From: N To: Kate Subject: WACK! Conversation Date: Mon, 5 Nov 2007
So we both went to see WACK! this weekend, and we want to try out this "conversation" via e-mail about the show.
Here is what I know about feminism: it’s about equality between the sexes. Women should be able to have the same jobs, benefits, options, as men, and they should also be able to choose to have a family, if that is what they want. I am aware that there were some different periods within the feminist movement, and I know feminism gained a lot of attention due to the actions of bra-burners and the beliefs of “femi-nazi’s,” but I was never under the impression that these more extreme philosophies were the main crux of feminism.
I have heard that the older generations of feminist activists feel frustrated with our (your and my) generation of women, because we are (supposedly) ignoring the struggles that feminists before us endured to give us rights we take for granted. There really IS a stigma attached to feminism within our generation, as far as if you label yourself a "feminist," you are automatically thought of as a man-hater. I guess this is my disclaimer in regards to what may be my ignorance about the specifics of feminism, its mandates and its history.
However, I have felt for a long time that I have a very organic awareness of patriarchal mechanisms within our society, and I usually feel angry when I sense these things at work. I want women to be treated as men's equals (no, I don't think this is happening 100% of the time, everywhere in the world), and because of this, I would label myself a "feminist." With that said, I felt overwhelmed by the show- in a really good way. There were a few works (one, especially) that I felt affected by in a multitude of ways that don't often happen for me in institutional spaces. I also found myself wondering about a few of the works whether, if the same work were created by a man, it would still be considered "feminist art." I don't know, but I think the answer may be lurking in that too-expensive-for-my-starving-art-student-budget catalog.
Do you consider yourself a feminist? Do feminist themes have a place in your work? How much do you know about feminism, and is our conversation hurt by my ignorance? (you don't have to answer all these, just some questions to mull over...)
From: Kate To: N Subject: RE: WACK! Conversation Date: Thu, 8 Nov 2007
Ok. Here I am, quite in the same boat as you in terms of (il)literacy with "feminist" discourse and history of feminism.
But. At the WACK! show, I had a strong sense of being confronted with a history of which I feel part as a woman.
In response to your question, I do consider myself a feminist. As long as women are paid less than men for doing the same job, I will consider myself a feminist. I feel a debt of gratitude to feminists of my mother's generation for opening the doors that they did. WACK! brought that historical sense to a personal level as I imagined my mother coming of age with all these crazy things going on around her (which still even to me today), having those pin straight 70's hairdos and marching on Washington. (Just as an aside, that personalizing of history - or empathizing with peoples of the past - seems crucial for social change as well as for art; at the film screening this morning on anti-war protest post-9-11, the director talked about the draft as the most powerful agent, in terms of making the political personal, feeding the radicalism of the Vietnam era (in contrast to today).)
So I'll talk a bit about your question, "is there room in my art for feminist ideas?"
In terms of painting: My ideas about painting tend to be fairly universalist and gender neutral, but I recognize that "painting" as such is historically weighted as a "male" tradition. Certainly conventional wisdom about modernist painting and painters has not changed that. It seems partly the legacy of feminism that we are more able today to see where gender has been assigned to a thing - as when masculinity has been assigned to painting. But even this assignation hints at a more involved gender dynamic. Former professors of mine, modernists to the core, have referred to painting as "of the body, by the body, for the body." As much as the physical has been assigned to a feminine sphere, conventional wisdom would assign painting to the feminine sphere as a sensual, physical medium, the tactile qualities of oil paint in particular recalling flesh of the bodily kind (even when not depicting it). In this view, male domination of painting could be yet another instance of the suppression or co-opting of the feminine. Given the history of figure painting, it is important to me to be a woman painting women, but my ultimate commitment is not to "female" subject matter as such. I am still figuring out what my ultimate commitment is to. It probably comes down to making good paintings. Call me naive or a-historical, but I think those, whatever form they take, may be among the most politically radical things we have available to us to look at.
