Saturday, August 21, 2010

I See Some Icons and Call Their Name: Part One

I was undecided about raising the specter of "Feminist Art" in this post. Originally I was just going to say "Icons of Art," but then I started doing a little research on the artists who made the works and saw how strongly they were all linked to feminism in one way or another. So I'm just going to grab the bull by the horns and spit out Feminism. (And not in a bad way.)

Detail from "Some Living American Women Artists"

I'm not calling the works in this post "feminist art" because I don't want to limit them that way. I will say that they are related to or inspired by ideas that arose from the original feminist movement. However, Mary Beth Edelson's "Some Living American Women Artists" is probably the poster child for feminism because it challenged male authority in religion and art at the same time. Edelson also dared to mess with the sacrosanct image of The Last Supper (appropriation of the masterpiece) and paste the head of Georgia O'Keefe atop the body of Jesus Christ. (By the way, I made these images even bigger than usual, so if you click on them, they'll open larger and I hope you can see more.)

This work, created in 1972, before PhotoShop, in the cut-and-paste era, is included in "Pictures by Women: A History of Modern Photography" at the Museum of Modern Art, New York (May 7, 2010–March 21, 2011). As an object, it has aged well in that it's become even more interestingly unusual since we don't get to see such rough-looking collage today with little, hand-cut, typewritten labels and such a variety of image sizes and colors. Even its overall size seems to date it in that it's not monumental. What I'm getting at is that it really looks handmade and like a relic of the feminist movement that has survived for 38 years. It looks like an icon.

Detail of left side showing Helen Frankenthaler, June Wayne, Alma Thomas and Lee Krasner (all that I can read in my photo)

Detail of center showing Georgia O'Keefe, Louise Nevelson and  M.C. Richards

Detail of right side showing Louise Bourgeois, Lila Katzen and Yoko Ono

Perhaps you may view this work as just an interesting historical piece and record of feminist objectives of the era, however, on Mary Beth Edelson's website, an essay  by Linda S. Aleci relates a 1995 controversy about a poster of the work that hung in a women's center at Franklin and Marshall College. There eight faculty members complained that the work was an "affront to Christian sensitivities" and called for censure of the women's center and its executive board. The debate was revived at Franklin and Marshall in 2000 when Edelson's works were exhibited at the college art museum. The claim was made that Edelson's collage was '“a work of art that makes a point about women artists at the expense of Christianity's most sacred symbols“–an interpretation that coyly sidesteps the theologically problematic inference that a reproduction of Leonardo's fresco constitutes the ontological manifestation of the Last Supper."

During the exchange of protesters and defenders of the work at the college's women's center, one critic charged that Edelson's "offence" could be compared to "acts of defacement like 'putting a pig's head over the picture of Martin Luther King, Jr.'" Continuing with a quote from the essay:

To assert that the remaking of a figure in the image of a woman is comparable to remaking a figure in the image of a pig, an animal associated with filth, is to describe women as profane, unclean, degrading creatures. From this one understands the truth of Some Living American Women Artists: it is indeed the entity Woman–embodied in the faces of actual women–that continues to be regarded with horror. And it is a timely reminder. One month after the controversy first erupted at F&M, the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a statement upholding the ban against the ordination of women as priests as infallible doctrine.

Slight Tangent
I had never heard of Franklin and Marshall College, but it's a small liberal arts college located in Lancaster, PA. I thought from the description of the controversy that it might be a Christian school or bible college, but No. Here is its mission statement

Franklin & Marshall College is a residential college dedicated to excellence in undergraduate liberal education. Its aims are to inspire in young people of high promise and diverse backgrounds a genuine and enduring love for learning, to teach them to read, write, and think critically, to instill in them the capacity for both independent and collaborative action, and to educate them to explore and understand the natural, social and cultural worlds in which they live. In so doing, the College seeks to foster in its students qualities of intellect, creativity, and character, that they may live fulfilling lives and contribute meaningfully to their occupations, their communities, and their world.

When I was in art school in the 1980s, I was heavily involved in feminism, paganism, and any other -ism I could get my hands on. I loved the work of Mary Beth Edelson, who was mainly doing performance at that time and worshipping the Mother Goddess and the eternal feminine through her own body. Today Edelson is in her late 70s and apparently still going strong. Here's a link to her website that shows the timeline of her life juxtaposed with cultural and political events. You can also see the various bodies of artwork that she has made.

Edelson was instrumentally involved in creating "WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution," a traveling show at P.S. 1 in New York in 2008 and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles in 2007. This show surveyed "feminist art" from 1965-1980 and was well received for the quality of the work chosen. (A contemporaneous exhibition of "feminist art" called "Global Feminisms" also appeared in 2007. I saw it at Wellesley College and was less than enthusiastic about the work in this show that seemed stripped of all its passion, humor and enthusiastic embrace of making a new place for women in the world.) An interview with Edelson in the spring 2008 P.S. 1 newspaper gets her talking about her past and the future of feminism.

