Journal Part 2

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Month: November, 2012

Norma Broude and Mary Garrard, “Conversations with Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro” [from The Power of Feminist Art: The American Movement of the 1970s, History and Impact, Broude & Garrard, eds., pp. 66-85]

Judy Chicago’s discussion of “coding” in the art world summarized one of the greatest challenges women and minority artists often have to struggle with their whole careers. I agree with Shapiro that the act of coding in itself doesn’t have an inherently negative effect on ones work. As she says, coding can help artists learn about “the formal language of art,” (pg. 70) the understanding of which can become useful for any artist’s work. However, many woman artists don’t have a choice in whether they use coding to hide references to their personal lives or not. In the art world, especially during Chicago’s time, the industry would not take women artists seriously due to their gender, or, even if the gender of the artist was not immediately revealed the art itself could face rejection if it appeared too “feminine.” Thus to gain any sort of attention or make a living off one’s art, hiding the true significance of it became necessary. The discussion of codes in the article helped put “The Dinner Party” in a different perspective for me. As one of the few widely recognized and seriously considered pieces that focused on women and the biological markers of femininity, Chicago’s piece, intentionally or not, became a representative of all female centric work in the mainstream despite the fact that Chicago had many peers working around the same time as her and making great contributions to the 70s feminist art scene. However works by artists such as Ana Mendieta, Howardena Pindell, and Carolee Schneemann carried undeniably gendered overtones from the beginning. Unlike Chicago they did not code the majority of their works as gender neutral while suppressing the female centric message in an effort to legitimize their art in the face of the mainstream art industry. As a result, said industry never allotted them the same level of attention and esteem that Chicago got. Chicago stated herself that “my struggle as an artist in the seventies grew out of an effort to put together the sophisticated formal language of contemporary art with the rather raw and unexpressed subculture I wanted to begin to deal with” and that she had internalized the idea that her true forms were “repugnant.”(pg. 70) In addition she remarks that “the artist’s submission to this code allows art to be bought and sold like pork bellies in a market and manipulated as commodities.” Therefore through a combination of suppressing her “natural forms” and focusing primarily on the formal aspects of her piece, Chicago became a well respected artist within the art world despite a desire to make overtly feminist pieces as she did with the dinner party. It follows then that because she had already managed to achieved a certain level of fame in the mainstream art world, the Dinner Party stood out amongst all other artworks made by feminist artists during that time as the single defining piece of the movement. As with any piece presented in this way, other artists with different visual languages and different ideas as to presenting a truly empowering feminine narrative had issues with the piece ranging from its explicit focus on vaginas, which some believed placed too much emphasis on sexual organs as the defining aspect of womanhood, to the presentation of the plates representing women of color, which some believed did not represent them with the same leve of respect as the other women revolutionaries. For me however all this speaks to a need for a redefinition of “real” art. Coding should not be a requirement of success, and, if more literal or honest work became more widely accepted, the art world could gain many new challenging, compelling works by women  artists.

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The Guerilla Girls’ Bedside Companion to the History of Western Art, “Introduction and Conclusion” [from The Feminism and Visual Culture Reader, Amelia Jones, ed., pp. 349-353]

I greatly appreciated the Guerilla Girls recognition of the false assumption that a “clear line of achievement” exists in art history and the art world tendency to reduce “centuries of artistic output,” to the accomplishments of a few, usually white, usually male artists. For museums especially this has struck me not only disingenuous, but as a contributing factor to the severe lack of women and minorities who feel comfortable and confident enough to make an attempt at breaking into the art world themselves. Galleries and museums have always had an easy time excluding both these groups from their showcases of great art in America, but, from experience I know that seeing oneself represented in the art world, or really any profession greatly reduces the chance that one will feel a sense of pre-emptive inadequacy before even considering pursuing art as a career choice. In addition normalizing the presence of voices form outside the traditional art canon allows for more innovation and creative exploration within the art world. I have always had a problem with the art scene’s self containment and insistence on looking to the past to the point of making pieces whose only function lies in replicating what has already been done. If the scene made more of an effort to accept contributions from those that have been marginalized in the past, it could gain a fresh perspective set firmly in the present and looking towards the future, that would reinvigorate it with new ideas and well as make art in general more accesible to the public. Taking a strong stance against the overwhelming preference for white male artist would not only fulfill a much needed social obligation, but would set the art world on the path towards innovation and gradually make it culturally relevant again.

