TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT Summer 2016

FUCK YOU!

THIS BRIEF TAXONOMY attempts to theorize why “Fuck You” has been such an indispensable survival strategy for feminist and avant-garde artists. Because, let’s face it, we live in a world that’s so totally fucked that sometimes the only possible response is to acknowledge it with a response of equivalent animosity. Even if it means having to use the F-word (by which I mean feminist).

Spread from Artforum, November 1974. Advertisement by Lynda Benglis.

THIRTEEN WAYS OF SAYING FUCK YOU

1. IN ITS MOST OBVIOUS ITERATION, FUCK YOU IS AN ACT OF AGGRESSION.

A feminist FUCK YOU turns the aggression of patriarchy back on itself. It holds up a mirror to culture, so that what is reflected back is nothing more than an asshole giving himself the finger. In her book, SCUM Manifesto, Valerie Solanas writes:

Life in this society being, at best, an utter bore and no aspect of society being at all relevant to women, there remains to civic-minded, responsible, thrill-seeking females only to overthrow the government, eliminate the money system, institute complete automation, and eliminate the male sex.1

In the all-too-rare instances in which we take Solanas’s text seriously as a feminist intervention, a significant artwork, and a meaningful political act—it is all three—we tend to avoid talking about how fucking funny it is. As if its value could be divorced from its outrageous wit. It can’t be. About men, she writes:

Eaten up with guilt, shame, fears, and insecurities and obtaining, if he’s lucky, a barely perceptible physical feeling, the male is, nonetheless, obsessed with screwing; he’ll swim a river of snot, wade nostril-deep through a mile of vomit, if he thinks there’ll be a friendly pussy awaiting him. He’ll screw a woman he despises, any snaggle-toothed hag, and, furthermore, pay for the opportunity. Why? Relieving physical tension isn’t the answer, as masturbation suffices for that. It’s not ego satisfaction; that doesn’t explain screwing corpses and babies.2

2. FUCK YOU IS A WAY OF SAYING, YES, I LIKE TO FUCK AND GET FUCKED.

FUCK YOU is the defiant gesture of a woman who takes pleasure in fucking even when she’s not supposed to. She does so in a culture that forbids her, publicly shames her, blacklists her, stones her, rapes her, and kills her—all for the crime of behaving as if her body is hers to enjoy as she wishes.

Gorgeous as it is, Carolee Schneemann’s film Fuses (1964–67) is a FUCK YOU to her close friend the experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage. In the late 1950s, Brakhage filmed Schneemann and her partner, the composer James Tenney, for two movies, Loving (1957) and Cat’s Cradle (1959). In the first of these works, Brakhage idealized Schneemann and Tenney’s sexual relationship. Rolling around nude in a sun-spangled wood, the lovers appear more like a pair of forest nymphs than like two rigorous artists who treated each other as equals. In the second film, Brakhage transformed the painter and soon-to-be radical performance artist into a cliché of domesticity. To her dismay, Schneemann was repeatedly shown chopping onions in the kitchen, wearing a frilly apron that Tenney’s mother had sent her as a Christmas present.

Dissatisfied with the distortions of these male-authored representations of her femininity, Schneemann set out to make her own filmic document of the sex act. “I wanted to see ‘the fuck,’” she writes, “lovemaking’s erotic blinding core apart from maternity/paternity.”3

Fuses is Schneemann’s way of saying, FUCK YOU for putting your frame on my body. FUCK YOU for thinking that my sexuality is something to which you can affix your signature. FUCK YOU for mystifying sex with symbolism. FUCK YOU for using my body as a conduit to express your own agonized relationship to femininity and heterosexuality. FUCK YOU for thinking that a woman can only be an object of art and not its author.

3. FUCK YOU IS A WAY OF PUBLICLY WIELDING WHAT YOU ARE NOT SUPPOSED TO POSSESS. IT IS A WAY OF MAKING ONESELF VISIBLE AND AUDIBLE. IT IS A MEANS OF TRANSFORMING THE VERY THING THAT YOU ARE NOT SUPPOSED TO POSSESS INTO A WEAPON.

