PRINT April 1980

Spero’s Apocalypse

THE MEDIEVAL NUN ENDE, co-illustrator of the Beatus Apocalypse, is Nancy Spero’s heroine, and it is in the apocalyptic spirit of Ende’s art that we must read Spero’s art. Spero offers us a new medieval art for these new apocalyptic times. An art which uses, in austere modern format, many of the same methods medieval art used, particularly the intermingling of text and image, as equivalent, on the seemingly infinite open field of a scroll. Spero’s art has the severe apocalyptic spirit we associate with the coming of the millenium; it has the same urgent sense of chaos that yet implies a higher order of comprehension of events one that we associate with the art of the soothsayer. Private feelings are public omens; public events have transcendental meaning; and meanings, events and feelings mix in a way which destroys all neat distinctions between microcosm and macrocosm, between inner and outer world, between the immediate and the ultimate. The mythological stands next to the everyday, messages writ large stand next to daemonically concentrated figures—articulations of the hidden voices the ancients heard in their close contact (for better or worse) with the gods. These figures are shrill voices, harping on one disastrous note, figures whose ancestors are the pursuing furies of conscience that Aeschylus described. And Spero’s figures will continue to hound us until we are inconsolable, before they dare to become benign Eumenides, before they meet their transforming Athena. In Spero’s art the time of suffering, because it is an unending real time rather than the cyclic time of myth, has a long way to go before it can be converted to a time of wisdom.

The apocalyptic structure of her art has been consistent through Spero’s development. In its first phase, the apocalyptic is signaled by a personal struggle for self-identity in the face of an unfriendly, unfair world, to say the least. The Codex Artaud most typifies and is the climax of this expressionistic, explicitly subjective phase of apocalyptic revelation. In it she takes upon herself the person of Artaud.

One critic has commented on the radical nature of the act for a woman, without, however, noting the universality of the conception of suffering selfhood that facilitates Spero’s temporary adoption of the male ego. Actually, she uses Artaud’s persona like a tragic mask. The critic has missed "psychodrama in Spero’s method, the analytic method in the so-called madness of her becoming a masculine being. In Artaud, Spero discovers an anguished identity as a sibylline commentator on the cruelties of life, on injustices which can only be recorded, never undone. Spero’s identification with Artaud is an identification of the social source of her own suffering, a self-identification that is yet an identification of the enemy, society. The identification remains, essentially, on an immanent level. We are still more in the world of personal feelings than of social events, and still more sensitive to our own suffering than militantly denouncing the social source of that suffering. We are, in other words, victims. And the victim who does not and cannot fight back, particularly the female victim, is the hero/heroine of Spero’s art. But Spero fights back through her art, with its Zolaesque air of accusation, and thus her victims lose their anonymity, showing the way the private and the public can eventually meet and interlock, twining one around the other like the snakes of a caduceus.

Close to the same time of the Codex Artaud, 1969–72, Spero was making her bomb pictures concerning the Vietnam War, 1966–70. More particularly, the objective apocalypse was already latent in, if not entirely simultaneous with, the subjective apocalypse. One might suggest that the note of social reification was there from the beginning, if it were not the case that the objectification has come through an expressionistic style, one in which fantasy images and obviously personal touches create a psychic texture which seems nightmarishly hermetic. In the early pictures, for all their external references, we feel like the prisoner in Poe’s The Pit and the Pendulum: the external events—in the Vietnam pictures mostly bombings—seem to be as relentlessly repetitious as a pendulum descending in some personal pit of despair. These pictures are like narrow cells, the walls of which relentlessly push in upon us, and something irrational seems ultimately more responsible for this sense of narrowing doom than any entirely known or “rational” reality. In other words, unconscious forces seem more evident than consciously known facts in determining control of the pictures. Nonetheless, the matter-of-fact is already there; the ugly reality is visible and acknowledged, if muted in its full presence by a fantasy treatment which tends to convert it into a personal, unconscious signifier. Whether text or figure, such signifiers have an uncertain relationship with what is signified, giving them scope even while endangering their power of decisive referentiality—the kind of calling-a-card-a-card specificity which Spero achieves in her situation of women images.

