Journal Part 2

A great WordPress.com site

Month: December, 2012

Sara Cooper, “Burning Down the Canon: Queer Family and Queer Text in Flaming Iguanas”

Cooper’s essay on Lopez’ queer aesthetic highlighted the multiple instances of deconstruction of the family, both in terms of the traditional American conception thereof as well as Lopez’ own queer family structure. As the article points out, Lopez often and easily puts the idealized  white, heterosexual, nuclear family into sharp relief, effectively debunking the notion of the family unit as stable and impenetrable, so long as it does not stray too far from the “Leave it to Beaver” conception of “normal.” Yet this myth has been debunked many times, as early as the fifties by shows such as the Honeymooners, and in a sense Lopez only repeats what other commentators have already said, she just uses a different language.

To me, the more interesting parts of her story occurred during her exploration and critique of the queer aspects of her home life and sexuality, which she both glorifies and normalizes, sometimes doing both at once. The article points to a pivotal moment in Tomato’s quest to realize her lesbian identity, during which she sleeps with the experienced older lesbian Hodie, yet does not feel transformed by the experience. In this one short scene she begins by idealizing what she sees as a rebellious attack against the norm and the potential to become a stereotypical lesbian archetype through Hodie, something which she both fears and desires. Yet by the end of it she has rejected her previous urge to fit neatly into one category and instead insists on embracing all parts of herself and feeling liberated in her new contradictory, multifaceted identity. Cooper summarizes this change in perspective, writing that: “Queer family does not admit the restraints even of an alternative or subculture, and the protagonist does not shy away from claiming her own unique identity, even when that transgresses the limitations implied by any externally-conceived label. Quite the opposite, she is delighted to ignore societal norms, or better, to taunt those around her (especially the reader) by going one step further.” Here Lopez does what few authors before her have done: she acknowledges the restraints and norms within subcultures and asserts the idea that one should not need to live by these restrictions, or by any restrictions for that matter. Her concept of identity rejects the idea of belonging to a specific place, and being defined by a single culture, even if that culture formed as a space of rebellion against conventional society. She promotes an entirely individualistic take on identity, similar to Judith Butler’s who, like Lopez, sees identity as less of a concret and permanent aspect of the self, but as something extremely maleable that changes based on however and whatever we choose to express on any given day. Cooper’s article reveals the complex theory hidden within Lopez’ text and as a result provides evidence of an important and challenging text deserving of a more prominent place in the literary canon.

Who Does She Think She Is?

While exploring the lives of the five artists in “Who Does She Think She Is,” the movie kept returning to the private family lives of each of the women, and for almost all of them, uncovers the reality of divorce, or fundamental flaw in the relationship between the women and their husbands. This struck me as odd, but not because I was surprised by their husband’s resistance to their unconventional and time consuming occupations. This fear of empowered women and uncertainty regarding their place in the marriage was one of the central elements to the backlash against all three waves of feminism. Rather, I was confused as to why, in the present day, divorce amongst female artists would be considered an “epidemic.” Such a trend does not get brought up nearly as much with reagards to other professional women such as surgeons, lawyers, teachers etc, who all have equally, if not more time consuming careers than those of women artists. When talking about these women most media sources refer to them in the abstract: they ask if women can have it all not “women surgeons” or “women lawyers.” Out of all the career choices a women can make, everything I have read or watched points to the life of an artist as the most isolating. The movie never really explores what makes this job unique as it focuses more on the women themselves and their art, which I personally have no problem with. However I still would like to someday find an answer to this question so that I’m not left with only my assumptions, which point to the tendency of women artists to be possessing of radical thought and unconventional ways of living, which openly reject the traditional standards and values of the American nuclear family. Of course, as the movie showed, exceptions such as Camille Musser and Janis Wunderlich exist so this theory may not be altogether accurate. In the future I will try to seek out a definite answer as I think the conclusions will probably be more interesting and complex than what I can gather with only a small glance into the world of the established woman artist.