In these cases, FUCK YOU is not only an act of self-exposure but a philosophical provocation to consider the meaning of a blazing signifier:

In VALIE EXPORT’s 1969 performance Genital Panic, she mobilizes sexual difference as a threat to patriarchal order. Showing her cunt through a pair of crotchless pants while walking around an art-house theater in Munich, EXPORT says, Why don’t you suck it? On second thought, she says, You ain’t never gonna suck it. This cunt is a weapon that will detonate your culture.

Action Pants: Genital Panic (the related photo series EXPORT shot in Vienna) is a FUCK YOU to Freud and his—and the artist’s—hometown. It is a FUCK YOU to his theory of penis envy, a FUCK YOU to the objectification and fetishism of the female body, and a FUCK YOU to psychoanalysis for assigning the female body the burden of carrying male lack. It was also, I believe, a FUCK YOU to those (Vienna-based) male Actionist artists who thought they could purge their nation’s complicity with Nazi genocide through a phallic celebration of obliterating violence.

Emma Sulkowicz, Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight), 2014–15. Performance view, Columbia University, New York, September 5, 2014. Photo: Andrew Burton/Getty Images.

4. FUCK YOU IS A WAY OF SAYING THAT EVEN WHEN YOU DO EVERYTHING YOU CAN TO FUCK MY BODY, YOU CAN NEVER FUCK ME.

In Interior Scroll,1975, Schneemann pulls a scroll from the place where she can never be fucked: her brain. Yeah, I know, you thought it was her cunt. Sometimes it’s hard for you to tell them apart.

At one point, Schneemann reads:

I saw my failings were worthy
of dismissal I’d be buried
alive my works lost . . .

he said we can be friends
equally tho we are not artists
equally

I said we cannot be friends
equally and we cannot be
artists equally.

In Yoko Ono’s Walk Piece, 1961, the artist jokes:

Stir inside of your brains with a penis
until things are mixed well.
Take a walk.

“Take a walk” is Ono’s polite way of saying, “Go fuck yourself if you think you can penetrate my mind with your dick.”

5. SOMETIMES SAYING FUCK YOU IS ANOTHER WAY OF SAYING FUCK ME. OR PERHAPS IT’S THE OTHER WAY AROUND, AND SAYING FUCK ME IS JUST ANOTHER WAY OF SAYING FUCK YOU.

These FUCK YOUs tend to be ambiguous and difficult to parse. In Andrea Fraser’s videotaped performance Untitled, 2003, the artist recorded her prearranged sexual encounter in a New York City hotel room with a private collector who purportedly paid $20,000 to participate.

Fraser’s New York gallery helped to make the contractual arrangements for the performance. Surely this is some kind of FUCK YOU. But it’s hard to tell whether Fraser is saying FUCK YOU to capitalism, patriarchy, feminism, or the art world. Through whose window has she lobbed this work? Can you really throw a rock through your own window if capitalism is your home?

6. SOMETIMES FUCK YOU HIDES IN THE GUISE OF A MASOCHISTIC INVITATION. (DON’T BE FOOLED.)

In Marina Abramović’s infamous 1974 piece Rhythm 0, the artist placed seventy-two objects on a table—including a rose, a feather, perfume, honey, scissors, a scalpel, nails, a gun, and one bullet—and invited the audience to use them on her as they wished. Abramović’s instructions for the piece include her declaration “I am an object. During this period I take full responsibility.” But this, of course, is a contradiction in terms, because an object cannot take full responsibility for anything, let alone itself. And herein lies another important distinction in our taxonomy: FUCK YOU is an enunciation that requires a speaker. It insists that the one who declares FUCK YOU is a SUBJECT and the one to whom it is declared is nothing more than an OBJECT of derision, a useless YOU. By declaring herself responsible for the actions of the audience members, Abramović insists that she is a subject. But she also suggests that she is the author of the other subjects in the room. Not even their sadism is original, for she has imaginatively authored the script that they so repulsively enact.