It is the images in Torture in Chile, 1974, which tilt the work decisively away from the personally expressive towards the socially declarative, and to prepare the way for the uncompromising objectivity of the women works. At the same time, these women works represent a new release of subjectivity and expressionistic self-referentiality, for Spero is now taking on the mask of the female victim, using the voices of female victims, rather than, as in the Artaud works, muting her gender identity in the identity of the generic sufferer. Women victims already appeared indirectly in the Vietnam works, where we have male bombs. But now the synthesis is not hidden by the fantasy element, which itself becomes objective—hence mythological. All the visual sources seem subordinate to, yet determined by, the objective textual sources, so that, while we can trace the visual references—e.g., the Egyptian source of some of the figures—we recognize them as imbued with historical rather than personal and fantastic meaning. Or, rather, we recognize that the fantastic meaning makes a historical point.

Spero’s works now, through their treatment of women, become explicit in their historicity. Where the manifest content of Spero’s early pictures suggests them to be from a kind of dream triggered by real events, the manifest content of Spero’s women pictures show them to be motivated by a strong reality principle. There is no retreat from, or disguise of, reality by fantasy, and even the fragments of dreams that appear in the women pictures are from social dreams, i.e., myths. Spero’s two series on women have about them an air of astringent dreamlessness, of severe wakefulness—as though one’s eyelids had been cut away so that one could never close one’s eyes—which seems altogether to preclude a regression to expressionistic fantasy. And yet there is a poetry of placement in Spero’s women pictures that makes an “expressionistic” point of its own, for it reminds us that history, as such, is expressionistic in that it, very simply, “places” lives, has in its erratic keeping our personal possibilities and feelings. There is no escape from history, and even the most intense fantasy, let alone mythology, reflects it unmistakably and throws it back in our faces, threatening to blind us to the fullness of being. But Spero refuses to be blinded by the historical or the personal. She metaphysically objectifies them into a vision of suffering that puts them back in our control, that permits us to be sane despite them, if not able to change them.

One senses that Spero’s art is a struggle against the insanity of world-historical events, which have their reflection in her personal life. She avoids insanity the only way one can: by acknowledging the reality of what one is tempted to deny. One reads journalistic accounts of the torture of women, and one goes one’s way. One experiences Vietnam, torture in Chile and other atrocities—through the media—and one goes one’s way. One avoids the events; their very mediation through the media is an anesthetizing avoidance. Through the intimacy of her art and its coexisting world-historical scale—it unfurls like a medieval manuscript, like an ancient scroll—Spero tries to intervene in this avoidance. She turns the media against itself, using the most public media—the poster—as a model, fusing text and image inextricably, not to matter-of-factly report events, but to create a new fiction which can transcend our old, stale awareness of them. For only through poetic fictions can one transcend the prosaic consciousness which, in the very act of acknowledging events, dissipates their impact, dismisses their apocalyptic potential.

By piling document on document, quotation on quotation, by overloading our system of assimilation with sources of all kinds, forcing us constantly to change our level of comprehension—including the change from text to image and back again—Spero generates an apocalyptic momentum, a sense of impending doom. A sense that our own consciousness can be overwhelmed, that it can no longer process the information submitted to it even though that information all points to the same reality. The sense of women’s apocalyptic situation is reflected in the apocalyptic ordering of Spero’s works as an unresolved composite of images and texts, a composite that amounts to, within the fictional context, a surplus of reality. Greenberg once called that very surplus the enemy of art, saying that it split art open at the seams.

Today, when too much art has become seamless, art must be split open by a surplus of reality if it is to be viable as art, i.e., if it is to change our consciousness, which is the root mission and meaning of “art.” The gathering apocalyptic storm in Spero’s art may have begun in some personal, local disturbance, but, as this storm develops through the fantasies about the Vietnam War and the reality of Artaud’s text and the ever more impinging contemporary reality of torture, it clearly shows itself to be more than an upheaval that is momentarily topical: it shows itself to be a world-historical eruption.

Spero’s feminist art functions on a world-historical level, and makes clear that feminism is an apocalyptic event, the climax of the apocalypse that has become the very substance of this society.

Donald B Kuspit is the author of Clement Greenberg, Art Critic (University of Wisconsin Press, 1979).