New York and Los Angeles

“Global Feminisms” and “WACK!”

Brooklyn Museum, New York and Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles

WHY ARE WOMEN so angry? What do women want? Why can’t a woman be more like a man? Can a man be a feminist? Why have there been no great women artists? Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf? What is feminism? What is art? Is feminist art “art”? Is feminist art great art? Is art by women artists feminist art? Is feminist art women’s art? How many feminists does it take to screw in a lightbulb? Do feminists have a sense of humor? Can women be funny? (No, but we can be hysterical.) Do we have permanent PMS? Is a woman born, or is she made? Is she nature, or is she culture? Is she a victim of the species or just of society? Is she a sex, or is she a gender? Is hers an identity or a performance, a construction or an essence, an excess or an absence? Have we come a long way, baby, or no distance at all? Are we now the first or the second sex? (And just how many sexes are there?) Which came first, the woman or the egg? How many feminists can dance on the head of a pin? Can anything else be said by and about women other than that throughout history we, collectively and individually, have been raped, abused, and punished, confined, marginalized, and excluded, dominated and dehumanized, objectified, othered, and orientalized, invented, imprisoned in stereotype, and made invisible? And that this is our inevitable fate under the never-ending, self-reproducing ideological order of patriarchy and phallocracy? And what does art have to do with any of these questions? Why art, in fact? Why feminist art? Why bother?

An increasingly delirious host of questions occurred to me as I wandered despairingly through “Global Feminisms: New Directions in Contemporary Art,” at the Brooklyn Museum. Despairingly, because I think of myself as a feminist, because I don’t like to write trashing reviews, and because I had gone with the express wish of finding some things I especially liked and singling them out for analysis and praise. And that exercise was doomed. I did find, toward the beginning, a large color ink-jet print, Dance, 2003, by Czech artist Milena Dopitova of two attractive, apparently sixty-something women (maybe the same woman twice?) embracing (or dancing?) that I rather liked for its gentleness and its ambiguity. I saw two odd little (digital?) photographs by German artist Loretta Lux—Study of a Boy 1 and 2, both 2002—of a pristine, large-headed boy whose uncanniness I tried fleetingly to understand. I came upon three watercolors by Pakistani artist Ambreen Butt that I found momentarily appealing for their mixture of traditional graphic elegance and modern tomboy adventures. Later, I discovered two watercolors, one by another Pakistani, Shahzia Sikander, with spermlike squiggles dancing around in a bloom of pink mist, the other by French artist Béatrice Cussol, a mushroom cloud of crimson and liquid white that made me think simultaneously of an amorphous family tree and a Rorschach spreading of scarlet ink in water, until it made me think of the old gynophobic myth of the odor of menstrual blood fouling and curdling milk. But none of these images answered the desire for something either to take my breath away or to make me smile or laugh or ponder. Something to make me linger. Or something to make me learn something I didn’t already know. Instead I came away depressed.

For whether it was under the heading “Life Cycles,” “Identities,” “Politics,” or “Emotions” (principally hysteria and rage), there seemed to be nothing new under the feminist sun except that feminism, or at least self-described feminist art, has gone global: The show includes works from all six inhabited continents, from all sorts of different regimes and cultures, in which the “otherness” of femaleness is joined to many other othernesses. This pluralism is good, because it promises that still more variety lies outside the museum—at the very least I could say that if I didn’t like any of these feminisms, perhaps there might be others out there that I might like better. There is work in all media—in sculpture, painting, print and drawing, photography and video, weaving and sewing (and, in an anteroom to the exhibition, ceramics). That pluralism is good as well, insofar as it made me feel that if there’s a lot of bad feminist art out there in so many different media, then maybe there are possibilities for good art, too. And anyway, there’s so much bad art by men out there—much more than by women—that I thought, Oh, well, at least this show gives equal opportunity to bad art by women. (Though surely that’s not what the curators, Linda Nochlin and Maura Reilly, had in mind when they assembled these objects.)

I asked a question earlier about what art is, let alone feminist art. It’s a question we’ve ditched or copped out of in the past decade or so. It is true, however, that it is easier to define what bad art is than to say what good art is. What is bad, to my mind, about all this art by women that calls itself feminist art is not just its reaffirmation of negative stereotypes (under the banner of undoing those stereotypes), not just its reification of the Other as Victim, not just its reinscription of misogyny, but also its general understanding of art as the half-realized illustration of half-baked and often sophomoric concepts. And worse, that this general understanding hardly ever seems to rise to the level of consciousness and self-query; for the most part, it seems blindly propelled by an inertia driven simultaneously by the glut in the art market and the languishing condition of “political” art. And feminist art is, of course, eminently political: art in the name of the feminist revolution. It seems that art by women that is aesthetically compelling, formally challenging, and materially sustained, and art by women that does not illustrate negative stereotypes, victimhood, and pornographic misogyny cannot be understood as feminist art. I guess it must be for this reason, then, that artists such as Ellen Gallagher, Rachel Whiteread, and Carrie Mae Weems did not make the cut for “Global Feminisms.”

