|Women and the Practice of Art: |
Some Notes on New and Old Representation
and Resistance Strategies
C A R M E N N A V A R R E T E
The 1970s witnessed a phenomenon almost without precedent in the art world: the appearance of a growing number of women who, speaking from the feminist viewpoint, undertook the practice of art under critical premises, openly questioning the dominant discourses of the patriarchal society, and particularly their projection in aesthetic practices and academic disciplines. While such an approach is commonly accepted today, we believe it should be closely examined, especially in two major aspects. First is the relative presence of women in the artistic establishment —still very small, according to the studies by Guerrilla Girls and the statistics compiled since the 1970s by feminist individuals and collectives in Europe and the United States, such as the WAC. To affirm the larger presence of women in the art world in the past two decades, and of exhibitions by women artists, is not to say that feminism or feminist art has an equivalent position in the arts, although it is true that, amidst this growing visibility of women, the artistic practices that are in general most relevant, and which have focused the aesthetic debate, are those cultivated by self-consciously female artists, from a critical feminist position. These are women artists who, from different critical perspectives that correspond to a plurality of feminisms 1, have examined aesthetics, art history, the different artistic disciplines, the media and contemporary reality, in order to reflect on the current status of the systems of representation that dominate women, gender, and sexual difference. At all events, this has led to a panorama marked by the strains of the shift of the feminist discourse between the extremes of the centre-periphery duality, as Jorge Luis Marzo accurately suggested: “The feminist debate poses today, perhaps more than any other critical segment, and chiefly circumscribed to North America, the need not only to defend those differential visions of the traditional historical approach, but also to channel them towards the centre of intellectual thought, in order to enrich, broaden and attempt to construct or reconstruct new viewpoints”. He also quotes the art historian Anna C. Chave, who wrote at the beginning of this decade: “It is paradoxical, but the fact is that the feminist discourse, which has tended to be a discourse on the fringe, is rapidly moving to the centre of intellectual discourse, for very good and also very humble reasons.” 2.
This brief essay begins from the foregoing premises, which frame the conditions of recent history in which the art related to the several “feminisms” must be interpreted and narrated today. More concretely, I want to confine myself to set down, as broadly as possible, a few notions or areas of reflection which surround the old and new strategies of representation and resistance in feminist artistic practice. On global terms, what I am proposing is to briefly review the problematics which, to my way of thinking, today mark the conditions in which a feminist approach to art may continue to develop as a sort of oppositional political discourse, endowed with a complex and rich history which also places it before a large number of paradoxes and crossroads; a discourse subject, at the same time, and thanks to the strength of its own growing presence and visibility, to major inertial forces of recovery and normalisation.
1To Remain on the Fringe or Occupy the Centre.
The (Difficult) “Normalisation”: Feminism in Art, vs.
the (New) Discourses of Domination.
“The success, however modest, of this liberal feminism, has been secured at the cost of reducing the contradictory complexity —and the theoretical productivity—of such concepts as sexual difference, the idea of the personal as political, and the very concept of feminism, to simpler and more acceptable ideas, which already exist in the dominant culture. Hence, for many people today, “sexual difference” means little more than (biological) sex and gender (in the simplest sense of feminine socialisation, or the bases of certain “lifestyles” (such as homosexual or other unorthodox relations); “the personal is political” is quite often translated into “the personal instead of the political”; and both the academics and the media unhesitatingly appropriate “feminism” as a discourse, a variant of social criticism, a method of aesthetic, literary or other types of analysis...”
Teresa de Lauretis.
On the basis of the foregoing assertions regarding the migration of feminist critical discourse from the periphery to the centre of intellectual discourse, it should be recalled that at the end of the 1980s it was widely debated whether the apparent renewal of discussions concerning the growing social presence of women and the ethical problems posed by feminism were related in global terms to the development of a regime of liberalisation and the opening of the discourses of authority to feminist scrutiny, or, on the contrary, and as Estrella de Diego proposed, to the appearance of equivocal new discourses purportedly erasing sexual difference that were devised by institutions of masculine power, and thus were new discourses of domination (if we agree with her, then the term “masculine power” is almost redundant, since it would not be a matter of men being powerful, but rather of power being masculine)3. I think it should suffice to mention a very specific example, in order to visualise a particular type of conflict about which some of us continue to argue —in reference, I repeat, to the development of certain procedures of normalisation and integration of critical discourses concerning gender and sexual difference, cloaked in the rhetorical discourses of liberation and permissiveness—we men and women engaged in the theory and practice of art attempt to show (and hence to question), how and why it is that our main sphere of action and of study is first categorised, and then disparaged, as “women’s art”. It is disparaging insofar as such a label should be simply a reflection of the imperative and restrictive definition of feminine activities which have been regarded historically as “respectable”. Feminine art of the 19th century, according to Annie Higonnet’s thesis, illustrated the fact that conventions of sexual difference have reserved for women certain artistic media and also certain forms of expressions, as was amateur painting4. It might be asked to what extent the apparent permissiveness of the intellectual debate today in face of feminist discourse does not suppose in some ways merely new types of pigeon-holing and standardising conventions for women.
