The recent U.S. election season, with its heated accusations, allegations, and statements, forces us to reconsider many things, but above all the place, treatment, and regard of women. We were reminded that, in our society, women are still widely regarded and represented as passive objects for pleasure, available for use or disposal. Take the Los Angeles Times of January 22nd, which devoted several pages and articles to the recent Women’s March on Washington—but did not hesitate to squeeze in, between the pages on women’s protests, a two-page advertisement for Calvin Klein, which featured a half-naked, beautiful woman looking passively into the camera on the one side and the picture of women’s underpants on the other.(1)
As shocking as some of the statements that have surfaced over the last months are, they have led to one good thing: They have brought women’s rights back into the spotlight—at least in the Western world—where they should have remained since the late 1950s and early ‘60s, when feminist movements raised awareness about inequality and systematic discrimination against women. During this period, the arts became an important vehicle for women in formulating and expressing criticism of existing conditions, both within society at large as well as within the art world with its notable problem of male dominance.
The development of performance art is closely connected with the articulation of feminist issues. Artists such as Carolee Schneemann, Barbara T. Smith, Eleanor Antin, and Harmony Hammond in the U.S. utilized the most contested but most readily available material—their own bodies—to enter the political arena. This politically charged art form is at the heart of a current Getty Research Institute research project I am leading titled Performance Works: Documenting Feminist Ephemeral Art, which examines the development, documentation, and archiving of feminist performance art.
Examining the work of the aforementioned artists, whose archives are housed in the Research Institute’s Special Collections, but also branching out to consider less canonical and younger, emerging artists, the project highlights an important collecting area of the Institute, which continues to gain even more significance in the light of present political developments.
Women artists’ use of their own bodies in their performance works triggered controversy in their earliest iterations and continues to elicit discomfort—as reactions to works by Schneemann, Karen Finley, Elke Krystufek, Vlasta Žanić, L.A. Raeven, or Marta Jovanović illustrate. Their art is deemed provocative, inappropriate, and disgusting, as the negotiation of their own (female) body counters the long-established codes of representation of the female form in Western visual culture and art history.
So, what are the violations that these women and their bodies commit and how do their bodies become active, political tools?
The standards for the depiction of the female body in the canon of Western art are well known and have been largely consistent over time. British art historian Kenneth Clark’s 1956 treatise The Nude. A Study of Ideal Art summarized the governing principles of the integration of the female form into art.(2) Mostly concerned with problems of obscenity in the depiction of the female nude, Clark struggled to establish parameters for non-objectionable nakedness. For Clark, the naked female body per se is obscene; it is pure matter—nature—that requires the male artist’s genius to transform it into art and thus, ultimately, into culture. This can only happen by controlling and assigning a form to the wayward female body. The question of “containment” and boundaries is therefore crucial: the “boundaries of the female form control [for Clark] that mass of flesh that is ‘woman,’” as Lynda Nead, who has published an excellent study on the representation of the female body in the visual arts, has put it.(3)
The conversion of nature/matter into form/culture is congruent for Clark with the translation from the potentially obscene “naked” woman into the aesthetically pleasing, sublime, female “nude.” Many of the principles Clark established for the ideal female nude in 1956—the precise time when the body was lifted off the canvas and introduced into the three-dimensionality of performance art—remains valid for contemporary culture’s representation and understanding of the female body. It must be contained, enclosed, smooth, easy to look at and easy to handle, much like a statue or even a consumer object. In order to enforce these requirements, the female body has become much more encoded with notions of beauty and disgust than its male counterpart. These standards ensure that the body does not transgress its boundaries, does not make visible its interior and natural conditions, and, in doing so, remains passive and contained, both literally (in its form) and metaphorically (in behaving and presenting itself in what is regarded as appropriate for a woman).(4)
