PRINT October 1983



To the Editor:
Thomas McEvilley’s recent analysis of the shamanistic origins of performance art, “Art in the Dark,” leads me to some considerations of essential differences between the works of male and female performance artists. For all of us the violence and offensiveness of our shamanistic explorations have been in proportion to the metaphysical fractures which fuel patriarchal oppositions. But an iconographic identification of the contradictory implications and uses of related materials and actions for female versus male performers mentioned in the article would be highly instructive.

From a feminist perspective, a great deal of shamanistic male performance art has been centered on unraveling a repository of collectively unconscious guilt, and on desire for power or for contact with generally despised aspects of nature and body—the femaleness suppressed in our culture. McEvilley focuses on the critical neglect of these unconscious processes and on the sexual prohibitions which activated shamanistic performance art, but he fails to identify the denied “femaleness” of “areas that were previously as unmapped and mysterious as the other side of the moon.” What he notes as “behavior deliberately contrived as the most inappropriate and offensive” (suggesting personal exorcism of social taboos and prohibitions) remains bound to the patriarchal psychosocial structures that it attempts to illuminate. In early male performance art the panoply of physical taboos, mutilations, and violations—which had its apotheosis in “fucking female corpses”—is understood by feminine analysis as the crazed expulsion of female complementarity (which was socially annexed and denied primacy).

The erotic female archetype, creative imagination, and performance art itself are all subversive in the eyes of patriarchal culture because they themselves represent forms and forces which cannot be turned into functional commodities or entertainment (to be exchanged as property and value), remaining unpossessable while radicalizing social consciousness. The shamanistic performances of women usually relate to a historic tradition that is pre-Greek, pre-Christian in its inspiration. My mythic associations are not Dionysian but properly Aphroditean—Goddess of human passion and of unity of desire and will. Dionysus is the son of Aphrodite—his attributes were derived from her and eventually absorbed into the succeeding patriarchal infrastructures. Dionysus represents the ancient Indo-European bull god in transition from deifying the Goddess to annexing her powers. His potency evolves from a hermaphroditic form, to consort, to dominator. Shamanistic mythology in women’s performance art must be acknowledged as what lies behind and is obscured by Greek mythology. Our performance of taboo acts is linked with an identification of our bodies with nature, with the celebration of the cosmic and the sacredness of the ordinary and the lived experience. Ordeals of endurance, physical violation—binding, shooting, puncturing, tying up—are not characteristic of the work of those women artists mentioned in the article (Mary Beth Edelson, Barbara Smith, Rachel Rosenthal, myself—Linda Montano’s Christian references the exception). Our use of the body in ritual inculcates not male mysteries but female or communal ones, aligned with intuitions of ancient Goddess presence and investigating those integrations of body and spirit which masculist culture and mythos have torn asunder. The differences in male and female approaches are epitomized by a pair of performances in Holland in 1979. Hermann Nitsch’s drenching of tied, shivering performers with gallons of cow’s blood was assimilated by the audience, while the fabric coil of menstrual blood that I extracted in my work was considered “obscene.”

Finally, McEvilley describes Meat Joy as a “fertility rite,” diverting its motivation back toward a male birth fetishization. Meat Joy was what I described as “anerotic celebration to sensitize my guilty culture.” As Henry Sayre wrote recently in The Minnesota Review (Spring 83), “the real distinction between most male body art and that of most women lies in the fact that, as a rule, the male’s relation to his body is one of self-violation while the female’s relation is one of self-exploration and definition.”

—Carolee Schneemann
New York

Thomas McEvilley replies:
I agree with Carolee Schneemann that a formulation of the iconographic relationship between the work of male and female performance artists is to be desired. For reasons of space I did not attempt it in “Art in the Dark,” and in fact I’m not sure it should be based on so small a group as the thirty or so artists I was able to refer to in the article. I will deal with it on a larger scale in my book on shamanism and performance art, forthcoming from Astro-Artz Press.

Most of Schneemann’s letter is concerned to build a specific value model on the material. In responding, I am less concerned with her particular model than with saying something about the methodology of the dialogue that is underway. Performance art of the type discussed in the article has suffered greatly, as far as public understanding of it goes, from the fact that it attracted vehement value projections before it had undergone a basic cognitive mapping. In the article I was trying to work with the material in a way that precedes tendentious value models, as philological analysis and organization precede literary interpretations of texts. Of course no analysis can completely precede values; my approach, for example, implicitly assumed that an organization by cross-cultural connections (among other things) would be useful, and even more basically that organization of any kind can be valuable. But specific ideological “myths” such as the Marxist myth, the Christian myth, the feminist myth, the Freudian myth, and so on, represent secondary organizations of material that has already undergone a more neutral philological type of organization. There is not, if the process is healthy, one philology for Marxists and another for capitalists, one for feminists and another for masculinists, and so on. That a variety of specific models, such as Schneemann’s feminist one, should be erected above a more neutral level of organization is a sign of a healthy process at work.

