PRINT September 1977

The Private and the Public: Feminist Art in California

FEMINIST ART IN CALIFORNIA HAS its own particular features, although it naturally has been influenced by—and has influenced—wider theory and practice in and beyond the art world. Before addressing some specifics of the California “scene” a few general remarks are warranted. From the outset, a distinction between “women’s art” and “feminist art”: obviously, not all women are feminists. Neither does an identification with the women artists’ movement imply any necessary commitment to feminism (which I see as necessitating a principled criticism of economic and social power relations and some commitment to collective action). Nor does even a conscious identification with feminism make one’s art necessarily “feminist.”1 Yet it is a sure bet that women artists’ work will be measured against some notion of feminism. This has partly to do with the conditions surrounding the establishment of “women’s art” as a category. The invention of that category in the early ’70s signaled a stress in art’s framing discourse just because it was so evidently related to social considerations. Occurring at the moment when subjecthood could be identified as an elementary concern of art, the concept was clearly a response to nonformal pressures that can be summed up as women’s push for fully recognized subjecthood in society. Maddening as it may seem to some, it is thus no surprise that “woman artist” and “feminist” tend to be conflated, since the women artists’ movement in fact owes its genesis, its rhetoric and its goals to the women’s liberation movement. In the early ’70s, a lack of differentiation between political and art-world feminism was to everyone’s advantage. The unity and high energy of the women’s movement seemed to obviate the need for fine distinctions. That moment has passed, and renewed theoretical activity has begun.

In California, the group currently active at the Woman’s Building in Los Angeles has developed an influential version of feminism that has also been responded to by art-world feminists elsewhere. Art feminism in California, unlike that in New York, has largely been based in art schools and has been more educational than confrontational.2 Among the most important of the programs and institutions was the women’s program set up by Judy Chicago at Fresno State College in 1970, which moved, in 1971, as the Feminist Art (and Women’s Design) Program, to the California Institute of the Arts, near Los Angeles, under Miriam Schapiro and Chicago (1971–73; under Schapiro alone, 1973–1975). There was also Womanspace Gallery and the other aspects of the Woman’s Building (at two successive locations) run by many women, including Gretchen Glicksman, Beverly O’Neill, Wanda Westcoast, and Judy Chicago. The Feminist Studio Workshop (FSW), set up in 1973 by Chicago with the designer Sheila de Bretteville and the historian Arlene Raven, is now the principal tenant of the Woman’s Building. Womanspace and the other galleries no longer exist. FSW (now run by de Bretteville, Raven, historian Ruth Iskin, designer Helen Roth, artist Suzanne Lacy, and writer Deena Metzger), together with its Extension Program and associated activities, is currently the only women’s art-training program in California. Any consideration of feminist art in California must take account of the Woman’s Building. For the purposes of this essay, we can treat the theoretical supports at the building as the major instance of feminist art theorizing in Southern California.

The building’s training function has turned out to be something of a problem for its founders: it “type cast” the building, which hasn’t developed into the meeting ground for established professionals that Chicago and others had envisioned. It has not remained a center for artists whose careers were furthered by earlier association with Womanspace and the first building. Its “cultural radicalism” has kept away the well-to-do backers of the early ventures, leaving it always running near the red. Location poses another problem: finances dictated a spot far from most of its constituency, but it has had only tentative relations with the barrio on whose outskirts it is located. It would be disingenuous, however, to blame the women at the building for failing to be more heroic, especially given the respect-at-a-distance that characterizes even most positive responses to it. Being bourgeois and Caucasian has to do with the selectivity of the art world far beyond the Woman’s Building. Yet its rhetoric of the community of all women opens the door to charges of exclusiveness and insularity in practice.

Despite its difficulties, the building, with its ongoing programs and its sponsorship of cultural events, is still a great presence in the Southern California women’s art scene—although there are, of course, women artists who aren’t interested, and there are also independent feminist artists, some of whom draw their support from outside the art world.3

The building’s particular formulation of feminism can be characterized as cultural feminism, by analogy with cultural nationalism. Where the latter sees race or nationality as the primary source of oppression, the former sees gender in that role. (In this the orientation is that of “radical feminism,” delineated by such writers as Shulamith Firestone and, to some degree, Kate Millett.) Of course, art is a cultural phenomenon, existing in the ideological sphere, but the value of the term “cultural feminism” is that, on the whole, the Woman’s Building shares the outlook of culturally oriented movements, which stress separatism and a voluntary change in material culture and in the organization of private life (and perhaps of work), rather than an active program of mass education and the seeking of political power. That is, they stress the development of alternative institutions rather than a struggle for control of existing ones.

The theoretical supports at the Woman’s Building can in some measure be traced to the ideas of Schapiro and Chicago, although clearly some such theory was inevitable. While the two parted fairly early—partly, it seems, over whether women should struggle within or outside existing institutions—and both have recently returned to more private concerns (Schapiro in SoHo, Chicago in Los Angeles), their speculations have proven seminal. In affirming their solidarity with other women and in acknowledging their own oppression without disowning their nonrepresentational painting styles, they described in their work a symbology of femaleness—one well enough hidden for the work to “pass” in the male-defined art world. As leaders and ideologues they generalized this description into the now all-too-familiar assertion of some definable female imagery, often motifs involving a central core in much women’s art, whether conscious or not. This thesis, which seemed to claim all women artists as recruits, aroused a lot of interest but also antagonism, especially in New York. Six years later many New York women (among them Linda Nochlin and Cindy Nemser) are still displaying negative reactions to it.

