PRINT May 1994

Toot Toot

“GIRLS JUST WANNA HAVE FUN” may have been good enough for Cyndi Lauper, but what’s distressing is that the curators of “Bad Girls,” both East (Marcia Tucker) and West (Marcia Tanner), seem to share her adolescent joie de vivre. Tucker’s concept for the show called for art that is “funny, really funny,” and that goes “too far”; Tanner’s idea was to showcase work that is “irreverent, anti-ideological, nondoctrinaire, nondidactic, unpolemical and thoroughly unladylike.” Everything may have been up for grabs but, as us girls know, the proof is in the pudding—and frankly, this one is downright unpalatable.

I fear “Bad Girls” at the New Museum and its companion show at the Wight Art Gallery at UCLA are more than a bad exhibition concept, and that the appearance of another show of the same name at the Institute for Contemporary Art in London last fall is more than coincidence. While the UK version of “Bad Girls,” cosponsored by the ICA in London and the Center For Contemporary Arts in Glasgow, was planned independently of the American shows, three exhibitions mushrooming in as many cities over the course of as many months spells zeitgeist. The spirit may not be friendly but it’s hauntingly familiar: one that not only trivializes work by women artists, but signals the death knell of a highly diversified movement that finds itself clumsily packaged and misunderstood all over again. Once feminist-oriented art has been disparagingly categorized as the work of “bad girls” it can be laughed off, crated up, and shipped out to sea. You know what happens in the wake of this debacle: the waters part for the next jerk who comes along spouting a theory about why there are no women artists.

Though in the art world the term “bad girl” may be shorthand for a position that challenges the assumptions of identity politics and the piety of antiporn feminism, the slogan has specific meanings in contemporary culture that make lumping together the work of over 50 women (and a few token males) under the rubric “bad girls” highly problematic. Think about the women (other than artists, that is) who currently share the dubious distinction of “bad girl” in the popular imagination—the Courtney Loves and Tonya Hardings who are cast in the role of the misbehaving, incorrect, wicked, and vengeful females whose calumny will in all likelihood lead to utter oblivion. Sure, to call oneself or to be called a “bad girl” can indicate a form of empowerment and even affection, but only when it’s understood as a term of self-definition, rather in the sense that African-Americans might call each other “nigger.” But title an exhibition “Nigger Art” and you’ve got big trouble on your hands. It’s no different when work by women is subsumed under a pejorative tag.

What the institution wants to say to its audiences is that it is as hip as the art it presents, but, in effect, it’s sending a very different message. “Bad Girls” promises titillation; correspondingly, its curated delivery of PG-rated eroticism also implies that female sexuality is coy and nonthreatening, and even cute. Anyone in the market for the banality that the New Museum dishes out as commentary on the sexual revolution, symbolic representation, and being cool probably still subscribes to the proverbial double standard. Conventionally speaking, good girls are madonnas and bad girls are whores, sluts, lesbians, or any number of other aggressive radical types who transgress traditional codes of feminine behavior. The New Museum, as well as UCLA and the ICA, might think they’re challenging conventional sexual politics by joking about it, but they miscalculate the power relations embedded in the term “bad girl” and inadvertently end up victimizing the women who participate in their exhibitions. I dare say that few of the participants see themselves or their work in so denigrating a light, but they are held hostage by their need to show. The invitation is for an exhibition whose title makes one wince, yet at a time when there aren’t nearly enough galleries to go around (let alone enough galleries interested in presenting “feminist” art, which continues to be regarded as “special interest” work with limited market appeal), artists are forced to play by the institution’s rules.

The issue here is not how good the artwork is, or how illustrious the essayists who legitimize this curatorial misadventure with their catalogue contributions might be. (Writers need museum credentials as well; we can only thank God the catalogue doesn’t have a pink-and-black cover, or rubber parts, or strings hanging out of it.) What does matter is that the curators at the New Museum, and their counterparts in London and L.A., aren’t doing their job, which presumably, as spokespeople for “alternative” institutions, is to represent the underrepresented. Despite the weight of theoretical writing on the subject of feminism, supposedly savvy organizations still won’t go near feminist artwork with a ten-foot pole—they just sort of poke at it and giggle when it moves. And it has to be said that in this case this behavior is particularly egregious, given that the show’s organizers happen to be women. In fact, it gives a whole new slant to the slogan “bad girls.” The curators want to be really, really bad, but all they can muster is a playful little dress-up game of “let’s pretend we’re challenging perceptions of feminism and gender.” Give us a break! The only thing the New Museum challenges is our already thinly worn patience with their namby-pamby response, otherwise known as “death by committee,” whenever they manage to get too close to issues that count. We are witnessing the strangulation of a movement at the hands of an institution that wants desperately to be a player but ends up the executioner.

Jan Avgikos is a contributing editor of Artforum.