I will not quarrel with specific points in the feminist model that Schneemann proposes. I will however address the two points she raises about Meat Joy. In both cases I feel our disagreement is more apparent than real. I said Meat Joy was a “fertility rite”; she, an “erotic celebration.” We are in no disagreement here. As I wrote in an article on the history of religion, “The locutions ‘fertility magic,’ ‘fertility rite,’ and the like . . . refer to the whole complex of religious practice in archaic agricultural societies, where more of course was at issue than the fertility of the soil alone. They signify a circular (rather than linear-causal) interweaving of aims, including renewal of world-lease, connection of above and below, cohesion of social units, and abundance of life in general, including the crops.” (Res I, 1981, p. 45.) No more, really, do we disagree in my use of the term “Dionysian.” Dionysus is not connected by scholars with the patriarchal religion of the Indo-Europeans (the bull god, by the way, is distinctly pre-Indo-European); his cult is clearly a remnant of the neolithic religion of the Goddess. To connect Meat Joy with Maenadism and Dionysian cult is not at all to bring it into the patriarchal orbit, but to say, in the terms available, much what Schneemann herself has said about it.

To the Editor:
There are some basic assumptions in Thomas McEvilley’s lucid and thought-provoking treatment of a certain branch of recent performance art [“Art in the Dark,” Summer 1983] with which I would quarrel. To take one example, McEvilley states that “the universalization of any category, or the complete submission of its ontology to the process of metaphor, blurs or even erases its individual identity. To be everything is not to be anything in particular. In regard to the universal set, the Law of Identity has no function. . . . In short it means ultimately that the terms [‘art’ and ‘life’] have become meaningless in relation to one another, since language operates not by sameness but by difference, and two sets with the same contents are the same set.” Even if we assume that art and life are in some poetic sense semantically coextensive (which is by itself controversial), surely it does not follow from the truths of set theory, nor from their conjunction with the controversial claim that “language operates not by sameness but by difference,” that any two semantically coextensive terms, whether “art” and “life” or Frege’s “Morning Star” and “Evening Star,” “become meaningless in relation to one another.” This is to conflate coextension with equivalence, and intensional with extensional equivalence.

Two terms are intensionally equivalent if, roughly, they are intersubstitutable in all sentences or propositions modified by an intensional operator (such as “believe,” “hope,” “desire,” or “intend”), without change of truth value. Two terms are extensionally equivalent if, irrespective of what anyone believes, they in fact both denote the same independently existing, i.e., extensional, entity. Two terms are semantically coextensive if, roughly, they range over the same denotational set. They are semantically equivalent if, roughly, they are intersubstitutable in all relevantly bounded contexts, whether intensional or extensional, without loss of meaning. Two terms can be semantically coextensive without being semantically equivalent if they denote intensionally distinct but extensionally identical entities, as do the terms “the Morning Star” and “the Evening Star.” Semantic coextension by itself is never a sufficient condition for meaninglessness because it implies neither semantic equivalence nor denotational vacuousness. A term is denotationally vacuous if, roughly, it refers to nothing in particularby virtue of referring to everything in general. Now it may be that the term “life” is denotationally vacuous, but it follows from the fact that the term “art” is not semantically equivalent to “life” that “art” is not—you can’t substitute the term “life” for the term “art” in the sentence “Art is a way of seeing life,” for example, without loss of meaning. We should expect that the term “art” is not denotationally vacuous, since it is not obvious that “art” denotes extensionally at all. Hence the terms “art” and “life” cannot be meaningless in relation to each other.

To equate art with life, as many artists do, is rather to advance a challenging metaphysical thesis about life (much as Thales did by maintaining that all is water), namely that all states of affairs in life provide grist for the artist’s mill. One implication of this thesis, presumably, is that we are to view life from an esthetic perspective, and evaluate our experiences according to esthetic (rather than, say, ethical, religious, or psychological) criteria. To understand in greater detail the set of evaluative and normative practices to which we are thereby committed would presumably require us to examine the social, economic, and historical context in which the equation of art and life flourishes linguistically, and the set of linguistic practices that constitute canonical usage of the term “art” within the relevantly authoritative linguistic community. We would thereby discover the background theory that fixes the denotation of the word “art” for that community. The term “art” would certainly be found to have some circumscribed range of denotation within that community, and hence the identification of “art” and “life” would be found to prescribe viewing and evaluating the world from some particular, theory-laden normative stance rather than from some other. Hence it is questionable whether the appropriation of designation involved in equating “art” and “life” could be as neutral as McEvilley claims it is when he remarks: “[for Günter Brus] the art context is a neutral and open context which has no proper and essential contents of its own. Art, then, is an open variable which, when applied to any culturally bound thing, will liberate it to direct experience.”