In this first part of my essay, I would like to review briefly just three themes or arguments which I regard as fundamental reference points within that plurality of contributions of the different feminisms to the visual arts, in the measure to which such contributions have marked a resistance to integration and standardisation through the institutional discourse that seeks to nullify the differences; and which may thus be seen as part of the undeniable substrate of recent history, which must necessarily be reconsidered, in all contemporary opposition based on feminism. The first brief review refers to the feminist understanding of an art work as a cultural artefact and of artistic activity as a social and historically determined activity. Next, I would like to mention the not always easy links between feminism and postmodernism. Lastly, I am prepared to note certain relevant aspects of feminists criticism of representation and visuality, along with some of its contradictions and paradoxes in the present.
The Practice of Art as a Social and Historically Determined Activity
With the advent of the first feminist research into the history of art, Linda Nochlin published her pivotal 1971 essay: “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?”. Nochlin wrote that “the problem lies not so much in some feminist concepts of what constitutes femininity, but rather in the misinterpretation of what constitutes art: in the naive idea that art is the personal and direct expression of individual emotional experience. Art is not the free and autonomous activity of a superindividual influence by previous artists or by “social forces”, but instead the nature and quality of a work of art arises within a social circumstance, as an integral element of this social structure, and is mediated and determined by specific and definable institutions, academies, and systems of patronage. 5 This is to say that Nochlin radically questions the dominant critical judgement in the institutional history of art, while at the same time posing its reconsideration. Accordingly, she and other writers such as Carol Duncan or Griselda Pollock critically analyse the masculine perception of the image of the woman as a modern art object, and, in the same way, the patriarchal viewpoint inscribed in historically dominate aesthetic practices. To the writings of Lucy Lippard in the mid-1970s we owe our understanding that feminism or self-conscious femininity enables us not only to imagine and reflect upon art made by women, but offers a particular viewpoint from which we can see art tout-court. Consequently, it was not only a matter of conceiving a “feminine art” aimed at the achievement of a specific type of imagery, but also of questioning hierarchic structures, primarily the hierarchic structures of the history of art and of aesthetics, and of establishing differentiated criteria for appraising not only the aesthetic effect, but the communicative effectiveness of a determined artistic practice within a given context.6 Many long-forgotten women artists were rediscovered for an art history now understood in a more plural and more heterogeneous sense (something which must necessarily be understood in parallel to the task of reconstructing an alternative historiography by the women’s liberation movement as a whole, and of course in other specific spheres such as film).
But there is something much more relevant and even today subversive to cultural institutions that regard themselves as natural, ahistorical, disinterested and above social and political consideration: it is to continue to consider that for the construction of any cultural artefact, both women and men invariably begin with a pre-determined theoretical focus and we move within a concrete cultural and historic framework, even when we believe otherwise. The question is to what degree we make this explicit. To do so is to obviate the naturalisation of the discourse, also in reference to the practice of art. That awareness of the historical and ideological condition of discourses and practice is what has allowed all contemporary feminist practice to retain its vigour as a discourse of opposition, insofar as its critiques are not frozen as ahistoric ones and that they reflect an awareness of the constant metamorphosis of the forms of domination and the discourses of patriarchal authority: not only such dominant forms and discourses, but also their critiques, must be understood and hence be developed as historically and socially determined.
The Complex Links Between Feminism and Postmodernism
At the beginning of the 1980s, Kate Linker pointed out to us that “a significant number of recent works concerning subjectivity [revealed] a striking absence: the question of sexuality” 7. (It would not seem, by the way, that this situation has necessarily changed for the better at the present time. However, I will confine myself to the arguments that were posed in the previous decade.). In face of this, for feminism, the examination of questions of meaning and language cannot be dissociated from an exposition of the manner that the dominant discourses (which effectively include the supposedly neuter, neutral and disinterested institutional discourses) situate the spectator as a sexually marked subject, since to position and construct subjectivity is, at the same time, to bolster the patriarchal organisation. The “absence” of the question of sexuality underscored by Linker is made manifest in a period when the critique of visual representation in postmodernism was understood in increasingly formalist terms: it is the growing “abandonment” of political questions in post-modern thought that makes difficult its conciliation with feminism. According to Rey Chow, if indeed, as Fredric Jameson states, the unity of the “new impulse” of postmodernism springs less from itself than from the modernism it would supersede, the central question is how, and in what diverse manners, can modernism be displaced 9. Since it is not a unitary substitution, Nancy Fraser and Linda Nicholson argue, the profusion of the discourse and the illusion that all discourses have become admissible is what makes it possible to associate postmodernism with a certain type of abandonment10. Accordingly, while feminists subscribe to the postmodernist project of dismantling the tenets of cultural authority as embodied in specific representations, the fact that feminism’s roots are found in concrete political struggles against the subordination of women makes it very difficult to accept such abandonment. Although feminists also share the post-structuralist leanings of postmodernism, when it comes to dismantling universalist proclamations, they do not necessarily find them an end to the struggle against the patriarchy. For feminists, say Fraser and Nicholson, social issues are always delineated by the horizon of inequality between men and women; society, viewed in terms of gender, with its ideological manipulations of biology and its symbolic representations, is never sufficiently “implosive”, in Baudrillard’s sense. With the fundamental rejection of a certain political “indifference” which is to be found in the prevailing versions of post-modern thought, and by means of their insistence on the cultural effects of sex and gender differences, says Rey Chow, in the fact of postmodernism, their criticism invariably begins with the legacy of modernism and something else. This “something else” is the patriarchy.
