In April of this year, I had the opportunity to interview artist Kara Walker on the subject of her project at the Domino Sugar Factory in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Our discussion, printed in the May edition of the Brooklyn Rail, covered issues of race and class, the subjugation of the labor force, and the economic and political complexities that engender and sustain such division, none of which can be considered without a discussion of feminism. Walker’s monolithic A Subtlety, while controversial within some feminist circles, paid socio-political homage to the notion of feminine power and unwaged labor, which, according to feminist theorist Silvia Federici, has been largely responsible for the reproduction of labor ancillary to the capitalist foundations of this country.1 In this way, Walker’s highly sexed paragon of cultural achievement served as the locus for this issue—as both a harbinger of progress and site of amnesiatic duress, a complex chimera armed with a legacy largely written out of the historical chronology.
Walker’s project marked the culmination of a long series of feminist themed performances, projects, panels, and exhibitions staged over the course of the past year. Artist and longtime activist Suzanne Lacy produced her unscripted, performative piece, “Between the Door and the Street,” last fall in conjunction with Creative Time and the Brooklyn Museum; Judy Chicago’s early works are currently on view there. This winter, The Armory Show debuted its (rather tepid) Venus Drawn Out, while The Bruce High Quality Foundation chose to make its Last Brucennial an all-woman affair. Closer to home, Mira Schor curated a re-presentation of the themes concerning the groundbreaking 1972 Womanhouse exhibition at A.I.R. Gallery in Dumbo. In terms of institutional critique, artist Micol Hebron set the art world ablaze with her ongoing “Gallery Tally” project, which utilizes the methodologies of crowd sourcing and collaborative image making to document the statistical inequities behind male/female gallery representation. All of this, plus the continued controversy surrounding Pussy Riot, the YAMS Collective’s (otherwise known as HOWDOYOUSAYYAMINAFRICAN?) highly public withdrawal from the Whitney Biennial, and my own participation in numerous panels and feminist interventions such as the Clitney Perennial, fueled my desire to dig deeper into these issues. This edition, accordingly, tackles the many difficult questions raised apropos to gender equity in the art world, particularly in regards to feminine representation and voice, as well as the resurgence of the aforementioned thematic exhibitions in the wake of Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s “lean in” pronouncements and feminism’s so called “fourth wave.”
To this last point, artist and writer Susan Bee smartly observes in her contribution to this issue, “I don’t think it is a problem of women artists leaning in; I believe we have been leaning in for a long time. Rather, the issue resides in the glass ceiling that is perpetuated by the collectors, auction houses, and art world institutions.” From former MoMA Board President Agnes Gund’s recent statements in the Huffington Post, to the No Wave Performance Task Force’s protestations against the Carl Andre retrospective at Dia:Beacon, publicly institutionalized criticism is becoming more prevalent. While powerful, these actions have regrettably yet to equalize the playing field for racial and gender parity on the ground level—in our institutional and educative infrastructures, first exposed in Linda Nochlin’s famous essay from 1971, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?”
What is needed, then, is a reimagining of the patriarchal edifices that define our culture. A complete, and total, revolution. As such, contributors were asked to consider and expand upon a series of questions: What is it about this particular moment that has triggered a renewed interest in feminine and gendered voices? Is the recent prominence of self-identifying feminist art a sign of social progress or institutional neutralization? Is there a compelling momentum to be gained from these “victories” and if so, where do they lead us? And most importantly, why, over 40 years after the second wave banner was raised, are we still grappling with the issue of equality? What is it about the art machine that lends itself so conspicuously to the male, white perspective? And how, as women, men, trans, queer, or otherwise self-identifying individuals do we combat current (and often invisible) systems of control in a neo-liberal capitalist art world?
The subject of gender equity in the art world (and in general), is an undeniably complex issue to address, one which the limited pages of this publication cannot possibly allow a full examination of. What I am hoping, then, is to provide our readers a place to begin the discussion—to offer a multitude of ideas and perspectives, sometimes in accord, at others, in contradiction, as a point of entry. This section will, by no means, provide all of the answers, nor is it capable of embodying the vast collection of voices and dissident subjectivities that inform this topic. What it can offer, however, is a space of resistance.
In bringing awareness, all labels aside, to the injustices perpetuated by the patriarchal neoliberal capitalist systems of power that govern our livelihoods, our bodies, and our art, we might finally definitively turn the amnesiatic tides of history. As writer and philosopher Beatriz Preciado so articulately states, “Ideas are not enough. … Only art working together with biopolitical praxis can move.”
Let’s move, together.
For more on this see Federici’s Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation
The Rail would like to hear your thoughts in response to this important issue. Please send a letter to the editor for inclusion in our monthly column, Railing Opinion.