In his footnote 32, McEvilley describes feminist performance art (and by implication all political performance art) as involving itself in areas of politics that “breach somewhat the neutrality of the appropriation zone.” This makes it clear that McEvilley himself believes that the life-as-art appropriation zone is neutral, presumably because for art “to be everything is not to be anything in particular.” But if, as I have argued, the esthetic stance is not quite as noncommittal as all that, then neither is the appropriation of life by art. Rather, this appropriation commits one to a very specifically esthetic point of view, the content of which is determined by one’s theory-laden beliefs as to how the term “art” is to be defined: if you don’t think art is a politically or ethically neutral activity to begin with, then you are not likely to regard the appropriation of life by art as politically or ethically neutral either.

Moreover, if one’s esthetics are determined by historically local socioeconomic and political conditions, as I have tried to suggest, then all conceptions of art, even the seemingly “apolitical” art McEvilley discusses, involve themselves “in areas of politics that breach somewhat the neutrality of the appropriation zone.” For they communicate a normative political paradigm of art-making that ultimately requires a political analysis, in addition to the cross-cultural analogies and psycho-religious symbology McEvilley supplies for the work he discusses. For example, another way of interpreting some (though not all) of that work is as the logical outcome of a support system in which artistic output is largely recognized, subsidized, and evaluated to the extent that it satisfies consumer demand for new and improved products, and in which, therefore, innovation is intrinsically valuable, potentially unlimited in scope, and (this comes to the same thing) perceived as more important than the preservation of social and ethical norms. Having already constituted and decomposed the matter of art objects, what else is there for many artists to do but proceed with the gradual decomposition of themselves as physical and psychological subjects? Since most women artists are denied access to this support system anyway, “the fact of there being a feminist branch [of performance art] at all” should generate less pause and more recognition that different political and socioeconomic priorities are bound to generate different esthetic concerns, and that both are equally susceptible to measurement in terms of the same, essentially political yardstick. Feminist performance art, and political art in general, constitute an alternative political stance from which the practice of art production can be carried out. They are not an anomalous “branch” of art in general. Rather, putatively neutral art by appropriation is, like all art, a branch of politics.

These are some of the points on which I would quarrel with McEvilley. But to quarrel is not necessarily to complain. I found his analysis tremendously stimulating to read: imaginative, resourceful, and in general the most critically sophisticated treatment of this topic I’ve seen in quite a while.

—Adrian Piper
Stanford, California

Thomas McEvilley replies:
I appreciate Adrian Piper’s kind remarks about “Art in the Dark,” and even more the clarity with which she focused several questions concerning it—questions which, if space had allowed, I would have discussed at more length in the article itself. Piper’s distinctions between semantical coextensiveness and equivalence and between intensional and extensional meaning are useful counter-models to clarify what I meant, and tried to say, about meaninglessness. Finally, however, I don’t believe either of these distinctions to be firmly established. I am not so sure, for example, that the terms “Morning Star” and “Evening Star” are semantically coextensive. They denote different experiences, namely, Venus-viewed-in-the morning and Venus-viewed-at-night, and thus denote what Piper calls “intensionally distinct entities”; but whether the entities denoted are “extensionally identical” is in question, since whether any words function extensionally is in question. And what may constitute meaninglessness to a logician and to a poet may be very different things.

In the article I approached the question through the Law of Identity and the concept of universality. The Law of Identity means that a thing is itself and is not not itself. I wrote, “In regard to the universal set, the Law of Identity has no function.” This is because, in order for the Law of Identity to function, there must be both the thing being identified and something else which it is not, by contrast with which it may be known as itself. A is A if there is a not-A over against it. So any statement of the form “Everything is A,” in this sense at least, is necessarily meaningless. Art, for example, cannot be recognized as itself except by distinction from nonart. In terms of linguistic usage the same applies: to know what is called art is necessarily to know what is not called art. If everything is called art then the word has become empty, neutral, open; it has become, in Milton’s term, “a universal blank.” And if on the one hand, “Everything is art,” and on the other, “Everything is life,” then the terms art and life are meaningless not only in relation to one another but absolutely. Between two universal blanks there is no difference.

The connection between universality and neutrality follows by definition. Nothing can be left out of the universal set; any selectivity or preference, any omission, immediately cancels its universality. Thus any particular tendency—political, ethical, whatever—must be balanced and neutralized, in a universal appropriation, by its opposite.

