The Radicality of Women

#Hashtags

The Radicality of Women

By Anuradha Vikram January 16, 2018

#Hashtags is a column, formerly published on Daily Serving, that explores the intersection of art, social issues, and global politics.


Recently a barrage of allegations regarding sexual misconduct has rocked every work sector, the art world included. Blaring headlines brand art-world kings like Chuck Close and Jens Hoffmann and kingmakers like Knight Landesman as serial harassers. Accounts of assaults committed by the powerful film producer Harvey Weinstein describe how his transgressions were obscured and justified by his films’ artistic motivations. Leftists and feminists express outrage at these offenses, yet the presumed right of artists to transgress social norms (and the male privilege this right assumes) remains unquestioned. Sexual harassment and assault in the art world have always been elements of the soft-power domination that global-capitalist culture enacts. As the exhibition Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960–1985 demonstrates, women’s freedom, or lack thereof, has historically been a bellwether for broader political freedom. Artworks in the exhibition detail these entanglements, but the show’s primary function—introducing a large group of under-recognized artists to mainstream art history—shows how far the art establishment still has to go to represent artists who identify as women equally.

Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1965–1980; installation view with artworks by Vera Chaves Barcellos, Silvia Gruner, Pola Weiss, and Maria Evelia Marmolejo, at Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, 2017. Photo: Anuradha Vikram.

In late October 2017, a letter circulated within the art community declaring the signatories “not surprised” at recent allegations against Artforum’s publisher, Knight Landesman, and others. Nor should we be surprised that women in contemporary art are typically reduced to male-determined symbols of aesthetic pleasure. In 1989, the Guerrilla Girls famously asked, “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met Museum?” Little has changed since then. Advocates of free expression have rushed to defend the Met's exhibition of a Balthus painting, Thérèse Dreaming (1938), which depicts the titular pubescent girl in a state of sexualized reverie. The fact that she is never shown speaking or otherwise acting, and that her passivity facilitates the lascivious gaze of the viewer, continues a mode from the eighteenth century that Linda Nochlin and others have critiqued but does not appear to concern many self-determined, sexually liberated, and economically enfranchised women, who are largely white. As Camille Paglia said of the sexual appetites of the late Hugh Hefner, who severely controlled the appearance and behavior of his much-younger female companions, “All celebrations of the sexual human body are positive.”1 Paglia, like Balthus’s defenders, mistakes an old man’s craving for a young woman’s body as an assertion of female power and ignores the fact that all legal, economic, and social leverage favors his rights and pleasures over hers. Presumably Chuck Close expressed a similar position when he allegedly told a young female artist, unsolicited, that her genitalia “looks delicious.”2 One imagines she would have preferred he addressed the same attention to her work.

Balthus’s Thérèse is an archetype—the “Young-Girl” described by the French journal, Tiqqun—whose unselfconscious message of sexual availability renders her the ideal subject for capitalism; she is malleable, both an object and a font of desire. According to the journal, and the eponymous anarcho-socialist collective behind it, “The figure of the Young-Girl is a gazing machine, designed for that purpose.”3 Tiqqun argues that this figure is “un-gendered”: what she represents is the feminization-objectification of all capitalist subjects, whose bodies are available for the taking; all neoliberals are “Young-Girlized” in that they are encouraged to focus their desire for change on the individual rather than the social, engaging in self-recognition and self-validation to serve the capitalist order.

When the photographer Raghubir Singh imprisoned and allegedly raped Jaishri Abichandani more than twenty years ago, perhaps he wished to prove himself and his culture of origin “modern” by venerating his white wife and violating his Brown protégé, as colonialism would dictate. Abichandani, an interdisciplinary artist and curator whose practice of photography as an artistic medium was forever tarnished by Singh’s assault, was inspired by Tarana Burke’s Me Too movement to organize a protest at the Met Breuer on December 3, 2017, challenging the museum’s elevation of Singh through a retrospective exhibition. Abichandani focuses in her sculpture on sexually empowered female and trans contemporary figures who evoke the gender-fluid power of ancient Hindu deities. As a co-founder of the South Asian Women’s Creative Collective (SAWCC), she rallies the support of her community to bring attention to male privilege and female denigration in today’s multicultural museums. It would be easy to mistake Abichandani’s display of strength, or the late Singh’s inability to respond to her charges, as a shift in the balance of power. To do so would be to dismiss the tremendous loss of opportunity she suffered as a result, indicative of so many women’s lost cultural contributions through centuries of gender-based suppression and violence.