Rory Dicker, “Second Wave Feminism: Seeking Liberation and Equality,” from A History of U.S. Feminisms, pp. 57-103

Rory Dicker’s summary of second wave feminism surprised me in its willingness to discuss the internal conflict and eventual fracturing of the movement the plagued every feminist platform including seemingly secure organizations such as NOW. Specifically Dicker addresses an attempt, shared by the first and second wave both, to create a single unifying female identity despite the need for a wide variety of initiatives to address distinct needs from different social spheres. I like, for example, that she addressed the break within NOW over abortion policy and the still fairly conservative attitude of many feminists regarding reproductive rights. Nevertheless I wished she had drawn more attention to the histories of women that lacked the privileges of white, heterosexual middle class feminists and adressed the need for intersectionality in feminism. For example Dicker discusses Betty Friedan in depth and provides numerous descriptions of her contributions to NOW and the feminist movement in general. Yet she fails to acknowledge (in this chapter anyway) her problematic views towards lesbians, who she didn’t think of as an important part of second wave feminism due to the notion that their homosexuality and gender were two completely separate issues that needed to be talked about separately. The history of Gay and queer women in general with regards to the fight for civil liberties, manifested itself in very unique ways as a result of this exclusion, but due to the focus on mainstream feminism, Dicker neglected to explore this ongoing and important chapter in feminist history. Discussing it more in depth would have allowed her to segway more easily into an analysis of the intersectional feminist politics of the third wave which, focuses on awareness of past mistakes and ways to include all women regardless of race, class, biological sex, etc. into the movement, thus making feminism relevant in the lives of all women. The roots of third wave feminism can be difficult to track down but looking critically at the past can provide amble evidence for why some women felt excluded by second wave feminism, and why society still needs feminism today. In this way one can firmly establish that the third wave, did not occur in a vacuum and that the concerns of women of the third wave have a basis in not just logic but history as well. Often issues raised through third wave feminism, in my experience, have been trivialized as “overreactions” or demands for special treatment, thus even though Dicker brings certain flaws in feminist theory to the surface, society as a whole still seems to require a clear and unambiguous explanation as to why such issues remain relevant. And to accomplish this, those who  analyze and contribute to feminist theory must acknowledge all aspects of the past as objectively as possible.

Chapter 7: “The Public Self: Careers, Contacts, Reputations”

Each artist carefully constructed a public self as part of their invented mythology but, as with their paintings, each of these construction reflected some essential truth in their own lives that, for better or worse, became part of the public’s interpretation of them. Carr who throughout her career exhibited a fierce protectiveness towards her public persona, wrote a great deal of autobiographical journals which allowed her, to a certain extent, to maintain control over her identity. In her writings she often described herself as a resolute pioneer of nature and an outcast from modern society. Carr always had an appreciation for nature, one which she expressed through her adoption of various pets and living spaces in wild, largely isolated spaces. Thus the pioneer aspect of her self-description is unsurprising though overstated. Her status as an outsider however served a more practical purpose. As Udall describes it “Carr’s self-imposed alienation was becoming a vital component of her artistic will. To realize a unique artistic identity, she needed to feel different from others.” (pg. 282) Carr used her writings to create an alternate persona, and used this persona to bolster her own sense of individuality which would, in turn, allow her to feel more secure in her identity. Once she felt assured in herself, I imagine painting became much easier and much more enjoyable. Thus for Carr, her public self did not only function as a buffer between herself and an outside world that may not have understood her, but also as a means of giving herself the confidence to paint with purpose and conviction.

By contrast O’Keef did not find words nearly as useful as she never could express herself accurately without incorporating images in some way. I often struggle with this myself and as result I don’t often write creatively in my free time. For this reason I was impressed with O’Keef’s solution which involved  rearranging the layout, grammatical structure, and generally using each of her letters to form one of her landscapes.  O’Keef did not use writing to help build her identity, rather she forced writing itself to accommodate her way of thinking. In her writing O’Keef imposed her personality onto paper and breached the boundary between literary and visual art.

Like Carr, Khalo used writing as an expression of the self, but instead of creating an identity with writing, she used it as a means of recording her experiences, thoughts, and desires. Writings from her youth reveal her as unflinching in her descriptions of her most painful moments. In one entry she describes the surgical process by which her cast was made, in which she writes that “I feel suffocated, my lungs, my and my whole back hurt terribly; I can’t even touch my leg. I can hardly walk, let alone sleep.” (pg. 286) Khalo’s journals may have had a cathartic effect for her, especially during her bedridden day when painting, drawing and writing were her only avenues of escape from the intense physical pain. None of the three artists relied on writing in the same way they did painting but their journals and letters nevertheless contain significant insights into their personalities and the unique ways by which they faced down various trials in their lives.