Abramović’s invitation indicts the derivative misogyny of her audience. If you can’t recognize the FUCK YOU in her face, then fuck you.

PERSONALLY, I PREFER Yoko Ono’s 1964 Cut Piece, which is, in so many ways, the quiet precursor to Abramović’s louder and angrier declamation. Instead of screaming, FUCK YOU, you who want to cut and destroy my body, Ono metaphorically whispers, Go ahead, take it, cut away the parts you don’t like. Go ahead, cut a little more. Because Ono knows that nobody can really take what is given. In this way, her gift both invites and disables the sadism of the audience. To exist is, after all, to suffer. What seems like an invitation to FUCK ME (as hard and violently as you want) is actually Ono’s attainment of perfect mindfulness, in which the other’s craving to cause her suffering has ceased to matter.

Cover of the New York Daily News, June 4, 1968.

7. SOMETIMES FUCK YOU IS A DEMAND FOR EQUALITY. IN THIS WAY, FUCK YOU CAN BE A DENIAL OF YOUR DENIAL OF MY EXISTENCE.

In 1971, Ono arranged an unauthorized exhibition for herself at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. It was the same year that art historian Linda Nochlin published her groundbreaking feminist essay “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” Ono published ads for the exhibition in the New York Times and the Village Voice, for which she was photographed in front of the museum carrying a large letter F. Borrowing the F from FUCK YOU, Ono transformed New York’s shrine to modern aesthetics into the Museum of Modern Fart. When visitors arrived, they discovered a sign outside the entrance announcing that Ono had released flies on the museum grounds. The public was invited to track the insects as they dispersed across the city. Supposedly, visitors would be able to locate the flies because they were wearing Ono’s perfume. Whatever the fragrance was, it must have smelled better than Modern Farts.

IN THE DECADES that followed, several feminist collectives, including the Guerrilla Girls, used similar techniques, including on-site protests and mass reproduction and distribution, to demand the equal representation of female artists in the art world. Like Ono, the Guerrilla Girls mobilized their tactics in response to the exclusion of female artists from the Museum of Modern Art. “An International Survey of Recent Painting and Sculpture,” MoMA’s inaugural exhibition in its newly renovated and expanded building, which reopened in 1984, was described as a survey of the most important contemporary artists in the world. In total, the show featured works by 165 artists, of whom only fourteen were female.

After protesting in front of the museum, the Guerrilla Girls embarked on a poster-bombing campaign throughout New York City. Whenever they appear in public, the Guerrilla Girls wear masks to remain anonymous. Unlike the collective Anonymous, whose members favor a slick Guy Fawkes mask, the Guerrilla Girls confront us with the visages of apes. In addition to protecting their identity from the corporate police state—and themselves from being blacklisted in the art world—their masks pay homage to the racist association of women of color with animals, as witnessed in the despicable display and treatment of Sarah “Saartje” Baartman, the so-called Hottentot Venus. As Marlene Dietrich’s daring masquerade as a gorilla in Blonde Venus (1932) reminds us, sometimes a gorilla is not just a gorilla.

8. SOMETIMES FUCK YOU IS A UTOPIAN GESTURE OR A PRAYER.

This is evident in Zoe Leonard’s beautiful 1992 piece I want a president . . . . Without a doubt, this is a FUCK YOU to the dominant racist, sexist, classist, capitalist, patriarchal order, which fails to recognize the inalienable rights of America’s most marginalized. It is a FUCK YOU to Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and Pat Buchanan, a FUCK YOU to the Westboro Baptist Church and to anyone else who thinks that “God hates fags,” a FUCK YOU to the Moral Majority and to whoever else thinks that a woman doesn’t have the right to choose, and a FUCK YOU to the Wall Street banks that think they have a right to profit from someone else’s struggle to live and to the pharmaceutical companies that think aids is a game that capitalists play.

