|Feminist And/Or Artist
I want to start this talk by stating that I am a feminist and I am an artist. Both of these labels are up for interpretation and, moreover, they inform each other in strange ways. How does being a feminist inform the artist? How does the artist inform the artist?
First off, let me say that feminism is not a tribunal to sit in judgment although there are feminists who think so, and popular image of feminism is often portrayed as that. The ongoing backlash against Feminist in America works by creating an image of a feminist as arrogant, man-hating, and politically correct. This is very strange indeed since what a critical Feminism teaches is the acute awareness of the power of categories to close off thought and the power of names to make the real real. Critical Feminism cannot be reduced to a simply method or view of society.
A critical feminism also teaches to concentrate on the relations between people as they are, and not some other transcendent reality. By this, I mean that every woman has to start from her own concrete position in the world. Feminism will look different in different parts of the world. It will look different in South Korea than it will look in the United States, and it will look different in North Korea than it will look in South Korea. However, feminism informs us all when we look at structures of power, things, people and their actions. Feminism clears away debris.
As an artist, I bring debris back in. The artist in me is haunted by images, ideas, material objects, and most importantly, people. In fact, if I had to define an artist I would say that an artist is a person preoccupied by images, sounds, ideas, words, objects, and people—so much so that they create within the affective moment of being in tune with their obsessions. I may have my own room (or studio) as Virginia Woolf advised, but I cannot separate my consciousness from others and I cannot give up feeling overwhelmed by my passions that border on fixations. They open themselves up to me. While some think that fixations are errors of judgments, I think of it as passion, as attention. Giving attention is the definition of passion. I cannot always filter my obsessions through some conscious grid constructed by my rational mind or limit my attention to fixate me.
Feminism helps to inform my understanding of art without encompassing that understanding. I must warn you that the quickest way to bore me and the quickest way to destroy feminism is to say that Picasso is a misogynist or that Pollock was a misogynist or that men objectify women, and then we get stuck in categories like boxes which does an enormous disservice to feminism. Feminism is a political movement to free women in an attempt to seek different ways for women in otherwise known as patriarchal societies and out of that very struggle flashes of insight rise up like questions marks in the road.
Paintings communicate, and not always in meaning. Paintings convey emotions with judgments or attitudes attached to them-or affects in current language. We can never receive a painting in a neutral frame, and no painting is ever neutral. There are transmissions from all works of art that are have little to do with over meaning.
Manet’s Olympia is a classic painting for feminists. We are startled by the model’s bold and blunt gaze which is engaging and powerful. This piece is a derivative of Titian’s Venus, thus, Manet’s answer or reaction to the tradition and reaction. Manet’s Olympia is of a demimonde which is of a category of women in France whose association is about lifestyle, sensual, gambling, drug use, drinking and sexual promiscuity. Olympia is not just a prostitute, but represents a woman who appears to enjoy financial autonomy and her sexuality as well. She has a kitty in place of a sleeping dog which means unfaithful or free in her choices (as I call it) and I fine Manet’s intention in depicting of this particular status of women to be very interesting. She has flowers presented to her that is also a reflection of her reality. She is a real woman. One may even debate the warmth of the bed she is lying on due to its realistic environment. Can it possibly suggest a client or a visit of a client?
Titian’s woman, on the other hand, is in a vague reality. Vagueness makes her inaccessible and idealized. She is a goddess, not a real woman. Olympia looks directly at you and Venus does not because it was created for the owner of the painting. The presence of the client, the owner of the painting, the one who commissioned the painting, is strong. The client commissioned the painting for his young wife and the implication is “this is how you should be in bed.” “You should be docile in my fantasy and in reality for my pleasure.” “you exist for my dream and fantasy.” It is not about the identity of the woman or presence/sexuality of the women. Olympia puts a claim on her sex. Venus covers it up. If Olympia were to say something, she would say, “I am in charge of my sex, life, and my reality.” If Titian’s Venus had a voice, she would say, “I am yours and am for your pleasure.”
But there is more to this painting that what I would call this standard feminist reading. I am haunted by Olympia because of the very pose the woman, which recalls moments of repose in my life, in others’ lives. Moments caught between desire and being desired, between intense feeling and boredom, moving back and forth between these states. Moreover, Olympia is really doing nothing at all but posing and gazing. Is this the burden of leisure? The gaze of the black maid is also strange, almost worried. Olympia seems so hard, so tough and demure at the same time. The painting transmits ennui without ever calling out this fact, and in a more subtle fashion, it transmits the affect of posing while wanting to do something else. This is the distinct feel I get from the painting. And, of course we know that the model for Olympia, Victorine Meurent, did indeed do something else: she became a famous painter in her own right.