Film in class: Women, Art, Revolution [Lynn Hershman, 2011]

Before “Women, Art, Revolution,” the only knowledge I had of the seventies feminist art wave came from plates of work by artists such as Judy Chicago and Ana Mendieta, as well as brief mentions of the movement in my art history classes. I had never taken an extensive look at this particular element of the second wave feminist movement until now. After watching the film I wish I had looked more deeply into the movement earlier, as it has put so much of modern day work by women artists into context. The artists I am familiar with: women like Kara Walker who creates explicit, disturbing paper cutouts depicting plantation life in the pre-Civil War South, or Catherine Opie who explores gender identity on her own body by carving scenes reflective of her relationships and gender expression into her skin, probably would not be the established artists they are today had it not been for the women in the film. The very foundations of feminist art and the beginnings of an interweaving of feminist and racial commentary in various mediums began to happen within this movement, so, watching the process by which these women found their own art identity and clashed with the patriarchal boundaries that often barred them from getting even a basic level of support for their work was both a fascinating and emotionally exhausting experience. Overall however, the film left me with a sense of pride in their perseverance and an affirmation of belief that socially transgressive women such as these should feature more prominently in Contemporary art history texts as well as classroom discussion of art during this period. They revolutionized the very idea of art, so I believe the means by which we learn about art must undergo a revolution as well in the classroom and everywhere else.

Erika Lopez, Flaming Iguanas: An All-Girl Road Novel Thing

Erika Lopez’ honest, humor, and colloquial yet assertive voice, for me, plays an incredibly important role in the novel as it allows her to communicate complicated ideas on gender, race, and realizing one’s identity in a way that many girls who feel misunderstood by mainstream society can relate to, regardless of whether they have taken a gender studies class or not. Throughout the whole book in fact, she brings up thoughts and feelings many girls, especially of my generation have had and writes about them as if writing a diary entry, yet constantly analyzes her action, bringing to light new insights on her ever shifting identity. Her meditations on race for example reflect a kind of confusion of place, or rather, of where she belongs culturally and socially that women of color can especially relate to. Her thoughts on the subject become extremely subversive, such as when she expresses her desire to “speak in twang and belong to the KKK. Experience the brotherhood and simplicity of opinions.” (pg. 28) This need for belonging takes on an extreme, emotive quality, and in a way serve as the colorful reflection of the many essays and journals written on racial dynamics within patriarchal systems that put her experiences and experiences like hers into theories and thesis statements. This is not to say that journals of this type don’t have a purpose. They have a way of articulating information that allows people to distance themselves from damaging social constructs, analyze them, and invent ways of combating these harmful structures as well as understand them better. Yet for the most part many of these sources for political enlightenment remain out of reach for those not heavily involved in academia. Many may not even have the chance to go to a school where such texts can be taught and dissected in the classroom, thus, while effective, such sources of information have a very limited audience. Authors like Lopez provide a unique service to her many women, minorities, and queers who read her books and society overall: she gives them the tools to discuss and validate their feelings towards their families, friends, communities, and their own identities. She encourages honesty and the desire to become a self-actualized human beings despite America’s habit of disapproving that which does not fit within the norm. Most importantly, she demonstrates bravery in the face of confusion and uncertainty about one’s place in the world, and I believe that her works can contribute directly to a dramatic increase in self-assured young women both able and willing to challenge the constructs they have long since outgrown.

Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games

The popularity and increasingly wide-spread exposure given to the Hunger Games has very exciting and positive implications for the future of various forms of media, especially literature, directed at young girls. Hunger Games does not simply have a “strong female protagonist” in the sense that the female lead does not display emotions, can physically hold her own in a fight, and generally imitates typically masculine actions and mannerisms. Instead, Katniss has been given three-dimensional, compelling and relatable characteristics and has not been forced to act according to a restrictive and unrealistic gender binary. In other words, Collins wrote Katniss without thinking of her primarily as a girl, but as a hardened survivor, a loving and supportive sister, and a child of a broken home who has experienced loss, but deals with said loss as best she can. As a result, she has both “masculine” and “feminine” characteristics, all of which make sense for her personality and brutal position in life. For example, Collins early on in the novel establishes Katniss’ physical strength and intelligence by describing her skill as a hunter and the natural aptitude she’s had for it since birth. She also draws attention to her taciturn nature, a trait coded as masculine, but which makes sense given that for most of her life she has had to repress her own emotions to a certain extent in order to provide for her much younger sister and her incapacitated mother. Yet this willingness to provide for her family both practically and emotionally make her a much more maternal figure than she lets on. In addition the fact that she sacrifices herself for her sister-out of duty, but much more out of love-exemplify a loving and nurturing “feminine” side to her as well. I find Collin’s refusal to characterize Katniss as overwhelmingly male or female refreshing, as it normalizes the idea that girls, do not need to perform actions coded as feminine exclusively in order to feel secure in their identities. Through Katniss, Collins does something books like Twilight fail to do: she acknowledges girls and women as human beings whose personalities, interests and capabilities are not limited by their sex or gender, and that no template for a “proper” girl exists.

In addition, Collins expresses a preference for girls and boys that do not fit neatly into society’s template for either gender. All the main characters-the ones Collins intended the audience to relate to-have a mixture of male and female characteristics like Katniss. Peeta for example, despite his gender clearly possesses a nurturing instinct that he displays early on in the novel by providing bread to a young, starving Katniss despite the harsh consequences he later faces. Yet he also has a large, “masculine” build and great amount of physical strength, making him somewhat of an ideal candidate for a brutal survival game such as the Hunger Games. Katniss and Peeta’s combined ability to collaborate and emphasize with each other as well as their physical and tactical skills allow them to survive conditions of extreme violence and emotional stress. Characters like Mrs. Evergreen however, who Collins portrays as extremely feminine, loses all ability to function or take care of her children after her husband dies. She appears to embody traditional notions of femininity to the extreme: emotionally delicate, frail, and incapable of taking care of herself or others unless she has a man to rely on. Through her contrast of Katniss and her mother, Collins supports a more liberated idea of femininity for girls, one not restricted by traditional ideals and can incorporate traditionally masculine traits without compromising one’s identity as a girl or woman.

Valerie Smith, “Abundant Evidence: Black Women Artists of the 1960s and 1970s” [WACK!: Art and the Feminist Revolution, ed. Lisa Mark, pp. 401-13]

I really appreciated Valerie Smith’s take on black woman artists and her focus on the themes, cultural references, and artistic forms in their art that distinguished it from mainstream feminist art. It did not surprise me that a lot of black feminist art from the beginning of the second wave feminist movement focused largely on black families and the “ideal” male-female black pairing. Then as now mainstream society often saw black relationships as inherently dis-functional and thought of male-female bonds between black people as lacking in strength or stability for a number of reasons all stemming from outdated race-based assumptions about blacks as a people. Combating this must have been a priority for many of these women artists just breaking through into the art world and I’m glad they did. However, I am also glad that black feminist art has, since then become much more nuanced and accepting of a wider variety of identities. Artists such as Rotimi-Fani-Kayode for example, explores both his black identity and gay male identity in his work and incorporates related themes such as colonialism as well. His approach does not so much glorify those like him, as did early black feminist art, but provides insights into his own identity and his own distinct interpretation of himself and the world in an artistically challenging way. While his work is not directly related to feminism, Kayode may not have become as prominent an artist as he is today if not for the contributions black feminist artists both from the original black art movement in the seventies and contributions made by artists decades after. The feminist and civil rights movement combined opened up a whole new world artistically, which, I think can continue to grow and diversify in an unlimited number of ways.