In this way, in his already quoted “Post-modern Automatons”, Chow furnished an excellent perspective from which to interpret the technologies of visuality, such as photography and cinema, that obliges us to place ourselves beyond a merely physical dimension of vision, and in which, to quote his argument literally, the visual dimension reveals epistemological problems that are inherent in social relations and their portrayal, and they facilitate our analysis of the ways in which social differences are constructed, whether in terms of class, sex, or race. Feminist criticism of representation is rooted in gender-based social difference viewed from this historical perspective of the visual and the technologies of visuality. In parallel to Kate Linker, Craig Owens pointed out, in his essay “The Discourse of the Others: Feminists and Postmodernism” 11, how de-constructive works and the criticism of representation undertaken by many women following diverse paths in previous years had become institutionalised in biased terms, chiefly though the formalist debates about postmodernism in art, as mentioned earlier, or, at the very least, viewpoints from which the critiques of representation shrank from explicitly addressing the sexual “stamp”. For Chow, Owens’s essay is pertinent insofar as it represents the most serious attempt to build a bridge that can span the troubled relations separating critical feminist thought and the debates about postmodernism in its dominant terms. And this was so precisely because Owens defended the need to “sexually mark” the formalist terms of the debate on postmodernism, incorporating the experience of the critique of representation in sexual terms that was being undertaken in a variety of feminist aesthetic practices. And also to the extent that such a critique of representation, we must add and stress, should be understood to be rooted in the problematics of social differences associated with sex and gender, as well as linked to effective social struggles for emancipation from the patriarchal order and the manner in which the latter is sustained by specific, sexually marked forms of subjectivity.
The Critique of Representation:
Paradoxes in the (De)-Construction of the “Image of Woman”
If feminism has taught us that speech is never neuter, we are also perfectly aware today, the same is true of looking, of photography, and film. I paraphrase the title of a feminist classic, Luce Irigaray’s book Parler n’est jamais neutre (1985), in order to introduce the final argument that I would like to include in these passages of the essay. The image of woman as a social and ideological construction has always been a problem for feminisms. The question of how women should be portrayed has been hotly debated, and most hotly when the portrayals are made by women themselves.
In order to emerge from the essentialist framework that offers a mythified and ahistorical image of women, it has been necessary to show how sexual differentiation is constructed socially. This is not the time for an extensive genealogy which would explain the concern with the visual in the diverse approaches of feminist criticisms, a genealogy which would lead us to the preponderant role of the visual in psychoanalysis, to Lacan’s review of Freudian thought, and Lacan’s influence in the shaping of the various feminist theories of film —the notion that gender differences arise from castration and absence, and the predominance of the phallus as signifier in our society. However, we might also ask, as does Michéle Montrelay, “whether psychoanalysis was not originated precisely in order to repress femininity (in the sense of producing its symbolic representation 12, etc.) And above all, I do not wish to pursue this genealogical tack 13, because what really interests me now is to underline that research into the structuring of the gaze has opened up a new field in a controversial area. It addresses the possible, or claimed, reconquest of a specifically feminine way of seeing, and of the possibility of the sexual representation of the female body, on dis-pleasure and desire, which I will discuss later on.