But amid Leonard’s rage, there is the activist’s call to action, mobilized by the belief that another world is attainable. Recognizing that genuine empathy is the foundation of politics, Leonard knows that any world truly better than the fucked-up one we live in must recognize the vital intelligence and abject experience of the outcast as fundamental to a new politics. In Leonard’s utopian tract, homo sacer is the best kind of homo for president.

Guerrilla Girls, Do Women Have to Be Naked to Get into the Met. Museum?, 1989, poster, dimensions variable.

9. SOMETIMES SHOWING A FUCK IS ALSO A FUCK YOU.

We have already seen this in Schneemann’s Fuses, but it is important to push this point even further. Sometimes publicly exhibiting a fuck is a way of insisting that certain kinds of forbidden lovemaking are permissible. Andy Warhol’s 1964 film Couch is a serial made up of thirteen reels of different folks hanging around the Factory couch. Several of the reels, but not nearly all of them, record people having sex on and around the couch; some of these show queer sex between men, occasionally interrupted by someone wielding a vacuum cleaner. In the film’s second-to-last reel, Warhol shows two men and one woman having very intense sex with one another. The woman and one of the men are white. The other man is black.

Though it remains unheralded as such, this is one of the first interracial porn scenes in American cinema. Indeed, Warhol’s explicit depiction predates hard-core porn’s foray into the same territory by nearly a decade, and it abstains from the fetishistic racism on which “mainstream” interracial porn would come to rely. Rather than treating miscegenation sensationally, however, Warhol presents the scene with his customary flat affect.

Considering that the film was shot in 1964 while the hunt was still on for the bodies of three civil rights workers who had been abducted and killed by the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi during Freedom Summer, Warhol’s transgression of the taboo against miscegenation was no joke. Yet Warhol treats it lightly enough. After all, a fuck is just a fuck, even when it is also much more than that. Although Warhol neither sensationalized nor sacralized the interracial scene in Couch, he was well aware of its provocative nature. He lent a still from this sequence to poet and musician Ed Sanders, who placed it on the cover of the March 1965 “Mad Motherfucker” issue of Fuck You magazine to celebrate its third anniversary. Like Barbara Hammer’s later film Dyketactics (1974), which celebrates lesbian intimacy as a form of subversion, Couch shows a fuck that is also a FUCK YOU that is also a utopian gesture.

10. SOMETIMES FUCK YOU ONLY EXPRESSES “THE MINOR OF WHAT WE FEEL.”

In Chantal Akerman’s groundbreaking 1975 film, Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai de Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, the protagonist, played by Delphine Seyrig, is a widowed mother who earns money by prostituting herself while her teenage son is at school. From making the bed to having passionless sex with her clients, she performs each of her tasks with an automaton’s precision. At a certain point, it’s time to boil the potatoes; by the time they are done, she will have completed the transaction of selling her body.

Breaking all the rules of cinematic engagement, Akerman films the monotonous gestures of this woman’s life with a relentlessly slow and static camera, as if to suggest that they are worthy of rapt attention. Akerman was only twenty-five years old when she shot Jeanne Dielman. Her quiet but radical subversion of normative film grammar was a FUCK YOU to the male-dominated film industry and its elimination of the textures and temporalities of women’s lives. In the lives of ordinary housewives, mundane repetition is often the only meaning there is. FUCK YOU if you are bored by having to sit through a mere 202 minutes of watching almost nothing happen.

About halfway into the film, a client takes more than his allotted time and the potatoes burn. Big fucking deal. But for audiences who have found themselves in thrall watching this affectless woman meticulously perform the semiotics of both kitchen and bedroom, we know that this minor oversight signals a major rupture. In this case, burning the potatoes is but the minor of what she feels. As we shall see, it is only the first step in the perilous journey of becoming human again.

We soon get a better sense of the majors’ emotional sprawl. To be human in a world that denies your subjectivity is to sustain an impossible contradiction. On the third day in the film, all sorts of things start to go wrong. Dielman accidentally gets shoe polish on her cuff, arrives too early at the post office, washes her dishes over and over again, and can’t seem to make a decent cup of coffee. She begins to lose her composure, which has been her only defense against the soul-robbing tedium of her daily life. After having what seems to be an unprecedented—and unwanted—orgasm with her client, she gets dressed, then stabs him to death with a pair of scissors. Compared with burning the potatoes, this a slightly less ambiguous FUCK YOU.