Feminism has played a large part in challenging the myth of male-defined universality in art, but the art world, predictably, has not agreed on any of the proposed reformulations of meaning in art—certainly not on any defined from the women’s viewpoint. There is something of a struggle between New York and Southern California women to control ideology that in any case has only partial effects on art-making—yet Chicago and Schapiro’s ideas have had the potency of fiat for many younger women here. Despite its lack of general acceptance, some version of gender determinism4 underlies the conception of feminist art generally held at the Woman’s Building.

One would expect an analysis that takes gender to be fundamental, if not to being, at least to patriarchal society, to develop a separatist orientation, and the women at the building have tended to do that, as I have suggested. Yet there seems to be disagreement about how much to participate in the dominant culture’s institutions, ranging from heterosexuality to art display situations. The rap at the building suggests that social change will be accomplished by feminist education.5 They aim to make women more direct in recognizing and expressing their own needs, and to make use of their personal and collective strengths; to validate women’s occupations and preoccupations, free of male interference, and help them enter the art world.

This approach avoids the energy drain of incessant battles with sexism, personal or institutional. It allows a lot of women to make and show art who might not otherwise be able to. It also keeps feminist issues humming while providing positive critical support. Such strengths are particularly valuable now: whereas the women’s liberation movement has passed the first flush of militancy and, under pressure of strongly conservative trends in all aspects of American life, finds its ability to make long-range plans seriously impaired, the women at the building have the benefit of collective support. One price paid is that their highly protective strategy tends to stifle challenges arising from the contradictions inherent in acting as if, for polemical purposes, a small group of cultural workers could change the world. This situation also attracts women whose art-making may be too deeply involved at present in private purposes of the self to be responsive to demands for clarity or technical refinement.

The Woman’s Building’s outlook on the art world, as on our society in general, suggests a duality common among movements: rhetoric outruns program and practice, the former tending to be radically separatist and communitarian, and the latter pair reformist—although this may be taken as a difference between strategy and tactics. I identify these problems with the theory: Aiming for success in the art world is hardly compatible with a radical critique of it. Given the current conditions of success, women who make it may be as exploitative and self-serving as many male stars are. The women’s art movement has achieved institutionalization in the art world at just the moment when the women’s movement is being declared passé by its enemies; there is the danger of the creation of a new elite of “feminist artists.” Further, valorizing, in the name of “women’s culture,” traditional handicrafts developed under conditions oppressive to women (or under preindustrial relations of production) is liable, at the least, to be misunderstood. Even more, valorizing fantasies of the self and the world born of these conditions may wind up serving repressive ends. And, of course, the proposition that structural changes can be made in an economically based system by some adjustments in people’s attitudes and behavior is highly dubious. What is at issue here is whether consciousness leads or follows socioeconomic changes—a classic dispute. The idea of “the community of all women,” which sees sexism as transcending class, is, it seems, an idea more popular among middle-class than among working-class women, who have generally defined a different order of priorities.

The critique sketched out here suggests that wider attention to feminist theorizing is needed in the art world. “Feminist criticism” is generally regarded as fringe activity and occasions a fall from respectability for its practitioners. Partly because of their embattlement and their scarcity, partly because of the furor over formulations of meaning in art (which is at the heart of the question of what feminist art might be), critics seem reluctant to theorize.6 Most have concentrated on exegesis, while other art-world women tend to reject all feminist theorizing about art as being coercive, valuational, or exclusionary.

At present, five or six years after the heady articulation of a far-reaching feminist viewpoint, there has been some drawing back. Various artists hope, as individuals unmarked by a collectively defined perspective, to pursue their work freely, often using themes and materials legitimized in a feminist framework. Instead of allocating praise or blame, a primary task is to consider why some artists’ espousal or tacit acceptance of feminism has been followed by denial or negation. Individuals are caught up in a situation they did not invent. This is doubly true of the many women artists who had no part in the reawakening of feminism in the late ’60s or who did not share an interest in exploring alternative social structures or ways of relating except for career-oriented ends. The faddish appeal of art-world feminism has long since been depleted.7

Women artists face more than the cultural conservatism that militates against the articulation of critical awareness. They also have to contend with newly intensified attacks in the art world on any coherent leftist social critique. Feminism is seen as “politics,” and by the art world’s polarized operational definition, one either has politics or one has not. (The residual category represents “individualism” or liberalism, often referred to in the art world as humanism.) Nonliberal political views are tolerated only as long as they can be treated as idiosyncratic quirks of personal style. Adaptive behavior to this important protocol fosters a series of denials in the art community about the significance of real constraints on its activities (daily life, class); the implications of an artist’s work for behavior, except as symbolic gesture, are vanished.

