The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2020

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MAR 2020 Issue
Art Books

Nancy Princenthal’s Unspeakable Acts: Women, Art, and Sexual Violence in the 1970s

A scholarly book investigates how women created language for sexual violence through the use of their bodies in performance art.

Nancy Princenthal
Unspeakable Acts: Women, Art and Sexual Violence in the 1970s
(Thames & Hudson, 2019)

Aside from being an award-winning author and a former senior editor ofArt in America, Nancy Princenthal is an educator. One can sense this from the unbiased, comprehensive, and meticulous narration that guides us through her book Unspeakable Acts: Women, Art and Sexual Violence in the 1970s.  This text of under 300 pages is an in-depth lesson in alternative history and theory of Western art structured around the works of the most prominent women artists of the 20th Century.

The 1970s in America, as Princenthal describes, were a “decisive moment” for public dialogue on sexual abuse and acted as a turning point in gender politics after suffragette feminism. Amidst the loud and sometimes tragic anti-war protests,Black resistance, first Gay pride marches, early environmental movements, Woodstock hangover, the rise of the “new right,” and upward tendencies of severe urban crime and serial murders, the pains of abused women were spoken for the first time together with artists. It is the phenomenology of precisely these acts of speech that Princenthal explores in her book: their unspeakability, their first articulations, and their transformation into language.

“Finding language for violence is the first step in mitigating its effects,” states Princenthal, and her theoretical investigations tiptoe around writers, artworks, and historical events that represent the relation between power and communication. If “rape as a speech act expresses pure denial,” as philosopher J.L. Austin argues, quoted by Princenthal, using our bodies is a natural way to resume an equal dialogue. We see how in contrast to the minimalism and detachment of the 1960s, raw and honest bodily presence took place: Yoko Ono in her Cut Piece (1964), inviting the audience to cut her clothes with utmost vulnerability; Valie Export “looking for trouble”—to use Princenthal’s words—by letting strangers in the streets touch her in her performance “Touch Cinema” (1968) or exposing her genitalia to seated art house cinema goers in Munich, performing her Action Pants (1969); acts like these evoked a new decade. Princenthal recounts how the groundbreaking 1970 book on women’s health and anatomy published by the Boston Women's Health Book Collective got its title during a collective meeting when someone stated, “Hey wait a second—it isn’t women and their bodies, it’s us, our bodies. Ourselves.” Body Language is presented as the cornerstone of artistic innovation by women artists of the time as, “That is where the issues they were addressing were rooted.”

Nancy Spero, <em>Torture of Women III</em>, 1976, Cut-and-pasted typed text, painted paper, gouache, and handprinting on paper, 14 panels, 20 in x 125 ft (51 x 3,810 cm) overall © Nancy Spero and Leon Golub Foundation for the Arts/Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY. Photo: Courtesy Galerie Lelong & Co.
Nancy Spero, Torture of Women III, 1976, Cut-and-pasted typed text, painted paper, gouache, and handprinting on paper, 14 panels, 20 in x 125 ft (51 x 3,810 cm) overall © Nancy Spero and Leon Golub Foundation for the Arts/Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY. Photo: Courtesy Galerie Lelong & Co.

From Marina Abramović harming herself in the “Rhythm performance series (1973–1974) to Ana Mendieta’s shocking Untitled (Rape Scene) (1973) staged in her own apartment, the majority of these “embodied” examples are performance. Performance, the book suggests, can be a structural replica of dissociation that results from rape trauma, it gives women a vehicle to creatively analyze trauma and address sexual assault. Adrian Piper described her years long enactment, “Mythic Being” (Village Voice published performance 1973–75)—in which the artist’s macho male alter-ego walked in the streets of New York—as “therapeutic,” tapping into controversial and sensitive issues of flourishing identity politics. Assuming a role is when “someone else moves into these artists’ bodies and provisionally, but forcefully, takes over. The same can be said of all overwhelming experiences, not excluding rape,” Princenthal summarizes.

The roots of this genre are recalled in Abstract Expressionism, Viennese Actionism, Fluxus, Happenings, Beat poetry, and Pop. But it is their juxtaposition with the historical examples of violence and spectacle that show how performance art and political action have met: performative killings by Charles Manson; kidnapping of Patricia Hearst; demonstrative explosions throughout the country; and then women, pimped and abused amidst emancipating movements, tired of being either a tool or a decoration, and starting to understand “rape” more broadly than individual cases of harm. “If rape is a form of expression and there’s a ‘rape culture’ in general, supported by commercial media, then there is a symmetry in the fusion of public protest and performance art,” Princenthal draws a map of causalities that result into new cultural expressions. The decade of the ’70s has culminated into relational aesthetics and social practice: Princenthal proposes that Three Weeks In May (1977), an extended piece of collective action organized by Suzanne Lacy, was a precedent of “heralding—perhaps inventing—a new genre of art.”

Art and Terror “both exceed words.” While the book unfolds, it becomes clear that the awe of the beauty and traumatic silence of the pain are the speechless gaps on which patriarchal syntax fundamentally stood since the beginning of time. And after reading chapters like “The Cannon” (the history of rape through art and literature from Ovid to Easy Rider (1969); and “Graphic Content” (meditating on the pictorial representation of sexual abuse and understanding of pornography), we become intensely aware of what an enormous and “unspeakable” contribution these women performance artists have made to social progress. However, perhaps the most significant quality of this book is that it rewards with a seeing how history is shaped: the patterns of social, political, and cultural stirrings capture the spirit of the times and reveal what powers act behind the birth of epoch’s artistic language, or lack thereof.


Elene Pasuri

Elene Pasuri is an author, producer, and curator from Tbilisi, Georgia. She now develops various projects at Propaganda, an organization supporting Georgian contemporary art.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2020

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