Like much of the show, I think the paintings in WACK! are at their best when they bring the personal and the political together with a universal quality. Alice Neel's paintings were strong to me in this regard. Her portraits of Linda Nochlin and Andy Warhol are sensitively painted and subvert expectations about the sitters - Nochlin the art-historian powerhouse and feminist icon is shown in a personal, intimate and vulnerable moment with a young girl (presumably her daugher); Warhol the superstar is shown with his scars exposed - slouched, vulnerable.
I won't dwell on the paintings for now because I already feel like I'm lecturing and I want to ask you the same question: do you see your work as "feminist" in any way? in either form or content? and if so, was it a self conscious choice to take up feminist themes?
I also want to know if you'd like to talk about what work affected you most in the show. .
For me it was the gallery where Magdalena Abakanowicz giant red tapestry disc hangs from the ceiling and Nancy Spero's frieze piece on torture wraps around the walls. I was suprised that the concept, which sounds so heavy handed conceptually, (a huge drop of blood suspended next to a torture piece) was in actuality really moving. The monumentality of the weaving, the way its weight was suspended - neither rising nor falling - with a wing-like form rising off the back, and the associations invoked by the color red, drew me to read the room like a poem. The notion of a drop of blood being monumental - potentially a sign of either nourishment or destruction - is palpable in that room.
Last question - just as food for thought - was there anything you HATED in the show?
From: N To: Kate Subject: RE: WACK! Conversation Date: Sat, 10 Nov 2007
I'm not sure I could really say that I HATED it, but I felt uncomfortable in the room with the Spero pieces and the Abakanowicz tapestry. I tried to read the text in the Spero work, and I was already feeling really drained from everything else I had seen- it was too much. The presence of that huge red object was overwhelming, and I had to leave the room.
I am starting to see my own work as more feminist. In the WACK! show, the work I felt most moved by was one of Judy Chicago's "Rejection Drawings." The particular one that got to me was "Female Rejection Drawing." It consisted of a colored pencil and graphite drawing of what looked like flower petals peeling away from a vagina-like form. Below the drawing, Chicago had written about some of her personal experiences with rejection of the "feminine" within her work by her colleagues and the art world. I wrote down some quotes that particularly appealed to me from that writing:
*"My struggle has been and is to find a way to let the female experience be represented in such a way that it can stand for those areas of human experience that male society denies, thus challenging the prevailing values..."
*"Whatever gap exists (between Chicago's rhetoric and her work, as expressed by critics) grows out of the fact that I have been trying to bridge a gap that exists in the world- the gap between feminist consciousness and sophisticated art language..."
Wow! I'm usually really turned off by written narrative within art, but by the time I reached Chicago's drawings, I was feeling put off by some of the show's artworks that felt inaccessible. I was ready for someone to lay it all out for me, and I thought that Chicago's writings did that. These quotes expressed some things that I have been thinking about- I think of the first quote as relating to our society's denigration of the validity of intuition. Because we live in such a scientifically and technologically advanced time, non-concrete ways of knowing are discounted. Intuition is largely relegated to the realm of the feminine. In the second quote, I guess I was thinking a lot about my own work, the ways in which I work intuitively, and how difficult it can be to explain meaning and content when I am pressed to do so. Because, I think, I am working through a "way of knowing" which is nonverbal. Yet the art world insists (or does it?) that I give it (whatever "it" is) a name.
Sooo... to answer your question more directly: Yes, I see my work as "feminist" in some way. I think aspects of my form and my content may apply to this, but if pressed to go into specifics, I don't think I could, because I'm currently right in the middle of all of that, trying to work my way out. No, I don't think it was originally a conscious decision to take up feminist themes, but I am consciously now working to identify these themes in order to better (consciously) express them. (Ugh- what an answer.)
Okay, here's my question: Do you think there is a gap (as Chicago writes) between "feminist consciousness" and "sophisticated art language"? Why is there a gap OR why do you think there is no gap, AND (here's the tough part) how can we, as emerging artists work to bridge this gap (if it exists)?
That could be really hard- I look forward to hearing your thoughts. I don't think I've formulated mine yet...