Under the circumstances, to call oneself a feminist while also doing work that announces itself as feminist is to risk being seen as a tool or a hack doing “political art.” Some women whose work fits into feminist genres fog the issue by denying its social meaning. Others coyly affirm their feminism while doing blatantly retrograde antifemale work, often uncritically replicating male objectifications of women, usually sexual ones. Quite a few artists have adopted a feminism purged of any activist intent. Such feminism is definable simply as a push toward new materials and certain imagery, and as allowing the entry of more women into the art world. It does not implicate a comprehensive critique of society. I ran into this understanding among a number of students at the Woman’s Building, for cultural solutions to social problems tend to be collapsed into me-tooism, as black capitalism attests. “Culture” tends to be counterposed to “politics,” which radical feminists see as a man’s game. But at the Woman’s Building there are also women with a wider view of what feminism entails.

There are, now, women artists living in various places who have gained a secure knowledge of feminism, including some who have become artists after developing their understanding of feminism as a sociopolitical critique. They are therefore likely to have read and followed up the classic feminist writings. Their activist stance informs their art.

New theory needs new practice, making patent what was formerly latent. Thus a number of “younger” artists in California are doing work meant to communicate feminist themes, and their choice of form is secondary to this end. We can turn now to some works by four of these artists, two of whom are associated with the Woman’s Building.

SINCE THE BEGINNING OF the women artists’ movement an important theme of feminist work has been the conscious assertion of the self as “Other,” to use Simone de Beauvoir’s term. Furthermore, the work—as feminist art—has asserted itself as the practice of the (insurgent) Other; that is, as a form of guerrilla activity. The accreted texts of past artists and critics make it difficult to communicate new content with traditional media such as painting and sculpture. Insurgent work has its own texts to provide. Sometimes it does so explicitly, without a divided labor between artist and critic, by incorporating language. Sometimes it relies on the formal or contextual redefinition of received content.

Some early West Coast work used heavily symbolic images identified with women’s oppression. “Performance”—the creation of an activity, often involving the redefinition of a space—was an important mode here. Such work showed the preoccupations imposed on women, to seize control of them and to externalize the highly negative inner responses they provoke. This strategy has a strong expressionist component. Early performances like those done at Fresno, Cal Arts, and Womanhouse8 relied on the ad hoc air of Happenings, with their seeming poverty of materials and importation of concerns from “private life” and the arousal in viewers of visceral responses. Anger was put to positive use in the redirection of energy formerly invested in the “forced labor” of domestic maintenance. In burlesquing and overstating the passive, dependent, and depressive roles—represented by restrictive or emblematic clothing such as aprons, as well as by physical bearing—the performers signaled their taking of control.

Such work’s antecedents include an idea of “primitive” ritualism that has served in the art world for many years as a loose evocation of universal human psychic formations. And the feminist performances asserted the commonality of women’s experience—shared oppression, shared responses. A need to project collectivity while avoiding what Harold Rosenberg has derided as “willed content”9 (rationally derived, programmatic content) may help explain the push toward pseudo-ritualized art. This antirationalist approach, however, is also a correlative of the idea of “will-she/nill-she” female imagery in painting and sculpture: a culturally stifled content will burst through in dream-code metaphors. I see the feminist performances as a continuation of Abstract Expressionism (Rosenbergian rather than Greenbergian) by other means. Very much like Happenings (which themselves hark back to Futurist, Dadaist and Surrealist performance), they represent the return of daily-life material to an abstract art that had developed “private myth” into an almost unreadably obscure and increasingly formalistic set of strategies for invoking human content.

Feminist performances sometimes implied that a shared but repressed inner reality, predating patriarchal civilization and persisting in spite of it, can become a positive force for change. But this assertion is much more literally made by, say, the New York artist Mary Beth Edelson. Chicago and Schapiro, and many (although not all) of the other women associated with the feminist programs, are pragmatists, not mystics. Their explanations for habits of mind tend to be located in social conditioning rather than in universal mental structures. Their sociological rather than metaphysical bias, however, is not clearly articulated, and the “female imagery” thesis and its performance equivalents lend themselves to precisely this ambiguity around the origin of imagery—an ambiguity over essentialist versus interactionist views of the self that it is politic to maintain.

Early performances counted on correspondences between symbols and meanings half-recognized by an audience, on the ambivalent conjoining of easily understood with more mysterious personal iconography. Thus they can be said to have alluded to, rather than to have defined, a content. Ablutions (1972), the product of a workshop and performed by Chicago, Suzanne Lacy, Sandra Orgel, and Aviva Rahmani, is exemplary. Kidneys, baths of “blood,” of 1,000 eggs, and of wet clay, yards of rope and chain, mummy wrappings—together with a continuously playing tape of women telling about being raped—were used to map out the general territory of the existential conditions of womankind.

The immediacy of such work rests partly on the suggestion of discovery, of the collective raising of consciousness, and of release—exorcism. As feminist issues gained wide attention, feminist performance moved away from its original strategies. It has become more measured, also, as the temper of the times has sunk toward quietism and as performance has become accepted. The area of concern—roughly, consciousness—is now a given, and iconography can be abridged rather than perpetually created. Blood, organs, wrapped figures are now used rather sparingly. Directed speech as a tool in developing collectivity (already present in Ablutions) has taken on greater importance. One moves away from lament to explanation. Feminist performance in Southern California is now more oriented toward psychosocially located single themes such as prostitution or rape. The increased rationalism in the work makes it less ritualistic and more analogic.