Carolee Schneemann, whose work serves as one of the research project’s case studies, was among the first women artists in New York of the early 1960s to activate her own body and use it as a political instrument in her artistic journey to liberate the female from historical and cultural delimitations. Trained as a painter, she introduced her body and her sexuality as a part of her work and its materiality, and, slowly and carefully, attempted to expand it and transgress its boundaries. In the notes to her series of performative photographs called Eye/Body (1963), she explains:
In Eye/Body I used my own body as an extension of my painting—constructions and as an aspect of the studio itself in which the works were made. […] I wanted to experience the expanding action, from that by which I had made the paintings and constructions to turning myself into an aspect of the work, physically, actually—to set my body in its visual realm, the kinetic habitation of my works provide for the eye. Here space begins with the body, the eye is part of the body, the eye leads the body.(5)
With the decision to lift the body off the canvas and into the realm of performance, she ultimately entered the political arena of feminist art. She writes: “In 1963 to use my body as an extension of my painting-constructions was to challenge and threaten the psychic territorial power lines by which women were admitted to the Art Stud Club so long as they behaved enough like the men, did work clearly in the traditions & pathways being hacked out by the men.”(6)
It does not come as a surprise that Schneemann’s work was initially not well received. She recounts her experience with Eye/Body: “I took the photo series to Alan Solomon […] and remember that he said: ‘If you want to paint, paint. If you want to run around naked, then you don’t belong in the art world.’”(7)
But Schneemann was not to be dissuaded, and over the years created some of the most powerful and daring works of feminist performance art. In all of them, the body—with only few exceptions(8), always her own—is negotiated in a way that counters the “contained form” that Clark had established (and that we continue to consider) as appropriate for the female body.
In one of her most iconic works, Interior Scroll (1975), she infamously pulled a paper scroll out of her vagina, which contained text from a film she was creating at that time, Kitch’s Last Meal (1973–76), and read it out loud. She said of the work: “I didn’t want to pull a scroll out of my vagina and read it in public, but the culture’s terror of my making overt what it wished to suppress fueled the image; it was essential to demonstrate this lived action about ‘vulvic space’ against the abstraction of the female body and its loss of meaning.”(9) Contrary to the “contained” and passive woman’s body of art history and culture, Schneemann gives the female sexual organ a voice, both metaphorically by reading the material she produces from the vagina, but also quite literally. She highlights the natural condition of her body and connects it with its environment.
Another work by Schneemann, which constitutes an activation of her female body and the transgression of its boundaries, is Fresh Blood—A Dream Morphology. Fresh Blood, which she first performed in 1983, refers to a dream the artist had, in which she accidentally poked a man’s thigh with an umbrella, causing him to bleed. Schneemann linked the V-shape of the umbrella to the shape of a vagina, and the blood drawn from the thigh wound to the female menstrual cycle. She developed a performance (later transformed into the video installation Venus Vectors, 1988), in which she delivered a speech in front of a background of various objects in the form of a “V” and images of menstrual blood. Schneemann again chose a topic and a substance that transgress physical and social boundaries: The vaginal orifice as nexus between inner and outer worlds and menstrual blood as the substance manifesting this connection. Fresh Blood turns the focus on one of the most important, essential functions of the female body, which, to this day, remains largely considered “unclean,” disgusting, and confined to the private realm.
There are many other great examples of female artists pushing against the canonical ideal of women and their bodies as passive, contained, beautiful, non-disgusting, and available. Shigeko Kubota’s Vagina Paintings (1965) are, as the title suggests, created by the artist squatting on the floor and painting with a brush attached to her vagina. Austrian artist Elke Krystufek masturbated in the public space of a gallery in front of an audience in 1994 (Satisfaction). Marta Jovanović brought the metaphorical counterpart of what is often considered the essence of womanhood, but which must also remain hidden and private—the egg—out into the open in her 2016 performance Motherhood. She cracked 740 (chicken) eggs, a number corresponding to the fertile days in her life, one by one with a hammer and immersed her entire body in their substance to create a dialogue with her female body, its functions, and the social expectations attached to it.