From: Kate To: N RE: WACK! conversation Date: Nov 15, 2007
Great question. Do I think there is a gap, as Chicago claims, between "feminist consciousness" and "sophisticated art language?"
1) First, a few disclaimers. Saying "yes" there is a gap, we risk implying that feminist consciousness (and does Chicago mean "feminist" or "feminine" consciousness?) is unsophisticated and even nonlinguistic by nature. But this is only "risky" if these qualities are devalued -- look how entrenched I am in the system! If we take Chicago's argument to its logical extension, we could say that all intellectualism - and the academy as such - is inherently a masculine enterprise. Whew. I am loathe to follow her there, but at the same time, I agree with her statement to a certain extent simply based on my experience in academia and (more recently) in the art academy.
2) The Mind-Body Split or "Clapping for Credit" in upstate NY (a cautionary tale...)
Basically it seems we are talking about the old Cartesian mind-body split. We are all still living under that dualistic way of being, of seeing, of experiencing and knowing, and our institutions reflect the split as well in their structures. (ie/ the specialization of academic disciplines)
Here's an example that relates. At my undergrad school (lefty upstate NY liberal arts college), there was an initiative to encourage what were called "alternative" modes of learning among the student body. A wealthy arts therapist-Jungian had given money to fund the project. Specifically, it was meant to encourage body-based modes of learning and knowing. "Laughter therapy" workshops, meditation and mindfulness, Alexander technique, plus various other improv-theatre-game type sessions sprouted up across campus. An English class I was taking on myth and fairytale incorporated guided visualizations in class as well as a drawing session based on the Odyssey, and a "ritual" by our professor where she brought pine cones and pomegranates to class to accompany our reading of Psyche and Eros. If it sounds a little contrived - well, I wish I could say it wasn't. In the back of my head I knew we were going to eat the pomegranate seeds and then leave and have to write a paper. The academy still loomed large. We were playing at creating a new culture of body-based learning and knowledge, but it seemed tentative and provisional.
So that experiment in cultural revision had mixed results (sorry Carolyn Grant Faye committee...). But the problem - the mind/body split - is enormous. I value intellectualism hugely, enjoy and participate in it, but at the same time, I have never felt like it was the modality that came most naturally to me. My very last written assignment in college was perhaps my favorite, for a 17thC Flemish and Netherlandish art history class. On the final exam, our (female) professor asked: "If there has been a work we have studied that moved you in some way, please talk about why and how this work moved you." My heart leaped and I wrote for an hour plus about Vermeer's Milk Maid. It's no accident that we talk about being "moved" --- real transformation (real education) works on the body as well as the mind.
3) Words as a tool for seeing- Poetry as a possible bridge
The gap. Most language is extremely abstract. We as visual artists are working utterly concretely, with material things.
The old addage: a picture is worth a thousand words. I wouldn't be painting if I felt like I could do in words what I want to do in painting! Yet, there are times when words are a helpful in making me see more, see clearer and better what I am doing and what I have done, and what others have done. Maybe timing is the issue. Have you ever NOT dissected an artwork you loved because you wanted it to keep its non-verbal, bodily hold on you? The only kind of dissection that seems to allow works to keep that for me is a very formal "look at this relationship" kind of analysis - how does the thing work formally to express its content. Not a heady situating of the work in terms of art history or cultural history. Sometimes I feel like I'm being willfully naive when I do that - defer analysis. Other times I feel like it's the best way I can be responsible (in the sense of a call and a response) to the work.
How can we bridge the gap between body and mind? ? ? between feminist consciousness and sophisticated art language? ? I feel like poetry is an attempt to use language in a different way - ie/ to say things non literally but very specifically. Highly concretely (ie/ often highly visually) as opposed to abstractly.
Maybe it's a matter of using everything we have at our disposal - intuition, literal "sophisticated" language, poetic language (which is highly sophisticated), etc etc etc. as we need them, or when it seems appropriate.
What do you think? ? ?
(sorry this response is all over the place)
To be continued…