Simultaneously, the work of other artists, not affiliated with the programs and who began with careful attention to rationalist art-historical traditions, has become more histrionic. Eleanor Antin, for instance, whose miniature weight-loss epic bore (with conscious irony) the title Carving: A Traditional Sculpture while also referring to the Minimalist grid—has developed a sentimentalized, mock-heroic performance repertoire drawing heavily on the principles of projective history writing. Bonnie Sherk, a Northern California artist whose performances in the early ’70s were clean guerrillalike activities in dehumanized urban spaces (e.g. dining alone, in formal dress, at a well-laid table on a freeway median) is now running a full-scale community project, The Farm, in San Francisco. Conversely, the work of Barbara Smith, an early and venerated performance artist, is also leaning away from her earlier elaborate symbolist rituals and is more psychosocial in focus. Things approach a middle ground. Still, some male artists such as Paul McCarthy continue the expressionist-hysterical tendency that feminist performances also drew upon, most notably displayed by the Living Theater or Carolee Schneeman’s mid-’60s performances such as Meat Joy or Ralph Ortega’s brutality-toward-chickens pieces.

Some of the women who went through the feminist programs have given performances since the early ’70s. Their work has undergone mutation from the primarily expressive to the delineation of consciousness in a social space. The two women in this tradition whose work I consider here also pay considerable attention to language as both a means of oppression and a tool of liberation.

Suzanne Lacy decided to become an artist while working with Judy Chicago at Fresno and moved with the program to Cal Arts. Her work bears also some trace of her study with Allan Kaprow, a founder of Happenings and now the technocrat-poet of mundane activity. Lacy is now part of the faculty collective of the Feminist Studio Workshop at the Woman’s Building. Her performances are too complicated to be outlined here, and in most of what follows I refer to small parts of works. Her work has been characterized by the metaphoric use of animal organs (as in Ablutions). In Lamb Construction, which is about her parturition and birth, the animal body is objective correlative to the (female) human psyche. In Maps (1971) and other performances she and other people have tried to fit animal organs back together—an obsessive kind of pseudo-rationalism. Long ropes, sometimes tied between the audience and either herself or the organs, have metaphorically “realized” the hypothesized presence of a community, as well as suggesting entrapment.

Lacy works with metaphorically expressed oppositions. Her work is seen to differ from, say, the explosive orgies of the Viennese artist Hermann Nitsch in having a cognitive communicative pole. The rootedness of many of her concerns in language is apparent. In defining things by opposition she develops a substitution set using the concept “body.” This may signify a self (versus a body) or an inner, hidden self (versus a public identity) or a female (versus a male) self or even an arena of cultural warfare over self-definition (versus a private, inviolate territory). In using animal bodies as analogues for these entities, she turns the conceptual into the concrete. Again, Lacy may use them as stand-ins for her own body, hanging the metaphor on the oppressive linguistic substitution of “piece” for “woman”—which signifies the thingification central to prostitution and pornography.

Lacy mines the idea of Otherness. If only men define subjectivity, then women are denied it; if, therefore, only men are fully human, women are beasts. Lacy, like Schapiro, identifies with the beast,10 but also with the beastliness of humans, who shape the bodies and control the lives of beasts, kill them and eat them (she’s still a meat eater). In a recent performance she played Frankenstein, the creator of the monster of patched-together human parts, as well as the monster itself. She has fashioned a myth of her origin as baby Dracula, growing up with damaged eyeteeth in tiny Wasco, California. For her, rending, tearing and consuming do not refer, as they do for Nitsch, to ineluctable human drives to violence, but often to psychic change. She is interested in beast/human transformation and in metempsychosis. This is her final opposition: her seemingly rational use of metaphor is complement to a quietly bizarre mysticism.

Lacy has a medically derived interest in bodies and their insides. Her clinical approach to dismemberment gives her work an air of detached authority, at once chilling and humorous, that is counterpoint to her more invested expositions of beastliness. Some recent work uses the sparer medium of photos,11 relying on their clean clarity. Three Love Stories consists of stripped-down narratives based on bodily metaphor. A heart in a jar on a white-sheeted bed is accompanied by a sentimental story. She’s got a good set of lungs (i.e. breasts) shows Lacy trying to blow up a pair of beef lungs. Lacy exploits her body’s angularity. In a postcard series she sits naked behind a kitchen table eating pieces of chicken, named on the cards, and displaying her corresponding body part—she is both consumer and consumed. In Falling several prints of a black-and-white photo of herself falling or jumping are torn across at different places, revealing color photos of the organs below. Inner representation assumes a greater “reality” (color, close-up) and a lesser “reality” (cut out, depersonalized, bottled) than the outer.

Lacy’s operatic idea of work as requiring several levels of text and dominating metaphors has been shared by Laurel Klick, who studied with Rita Yokoi in the Fresno program and now also teaches at the Woman’s Building. In Suicide, performed at Fresno in 1972, she acted out suicide, spattering her naked body with red paint. Two “anonymous men” (played by women) finish her off; two others mourn and bury her under clear plastic. The men chant, in round, conventionalized responses to suicide: “How could she do this to her mother?” Here social language is at its most rigid, negating all personal motive with implacable authority. Like the invalid Ippolit in Dostoyevsky’s Idiot, one may annihilate oneself to prevent a nameless force from exercising ultimate control; free choice—psychic survival—takes precedence over actual, bodily survival. Yet in Suicide personal decision is revealed, with irony, as forced choice.