Udall, Chapter 6: “Sexuality, Androgyny, and Personal Appearance”

In terms of androgyny Frida Khalo explored the concept more thoroughly in both her life and her work than either O’Keef or Carr. Whereas both O’Keef and Carr expressed attributes typically coded as masculine through their clothing and mannerisms, their work retains overwhelmingly feminine elements such as O’Keef’s egg symbolism in her painting Three Eggs in a Pink Dish, or Carr’s many depictions of trees which she thought of as female. Khalo however, due in part to her heavy interest in duality, a recurring theme in Aztec mythology, often embraced androgyny through her art and appearance. In paintings such as Self-Portrait with Monkey, Khalo presents both feminine and masculine traits: she puts her hair up in a very elaborate looking style: a long braid wrapped up in a type of bun, and also wears a necklace and some makeup. In addition, as with many of her portraits, she accentuates her slight mustache and unibrow, giving herself a more masculine face. In her everyday life she would also occasionally wear men’s suits “for emotional effect” (pg. 267) and would sometimes paint herself in men’s clothing in response to turbulent moments in her life. I’m not sure, but I assumed upon reading this that she used men’s clothing in these situations to symbolically adopt the emotional coldness of a man in order to withstand her own pain. Though the embracing of this binary way of thinking with regards to gender is problematic from a feminist perspective, I can see where this logic would come from, seeing as the concept of androgyny stems from established “male” and “female” roles that come together in one person. Yet Khalo’s works and lifestyle was nevertheless revolutionary for her time, and her androgyny played a large role in the formation of her artistic identity, which would inspire many woman artists that would come after her. Her androgyny serves as one of many examples of a problematic element of feminist discourse that nevertheless had a positive effect overall on society’s perception of gender.

Udall, Chapter 5: “The Spiritual Core”

Generally speaking I have no problem with each artist’s use of “the natural” in their paintings as a form of self expression, but the appropriation of native culture by Carr and O’Keef struck me as incredibly ignorant and a dehumanizing exercise in furthering cultural stereotypes. O’Keef claimed to have been searching for an “‘aboriginal Indian soul'” (pg. 55) yet all comments on Native culture by O’Keef contain a vague mysticism indicative of someone who has no understanding the various subcultures and intricacies of Native life yet has idealized it to the point of misrepresentation. Udall even implies O’Keef does this intentionally when she describes her painting of a Latino carved devotional image or bulto, entitled Wooden Virgin. She writes that the figure in the painting “has been emptied of historical context, refilled with nature. She is another example of a twentieth century artist naturalizing the cultural.” (pg. 238) Yet for a culture that has endured years of marginalization, removing the cultural aspects of an object, when done by someone outside of that culture such as O’Keef, only succeeds in trivializing of Latino and indigenous identities in America. She removes what America has already deemed “strange,” “insignificant,” or “primitive” and attempted to build up her own mythology, thus erasing the identities of a culture she has not even attempted to understand. Her mindset parallels colonist tendencies to take unfamiliar cultures and reduce them to parodies of themselves as a way of “othering” that which they don’t understand.

Carr also appropriates native culture in a more subtle yet equally damaging way. Udall does acknowledge and attempt to excuse this act of disrespect somewhat when she writes that: “Carr’s admiration for indigenous groups was based, admittedly, on limited experience, but she unabashedly called on her imagination to supplement her own scanty knowledge.” (pg. 246) She does not however address the fact that redesigning another’s beliefs to fit one’s own idea of their own culture, rather than educating oneself about the culture in question is extremely problematic. Her appropriation carries the implication that the actual native peoples which she claims to admire are not valuable enough in themselves, and that she needs to remake them in her image for them to be worthy of her art. Considering the long history of white colonists either invalidating, destroying, or misrepresenting native culture, her weaving together of “elements of native mysticism with a highly personal brand of Christianity” only serves as yet another addition to the highly damaging trend of Western European cultures exploiting those of indigenous peoples.  Out of the three artists only Khalo can claim an actual, substantive connection to the native culture of Mexico due to her Mexican heritage on her mother’s side. Interestingly she also incorporated alchemy in tandem with her usual Mexican mythological references in order to gain further knowledge on “arcane knowledge and occult spirituality.” (pg. 260) The combination of these two elements led her to create a complex and interesting set of visual elements that did not rely on the appropriation and misinterpretation of another’s culture. While all three artists have complex multi layered believes, I believe Khalo has a much more nuanced and informed understanding of the cultures she references, and as a result I take the spiritual elements in her paintings much more seriously than I do either Carr’s or O’Keef’s.