A face I recognized - a young Lee Bontecou at the bottom left

Edelson had trouble with spelling Bonticou's name (no. 13)

How did Edelson choose the artists to include in her last supper? She says that she did not personally know these artists and the selections were "fairly arbitrary" in that they were not political associations but chosen to show diversity of race and artistic mediums. "The border included every photograph of a woman artist that I could find, with most of the 82 photographs coming directly from the artists themselves." (from the essay on Edelson's website) As for Georgia O'Keefe being chosen for the Christ spot, Edelson thought that because of her artistic success and recognition, O'Keefe deserved to be honored with the central placement.

Edelson's famous work still seems totally relevant today - not only are women artists still fighting for representation and recognition but religious bigotry is rearing up all over the place. Religious fears and fundamentalism are driving new and more vehement protests against diversity of any kind, and if Edelson were to create this work today, she would probably engender picketing by right-wing zealots similar to those at Franklin and Marshall College. It's a weird world we're living in where lies and accusations become accepted as fact purely because they're asserted and repeated often enough to become the norm. Have a look at a little different view of things by Mira Schor.

Please don't get me wrong: I am not opposed to feminism but I am opposed to "feminist art." I think that term is dismissive and ghettoizing. The term "feminism" has had a bad rap for the past few years, similar to the word "Liberalism." I'm claiming them both as describing my beliefs.

Following definitions via
fem·i·nism   [fem-uh-niz-uhm] –noun
1.the doctrine advocating social, political, and all other rights of women equal to those of men.
2.(sometimes initial capital letter) an organized movement for the attainment of such rights for women.
3.feminine character.

World English Dictionary
feminism - a doctrine or movement that advocates equal rights for women

Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 10th Edition
Word Origin & History
1851, at first, "state of being feminine;" sense of "advocacy of women's rights" is 1895.
Online Etymology Dictionary, © 2010 Douglas Harper

lib·er·al·ism   [lib-er-uh-liz-uhm, lib-ruh-] –noun
1.the quality or state of being liberal, as in behavior or attitude.
2.a political or social philosophy advocating the freedom of the individual, parliamentary systems of government, nonviolent modification of political, social, or economic institutions to assure unrestricted development in all spheres of human endeavor, and governmental guarantees of individual rights and civil liberties.
3.(sometimes initial capital letter) the principles and practices of a liberal party in politics.
4.a movement in modern Protestantism that emphasizes freedom from tradition and authority, the adjustment of religious beliefs to scientific conceptions, and the development of spiritual capacities.


Wendy Rodrigue Magnus said...

I have fragile and crumbling collages from both my husband and my mother from their art school years (one at Art Center and the other at LSU) in the early 1960s. My husband's are comments and cut-outs related to Pop with Batman and such, along with cubist-type cars and guitars ala Picasso, along with the occasional reference to a Wild West movie.

My mother's, however, are paper dolls and magazine cut-outs, things saved from her youth, all pasted together now with assorted heads of Marilyn Monroe. I asked her one time about the 'feminist statement.' And she said that she got lucky that it was interpreted that way. Because truth is, she wanted an excuse to play with her paper dolls again; Marilyn was her favorite, and she was just paying tribute.

I don't think she knew about Edelson's Last Supper, but she would have loved it. Thanks for another great post-

Leslie Avon Miller said...

You are an art instructor of the best kind. Thanks for another illuminating post Nancy.

I did collage in the 60's when I was in junior high school - mainly magazine cuts outs from Time magazine. I wonder what was in them now.

Karoda said...

I was directed to you blog by following links and this post is interesting but it startled me that feminism is viewed as limiting or something bad. Primarily it is a self-definition that conjures freedom and far reaching humanitarian global views.

I appreciate the information sharing on the history of this particular piece...thank you.

Nancy Natale said...

Thanks for commenting, Wendy. I love the description of those collages. I wish I had some of the ones I did in the '60s - or even later. Your mother's Marilyn piece sounds great.

Thanks, Leslie. Yes, wouldn't you love to see them from your current perspective? I'm glad you enjoyed the post.

Karoda, thanks for visiting and commenting. I think you misunderstood my meaning. I didn't mean that feminism is bad, just that the description "feminist art" is too limiting and that the term "feminism" has had a black eye for too long. It got put in the same category as "liberalism" and both were supposed to be consigned to the trash heap. I don't know where the world would be without feminism and of course I consider myself a feminist. What else would I be? I'm glad that you enjoyed the history of the piece anyway.

Sarah Grossberg said...

This is a great post. I love your blog.

Terry Jarrard-Dimond said...

This is a wonderful article and I plan to share it! On my trip to France this summer I saw the best group exhibition I have ever seen. The show was Women Artists at the Pompidou Center and all the work was from their permanent collection. We spent most of the day going room to room as it was a huge show. I kept marveling at the quality of the work, the statements the work made, the time frame of the work (most from the 60-70s) and the naging question as to why the names of many of these artists is so little known. Your article points out the answer to the last query.

Edelson's collage is new to me. It is wonderful for all the reason's you have presented and I am especially interested in your remarks relating to how the work was assembled. The mark of an artists hand always adds power and authenticity for me, something a computer doesn't do well.

Thank you for this excellent piece.