Consciousness-Unconsciousness (1974), an elaborate performance at the building, also explores these opposites. Klick refuses attractive food that a woman friend offers her, while slides projected behind them reveal Klick’s idiosyncratic menus of the previous weeks. A tape plays descriptive yearbook clichés: “to a good kid,” “to a loudmouth.” Klick puts people to bed under black sheets, then rouses them. A repetitive tape about terror plays, with two tracks, one dictionary-based, one expressive: impersonal language fights it out with “organic” speech. While her friend eats, Klick tells secrets to the audience. When props are cleared away, Klick, alone, eating a bag of chips, tells the audience, “I’m not perfect.” She seems obsessed by absolutes: why else worry about perfection?

Klick’s recent work depends even more on direct speech. She talks to the audience, explaining herself. During a performance about anorexia nervosa, the self-starvation that mostly afflicts nice young women of good family, Klick talks about her relationship with her mother. Later she tries to speak with a dildo in her mouth. For her, food and sexuality are linked (one theory of anorexia sees it as an attempt to eradicate signs of sexual maturity). Mouth and vagina are confused—vagina dentata. There are other confusions: what it means to take something (a penis, food) into one’s body (through the vagina, through the mouth), what nourishment is (of the body, of the self). Klick talks to the audience about fellatio—being force-fed, unable to talk or eat. She seems more of a pessimist than Lacy, the inventive survivor. I imagine that for Klick the “language of the self” is ultimately utterly private and incommunicable. Lacy weaves gothic stories about blood and meat (drawing her own blood onstage), embroidering defensive fantasies into seductive narratives. Klick, in contrast, avoids valorizing the fantasies that she—like most women—has invented to stave off pain. She is interested in airing “secrets” in a supportive setting. In one work she literally shared secrets with women, sitting knee to knee. On a short radio program on Los Angeles station KPFK in 1976, she and telephone callers told secrets (mostly about sex). For Klick, it seems, secrets are signs of internalized oppression, the incorporation into the self of repressive standards. She presses us to realize how an individualist culture uses “psychology” to oppress people, especially women. Klick seems to be moving toward performance as a collective dispelling of what she calls “bad feelings”—psychically poisonous internalized attitudes about the self—which she perceives as rooted in sexuality and as representing society’s strongest means of control.

Lacy called upon the power of shared discourse for taking control in a “community development piece.” She and other women artists each chose a woman who was not an artist, and together in a gallery setting they created a temporary community symbolized by something each did as an expression of self. Lacy refers to this work as “naming” and as “an act of self-definition.” The work culminated for Lacy in her public naming of herself as “the woman who is raped,” as “a prostitute,” and as “the woman who loves women.” Lacy’s point was that solidarity with women means solidarity with all the least favored. In naming herself as what she in fact was not, she went against the divisive social tactic that leads women to identify different categories of women as Other.

That Lacy’s definitions were specifically sexual deserves consideration. Identifying something essential about oneself-as-woman with society’s most vilified, most sexual definitions of women is a recurrent theme that has partly to do with the general idea of the artist as perpetual outsider, but that also involves a radical feminist assertion of the identity of women in exploitation. Like the “Third-Worldism” of New Left politics, it provokes questions centering on adventurism, opportunist exploitation, and obliviousness to the facts of working-class life. The reality of lower-class women’s lives is an honorable topic, but in the auteurist art world its significance is subject to inversion and distortion, just as bohemia is traditionally attracted not to working stiffs but to the so-called underclass: “lumpen” and “deviates.” Take Diane Arbus’ work. It is often maintained that her portraits are really metaphoric images of herself; she is seen as performing acts of self-objectification, rendering the people depicted in her photos invisible—de-realized and turned into signs. Now, if this can be accomplished with straight photography, it can certainly be done in other media.

ART ABOUT OUTCASTS is a complicated issue. To middle-class feminism, the primary interest that prostitutes and, say, topless dancers have is that their subjectivity and self-determination, especially with respect to their own bodies, is denied them. We may admire or envy the privileged artist who abandons security to enter the world of the “opposite” needing no one to lull her into believing life is easy or to provoke her guilt over hating it. But there is the danger of converting this reality into a touristic equivalent for one’s own psychological oppression—and, for artists, into raw material for a career. There are women whose work feeds off such (especially sexual) victimization of lower-class women, just as there are even more men whose work feeds off this idea. It is the attempt to substitute psychological for economic causality that muddles the issue.

I just implied that the attractiveness of the prostitute theme for women artists was negative. But there is more to it—like the idea of the woman “with nothing left to lose,” with only her body as collateral, which converts her into a heroine and her life into an adventure. This shades easily into a romantic apprehension of the prostitute as individualist renegade, the victim-heroine who at least goes down fighting, with bittersweet self-determination: Nana in Godard’s Vivre sa vie as well as the nameless suicide in Klick’s performance. By conquering love she emerges with greater power than her “john,” who must yield to passion and pay her for allowing it. Or, less romantically: the prostitute as a rationalist who is direct about the money-sex exchange.

A couple of years ago Suzanne Lacy set out to do a work about prostitutes, investigating how her life “converged with theirs.” This work, still in progress, is so far cast as a representation of the prostitutes’ social world. Lacy went around with some of them, met whom they met, acquired their language (in which prostitution itself is called “the game” or “the fast track”). She observed rather than shared in activities. In the sketches she has exhibited—annotated maps of places and movements—she makes neither a moral nor an economic analysis. The absence of a meta level avoids condescension, but it clouds the fact that these women’s reality is based on exploitative conditions that are functions of class, also ignoring the class and racial distinctions between call girls and street women.

