Feminist Art, Feminist History, and Public History: Friction in the Archives?

While on vacation last week, I had a chance to visit the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco with a friend who’s a student at the San Francisco Art Institute.  (Sorry–no photos available!)  I had been mulling over a post on the exhibition we saw, which is called The Way That We Rhyme:  Women, Art, & PoliticsMy friend has a Ph.D. and taught feminist philosophy for several years, and our shared interest in feminist issues (historically and in the world today) is how we met and bonded.  Now today, Tenured Radical has a post raving about a similar-sounding exhibition in New York called WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution at P.S. 1.  So, thanks to TR’s initiative (also cross-posted at her new location, Cliopatria), it seems like a good opportunity to draw some attention to these efforts to engage both feminist art and the history of feminist activism that seems to be the raison d’être of both of these exhibitions.

Oh, and have you heard about that senior Aliza Shvarts’s “Abortion Art” thesis at Yale that everyone was frothing about late last week?  Yale claims that the supposed abortions were a “creative fiction” in the service of her performance art, but the student has stuck to her story and published this explanation of the ideas behind her repeated self-insemination and medical abortion.  From her statement, I get what she’s doing politically, but I really don’t see the artistry in her political expression.

This was my reaction to The Way That We Rhyme, too.  It was interesting and it documented some important moments in the history of “second-wave” feminism, but I was unclear where exactly the art was.  (Just to be clear:  I know a little art history but I’m no art critic, and I live at a distance from contemporary art galleries and museums, so my friend had to fill me in on some of the new trends in art.  So, it’s quite possible that my reaction is a result of me being untutored and unsophisticated.  Heck, I just recently took down the “Big Eye” pictures in my bedroom–example on the right.)  From what my friend said, the trends on display here were that art is now anti-aesthetic and seem to fetishize “outsider”-style art.  So, much of The Way That We Rhyme was either video, installations that involved found objects, and needlecrafts (knitting in particular), and usually two out of three.  There were no paintings and no drawings, although I think some paint and drawn images were used in some of the installations. 

Most interestingly, many of the installations were explicitly historical, and it made me wonder how exactly a reasonably creative contemporary public historian’s approach to the materials and subject matter would differ, if at all, from the artists’ installations.  One of the featured installations was literally of an archive of the art of two second-wave generation artists.  The archive boxes were stacked up on steel shelves right on the gallery wall, and interspersed between the boxes were about a dozen video screens (with headphones attached for your listening pleasure) showing different interviews with Gen-X and Gen-Y women artists leafing through and commenting on various items they found in the said archives.  Another display was simply some old issues of a feminist ‘zine from the 1980s laid out on a wooden table and secured by chains to the table so that they didn’t walk away.  Aside from the hatchet prankishly stuck in the tabletop, it was your basic method of display at even the sleepiest small-town historical society, a “featured publications from our collections”-type display.  Another installation was based on an archive of letters written in the 1960s and early 1970s by women seeking information about how to procure a safe abortion.  It featured inartful photocopies of the letters arranged on the walls of the installation, and a TV set showing videos of actresses reading the same letters.  Where, exactly, was the artist’s intervention in presenting these archival sources?  I was much more engaged as a historian than I was impressed by the artistry of it all.  Many of the installations were clever–but I didn’t necessarily think they were art.

Based on the Radical’s description of the WACK! exhibition, that show sounds much more like an exploration of the art of second-wave feminism, based as it is on art by women artists who achieved reknown back in the day, whereas The Way That We Rhyme is more of an exploration of second- and third-wave feminism by contemporary artists.  I’m not entirely sure of what to make of Aliza Shvarts’s “Abortion Art” project, other than to say that it’s irrelevant to me whether or not the blood she used included aborted embryos or not–the project itself sounds pretty silly and derivative.  But, the spectacle she created was a brilliant exercise in the art of drawing attention to oneself as a so-called artist.  Was the whole thing a meta-meta commentary on the abortion outrage machine that happily ginned itself up when the story broke, or on the world of contemporary art, or both?  Again, I get (and share) the politics.  But is it art…?

0 thoughts on “Feminist Art, Feminist History, and Public History: Friction in the Archives?

  1. “In an interview for the article in Thursday’s News, Shvarts explained that the goal of her exhibition was to spark conversation and debate about the relationship between art and the human body. She said her endeavor was not conceived with any “shock value” in mind”

    Maybe I’m weak- but the thought of seeing someone’s menstrual/miscarriage blood on display is most definitely shocking.
    I’m not sure that that the female body’s ability to rid itself of a fetus is art~ but the human body has inspired many artists~ I suppose one could view this as just another function of the body that is also inspiring.
    I do agree with most of the critics though, her work doesn’t seem to be creating a conversation about the “relationship between are and the human body” but rather one about her mental stability and morality.
    Can’t wait to have an argument with some pro-life nutter who will happily use this against those of us who are pro-choice.