Udall, Chapter 4: “Private Spaces: The Artist in a Place of Her Own”

I knew before reading this chapter that each artist would use their own idea of the home as a central theme in their work, but I was surprised by O’Keef’s distancing of herself from the welcoming, spiritual concept of home that Carr and Kahlo more readily embrace. Udall quotes her as saying “where and how I have lived is unimportant. It is what I have done with where I have been that should be of interest.” (pg. 217) While Udall does note O’Keef’s great attention to her art-making spaces expressed since childhood, O’Keef seems to view these spaces as means of facilitating her art making process alone. The rural open environments she chose to live in as well as the spare yet meticulously sculpted spaces she worked in provided more of a pragmatic use than a spiritual one. They functioned as an ideal space for an introverted individual as they allowed her to work in a peaceful environment free of unnecessary visual or social distractions, making it easier to organize her thoughts and paint without inhibitions. Like O’Keef, Carr needed a certain degree of isolation in order to work yet her connection with her surroundings related much more to her need for spiritual fulfillment from nature and animals. Udall describes Carr as one who “treated her animals as children,” and that for Carr “barns were places of health, contentment, intimacy with nature and living things.” (209) And of course, one can also see Carr’s love of the Canadian wilderness and wildlife in her paintings which almost all focus on some aspect on her spiritual self within that natural and untouched environment. Carr’s relationship with nature grew so comfortable however, that unlike O’Keef, she felt she needed to leave Canada in order to further her education in art. For Carr, her safe space did not always directly facilitate her art making process,  it instead insulated her and provided her with a sense of peace that helped her deal with her at times turbulent life. Similarly Khalo’s homes, particularly Casa Azul, provided her with a stable space and escape from the negative aspects of her life. Khalo, perhaps more than either Carr or O’Keef made her home a reflection of her thoughts, feelings, and life as a whole. She treated the house itself like a painting, covering it in bright colors and filling it with pots, dishes, sculptures, and other works of art to create a lively visual experience. Other objects, such as the plaster corsets left over from previous surgeries were painted and subsequently displayed in rooms throughout the house as an even more personal expression of the self. Unlike Carr and O’Keef, Khalo was not afraid of expressing herself to the public even in her most private space. Her home always remained her own place of uninhibited creative freedom and peace of mind regardless of who was in it, something I think all three artists strove for, and achieved in their own ways.

Udall, Chapter 3: “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman”

I really enjoyed Udall’s exploration of the myth making instinct in all three artists and the experiences they each based their invented personas on. Udall notes that “each [artist] was sufficiently well off to ensure certain comforts and the leisure to pursue some degree of cultural attainment” (pg. 201) yet I found it interesting that despite these luxuries their fantasy personas did not solely embrace the privileged, comforting aspects of the their lives. In fact pain and lack of spiritual or emotional fulfillment played a large role in each of their constructed mythologies. Both Carr and O’Keef for example experienced a great deal of loneliness and isolation in their lives due to their eccentric personalities and decision to live as artists in a world that was far from ready to accomodate women that had ambitious carrer aspirations of any kind. Interestingly Carr’s feelings of isolation began long before she became an artist due to the high energy, “boyish” way she expressed herself as a child, which isolated her from her family. The persona she named “Small” and used in her writing pieces exaggerated the spontaneous, quick tempered, adventurous nature that she was admonished for when she was young. Her poems and other written pieces, therefore seem to act a means for her to express her childlike instincts without shame or fear of embarrassent in front of others.

O’Keef’s isolation stemmed mostly from her determination to prevent anything that might disrupt her career as an artist from playing a large role in her life. As a result she rarely allowed anyone into her inner circle, but instead “played the part of an artistic rebel who struggled alone to realize her vision.” (pg. 207) She embraced the idea of a “brooding artist,” going to far as to express surprise and disdain towards the idea of earning money from her paintings and becoming successful in the mainstream art world. Her performance required, to some extent, that she put up a barrier between herself and others, yet Udall implies that she used it to cope with the difficulties, romantic, professional or otherwise, inherent in the life of a woman artist during that time.

Udall mentions that while Carr and O’Keef’s emotional baggage stemmed partly from their own choices, Khalo could not choose to abstain from becoming a mother. Though she wanted to become a mother, her many miscarriages, likely a result from injuries sustained as a teenager, prevented her from fulfilling her wish. Khalo therefore chose to explore motherhood in her paintings: not just the mothering of children, but motherhood in a cosmic, spiritual sense.  Through painting, Khalo could explore her own maternal instincts, and reach out to those that mothered her, such as the Mexican nannies whose faces she could never remember, but who she sees as essential maternal figures in her life. The mythology she built around herself allowed her to experience the spiritual experience of motherhood without the physical act of giving birth. Though all three women at times felt isolated or unfulfilled, they used their creative energies to feed those needs in ways that allowed them to pursue their artistic ambitions as well.