When We Are Given a Voice
In the ’70s and ’80s I had written a few pieces about fellow women artists who could not get any coverage, because men got most of the ink. It began as a sort of public service for my sister artists, marginalized and discouraged. During the Frankfurter Inquisition when Adorno in his “Theses Against Occultism” preached that “the idea of the existence of the spirit [or of spirit] is the most extreme height of bourgeois consciousness,”1 it was hard for a Druid like myself to get published. We were relegated to feminist journals dealing with spirituality like Heresies. Mira Schor and Susan Bee were my early champions in M/E/A/N/I/N/G, an important journal of artist writing. I remember discussing the problem with Malachy McCourt at a meeting of the Irish American Writers Society. Malachy said, “Art writing is so ‘feckin’ boring, make it amusing.” I took his advice. In 2013, I submitted my first Judith Bernstein review to the Brooklyn Rail, where my editor at first blanched at sentences like, “I love big dicks—my Priapic Cult library spans a shelf.” I persisted, and Phong Bui, who is an artist himself, as publisher of the Rail gave me a platform and a voice. I am forever grateful. A 2014 guest editor slot followed on art and the unconscious, tackling the subject of art and madness. It included a response by the brilliant Marina Warner, author of Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and the Cult of the Virgin Mary (1976). As a battle weary old maenad I felt like I was pulling ancient voices onto the pages, perspectives long forgotten, occluded narratives, limping sisters. The God/G_d Rail conversation with Helène Aylon was a theological milestone, and one that helped revive her career after years of neglect. The October journal posse’s suppression of alternative perspectives had been deadly for expansive definitions of writing on art, especially for those of us who bucked the party line. Topics like Jung, Rudolph Steiner, Smithson’s Catholicism, Beuys’s shamanism, and Carolee Schneemann’s erotic cat goddess worship were discouraged. It became a sort of academic flat earth society with no mythical dimensions. Departments became bulwarks where those not in lockstep with a strident atheistic Marxist agenda could be tossed over the ramparts, especially if you were an irreverent woman like myself. There were some alternative voices like Jack Burnham and Thomas McEvilley, but they were men writing about men, big difference.
I came to art history from studio art, Native American archeology, classics, and Jungian psychology. When I came to New York, I was more interested in the Hopi Snake Dance than the New York School—Clement Greenberg meant nothing to me. The Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian, and Kwakwaka’wakw had more interesting approaches to art than the academy in my view. Even when those ideas crept into the art world with exhibitions like Magiciens de la Terre (1989), women were largely excluded from the exhibition and the catalog, even though they were often the first to think about these issues. Women supported artists like Joseph Beuys, but very few were allowed to actually participate in this tribal dance orchestrated by the curator Jean-Hubert Martin. To not include Carolee Schneemann’s Meatjoy (1964), or Mary Beth Edelson’s cave rituals, not to mention their pioneering writing, was shocking.
Then there was the religious problem. Catholic intellectuals got a battering in the academy, unless they were lapsed, angry, and apologetic. Our brains are wired differently to include thoughts about transcendence, mysteries, and the living numinous realities of the spirit. Christianity could only be discussed in the art world from a secular point of view as an outdated practice with no current presence. Rose d’Amora, Joe Masheck, and other scattered believers discussed this in corners at parties, and were thankful to have a haven at the Rail. It went beyond discussions of transgressive Catholics making art about the body, some of us were committing the ultimate transgression of still being sincere believers and practitioners. The artist Linda Montano and I held firm in the face of the opposition. The Gospels and Marian devotion trumped priestly nightmares, we could have our disputes with the Pope without abandoning our beliefs. The endless attacks from the secularists got old for those of us occupying the Dorothy Day wing. When it comes to dialogues about spiritual practices, Montano’s performances, writing, and interviews are treasures.
When I read artists writing about art, I find their voices the most interesting. Brian O’Doherty and Barbara Novak paved the way for me, because they both make art and understand the artist’s brain. They were huge influences on how I approach art and writing about it. Barbara brought me into the Barnard Art History department for 20 years, and valued my perspectives, when few others did. My colleagues and myself at Artseen have been very lucky to have the Brooklyn Rail provide us a wide-open platform, when many other publications prefer safer, more mainstream academic scribblers. I think of the Irish philosopher George Berkeley as he rejects the argument of the English empiricist, John Locke, with the retort: “We Irish think otherwise.” This Paddy certainly thinks otherwise, and Berkeley’s retort is true for many artists writing about art. Artists have an inside track. I used to wonder why are critics and art historians so afraid to discuss what artists really think about? Artists writing about art are not afraid to have these discussions. As artists and autodidacts with reading, interests, and imaginal structures outside of the box, we get it.
- Versluis, Arthur. The New Inquisitions, Herectic-Hunting and the Intellectual Origins and Modern Totalitarianism, 2006. Oxford University Press, p.99