Of course, it is also much more than that. While on first glance it is easy to regard this murder as a feminist rebellion, Akerman is too smart to present such facile resolutions. Like the physical pleasure some rape victims unwillingly experience during their attacks, Dielman’s orgasm suggests the degree to which her body itself has been colonized by the violence of patriarchy and capital. As if having taken to heart the profound distinction Jean-Paul Sartre drew between the waiter and the man who chooses to wait tables but refuses to define himself by his labor, Dielman has survived by separating her affects from her actions. When she involuntarily comes, she is robbed of what little self-determination she had left. Murdering her john may be the only way of reasserting her agency in such dire circumstances, but her liberation is hardly a joyful one. The film ends bleakly, with Dielman sitting at the table, presumably waiting to be transplanted from her domestic prison into an actual penitentiary. If Akerman couldn’t manage to break open the prisons that confine women’s lives, she could nevertheless depict that prison with devastating precision.

Yoko Ono, Cut Piece, 1964. Performance view, Carnegie Hall, New York, March 21, 1965.

11. IN ONE OF ITS MOST PROFOUND ITERATIONS, FUCK YOU IS A NEGATION OF A NEGATION.

Sometimes this FUCK YOU is whispered so quietly you can barely hear it, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t audible.

So much of feminist and identity-based Conceptual art might be understood in this light. Adrian Piper’s work makes innovative use of “passing” as a way of negating the obliterating force of racist stereotypes. Disguised by mistaken identities, her clever FUCK YOUs are aimed at those miasmic (by which I mean white) viewers who wrongly presume that racial, gender, and class identities are always transparent, categorical, and legible. Piper’s periodic impersonation of the so-called Mythic Being, which she began doing in New York in 1973 (and continued later in Cambridge, Massachusetts), involved the light-skinned female artist appearing in public donning a mustache, Afro wig, and mirrored sunglasses while behaving in typically aggressive and sometimes criminal fashion. Flaunting negative stereotypes, Piper’s “Mythic Being” series, 1972–75, confronted racist viewers with a FUCK YOU of their own construction. After all, the notion of the inherently dangerous black man was created and reified by a racist, colonialist imagination; Piper just mirrored it back. In one of her “Mythic Being” posters from 1975, we see an image of this persona accompanied by a thought bubble that reads I EMBODY EVERYTHING YOU MOST HATE AND FEAR. Of course, this message is more complicated than it initially appears. For, ultimately, who is more hateful to the racist asshole: a black man engaged in antisocial behavior or a light-skinned, Harvard-educated, “black” female philosopher who, in passing for what she is not, detonates the viewer’s entire understanding of the relationship between what is visible and what is knowable?

A quieter but no less potent FUCK YOU is audible in Piper’s My Calling (Card) #1 (for Dinners and Cocktail Parties), 1986–90, a performance in which the artist silently handed out printed cards with a short message to white people she encountered who, having mistaken her mixed-race identity for white, engaged in racist behavior or speech in her presence. The message, which began, DEAR FRIEND, I AM BLACK. I AM SURE YOU DID NOT REALIZE THIS WHEN YOU MADE/LAUGHED AT/AGREED WITH THAT RACIST REMARK, AND ENDED, I REGRET ANY DISCOMFORT MY PRESENCE IS CAUSING YOU, JUST AS I AM SURE YOU REGRET THE DISCOMFORT YOUR RACISM IS CAUSING ME, was the kind of FUCK YOU my mother preferred: a way of killing with kindness.