Many artists employing such a direct approach and use of their own bodies were (and still are) criticized and labeled “narcissistic” not only by their male peers and male art historians, but even by female and feminist artists and scholars.(10) It seems almost ironic that turning their own, beautiful bodies into active, political tools in an attempt to free them from male dominance and socio-cultural constraints would become one of the biggest problems for these artists. As feminist scholar Lucy Lippard had pointed out: “A woman using her own face and body has a right to do what she will with them, but it is the subtle abyss that separates men’s use of women for sexual titillation from women’s use of women to expose that insult.”(11)
Females taking authority over their own bodies and their natural constitution, activating what is supposed to remain silent, and brandishing what we have been taught is “disgusting,” represent a threat to established codes, and therefore often face negativity, anger, vilification, or mockery.
This helps explain the persistence of conventional modes of representing the female body and underscores the fact that women still lack ownership of and rights to their very own bodies.
There is still a clear general consensus about what is considered “appropriate,” “normal,” and “desirable” for women and the female body, and how these bodies should be treated and represented. The transgression of the body’s physical boundaries, as encouraged in recent “locker-room” dialogues, is sanctioned only within certain cultural and social norms. But culture, we must remember, has been equated by Kenneth Clark with “man,” whose task is to tame and contain nature, i.e. “woman.”
In a recent interview with Carolee Schneemann, which appeared in actress Lena Dunham’s Lenny Letter, the artist shares a funny yet upsetting anecdote about her experience as a young female artist:
“Once I was walking with the poet Charles Olson in Gloucester […] and he asked me what I was working on. I thought that was gracious of him, and I said, ‘Well, I’m in essence a painter, but I’m working on introducing movement and text into my work.’ And he was six foot four, so he looked down at me, and he said, ‘Well, don’t forget in Greek culture when the cunts started to speak, Greek theater was destroyed.’ I said, ‘OK, I’ll remember.’”(12)
This anecdote now seems timelier than ever. It should prompt us to think about how far women remain silenced and their voices and bodies suppressed into a patriarchal theater played out on our artistic, cultural, and political stage. Women have found a voice recently, and we can only hope that the outrage that has prompted them to unite and speak up is accompanied by enough commitment and devotion to carry it on and make an impact on how they are perceived, treated, and depicted.
1. The constant public discussion of women’s bodies, weight, and appearance, which has reached a new height with social media, is another worrisome aspect that illustrates the passive, mute character attributed to women.
4. See further Anja Foerschner, “The Fairest in the Land: the Deconstruction of Beauty in Paul McCarthy’s WS” in Afterimage—The Journal for Media Arts and Cultural Criticism, vol. 41.3, November/December 2013, 14–18.
6. Carolee Schneemann, typed note, CS papers, box 1, folder 7. For a contextualization of Schneemann within feminist art and history see Émilie Bouvard, “Carolee Schneemann. Feminism and History,” in Annabelle Ténèze, Simon Pleasance et al., eds., Then and Now. Carolee Schneemann: Œuvre d’histoires, exhibition catalog, Musée départemental d’art contemporain de Rochechouart (Arles: Analogues, 2013) 67–92.
10. See for example Donald Kuspit, “The Triumph of Shit,” in Artnet, September 2008, or Lucy Lippard, “The Pains and Pleasure of Rebirth: European and American Women’s Body Art” in Art in America 64, no. 3 (May–June 1976), 76.
11. Lucy Lippard, “The Pains and Pleasures of Rebirth: European and American Women’s Body Art” in From the Center: Feminist Essays on Women’s Art, ed. Lucy Lippard (New York: E. P. Dutton 1976), 121–38, 125. See also Steve Rose in The Guardian, March 14, 2014: Carolee Schneemann: ‘I never thought I was shocking’.
12. Laia Garcia, The Lenny Interview: Carolee Schneemann in Lenny, December 2, 2016.
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