Artemisia Geltileschi’s Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting is an incredibly bold work for its time. Painted during the Italian Baroque period Gentileschi took a courageous stand by saying that she was not only a female painter (at a time when there were not women painters) but that she as much as anyone else is the very embodiment of painting itself. They symbols in the painting all contribute to her boldness—the pendant mask on a gold chain which shows the artist’s capability for imitation, a dress that changes color showing the richness of her vision, and of course the wild hair showing that artist as passionate, driven, and natural, using the paint and palette like any great painter would. The painting is compositionally sound and draws different elements together. Gentleschi is bold and proud painter.
However, beyond this standard reading, informed by feminism, there is something in the painting that haunts me. That gesture. The one that every painter does thousands of times in his or her lifetime. I can feel my body in that position. It is like seeing the swing of a great golfer or tennis player: you can feel the gesture. Without a specific symbolic or allegory, the painting transmits the feel of this gesture, what we call the weight of her body. It reminds me that painting is a vocation, and this would have been the most radical thought never expressed; that a woman should make a living as a painter just like men do. When I see her in that gesture, it reminds me of Sisyphus pushing the rock. It reminds me that we as women and men have a long way to go and there is nothing to do but do what we have to do.
The next painting is Reuben’s portrait of his wife Portrait of Helene Fourment. We know the story: Helene was not painted for the public viewing but only as an acknowledgment of their intimate life. The erotic tension between the model and the painter is determined by Helene’s intense and promising gaze. The hesitant angle of the body also represents vulnerability of the model and forever engaging of the intangible love, relationship, and union of the couple.
So far, so good. But what of the gesture that haunts me? That every one of us who has a sex life must stand half clothed in the eyes of a lover. That seems almost universal to me in industrial societies. We are always dressed or in a state of undressing. In Portland there is a tradition of people riding their bikes naked down busy streets. I saw two the other day. Is that strange and why is it strange? Portland is also known for the many strip clubs it has. Here, women are in a state of semi-dressed or nudity for public consumption by men and they do it for money. Ripe for feminist criticism, what haunts me about the human body in the modern world is precisely how vulnerable nakedness is, and this gesture reminds me of that. When strippers try to take control of the situation by initiating desire and ending it, they forego the tension found in Reuben’s painting. By making erotic tension operate via a time code-the length of a dance - strippers actually seem to dissolve erotic tension. But Reuben’s painting makes us aware of it in the context of dressing and undressing.
The last piece I will focus on is The Origin of the World by Gustav Courbet (10 June 1819 – 31 December 1877, France). The painting is of a woman’s vagina. Initially created for private view only debuted in Brooklyn, New York in 1989. Student responses to the piece are representative and they range from “too much,” “it is beautiful,” “It is about empowerment,” to “it is pornography pure and simple,” and “I’m very offended.” Often there is a just a general silence about the painting.
Clearly, there is a feminist attitude that this is just immature pornography. Just a sexual organ separated from the woman. However, this piece is one of my favorite paintings by Courbet. It makes me nervous and the nervousness just grows the longer I look at it. Because after time what is obvious starts to become less obvious. There is a very romantic way to interpret the vagina, especially with the romantic title, that vagina is the mother is the Goddess, etc. That is one way to make it safe. It seems to have made others nervous, because it has been covered up, and the famous French Psychoanalyst Jacque Lacan purchased it and had a special drawer built to hide the painting.
The writer John Updike thought the painting ugly, look more like an inkblot. However, he missed the point. Other critics are convinced this is not a sexy painting as some of Courbet’s other paintings. Again, is that the point? In the room at the Brooklyn Museum with that painting, an emotional swell, an atmosphere of transgression, danger, and eros all bring an affective moment to the painting. It makes your interpretation of meaning shrivel up next to it, theory as erectile dysfunctions. It is the very nervousness of that painting in a museum that haunts me – the way museums have become mausoleums of great and expensive art to be looked at – and have erased nervousness. When you erase nervousness in the viewing room, you erase a powerful moment of modernist art that The Origin of the World expresses.
In all these paintings of women, there is a feminist perspective. The moment of objectification always contains the seeds of its own dissolution. However, a critical feminism also invokes the affects of images, the optical nerves that leads not to our rational brain nor to our emotional brain but to the part of the brain that is in control of our affective lives. Artist can be feminists but they must also be artist – that is – haunted by images, sounds, objects, and people. It is not only about how power moves through the social field but how moments in the paintings contain another space besides “meaning” altogether.