In planning the work Lacy consulted with Margo St. James,12 the founder of COYOTE (Call Off Your Old, Tired Ethics), the prostitutes’ union, in San Francisco. Of course, San Francisco’s definition of urbanity includes a cosmopolitan toleration of “deviancy,”13 as elsewhere, and unlike L.A., it’s a union town. As St. James and her associates argue, the prostitute is in effect the wife stripped bare, without a veil of romantic love to hide the fact that marriage is sex for hire. In their view the prostitute is a petit-bourgeois businesswoman who is injustly persecuted for making explicit the nature of sex relations under capitalism. She is both archetypal wife (victim) and her opposite (entrepreneur).

The work of Eileen Griffin, from San Diego but with strong ties to the Bay Area, has also brought her into close contact with COYOTE. For the past few years Griffin has worked on documentary videotapes about sex and gender. Her personal orientation seems to be toward the “counterculture,” and she has been involved in women’s alternative groups; at the same time she is art-world oriented. Griffin handles hot material: COYOTE’s hooker’s ball in San Francisco, massage-parlor prostitution in San Diego, transsexual surgery. On the last two subjects she has put together complicated collages of interviews. The massage-parlor tapes, Sittin’ on a Fortune (1974), show customers, the “girls,” city officials and a sex therapist. Griffin asks the men what they think of the women, and the women of the men; what, exactly, they do on the job; the economics of it; how they feel about their work and themselves, how they got into it and how long they plan to keep at it. An articulate, beautiful masseuse philosophizes archly about life, generalizing about the women’s spending habits and their men. The younger women interviewed are less clear about things. The men, mostly young sailors, are predictably brash and abusive, full of clichés. A woman sex therapist is idiotic. A masseuse masturbates a male friend for the camera: at the moment of climax Griffin asks about his attitude toward economic exploitation; he struggles to reply for the sake of posterity.

In Sugar and Spice (1975) Griffin gives the viewer plenty of time to become immersed in her/his own feelings about how strongly she/he identifies herself or himself with her/his gender. In group sessions and individually the transsexuals explain who they are and who they have been. Therapists theorize. As in Fortune, close-ups heat things up some. I particularly remember some male-turned-female prostitutes, a male architect “cross dressing” for a year on doctor’s advice, and a chubby man who’d been a woman. Asked what she’d do if a trick attacked her, one of the prostitutes calls herself a “razor queen”—after all, she says, there’s $2,000 in her face alone. The architect gently explains how painful life has been for him, a woman in a man’s body. The former woman is tough about what he expects from a wife: dinner on the table and no back talk; she doesn’t know about his operation, he says.

The way Griffin handles her material, we get a lot of information and a strong sense of sex as spectacle—an outrageous set of ideas with economic, cultural, and personal imperatives built on top of a bodily function. At some points in Fortune Griffin does suggest a criticism of prostitution as exploitation. It is clear that some of the women are really young, confused, with identity problems. We hear about how boyfriends in the wings eat up the considerable earnings. The bosses, all men, are found to be mean, sadistic. Griffin quotes Emma Goldman on the traffic in women, alluding to the economic base. But these elements are low-key, drowned in glib rhetoric or the high spirits of some of the women. An analytic of the situation is blurred by “phenomenological” data; Griffin thus hides behind a positivist theory of ethnological naturalism. In Griffin’s work there is the dreariness of primitive television interviews coupled with the perennial appeal of bizarrerie. She is flamboyant: she used to do firework displays (like airplanes colliding with the Statue of Liberty in a hilariously suggestive way) and has done a short film of a woman setting and combing out her pubic hair. She studied massage for Fortune and has presented the tapes in a gallery decked out like a massage parlor (where she offered private massages of an unspecified nature).

The San Francisco artist Lynn Hershman has for a number of years done work around exploitation and the lives of prostitutes and “marginal” women. In the early ’70s she showed wax molds of her face, fetishistically handled, sometimes on bodies in white-sheeted beds, with such titles as Sleep. The simulacrum in the bed is a recurring image in her work, but she now gives us portraits of exploited, somnambulist women presented less expressionistically. Although her medium is still herself, the implications of the work have moved from “self-portraiture” to, again, portraits of the Other. In 1974 she rented a small suite of rooms at New York’s Chelsea Hotel (bastion of bohemia) and advertised for visitors. A couple of friends and I were cordially received at 3 A.M. by a woman in a negligee who introduced herself as Jerrol Kraus. She showed us around, pointing out a female dummy in a bed, explained she was a friend of Lynn’s and spoke a bit about her life in San Francisco.14 A lot of make-up and gaudy duds were about. Were we trespassing in the lives of women who made money with their bodies? Hershman had similar rooms, but without “curators,” at the Plaza (upper crust) and at the YWCA (working class). Stefanotty Gallery supposedly provided bus tours to the sites.