Piper raises the interesting question whether any artists really do, or even possibly could, practice such truly universal and neutral appropriations. She seems to argue that it is not even possible, given the conditions and tendencies affecting the personality. I have myself argued similarly in this magazine (in “Heads It’s Form, Tails It’s Not Content,” November 1982). To ask for a truly neutral art would be to ask for the smile of a Buddha; the concept of a truly universal appropriation is a quasi-mystical absolute never, or seldom, attainable in practice. As such it is open to the same misuse as metaphysical terms in general Specifically, it is often used to disguise tendentious partial appropriations. When, for example, Yves Klein appropriated “everything,” everything turned out to be Rosicrucian in shape. When Piero Manzoni appropriated “everything,” everything had a Marxist tinge. In such cases, the claim of universal appropriation has been used in an attempt to magnify a particular sensibility to cosmic dimensions. Clarity about such things is essential to avoid appropriation being, like advertising, employed as a really unscrupulous propaganda device. Claims of universal appropriation were once useful to force the concept to come clear, but the method of highly focused selective appropriations, dictated by personal sensibilities and social needs, is the tool to work with now. (I meant to intimate this in the article’s closing sentence.)

More must be said. Piper seems to ask (or anyway one might): since usage indicates that universal appropriation means the adoption of an esthetic stance generally, and since I have advocated accepting the authority of usage, then where does this ideal concept of a neutral and rigorously universal appropriation come from? Isn’t it just a logical fiction, which should bow before practice, and a semantic absolute, which should bow before usage? Not so, not so. It comes from an analysis of the logical trickeries of usage. Such an analysis is necessary to protect us from usage, precisely because its authority is so great and its character so malleable (as, again, advertising has shown). To claim to appropriate everything as this or thatis always a logical trickery. This applies as much to an esthetic stance toward the all as to a Rosicrucian or Marxist one. A truly universal attitude could not give preferential emphasis to any concept whatever, be it holiness or beauty, but would be characterized by that neutrality which Sextus Empiricus called arepsia, “the state in which the scales of preference do not incline either way,” and which Buddhism has called the Middle Way, that is, the way between yes and no. The beautiful is a limited category, a part of the universal set, and only as a part in relation to the other parts can it have meaning. To assert that this or any other part contains the whole (in some more substantial sense than as a diminished and perspectivally limited reflection) is ultimately unsound or dogmatic.

But—let’s be clear on this—such a strategy, while ultimately unsound, may be temporarily useful as a practice to break even worse habits of thought. It’s like the Zen parable that says: To ordinary people mountains are mountains and rivers are rivers. If they practice some Zen, mountains are no longer mountains, rivers no longer rivers. If they practice more Zen, mountains are once again mountains, rivers rivers.

To the Editor:
Francesca Alinovi died in Bologna on Sunday, June 12,1983. Born in Parma in 1948, she was a researcher in the visual-arts department of the Faculty of Letters at the University of Bologna. Alternating her activities as a freelance critic and art historian, she was the author of Dada: anti-arte e post-arte (edizione Anna, 1980) and cowrote Fotografia: lllusione o Rivelazone? (edizione II Mulino, 1981). In the latter she examined photography of the Victorian and Pre-Raphaelite eras. She organized shows in Italy and abroad: “Pittura-Ambiente,” Milan, 1979; “The Italian Wave,” Holly Solomon Gallery, New York, 1980; Settimana Internazionale della Performance, Bologna, 1977–1982. She had recently become interested in new artistic languages, witnessed by her involvementwith the most up-to-date developments in Italy and America. Her writings on performance, on Italian cartoons, and on New York graffiti are exemplary of her tireless exploration of codified territory which she traversed with passion, energy, and intelligence. She frequently visited New York, where she was in touch with the most active exponents of “alternative” culture, whose work was defined by her as “art of the frontier” in numerous published articles and interviews in Italian magazines.

Within the panorama of young Italian critics she was perhaps the only one who took personal risks, whose feverish curiosity could not be satisfied with “armchair” analysis. Her sensibility and her intensity also demanded the loss of her private life.

—Ida Panicelli

Artforum also mourns Robert Elkon, dealer; Buckminster Fuller, architect and thinker; Alberto Raurell, director of the Museo Tamayo in Mexico City; Mickey Ruskin, restaurateur and supporter of artists; and Jamie Summers, artist.

We also mourn the loss of the artist Gerhardt von Graevenitz, Wies Smals and her son Hendrik, and Josine van Droffelaar, me founders and directors of De Appel in Holland.

To the Editor:
“War means death to woman.” These words, from Donald Kuspit’s “Uncivil War” [April 1983], ring true as the purest of notes from the crystal wine glasses we used to toast our mother last Mother’s Day. After a wonderful meal and delightful dinner conversation, our family sat down to view some prime-time television—the dilemma was whether to watch Patton or Apocalypse Now!.

—Ben Sarao
Edgewater, N.J.