by Mira Schor
A 1999 survey on feminist pedagogy proposed for the journal Documents was prefaced by a brief statement from Documents co-editor Helen Molesworth:
Recent years have seen an upsurge in attention toward feminism. […] Documents [was] interested in presenting a survey on the contemporary experience of teaching feminism in a “post-feminist” era.
Fifteen years later, we still seem to be in a condition of “post-feminism” and what bell hooks, referring to Sheryl Sandberg’s brand of “lean in” feminism, has called “faux feminism.” There is a constant cycle of amnesia and return, of desire and demonization, commercialization and corruption of basic principles, and of impediments from without and dissension from within.
The focus on pedagogy is important: back in 1991, I examined the mechanism of “Patrilineage” in art canon formation and in art education. I noted that women artists’ entry into the canon was still based on validation through patrilineal referencing, even for artists working within tropes developed by feminism. I pointed to the Guerrilla Girls’ 1989 poster, “When Racism & Sexism Are No Longer Fashionable, What Will Your Collection Be Worth?” and suggested that women artists working today should know all the names and work of the women artists listed on the poster whose work could be purchased, at least one by each, for the price of just one Jasper Johns picture at auction. But feminism has little such collective memory.
Despite the exponential increase in the numbers of women artists with international careers, and the increase of value at auction of works by some women artists, not much has changed since 1989. The reality of progress and of prejudices and inequities affecting women artists were recently demonstrated in two radically different stories: in July, Tracey Emin’s 1998 work, My Bed, sold for over $4 million; in a recent blog entry on the Huffington Post, art collector and former MoMA Board president Agnes Gund noted the persistent prejudice among collectors and art institutions against the investment value of work by women, despite four incredibly productive decades of women artists transforming art content and media. She noted that:
Some younger artists seem little aware of how hard it has been for women, though they do acknowledge the discrepancies, even today, in rewards and recognition between themselves and the men they know. There is even reason to fear that a younger generation lacks knowledge of the challenges, the claims for place, and the revolution in attitudes that have actually secured their careers.
So the “success” of feminism has created amnesia and disassociation, while
The facts and statistics for women artists in market share, in museum and gallery showings, are dismaying.
Thirty years after the Guerrilla Girls applied humor to statistics so as to critique inequality of representation of women in galleries and museums, and 10 years after the Brainstormers continued the task, this spring, Los Angeles-based artist Micol Hebron started the project “Gallery Tally: calling for gender equity in the Art world.” Hundreds of women contributed posters illustrating, in a great diversity of visual and discursive registers, the continued appalling statistics for the representation of women artists in commercial art galleries.
Thankfully, within each generation there are women who are drawn to feminism. But, in the ongoing era of “post-feminism” and of general social fragmentation, traces of the backlash against feminism lurk even within efforts at activism, for example in the reference to a “feminine voice” rather than a feminist voice. Femininity is a gendered characteristic that is available to any human being, just as masculinity would be, but it’s always had particular cachet if displayed by a man while being of questionable interest when ascribed to a woman since it is supposedly inherent to her as a cis-female and thus, mainly useful as a mechanism of societal control. The slippage from “feminist” to “feminine” took place in the 1990s, during one of the many amnesiac returns to feminism, as a way of marking important contributions by women artists while neutralizing the disruptive radicality of feminism. I am interested in the reality that women are human beings with talents and desires that are doubly meaningful because of how little interest and power they hold for the rest of the world.
Here are some recent amnesiac returns:
Between 2006 – 08, there were many exhibitions and symposia on the history of feminist art focusing particularly on the 1970s Feminist Art Movement. MoMA, with targeted funding by Sarah Peters, focused on women artists in a series of major survey and small niche exhibitions and symposia, culminating in the 2010 MoMA volume Modern Women. The Tate is planning to focus on women artists in the coming year. Are these gestures true transformations towards equity or reparatory exceptions? There don’t need to be symposia on art by men, that is just art, still.
This winter, the Bruce High Quality Foundation decided that their last Brucennial would feature only women, although they refused to publicize this as such to the media, a decision that was interesting in that it insisted on a normalization of the all-women’s show, a situation that many women reject as both ghettoizing and frustrating since the show dramatically underlined the force and diversity of women artists working just in New York City alone. The call went out through a rapid-fire chain of email forwards of the invitation among women artists; long before the deadline, so many had registered that BHQF had to close the show for lack of space (and we are talking salon style installation to the max). If there had been more wall space, any number of additional women would have participated. And comparing it to the 2014 Whitney Biennial, which opened at the same time, it was clear that if you had edited the 600+ women artists in the Brucennial to about 100 you would have had as “high quality” and as random an exhibition as the Biennial, whose statistics for women and artists of color were dismaying: Eunsong Kim and Maya Isabella Mackrandilal mounted a laceratingly brilliant attack on the white male racist sexist curatorial practices of the Biennial in their online text, “The Whitney Biennial for Angry Women.”
In May, the orchestration of efforts in the media to restore Carl Andre’s personal reputation in advance of his retrospective at Dia led to a number of protests. No Wave Performance Task Force picketed Dia in Chelsea the evening a talk about Andre’s work was to be held (it was postponed at the last minute). A small group of people chanted, “We wish Ana Mendieta was still alive,” and spilled bloody animal guts on a long banner laid on the sidewalk on which these words were written. What has haunted me from coverage of the event was a photo of two young female Dia employees, or, as likely, unpaid interns, sent downstairs to clean up the mess. What were they were thinking? Did they understand the outrage? Did they feel solidarity? Or did they think the protesters were some annoying ’70s feminists who had left them with a bloody mess?
On the August 5th cover of the New Yorks Times, under the header “Justices’ Rulings Advance Gays; Women Less So,”an article featuring Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburgraised important questions about why five right-wing Republican Catholic men have been more sympathetic to gay rights than issues concerning women—it only scratched the surface of that question. Overall, the article was deeply dispiriting about the “progress” of women 45 years after the Women’s Liberation and feminist movements.
Here I must interject a personal experience: 40 years ago at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, where I was, at age 24, the only woman on a faculty of 14 men, I said something at a large group crit. The student to whom I had addressed the comment quoted it, saying, “as (insert name of young male professor) said.” Since it was apparently an interesting statement, it must have been said by a man; my voice was erased from the equation.
And here we are 40 years later, from the Times article:
Justice Ginsburg has suggested that her male colleagues sometimes do not hear a woman’s voice, including her own. In a 2009 interview with USA Today, she said the other justices, who were then all men, sometimes ignored the arguments she made at their private conferences.
“I will say something—and I don’t think I’m a confused speaker—and it isn’t until somebody else says it that everyone will focus on the point,” Justice Ginsburg said.
Ginsburg noted that things got a bit better when two more women were added to the court, but the awful fact remains: Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who is not a confused speaker, is erased from the equation. The woman’s voice is not heard.
There is a lot of work yet and always to be done. But how many amnesiac returns can feminism take before the condition becomes permanent?
*The repetition in my title reflects the fact that in 1992, for a special issue of the art journal Tema Celeste dedicated to “The Question of Gender in Art,” I wrote a short essay entitled “Amnesiac Return.” I thought of the same title for this piece before realizing that it sounded familiar—because, in fact, I had used it before.
MIRA SCHOR is a painter and writer living in New York. She recently received an AICA-U.S.A. award for her writings on A Year of Positive Thinking.