In 1975 Hershman began to construct an identity, “Roberta Breitmore,” which she refers to as “a portrait of alienation and loneliness.” She considers this a transmutation, calling Roberta “an alchemical portrait,” although this claim is overstated (her immersion, while greater than Lacy’s, is not total). Hershman activated “Breitmore” in a number of cities and has advertised for roommates and dates. She has written: “Roberta is being documented by audiotapes, film, and photographs. Her progression is being recorded in the form of three viewpoints, that of a psychoanalyst, a journalist, and herself. When Roberta becomes ‘real’ enough, it is likely she will commit suicide.”15

For a show at the University of California, San Diego, Hershman checked into a hotel downtown, far from the rich community housing the gallery, where she showed records of “Roberta”: stolen images of herself with her “contacts,” a psychiatric work-up, a vita. She showed holograms of herself making up as Breitmore and photos of her face marked with names of the make-up used, yet concerns with the visible, with display, or with process, seem less than this interesting work deserves. Hershman has a coy rhetoric about her work that oscillates between scat talk and fragmentary formalisms. She calls her work “sculpture” and refers to painting and drama; she also claims to tap into “kinetic energies . . . implicit in every particle of our universe.”16 She hangs on tight to art-world rhetoric (working with Christo has given her a feel for the grandiose). The documentation of Breitmore provides a look at an identity invented in the interstices of orderly society, but I would prefer to see it surrounded by less sensationalist trappings. Still, I appreciate Hershman’s tact in displaying a certain reticence in impersonating either Breitmore or a value-free sociologist.

AS I MENTIONED EARLIER, I see in the work of these artists a growing interest in realist strategies. But the art world is uncomfortable with realism, especially when not mediated by paint or solid matter. Art has generally been taken as either metaphoric (describing a content by substitution of key elements) or metalinguistic (taking the style—that is, the form—of something as the object of the work). And the art world tends to convert the metonymic strategies of realism (the act of selection itself, say, or the digression from presenting characters to presenting their environment) into metaphor or metalanguage. The simple act of presentation is taken to reflect on the artist’s self.17 (We witness this conversion of the claims made for photography in its reabsorption into high art.) The closer work comes to the “documentary” or to “sociology,” which are not accorded status as art, the more likely it is that it will undergo such conversion.

Hershman and Lacy (in her prostitution work) both deal with these matters by starting with a “transformation,” in particular of themselves, into persons socially different. That is, they become metaphors for their subjects. Their presentations stress style, Lacy’s as a mean of approaching content, Hershman’s in a more art-world way. Hershman, working in San Francisco where there is no women artists’ community to insist on the full validity of the substantive, as opposed to stylistic, content of her work, makes only formal claims for it. Klick and, to a lesser extent, Griffin combine metaphoric with realist elements in the work. Even in the “secrets” works, Klick treats secrets as emblematic and the sharing process as paradigmatic. In art-world presentations of the Fortune tapes, Griffin treats the gallery as if it were a massage parlor and acts as if she were a masseuse. Sugar and Spice of course, about style, sign systems, and so on; Griffin’s claims for the work are typically evasive.

Lacy’s, Griffin’s, and Hershman’s claims for their work are not analytic but “phenomenological”—about the creation of an “experience.” The absence of a metalevel of criticism within the work, addressing the material directly, opens the work to exploitation by head-trippers as psychic pornography (as photography panders to voyeurism), a problem not mitigated by the artists’ need to place great stress on their formal control of their material. Klick is the only one of these four artists who consistently includes direct criticism.

This emphasis on conscious choice is necessary to authorship and is the mark of professionalism in the art world. Performance in particular requires a differentiation from therapeutic acting-out, on the one hand, and from “social science,” on the other—both of which, again, are “non-art.” While such work refers to both objective fact and psychodrama, the artists are careful to separate themselves from projected selves while maintaining a “signature.” Eleanor Antin, for instance, who insists on the fictional aspect of all assertions about the self, rejects the suggestion that her serio-comic “selves” (her term) are “really” her, or even her own fantasies. She disowns them as “life” in order to claim them as “art.” Making a fundamental separation between real and assumed self, neither Lacy nor Hershman became sexually involved with the other people in their immersion pieces.18 Griffin, in contrast, has only to avoid seeming too “analytic” (scientistic).

These networks of assertion and denial leave room for mystification on all sides, both agreed upon and covert. It should be emphasized that the most glaring rhetorical difficulties occur in relation to work that downwardly crosses a class boundary.

Other questions arise which perhaps cannot be answered. One has to do with exploitation, another with audience. As people intruding on the “demimonde” of the nonprivileged are apt to discover, every social world has its psychic constraints, no matter what the myths suggest. The prostitute’s life, for example, is less free than some claim, and does require the drastic alienation of self from body. And as Griffin particularly makes clear, while prostitution makes a criminal of the woman involved (usually only of her, not of her customers) there will always be people around, most often men, who control the prostitute’s choices about herself. (That alienation characterizes all “normal” relations within the system is an impolite point that COYOTE probably does not hesitate to make, and these artists sometimes make it too.) In this context, it is worth asking to what extent the people that these artists interacted with understood how their images would be received in the art world. The people in Hershman’s work didn’t even know images were being made. It is not without reason that sociologists and anthropologists—and often photographers—are widely despised in their hunting grounds. Artists like Klick, who don’t put other people in their work, can avoid this problem. Lacy grappled with it in a recent work on old women (part of which was a four-hour make-up job) by bringing a number of old women into the performance to speak for themselves.

