Monday, April 21, 2008

Be Afraid of Your Wife: Feminism and the History of Everyday Rage

(Crossposted at Cliopatra)

A Vietnam-era suburban housewife is standing in front of a kitchen counter. She stares calmly and without expression into the camera, as if she is the star of her own cooking show. “Knife,” she intones, displaying a knife in her right hand. With short, violent strokes she stabs the cutting board in front of her. She puts the knife aside. “Measuring cup,” she intones, and begins to flip an invisible liquid into the face of an invisible person. “Nutcracker,” she says, holding up the new implement and snapping it together sharply three or four times before setting it down.

Ouch. “Semiotics of the Kitchen” (1975), one of five short performance pieces produced and filmed by Lynda Begler, shows how ordinary kitchen implements express a woman’s rage, or what Betty Friedan famously called “the problem that has no name.” But Friedan – and other feminist writers – are considerably better known than the many female visual artists who worked for women’s liberation from 1965 on. If you are interested in an understudied, and dramatic, cultural history of second wave feminism, run – do not walk – to see “WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution,” an exhibit at P.S. 1 in Long Island City, New York.

Curated by Connie Butler, WACK! represents 120 artists, collectives and collaborations in an international mixed media display that stretches from the mid-1960’s into the 1980’s, with the bulk of the exhibits concentrated in the years that defined movement feminism, 1966 through 1975. Collectively, and emphasizing images of domestic objects that defined bourgeois women’s existence during the late Cold War, the exhibit centers a series of critical questions that were central to feminist consciousness raising as it distinguished itself from other New Left movements. How does women’s oppression become visible in normal and everyday settings? Under what conditions does domestic patriarchy intersect with other oppressions, such as racism and American imperialism? What do women look like – and how would we know, when images generated by consumer culture construct “womanhood” as an artifact of cosmetic and commercial perfection?

Reading the exhibit as a historian of political feminism, and not as a historian of art, I was nevertheless struck at how difficult it was for these women to be perceived as artists at all when the gritty masculinity of the Cedar Tavern crowd in downtown New York dominated the gallery scene in these years. Entering the exhibit on the first floor, I was immediately drawn to Mary Beth Edelson’s “Some Living Women Artists” (1972), a photo collage in which a spoof of the Last Supper (Georgia O’Keefe’s head placed on Jesus’ body, surrounded on either side by twelve “apostles” that include Lee Krasner, Louise Bourgeois and Yoko Ono), is framed by miniature photographs of sixty, less well known, women artists. Further into the exhibit, Serbian performance artist Marina Abramovic’s silent film “Art Must Be Beautiful, Artist Must Be Beautiful” (1973) displays the dilemma of recognition for women artists, as Abramovic slashes at her thick, dark hair with a comb and brush for fourteen and a half minutes. Sometimes scraping her face and yanking at herself viciously in this “beautifying” effort, she obsessively mouths the title of the piece.

Even those with casual knowledge of the early years of women’s liberation will recognize one of its central themes, the critique of a consumer culture that urged women to perform a feminine role scripted by others. This later acquired a name, both among radical feminists and gay liberationists: “looksism,” something that women’s liberationists freed themselves from by throwing away girdles, bras, curling irons, make-up and shaving devices. Ann Newmarch’s photographic collage “Look Rich” (1975) centers a magazine clipping from a women’s magazine that urges women to “look rich” while on vacation, and to purchase expensive luggage, so that they can attract potential marriage partners. In block letters, the artist comments: “We must risk unlearning all those things that have kept us alive so long.” In “Beauty Knows No Pain” (1972), Martha Rosler cuts strategic holes in print advertisements for foundation garments and lingerie, inserting pictures of breasts and other body parts, so that the models blatantly display what these feminine garments are intended to both conceal and “sell” to men. Predictably, several exhibits – Ann Mendieta’s photographic series “Untitled (Glass on Body Imprints, 1972)” and Alice Neel’s oil on canvas portrait “Margaret Evans, 1978” – address this theme by showing women’ naked bodies in their most unflattering light, the first distorted by the pressure of glass against skin and hair, and the second distorted naturally by the final stages of pregnancy.

