apparent ambivalence, I have not found that these young women, as some critics have suggested, are “losing the ability, will, and courage to look at societal structures critically … [forsaking] solidarity with other women” (Schor, Mira, “The Ism That Dare not Speak Its Name,” A Decade of Negative Thinking: 29). There is no absolute rejection of feminism at the heart of their puzzled expressions and vague answers, but rather an artist’s natural instinct toresist categorization-at-large, whether that be abstraction, figuration, or feminism. Instead what exists is the limitations of language and discourse, at war with intrinsic, anarchic artistic tendencies.

Just as the term “abstract” fails to distinguish anything useful between a Mark Rothko and an Elizabeth Murray, the notion of categorization grows even more fraught when the high stakes of gender politics are involved. There is no problem with having a bunch of disparate members in the “abstraction club,” no offense to the idea of inclusion. But with feminism, a club founded on activism and liberalism, it is hard to include a broad membership without redefining, or at least rethinking the criteria for membership. Should Sarah Palin be allowed in? Palin is to feminism asClarence Thomas is to civil rights. Based on the feminist criteria of women being able to do a man’s job, and the civil rights movement’s criteria of equal rights for all, well then, Palin and Thomas are in. But if you consider the policies and laws they advocate as having a negative effect on the promises offeminism and civil rights, they are out. The defining arenas of these clubs have to be rethought, expanded, and flexed in order to keep the doors open to a large, inclusive membership.

Katherine Behar, "Pipecleaner." Cross-platform screensaver. Dimensions variable, 2007.

But, perhaps the idea of an “open door policy” is the exact reason these young women don’t consider membership to be important. At the heart of any political change is the impulse to find like-minded people to create a unified voice toadvocate for that change. Once the change has occurred, and in principle has been accepted, the various voices become independent shavings of the initial unified voice, since now there is room for those nuanced voices to also be heard. Slowly this unified voice loses power and meaning. Its impact becomes generalized, watered down—a cliché. The voice of solidarity gives way to the voice of individuality. For the young women artists in my classroom, the unified voice of feminism has yielded to their individual feminine voices.

Maria Barbo describes her paintings as a personal response to something that makes her feel “contained, small, patronized, or categorized.” She wants her work to have “an energy that is barely contained and trying to break free,” arising out of “a combination of gender, socio-economics, social-maladjustment, and a touch of ‘Don’t fence me in.’” For her, feminism is “inextricable” from who she is and from the body of her experiences: “totally ingrained—inseparable.” She and herpeers want to think of feminism as defined not by restriction, but by expansion; not by broad definition, but by individual experience. Feminism may be inextricable from their work, but the “feminist label is restrictive, threatening to overshadow other elements.” They resist the label for fear of sounding preachy and one-dimensional, and ultimately find themselves in the position of “Damned if they do; damned if they don’t.”

Or, as another student put it, “Maybe feminism’s role was not meant as a set of answers, but rather a method of inquiry. She and her peersare defining themselves on their own terms, drawing on their own pleasures, their own interests, often with humor and irony. Personal experiences, some of them the source of personal shame, are seen anew as symptoms of larger political factors, and serve as the inspirations for their artwork. They still have faith in the possibility of change, even a belief in changing the world, but more often than not with their own individual voice, rather than a collective one.*

This individualized voice is evidenced in Sarah Young’s work, through a series of photographs that examine the power structures of social, cultural, and personal realities as they are played out in religious and secular societies. She does this by focusing on the individual stories of several women who have struggled in different aspects of Judaism. “Here the woman’s personal history becomes much more instrumental than any ‘feminist critique’ of biblical/Talmudic thought. … [Her] shift away from inscribed truths to nuanced interaction … marks [her] relationship with the tropes of feminism.” Sarah states that while feminism is “still valid and important … I would rather have an interaction, push back, look them in the eye (and sometimes punch them in the face), rather than just receive divine wisdom from my foremothers.”

When they first learned about feminism, these students found it was easy to get caught up in the feelings of “men and women at war.” They have since concluded that creating this kind of dualism is alienating for both sexes, and that ultimately their interest does not lie there, but rather in a need to speak about things that are intrinsically female. These young women are trying to find out what it means to be feminine, and to find their own answers to the question, as one of them put it: “Who or what decides? Hormones? Neurotransmitters? The media? One’s parents? Race? Ethnicity? Politics? Religion? Men?”

Satomi Shirai, "Pack." Digital C-print: #1/5. 20" x 24", 2009.

Despite the common complaint voiced by some originators of the feminist movement, there is in fact no complacency among these women, but rather a forceful, ambitious, and proactive sense of self, born out of an awareness of injustice. In their navigations of the art world, they are acutely aware of Linda Nochlin’s 1971 assertion: “The fact of the matter is that there have been no supremely great women artists” (Nochlin, Linda. “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” ARTnews, 1971: 22). Here again, their response is not a collective political one, but rather a willingness to allow their individual work to be their voice. Just as Georgia O’Keeffe understood her work to be about color and form, and objected to her work being limited in its interpretation when linked to feminism, these students-cum-professional-artists insist that the breadth of their expression be understood as the force of their individual voices as women.

As their professor, what I have come to understand about my female students’ work is that it is not a rehashing of feminist tropes, feminist arts, or feminist discourse,but rather a presentation of their experiences as women, with all that entails in the world today—including, but not restricted to, the history of feminism. These woman have not “easily and quickly” lost sight of “recent, self-consciously historical contributions of women” (Schor, Mira, ibid.: 31). Perhaps the inclination of this generation of artists, or at least female artists, towards“contemporary deficit disorder” is not as pervasive as I originally thought. “I experience my life as a layered continuum,” my former student Rachel Budde observes. “Past, present, future are meshed; beginnings and endings are undefined; things seem to limp back like a long train of thought which comes back to its origin from another angle.”

For these women, the battle for women’s rights has not become any easier, though; it has evolved in more complex ways. And what are their hopes? They hope the sisterhood remains strong, bonded, and important. They hope there is a visceral understanding of shared struggles and experiences, while their individual voices are heard navigating the complexity of the fabric of women, of experience, of feminism, of life.

Feminism has “something yet nothing to do with me,” Tryn Collins tells me. “When in my studio, the fact that I’m a woman falls away. And I know I owe that luxury to the many women ahead of me. The hope is that I’m not making work as a woman or a man, just as an artist.” 

Student sources are current or former Hunter College MFA students. They are: Maria Barbo, Katherine Behar, Rachel Budde, Tryn Collins, Dawn Frasch, Jaeeun Lee, Caitlyn McKee, Suko Presseau, Satomi Shirai, and Sarah Young.

* A notable exception is the activist group “Brainstormers” initiated in March 2005 by Hunter MFA students.


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2011

All Issues