  2. Nicole–good points. This also goes to the whole issue of how the work of male artists (frequently, not always) inspires conversations about art, not themselves, but women’s art is viewed as parochial, narrow, or self-referential, and not about larger themes or ideas.


  3. Historiann—I completely agree that female artists have been traditionally viewed as parochial, narrow, and self-referential as you put it—but I think that if a male
    were to say save and document nocturnal emissions for nine months in an attempt to explore the relationship between the human body and art, the media would think him similarly disturbed. I know this isn’t exact comparison, but I think that it demonstrates how flippantly this young women views reproduction. And unfortunately, by acting so irresponsibly, she furthers the myth that women cannot and should not have control over their own bodies.


  4. My prediction is that no one will be championing the Yale student’s art piece, and not because it is offensive or abhorrent (much of contemporary art is hailed for such gestures) but because I does not make the connections (between art and the body) that the artist claims to be making. On the other hand, the piece does fit squarely into the conventions (if I can dare use this word to describe the self-proclaimed “anti” and anarchic state of contemporary art) of 21st-century art making; it is about performance, endurance, the anti-aesthetic (beauty has become passe). It is also very much about cleverness and spectacle. The Yale student’s piece fails both as an art and as a political piece because it is about spectacle for the sake of spectacle and in this way, absolutely trivializes both the issue of having control over one’s own body as well as the issue of life. The issue of art and politics as presented at the exhibit in SF on women, art, and politics is another issue. There the art seemed to fall into one of two camps: commemoration (the abortion rights testimonials, Suzanne Lacy’s archive installation) or cleverness (knitting fake designer bags, covering a tv with a knitted afghan that looked like an octopus). Now is this art? The problem with answering this question is that no one in the art world these days takes it seriously. As I said earlier, everything goes. The problem with this attitude (as I tried to articulate in one of my studio classes today) is that it is preempts the opportunity to judge fine art, as we do writing or music, and thus leaves the whole enterprise vacuous. It is easy not to judge. The good news about this reluctance and recalcitrance is that art making has become so open that anyone can claim to be doing it. Just don’t hold out hope for getting into the important bieniales, galleries, or exhibitions. The elite crowd still has a hold on that.


  5. We just had an exhibit on feminist art at my university, featuring work by Judy Chicago (including a video of “The Dinner Party”) and Carolee Schneeman, among others. Schneeman’s performance piece “Interior Scroll” was (and is) very provocative. Many of the arguments you’re making were made against these earlier women artists — now they have entered the “canon” as it were. Even today, folks are pretty close-minded about these quite sexually explicit artworks showing female and male sexual parts. A few of the work-study students even refused to hang the exhibit because they found it too icky.

    I live on the opposite coast from SF so won’t see the YB exhibit before it closes. I did watch the interview with one of the artists and the curator. The knitting pieces are using “traditional” female crafts to make political statements. Why don’t you consider this to be art?


  6. Mary–I understand your distaste for Shvarts’s spectacle, but I don’t think “she furthers the myth that women cannot and should not have control over their own bodies.” I don’t think that’s a myth! I think it’s a fact, and the fact is that in a free society, people are going to do things with their bodies that we disagree with. For example, Historiann has real ethical problems with elective plastic surgery–but then, not everyone is as blessed with perfection of face and figure like me! (Kidding!)

    Said Friend–thanks for weighing in and providing more depth and perspective for my comments. I agree with you about the lack of discernment in contemporary art–but then, you as a student are grappling with how to produce worthy art in a context in which judgment is precluded? (Except it’s not, and faculty still have power over your future, as in every other academic environment.)

    KC–I’m not saying it’s not art–but one of the things no one in the comments thread has engaged is my question about public history. To me, it seemed that many of the installations could have been done by any reasonably clever (or even not-so-clever) person with an archives and museum studies background. This exhibition raised questions in my mind about the boundaries between fine art and public history. But, as Said Friend suggested, if there’s no discernment and it’s all good, then I guess there’s our answer! While I think this is potentially exciting, I also wonder what this means for the future of art.

    The work at WACK, and Judy Chicago’s work, as I understand it, was connected to and grew out of a specific art historical context. I’m just wondering what kind of art historical context this new work comes from–since it seems so closely related to recent history rather than art history.


  7. I think you’re comparing apples and oranges here. The standards and expectations for public history are different than creative work, I think. Perhaps you could have delved further into why the ‘zines were chained to the table — was this for security reason, or is this part of the artwork itself? Why are the archive boxes interspersed with video screens? These are probably aesthetic choices. Perhaps they are explained in the exhibition catalog.

    I’m not an expert in art history either but as I understand it, one of the goals of modernism (by which I mean the Impressionists onward) has been to push the boundaries of what is considered “fine art” and to take viewers outside their comfort zone and make them think. After all, Cezanne’s motto was “burn the Louvre,” i.e. let’s shake up the art world.