Lisa Gail Collins, “Economies of the Flesh: Representing the Black Female Body in Art” [from The Art of History: African-American Women Artists Engage the Past, by, pp. 37-63]

Collin’s recounting of the long history of exploitation of black female bodies does a good job of exploring the many dilemmas black woman artists face when portraying their bodies through art. As the essay points out, reclaiming black female bodies presents an incredible challenge due to the fact that America as well as countless other countries enslaved said bodies for centuries, and after this period of enslavement, clung to the negative and extremely damaging preconceptions about black people and their bodies. Therefore I can understand Edmonia Lewis’ decision to portray the emancipated black girl in “Forever Free” as completely asexual both in her kneeling pose that hides her womanly form and in her odd and out of place anglo-European features which takes her outside context of the hyper-sexualized black body by removing her black features entirely. Although I think, especially when placed in a modern-day context, that this method of protecting the image of black women through erasure of our features ultimately causes more problems than it solves, finding a proper solution during that time must have seemed near impossible. Even Josephine Baker who proudly embraced her body and played with typical European assumptions of blacks as inherently more animalistic and sexual than whites in a tongue-in-cheek manner contributed to the false perceptions of black women. Despite this I don’t see Baker as an “enemy” or “traitor”: on the contrary I have always admired her for her ambition, contribution to the Civil Rights movement, and generally energetic and playful persona that she created for herself. However, her performances do not exist in a vacuum, and as a result, performances such as the famous”banana dance” were highly evocative of harmful stereotypes that persist today.

Honestly I can’t say for sure that a definite solution to the problems surrounding the black female body in art exists. History has proven that neither denying the existence of our features nor emphasizing and reclaiming them has worked to completely dismantle the oppressive patriarchal standards that still define the mainstream perception of blackness. In addition considering the art world’s inaccesible nature even works by Kara Walker’s or Lyle Ashton Harris can only do so much to combat these stereotypes. However, I do think more positive, realistic portrayals of black women and black women’s sexuality in more mainstream forms of entertainment such as television, movies, etc. can have an overall positive effect on society as has been proven with shows like The Cosby Show and A Different World. A resurgence of that trend of story-lines focused on black or minority characters in general could begin to make slow but steady steps towards change and ultimately make it easier for black women artists to depict their bodies in any way they want without fear of becoming trapped in outdated and racist projections from society.

Laura Cottingham, “Eating from the “Dinner Party” Plates and other myths, metaphors and moments of lesbian enunciation and its art movement [from Seeing Through the Seventies: Feminism and Art, pp. 133-160

First hand experiences with exclusion and feelings of mistrust from second wave feminist communities are neither new nor surprising. In her article Cottingham repeatedly points out the extremely problematic idea of an overriding unity despite different cultural and racial backgrounds as well as differences in sexuality or one’s biological sex. She exemplifies this problem in a somewhat ironic way by bringing up the experience of one woman quoted as saying: “I observed a number of our organizations grow and then fall apart. This collapse occurred for a number of reasons” such as “disruptions” by “transsexual men claiming a right to lesbian space.” (pg. 141) Through this quote Cottingham unintentionally reveals bigotry of second wave feminism against transsexual men who most likely identified as women, yet were not taken seriously by their peers due to their sex. Such prejudice was so ingrained in the movement that many women, even women who had experienced a feeling of isolation within that group, lacked a full awareness of it. It does not surprise me then that lesbian artists with first hand experience of bigotry within a movement that supposedly accepted all women would have a tendency to form very different narratives about sexuality and gender in their works than mainstream feminists.