In another register, Betye Saar’s “The Liberation of Aunt Jemima” (1972), one of the few pieces by a black artist in the collection, shows a raised plastic cartoon “Mammy” doll, positioned in front of a background made from multiple pictures of a more comely, domesticated “Jemima” cut from the pancake box. A broom in her right hand, “Jemima” carries a rifle in her left: under one armpit is a pistol, and inset into her capacious skirt is a portrait of yet a third “Jemima,” holding a particularly anxious-looking white baby. Rising up in front of the whole collage is a brown fist, raised in a black power salute.

Although the exhibit offers much to think about, a great deal of it can be best appreciated as a commentary on a time when, as Ruth Rosen has put it, “The world turned upside down.” One series, however, bridged past and present for me by its insistence that prosperity at “home” is inevitably linked to a violent foreign policy: Rosler’s series of collages (1967-72) that contrast everyday household scenes with a parallel world of U.S. imperialism in Viet Nam. In “Red Stripe Kitchen,” two GI’s are rummaging through a suburban American kitchen, one peering around a doorjamb, perhaps looking for insurgents; the other is thoughtfully removing a rocket from a kitchen cupboard, as if it were a favorite chafing dish. In another brightly-colored collage, an American woman in a seductive pose is reflected in a bedroom mirror, but out the window and on television we can see artillery firing in black and white. In a third, a napalmed Vietnamese woman cradles her baby in her arms as she runs through a bright, sunny living room carpeted in white shag. Yet another features a photograph of a brick suburban ranch house; on the curb, a private soldier pauses in between firefights for a cigarette break.

The exhibit, in its insistence that viewers question the “normal” – or the connections between what we consider normal and the violence to self and other that the normal conceals, reinforced the intellectual links in my mind between second wave feminist theory and queer theory. But the exhibit also does the important work of linking feminism to a variety of New Left movements, and demonstrates visually how much intellectual exchange there was between feminism and other political impulses, even as feminist activists began to narrow their focus to violence against women by the mid-1970’s. As the 1969 proposal Mierle Laderman Okeles performance piece “Washing/Tracks/Maintenance” (1973), in which she described how she would live and clean publicly every day in a gallery, asked: “after the revolution, who’s going to pick up the garbage Monday morning?”

Since the revolution didn’t come, we never got to find out – although we could probably guess, which was Okeles’ point. But for historians who are interested in what a lesser-known feature of the women’s movement looked like, this exhibit is a gem: don’t miss it.

“WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution” is at P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center, 22-25 Jackson Ave. at 46th Ave., Long Island City, New York, 11101, through May 12. Open 12-6, Thursday – Monday. Admission is $5.00.


Patricia Martin said...

First of all, I just stumbled onto your blog and wondered why I hadn't found you sooner. Your posts are funny, candid and informative.
I work in marketing and advertising, and I pose this question: Does the review of feminist history find an audience with young RenGen females? In my boutique agency, run by women, the younger generation voted for Obama, believes they were born equal, and see the "tenured" females at the firm as tough business broads who can't shake the chips off their shoulders.

I realize that my generation of feminists were the first to enter the work force en masse in roles other than secretarial. So of course male peers handed us grunt work, denied us advancement and treated us like Beta-females to their Alph-male roles. (Was it vastly different in higher ed?)

They got away with it because, err, well, there is such a thing as a male mystique. Men are bigger, louder and hence more threatening. Not brighter, harder working, and more adaptive.(Being right about this doesn't make me feel any better.)

I read your blog and wondered to myself: is it time to stop hating men?
Patricia Martin

Debrah said...

" it time to stop hating men?"

A question tailor-made for Lorena Bobbit.

studio said...

hello, I totally agree about sites like RateMyProfessor. Student evals gone totally mad, into a tool of administrators and political enemies.
However, I want to offer some corrections to your post on Wack of April 21st. First Iknow of no artist named Lynda Bengler, but rather Lynda Benglis. Second, the video you describe, Semiotics of the Kitchen, is by Martha Rosler, the same person whose photomontages you write about and who did the cover you reproduce. That is, me.

studio said...

oh, sorry... forgot. it's Mierle Laderman Ukeles, not Okeles.
Otherwise, of course, I appreciate your thoughtful post.