One wonders what happened to the feminist legacy of Catherine de Zegher’s widely admired 1996 show “Inside the Visible” at Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art: That exhibition made clear that feminist art practices could be aesthetically challenging rather than merely illustrational, in addition to having more positive and productive things to say about women and concepts of the “feminine.” It also suggested that such a practice was relevant to artists and viewers of both sexes. (For it surely must be the case, to answer just one of my opening questions, that men can make feminist art, too, a notion that seems often to get lost in the very laudable effort to redress the gender imbalance in the art world.)

“Global Feminisms” is prefaced by Judy Chicago’s infamous and now-canonical 1974–79 Dinner Party, newly and permanently installed in the Brooklyn Museum. As gaudy, vulgar, literalist, old-fashioned, and plain bad taste as The Dinner Party is, I found myself smiling at the fun of its kitsch, at the fullness of its fuck-you brashness, at its collective commitment and its craft realization, and at its construction of a positive mythology of Woman—as Goddess, Queen, and Matriarch, as Artist, Crafter, and Creator, as Amazon and Alpha Female—all in the unembarrassed image of the Great Vulva. The “Global Feminisms” that flow out of it, which all date from the ’90s and the ’00s, thus seem like a degeneration into woundedness, dour whining, and dystopic weak-mindedness. What happened between The Dinner Party and now?

OR RATHER, maybe we should first ask, what happened then? What led up to The Dinner Party, and what was it like back then? The exhibition on view at the same time on the left coast of the country, “WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution” at Los Angeles’s Museum of Contemporary Art, addresses that question with a historical focus on work of the ’60s and ’70s. Its curator, Connie Butler, is to be congratulated, for hers is a fine exhibition. A huge show of about 120 artists, diverse and rich and much more heartening than the Brooklyn exhibition, “WACK!” makes us remember what a vibrant and forward-looking time those decades were—how much hope there was for change, how energetic and messy it all was before the categories became hardened and the deconstructionists squared off against the essentialists, and how much real art was being made. And even how hairy those two decades were, in contrast to our Brazilian-waxed present.

It is strange to think that the ’60s and ’70s now belong to historical time, and that most of the students I teach weren’t even born back then, when I was coming of age, when bras were burned, when women let their body hair grow, when communes were formed, when there were protests against the Vietnam War and the military-industrial complex, when Berkeley was the center of the world, and when everyone was climbing on the barricades. Well, not everyone, but you know what I mean. People were questioning everything, nobody had their theoretical positions all nicely polished up. The personal was political, and the political was personal, and as much rampant hedonism, narcissistic self-indulgence, and adolescent rebelliousness as was out there, there was also idealism and fervor and passionate commitment to causes. Every cause you can think of, in fact. And nobody was afraid to look silly or raw or unsophisticatedly excited by everything. People like me were reading Foucault for the first time, imagine that! And listening to Janis Joplin. And raising their consciousnesses and sitting around in circles and passing the speculum to get to know their bodies and their selves better. And that book was being published in all its lean and gritty up-yours-ness (in contrast to its glossy, pink, encyclopedically massive, how-to-place-a-dental-dam-in-order-to-have-safe-oral-sex present incarnation). And Kate Millett was writing her dissertation and calling it Sexual Politics. And John Berger was declaiming Ways of Seeing on British TV. British feminists were mixing up a heady stew of Marx and Engels and Althusser, Freud, and Lacan and sometimes Melanie Klein, in order to invent feminist film criticism and the “male gaze,” and French feminists, on the other side of the Channel, were talking about “l’écriture féminine” and “this sex which is not one.”

On view at MoCA is all of this, in the form of: Magdalena Abakanowicz’s huge red weaving Abakan Red, 1969; Nancy Spero’s narrative Torture of Women, 1976; Joyce Kozloff’s pattern and decoration tilework; Adrian Piper’s texty Concrete Infinity Documentation Piece, 1970; Mira Schendel’s dada-constructivist Sin titulo, 1967; nine of Cindy Sherman’s “Untitled Film Stills,” 1977–80; Howardena Pindell’s marvelous little punched-paper pieces, 1975; Mary Bauermeister’s witty Needless Needles, 1963; Senga Nengudi’s nylon-mesh-and-sand I, 1977; Audrey Flack’s oil-over-acrylic Marilyn (Vanitas), 1977; Martha Rosler’s very funny photocollages, 1966–72; Faith Wilding’s crafty Crocheted Environment, 1972/1995; Lynda Benglis’s “grande horizontale” Odalisque (Hey, Hey Frankenthaler), 1969; Mimi Smith’s elegant tape-measure pieces from 1974 and 1975; Joan Snyder’s slightly disturbing Flesh Flock Painting with Strokes and Stripes, 1969; Sylvia Plimack Mangold’s Photorealist Thirty-Six and Three-Quarter Inch of Rule with Light, 1975; six little lyrical black-and-white photographs by Francesca Woodman; Chantal Akerman’s slow domestic film Je, tu, il, elle (1974); Eva Hesse’s wonderful (and influential) “eccentric abstraction,” Hang Up, 1964–66; a part of Mary Kelly’s “Post-Partum Document” series (some- what dreary in this cacophonous context), 1973–75; some of Judy Chicago’s psychedelic “Rejection Quintet” drawings, 1974; and on and on, not in that or in any other order. That there was no chronological order or clear thematic breakdown to this international barrage of wildly multimedia work—no time line to bring it under control and no lame categories to define it—only enhances the sense of the thrilling (and exasperating) chaos of the moment, the all-over-the-place free-for-all that was those two decades.