Liliana Maresca. Sin título (Untitled), 1982; assemblage of objects (furniture, plastic body-suit display, iron self-propelled shaft). Courtesy of the Archivo Liliana Maresca and Marcos López. Photo: Anuradha Vikram.

Simone de Beauvoir lamented the “immanence” that defines the female experience: “She discovers and chooses herself in a world where men force her to assume herself as Other: an attempt is made to freeze her as an object and doom her to immanence, since her transcendence will be forever transcended by another essential and sovereign consciousness.”4 Women in the spheres of art and philosophy are consistently treated as insufficiently revolutionary, as too bourgeois, or as commodities; their freedom is presumed to only come from accepting these limitations. The young women who met Landesman for career advice learned the hard way that their radical ideas would always be immanent, never actualized, given that they as women were no more than breathing objects of art and pleasure.5 Deleuze and Guattari propose that immanence is not a burden but a gift, the ideal expression of desire. Their philosophical inheritors, Tiqqun, express that the Young-Girl’s immanence—the internalized suppression of her power—is her cage and her only protection from the inevitable mundanity of capitalist subjectivity. Read against de Beauvoir’s complaint, these (mostly male) radical visionaries seem to idealize a condition that for woman in society has proven to be a prison.

What vision of female liberation and modernity might women dream for themselves? Radical Women showcases a range of politically engaged artworks by female-identified artists, focused on resistance to the military dictatorships between 1965 and 1980, but the show makes clear that sexual assault is a tool of state power. Numerous artists—including Ana Mendieta, Anna Maria Maiolino, María Evelia Marmolejo, Dalila Puzzovio, and Margot Römer—draw connections between individual acts of violence against women and the will of an oppressive state bent on squashing dissent. Furthermore, in works by Mendieta, Sara Modiano, and Graciela Gutiérrez Marx, the rape of the female body is likened to capitalism’s exploitation of the Earth’s resources; ecological conservation becomes an essential space of liberation. In contrast with Tiqqun’s “eco-Young-Girl,” who laments the violence of capitalist exploitation without impeding it, approaching activism as yet another act of consumption, these artists propose that simply living an unfettered, sustainable life on one’s own terms is the ultimate radical act.

Silvia Gruner. The Original Sin / Reproduction, 1986; Super-8 film transferred to DVD; color; silent; 3:00. Courtesy of the Artist. Photo: Anuradha Vikram.

In the exhibition, a relief by Amelia Toledo is titled Sorriso do Menina (Girls Smile) (1976). This work, made during Brazil’s military dictatorship, refers to the facade of innocence and joy that oppressed citizens were required to maintain for their safety under the regime. Says Tiqqun, “Smiles have never been any good as arguments. There is also such a thing as the smile of skeletons.”6 The skeleton smile of a woman is the one that deflects, entreats, and placates. It is the gentle, loving face of abject terror; it is the smile that plays on the lips of Ana Mendieta, mediating the aggression of her husband Carl Andre in the seconds before she falls or is pushed thirty-four floors to her death. The dreaming Thérèse, unaware of the eyes that consume and annihilate her, does not smile. Perpetually immanent, she makes no argument and offers no resistance to voracious capitalism in its temple, the contemporary museum.

Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1965–1980 was on view at the Hammer Museum, September 15–December 31, 2017, and will be on view at the Brooklyn Museum, April 13–July 22, 2018.

Notes

  1. Jeanie Pyun, “Camille Paglia on Hugh Hefner's Legacy, Trump's Masculinity and Feminism's Sex Phobia,” Hollywood Reporter (October 2, 2017), accessed December 22, 2017, https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/camille-paglia-hugh-hefners-legacy-trumps-masculinity-feminisms-sex-phobia-1044769.
  2. Robin Pogrebin, “Chuck Close Apologizes After Accusations of Sexual Harassment,” New York Times, December 20, 2017, accessed December 22, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/20/arts/design/chuck-close-sexual-harassment.html.
  3. Tiqqun, “Raw Materials for a Theory of the Young-Girl” (2001), initially published as “Premiers Matériaux pour une Théorie de la Jeune-Fille” in Tiqqun 1 (1999); revised, republished by Éditions Mille Et Une Nuits (2001); translator unknown; accessed December 22, 2017, http://younggirl.jottit.com/.
  4. Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, translated by Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier (New York: Random House, 2010).
  5. Rachel Corbett, “Career Advice, Then Talk of Sex: More Women Detail Allegations Against Former Artforum Publisher Knight Landesman,” Artnet, October 26, 2017, accessed December 22, 2017, https://news.artnet.com/art-world/allegations-against-former-artforum-publisher-knight-landesman-1128926
  6. Tiqqun.

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