NOT ALL SUBVERSIONS of knowledge take such polite or even racialized form. In her brazen appearance in the November 1974 issue of Artforum, Lynda Benglis used sexualized masquerade to shove misogyny up the ass of the art establishment. In her self-funded advertisement, Benglis appears nude and oiled up, brandishing an enormous dildo between her legs and wearing nothing more than a pair of cat-eye rhinestone sunglasses. The image caused quite a controversy: Benglis was denounced, by male and female critics alike, as a pornographer, a self-promoter, and a narcissist. But what she does in this startling image is turn female-negating stereotypes on their head. Parodying the patriarchal assumption that empowerment can only be achieved through the possession of the phallus, Benglis simultaneously answers the charge—frequently leveled at body artists such as Schneemann and Hannah Wilke—that female artists who exhibited their cunts did so merely to attract attention. Benglis’s insouciant ad announces FUCK YOU to a male-dominated art world that thinks that while men rightfully wield the phallus, women artists have nothing more to offer than their cunts.

BENGLIS’S FUCK YOU still astonishes with its bold assertion of female power and wit. But feminist negations can have more pathos than this provocative image. As Agnes Martin realized, it is not always necessary to use a knife, a gun, a dick, or a dildo to tell the art world to FUCK OFF. For as gorgeously meditative as her paintings are, they too are a FUCK YOU. Martin negated the negation of capitalism with the more profound negation of Zen. Moving from New York City to the New Mexican desert at the height of her career, Martin negated the valorization of the metropolis as the center of the art world. Although her pale tones and rigorous grid structure pioneered a Minimalist vocabulary in painting, they also say FUCK YOU to the masculinist reductionism that fetishizes austere form while refusing to engage with questions of spirituality. Floating toward and then away from the viewer on a cream-colored carpet threaded with pale pencil lines, Martin negates the negation of beauty and the critical negation of feeling. Confronting us with what Wallace Stevens called the “nothing that is not there and the nothing that is,” Martin takes the NO that Minimalism hurls at the viewer and calls it Happiness.

Still from Chantal Akerman’s Saute ma ville (Blow Up My Town), 1968, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 13 minutes. Chantal Akerman.

12. IN ITS MOST VIOLENT ITERATION, FUCK YOU CAN TAKE THE FORM OF AN ASSASSINATION.

This was obviously the case when Valerie Solanas shot and almost killed Andy Warhol on June 3, 1968. Solanas had given Warhol a copy of the script for her play Up Your Ass (1965); Warhol refused to produce the play and then claimed to have lost the script.

This famous assassination attempt obscures the other ones that happen all around us, all the time. Most of them are not attempted by feminists but are directed at them.

13. SOMETIMES THE WORLD BECOMES SO PAINFUL AND INHOSPITABLE THAT EVEN HOWLING THE MOST DEFIANT FUCK YOU CAN NO LONGER SAVE YOU. IN THESE INSTANCES, FUCK YOU TAKES THE FORM OF A PROFOUND ACT OF MOURNING AND, IN SOME CASES, SELF-OBLITERATION.

In many cases, one’s acknowledgment of the hopelessness of the world hastens the onslaught of despair. But there are also recorded instances in which such recognition is accompanied by a delirious explosion of joy. We see glimpses of such delirium in Akerman’s very first film, Saute ma ville (Blow Up My Town, 1968), in which the young heroine, played by the eighteen-year-old director, frantically cooks and then devours a bowl of spaghetti before taping up the doors and windows of her kitchen, filling it with gas, and blowing herself to bits. So ends Akerman’s first foray into filmmaking. Yet this frenzied self-obliteration is also a form of transcendence. For in the ecstasy of Akerman’s nihilism, one witnesses not only the death but also the birth of an artist who, in telling the world to FUCK OFF over and over and over again, detonated that world and laid the groundwork for a new one in its stead.

Ara Osterweil is a painter, a film scholar, and an associate professor of cultural studies at McGill University in Montreal. She is the author of Flesh Cinema: The Corporeal Turn in American Avant-Garde Film (Manchester University Press, 2014).

NOTES

1. Valerie Solanas, SCUM Manifesto (London: Olympia Press, 1971), 1.

2. Ibid., 2–3.

3. Carolee Schneemann, “It Is Painting” (2003), in Stan Brakhage: Filmmaker, ed. David E. James (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2005), 83.