My second question is about what possible relation these artists have to the art world—what they hope to accomplish. There can be, I think, no answer now, for there is at present no other audience.19 Lacy’s work, and Klick’s to a lesser extent, lead me to ask whether the sheer power of the metaphoric transformations does not lead the audience away from thinking constructively about the very issues of identity on which the work rests. I question the absolute communicative ability of the work in helping people make changes—which is presumably, as I have perhaps overstressed, what feminism is about.

I doubt that we will soon solve the problems of careerist exploitation or set right the twists and turns that artists must go through to avoid having the meaning of their work inverted by their public. It is plausible that collective authorship might be an appropriate way to side-step some of the traps of the self set by the art world. (Interestingly, some recent graduates of FSW who do work collaboratively have criticized the faculty artists for failing to do so.)

Despite everything, all the women I have discussed, and many others, continue to do important work. Often its importance lies in its activation of a central insistence of feminism of the ’70s—that society is invested with oppressive power on every level of operation, and the interdependence of the “public” and the “private,” the “outer” and the “inner,” is not illusory but real.

Martha Rosler



1. Trying to define what, indeed. “feminist art” might be would require a discussion too extended for this article. I hope that the article does, however, provide some parameters for formulating a theory of feminist art.

2. In 1970, Joyce Kozloff, Sheila de Bretteville and other women founded the Los Angeles Council of Women Artists, to agitate for the presence of more women’s work in museum shows—the Art and Technology Show at the L.A. County Museum in that year had had none—and for more women in every aspect of museum work. Many consciousness-raising groups were formed among the couple of hundred women who joined the council, and in 1972 a number of these women founded Womanspace Gallery. For this and some other factual information, I am indebted to By Our Own Hands, a chronicle of the Southern California Women artists’ movement written by Faith Wilding and published by Double X (Santa Monica, Cal.), which came out as I was finishing this article. For information about Double X, see note 3.

3. There are organized groups as well, two of which got their start at the building: Double X and Mother Art. Double X grew out of the cooperative Grandview Gallery at the first Woman’s Building and concentrates on support and showing; it includes women of diverse feminist views. The members presently are Anne Banas, Nancy Buchanan, Merion Estes, Connie Jenkins, Carol Kaufman, Janice Lester, Bes Robinson, Sharon Shore, Cynthia Upchurch, Faith Wilding, and Nancy Youdelman.

Mother Art is smaller and newer. It consists of women who identify themselves as artists and mothers and who want to reach women outside the art world. They recently did a series called Laundry Works at various laundromats in the L.A. area, aided by a state grant. The members are Velene Campbell-Keslar, Gloria Hajduk, Helen Million Ruby, Suzanne Siegel, and Laura Silagi.

There is also at least one informal, unnamed group of former students who share an interest in social issues and who meet regularly to discuss work.

4. Arlene Raven seems to have been partly responsible for shifting the understanding of the female imagery thesis from the crudely biological to the psychobiological and perhaps from the absolute (Eriksonian) sense to the contingent.

5. I agree that feminist education is necessary, but I doubt that social change can be accomplished by it alone, even if it were to include all the women in America.

6. Lucy Lippard and, at the building, Arlene Raven and Ruth Iskin, among others, continue to make valuable suggestions about what might distinguish women’s (not necessarily feminist) art from men’s.

7. Women artists and writers may be trying to work these problems out now. There are two new feminist art journals, collaboratively run by artists, historians, critics, and writers: Heresies: A Feminist Publication on Art and Politics and Chrysalis, a Magazine of Women’s Culture. The former, out of New York, and the latter, out of the Woman’s Building, announce their different orientations in their titles. It will be interesting to see what work is accomplished by them. separately and together.

8. Womanhouse was a project of the Cal Arts Feminist Art Program in 1972, consisting of the transformation of a large, decayed, uninhabited house into a series of environments.

9. In “Extremist Art: Community Criticism,” in The Tradition of the New, New York, 1961, p. 46.

10. Schapiro has said that she identified with the beast she called Ox in a series of paintings with abstract yet quasi-alphabetic, quasi-gynomorphic imagery (body = sign). See Arlene Raven’s interesting article on women’s art as consciousness oriented in Womanspace Journal, Feb.–Mar. 1973.

11. Most of Lacy’s photo work has been done by Susan Mogul.

12. St. James, an intelligent, articulate woman, has figured in the work of several artists. For example, she and her wax image both appeared in beds, being visited by a john, in a work done by San Francisco artists Eleanor Coppola and Lynn Hershman. Other COYOTE members participated as “monitors” in this work, Re:Forming Familiar Environments, conceived of as a “game” of “minimally transforming” a three-story house.

13. See Howard Becker, “Culture and Civility in San Francisco,” San Francisco, 1971.

14. Jerrol Kraus reportedly quit after complaining that the room was distressing her.

15. La Mamelle, no. 5, 1976.

16. Handout from the UC San Diego art gallery, February 1976.

17. As I suggested in the brief reference to Arbus’ work. This, clearly, mirrors the reception accorded the assertion of political sentiments in the art world, also discussed earlier.

18. Nor Martha Wilson and Jacki Apple, who veered toward acting the call-girl role with “Claudia.”

19. It is possible that the works about prostitution, combined with other strategic uses of media by COYOTE, will help in the passage of decriminalization laws, removing at least the burden of illegality.