  8. Well, I had thought that “the standards and expectations for public history are different than creative work,” until I saw that exhibition! This is the issue that I’m raising, KC, which is that I had thought that these were apples and oranges, and the exhibition I saw seriously challenged that notion, and I didn’t really see the creativity or artistry I expected to find in a fine arts gallery. That is the point of this post.

    Unfortunately, the Yerba Buena center website doesn’t have any photos of the installations I describe, which might help make my point clearer.


  9. I guess I should clarify, I was thinking along the lines of what Nicole was saying about “pro-life nutters who will happily use this against us who are pro-choice.” It seems like that is all this young woman really accomplished—getting some conservative nut on FOXnews to call her a serial killer or whatever.


  10. Yes, Mary–good point. But, perhaps (as Said Friend suggested) that was in fact the goal of her art? As Said Friend said, “it is about performance, endurance, the anti-aesthetic (beauty has become passe). It is also very much about cleverness and spectacle,” although SF in the end judges it a failure both as art and as politics.


  11. Well I suppose I can accept SF’s explanation for the logic behind this attempt. And I think SF says it best when as you suggested she/he points out “The Yale student’s piece fails both as an art and as a political piece because it is about spectacle for the sake of spectacle and in this way, absolutely trivializes both the issue of having control over one’s own body as well as the issue of life.”
    Maybe I’m not as open-minded as I thought, but this whole art projects still befuddles me as utterly bizarro.


  12. Well, now, where to begin? Sorry for the late post, but I am on the west coast and a busy, busy girl. First, the comparison to the Yale student’s work and Carolee Schneeman’s Interior Scroll is wrong headed. Yes, Schneeman pushed the envelope big time (I remember showing the video in a women’s studies class a few years ago; the queer students cheered, while the heteros cringed). But Schneeman’s act of pulling a scroll full of poetic wisdom out of her vagina is a gesture, albeit radical and confrontational, that coherently executed the impulse of a woman to identify with her body and offer this gesture to an audience. I love Interior Scroll, for so many reasons, but most of all because she transformed what was/is hidden and considered shameful (the female body) and made it brazenly beautiful, and even holy. Next to Schneeman’s work, the Yale performance seems immature and frivolous, and again, lacking in conceptual coherence. Just because two pieces provoked similar public scorn and outrage does not mean that they are on par with one another. That is a flaw in logic.

    Now back to the relation between the Yerba Buena’s Women, Art, and Politics and WACK. To me the difference in quality of these two exhibits has to do with how they framed themselves. WACK is specifically about early feminist art (1965-80) and so has contextualized itself and the representative art as belonging to a particular time in history and responding to that time in historical ways. The Yerba Buena show, covering art from the 70s to the present, is simply all over the place and lacks clear definition (just consider the title: women, art, and politics. Can one get more broad than that?). Perhaps if it were called Feminist Political Art and Its Legacy, it would make more sense (although it would still not be all that impressive). One could say that WACK presents art that very specifically and urgently responded to particular material conditions–the lack of support for women art students and artists, as well as the social issues all feminists were battling with at the time. The question might then be asked: what material conditions are contemporary feminist artists faced with today? What are they battling? Is the battle different? Is there even a battle? As an aside, the younger women in my studio class did not identify with the exhibit at all and do not feel the need to be a “feminist” artist. And so the next question to be raised: do we need feminist art, or has it historicized itself to the point that it is no longer relevant in a contemporary way?

    Lastly, I would like to address the question of the archive as art, or, as it were, art as archive. I agree with Historiann that from an aesthetic point of view, the work of art as archive (the Suzanne Lacy and the Andrea Bowers abortion rights tribute) is disappointing. And as an emerging artist with an academic background who cares deeply about the aesthetic experience (and gets roundly criticized for being “too formal”), I was gratified to hear her critique. But let me put another spin on this issue, one that could make things more interesting. There is actually a movement in contemporary art called “archive art” (in fact, there is currently a show in NYC–curated by faculty here at SFAI–called Archive Fever). The archive is now considered an artistic medium with its own integrity (see the catologue Deep Storage for an exhaustive look at the genre). Now if we take this thought and combine it with the current trend towards interdisciplinarity, then there could be exciting collaborative possibilities for artists and historians in making public art. There is lots of collaboration between artists and scientists in the bioart movement, as there is between artists and techies in new media. Perhaps this somewhat disappointing collapse between art and archive could lead to something fresh?

    And finally, I do want to say something about the Suzanne Lacy archive piece, namely that, although the boxes of files are displayed prominently (and aesthetically) amongst the videos, the boxes are taped shut. I was actually admonished by a monitor for touching the boxes. I found this lack of access annoying, and I think it undermines the integrity of the piece. Thought I’d offer that up for thought as well.


  13. Thanks, SF, especially for your articulation of the differences between the WACK! show and the one at YBCA, and your description of archive art. I couldn’t remember the term, and am glad you provided an overview. The show in NYC sounds interesting–maybe that would be a place to go to see the different approaches artists have versus public historians.


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