And that “WACK!” is all about art in various relations to feminism more than an exhibition of feminist art per se helps a lot; the title’s conjunction and, rather than the adjectival qualifier, makes an important difference. Which is to say, first, that the politics of this art was other than illustrational, and second, that not all of it was directly political at all: Some of it was simply enabled by the women’s movement and everything else that surrounded it. Taken as a bumptious whole, however, this art was political by opening up a polyvocal space of dispute, by sponsoring an antihierarchical democracy of medium and materials, by refusing condescension, institutional pomposities, and high-toned transcendences, and by bringing together into the fold sensitivities and subjects heretofore relegated to the back stairs and the women’s room. Since the icon of patriarchal power, everyday totalitarianism, and monologic unity is the almighty Phallus, why not call this space of dialogue, dissent, and distaff sensibility the “feminine principle,” and say that this is what “WACK!” and the now-historical art in it celebrates? Some of it’s good, some of it’s bad, some of it’s in-between, and no one person is going to be able to espouse or embrace all of it. But isn’t that the point, and isn’t it good to remember that all of it was going on at once?

SO WHAT DID HAPPEN between then and now? Well, for one thing, the ’80s, and with that decade various forms of backlash. For another thing, all these wild cultural adolescents became well-groomed middle-aged people and lost their creative zeal. For yet another thing, it all went academic, theory became doctrine, feminism turned into postfeminism, the humanities went posthuman, and art went anti-art. A lot of the energy of those decades simply turned negative, and then that negativism was enshrined, institutionalized, and inoculated against self-critique. Laura Mulvey, arguing for a feminist practice in film (in her essay “Film, Feminism and the Avant-Garde,” 1978), outlined the stages that the revolution was supposed to go through: first, the unearthing of buried talents and the listening to silenced voices; then the bursting upon the scene of anarchic pleasures that overflowed the patriarchal cup and thus defied its control; then the mainstream pleasures of patriarchy were to be dissected (through analysis) and destroyed (through modernist rupture and negation). Whichever side of the essentialist-versus-(de)constructionist divide you or I happen to be on, we now seem to be stuck in that third phase, without a clue what to do next. On both sides of that divide, we seem now to accept the inevitability of our ideological formation and with it the inevitable negative connotation of the “feminine.” Not to mention the inevitability of art’s collusion with ideology and therefore the necessity of a negational stance toward art, if one’s political p’s and q’s are in order. And into the anti-art, antiwoman vacuum enters art-pornography, and nobody seems to be able to tell the difference between misogynist and feminist art-porn. (Maybe because there isn’t a difference?)

So what’s a girl to do? Obviously we can’t go back to the raw vigor of the ’60s and ’70s; for one thing, there’s too much water under the bridge, and for another, some refining of the raw is surely worthwhile. But I would argue that we could learn from those decades, and in that regard, “WACK!” has a lot to teach, not least to “Global Feminisms.” We could relearn the pleasure principle of art; we could rediscover the political resourcefulness of intensive and inventive work with media and materials; we could invent some new, more positive mythologies of Woman (and of other Others), or at least some newly useful metaphors and metonyms; and we could thus commit ourselves to the defiance of all ideological inevitabilities. In short, we could espouse the “feminine principle” outlined above. We could also embrace what Luce Irigaray not so long ago called the “ethics of sexual difference” and extend it to cover all kinds of human “difference,” of the social, cultural, and racial, as well as the sexual order. And we could bring the other sex into the fold of art and feminism, because, given that men represent roughly 50 percent of the population and still hold most of the keys to the city, if we don’t, we’re just preaching to the choir, and the choir is still in the ghetto. And in that case, this “year of the woman in art” will have amounted to nothing but window dressing, and nothing will have changed.

“Global Feminisms” remains on view at the Brooklyn Museum, New York, through July 1, and travels to the Davis Museum and Cultural Center, Wellesley College, Wellesley, MA, Sept. 12–Dec. 9. “WACK!” remains on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, through July 16, and travels to the National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, DC, Sept. 21–Dec. 16; P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center, New York, Feb.–June 2008; and Vancouver Art Gallery, British Columbia, Oct. 4, 2008–Jan. 18, 2009.

Carol Armstrong is professor of art and archaeology and Doris Stevens Professor of the Study of Women and Gender at Princeton University.