Cottingham compares the works of Judy Chicago and Tee Corine, the latter being a lesbian, as an example of the distinction between the artistic approaches of two women of different social classes making what they see as feminist work. Chicago, as a heterosexual woman who gained a firm spot in both feminist circles and the art world, shows preference for exaggerated, metaphorical representations of vaginas that, despite the subject matter, conformed somewhat more to the expectations of an industry still very uncomfortable with more blunt, less abstract depictions of feminine imagery. I imagine the Corine’s work, which depicted vaginas much more explicitly probably approached her work from the perspective of someone expecting rejection, or rather misrepresentation from all sides and thus wanted to reclaim her sex and sexuality in the most direct, unambiguous way possible. Unlike Chicago, Corine probably could not find a safe space for her work even within the feminist community, so for her, coding as aggressively as Chicago often did must not have seemed like an option. Corine, nor any lesbian artist should never have had to feel restricted in any way with regards to their art, yet due to the heavy atmosphere of intolerance hanging over the movement, many lesbian artists probably did feel this way often, and their works, unintentionally or not, became altered as a result. While the feminist movement has grown significantly since the seventies, the necessary distinctions made between lesbian art and feminist art during the time remain as a stark reminder that feminism, to me at least, needs to continually look at its past mistakes and evolve past them to becomes a truly all inclusive, non-discriminatory movement that can make positive changes in the lives of all women.

Amelia Jones, “The Sexual Politics of the Dinner Party: A Critical Context” [from Reclaiming Female Agency: Feminist Art History After Postmodernism, ed. Norma Broude and Mary Garrard, pp. 409-433]

Controversy surrounding “The Dinner Party” most likely did not surprise Judy Chicago nor anyone else in the feminist art scene, yet the majority of disapproval coming from male critics reveals a contradictory amalgamation of ideals that, for me at least, surprised me in its inconsistency. The majority of the attacks focus on two main complaints: the alleged lack of focus on formal elements of the piece and the emphasis on “vulgarity” in the form of the sculpted or painted labias. The first criticism stems from fear of what Jones describes as the “threat to the modernist system of determining value,” (pg. 414) a system which decries the literal, personal aesthetic in favor of distancing oneself from anything visually pleasing and focusing purely on formal elements of a piece.  The flaw in these criticisms lies in the fact that they ignore Chicago’s referencing and careful dismantling of the art world’s long tradition of depicting female genitalia as “a locus of objectification.” (pg. 417) In a move that at times has been taken too literally, Chicago uses the labia as the visual centerpiece of the table, yet does not ascribe to it the same essentialism the male artists of the past almost always tried to do when evoking female sexual imagery. Instead, she uses a diverse array of patterns, colors, shapes and forms to suggest the diversity of ethnicity, nationality, class etc., and depict each woman as an individual whose lives were each significant in a unique way. In this manner she implies that their shared biology alone united the celebrated women guests. Chicago re-appropriates hyper-sexual feminine imagery and turns it into a positive symbol of unity and achievement, while at the same time respecting the individuality of the women represented and their unique cultural heritages. In short, she acknowledges their subjectivity and thus makes an outright statement of rebellion against the objectification of female forms in the art world. So to say “The Dinner Party” is kitsch, populist, and trite ignores Chicago’s thorough understanding of the work that came before her and the artistic intelligence necessary to reclaim the highly politicized and misrepresented imagery she displays in her piece.

With this understanding, it becomes clear that the vulgarity charges stem solely from the unwillingness of modernist, primarily male artists to acknowledge the perspectives of those who disagree with the established method of producing “high art” and fear of letting go of the notion of artistic “purity.” Jones raises an interesting point when she interprets the objections to the sexual imagery as an angry reaction against the undermining of “the (male) modernist critic’s belief in the propriety of the phallus as the proper symbol of creative impulse.” (pg. 414) Combined with the misinformed idea that purity in any sense of the word can be applied to certain art strategies, Jones implies that male critics of Dinner Party so strongly associated the phallus as “pure” that the vulva, in their minds, becomes impure, pornographic, or trivial in some way. Thus the very inclusion of such obviously female imagery shook the very foundation of their idea of art. While Chicago’s “The Dinner Party” may have been problematic in some ways, its primary goal of establishing a new, more female centric and overall more accepting set of standards for the art world definitely met with a measure of success.