When we question the dominant masculine gaze, or way of seeing, there immediately appears before us the problem of the possible existence of another way, e.g. of a female gaze, which, for many feminists, would have its own categories, positions and modes in relation to others and to things. Hence it is a matter of regarding the visual domain as analogous to “women’s speech”, as explored by Hélène Cixous or Luce Irigaray. But it must also be kept in mind that, when we speak of a feminine gaze, we confront a multitude of contradictions and paradoxes. According to the arguments put forward by Teresa de Lauretis, most of the terms we use to discuss the construction of the female social subject in visual portrayals incorporate the prefix “de”, as in the deconstruction, or the de-structuring, when not the outright destruction, of the subject portrayed 14. Thus De Lauretis maintains that we speak generally of the “de-aesthetisation” of the female body, of the “de-sexualisation” of violence, of the “de-Oedipusation” of the narrative, etc. Thus the manner in which these discourses have been developed points less to a feminine gaze that could engender a “feminine aesthetics”, than, paradoxically, to a “feminist de-aesthetics” 15. Whereas previously we stressed that feminist critical theory cannot overlook the fact of being rooted in concrete social struggles, De Lauretis acutely notes that the tension and contradictions mentioned have their foundations, in fact, in “a specific contradiction, even constitutive, of the feminist movement itself: a double pressure, a simultaneous pull in two opposite directions. On the one hand, a tension towards the positive aspects of political activity, or an affirmative action in the name of women as social subjects; on the other, the negation of radical criticism inherent in a patriarchal and bourgeois culture. It also represents the contradiction of the woman in language, insofar as we try to express ourselves within discourses that deny us or objectivise us through their representations.” 16.
2“Are You Pro- or Anti-Porno?” 17
Pleasure or Dis-pleasure in Some Works by Women Artists ..
“To re-view, the act of looking backwards, to see with new eyes, writes [Adrienne] Rich, is for women an act of survival”
Teresa de Lauretis.
Como anteriormente he querido subrayar, el feminismo se ha distinguido como un movimiento pluridimensional que ha desarrollado de forma global y sistemática a lo largo de su historia una crítica del patriarcado y sus sistemas de representación hegemónicos. Lo importante es tener siempre presente que dicha critica no se ha de concebir en tanto que "esencializada", sino que su condición responde en cada momento a las muy diversas coordenadas históricas en las cuales se inscribe. Retomando el punto en que hemos abandonado las reflexiones de Teresa de Lauretis, en relación a la presencia dominante que en el discurso estético feminista ha mantenido durante un periodo la propuesta de destrucción del placer narrativo y visual como fundamento de una "desestética" feminista, me gustaría en esta breve segunda parte de mi ensayo referirme a ciertas revisiones recientes de dichos postulados. Para ello, voy a seguir en alguna medida los argumentos vertidos por la teórica y videoartista Laura Kipnis en su "Transgresión de mujer", escrito a mediados de los años noventa 18.
As has been pointed out time and again, it appears rather evident that Laura Mulvey’s views concerning the negation of visual pleasure had an influence not only on filmmaking, but also on a large proportion of the early generation of female artists using video and other visual media. In accordance with such a genealogy, Mulvey’s essay invited us as women to create visual products as alternatives to the dominant models, and which at the same time destroyed the type of visual pleasure associated with them. Therefore, and to generalise, the type of feminist works associated with the radical criticism of dominant forms of representation are works that undertake the task of reforming and criticising the way in which the dominant cultural and representational system oppresses women. This obviously implies the renunciation of the use of such dominant forms and the subversion of the pleasure of seeing, via attack or negation.
A paradigmatic example of these positions is to be found in the video by Martha Rosler, Vital Statistics of A Citizen, Simply Obtained (1977), closely associated to certain performance practices and to the use of one’s own body as a political space.
From its first scene. The video show us, through the frontal and objective lens of a steady camera —almost like surveillance camera—how a woman, Rosler herself, enters the scene, a scene that at first glance is the waiting room of a clinic. She remains standing during the initial passages, until, after she has undressed, a doctor aided by several nurses takes her measurements, comparing them with standard measurements. At first it appears like an ordinary medical examination. While we watch the beginning of the measuring, the clinic looks neutral. However, as the action proceeds, we cool observers (both women and men), are gripped by the sensation that we are seeing a strange sort of violence against the increasingly defenceless body of the woman. An off-camera male voice reads a scientific text from a medical journal which progressively conveys expressions of social standardisation associated with the dominant ideology, in a cold, scientific and ostensibly objective tone (in essence a tacit justification, in “scientific” terms, of the nuclear family and of normative forms of sexuality). Next we hear Rosler’s voice as she analyses the forms of violence and control imposed on the body through representations of “normality”, constructed from techno-scientific discourses. If previously we cited Mulvey’s writings as one of the theoretical bases of works like Rosler’s, it doesn’t seem too far-fetched to mention Michel Foucault’s critique of the spaces of control and internment associated with the development of the bourgeois society and morality. In the video’s final sequence, a battery of slides of female bodies is shown as we hear the artist’s voice, cold and repetitive, in a dark and menacing litany, utter terms that allude to different types of aggressions and manipulations used against women, the most oft-repeated term being “feminicide”.
Thus Rosler’s video is a feminist analysis of power relations through the articulation of the gaze. The artist undertakes an analysis of the place in which the patriarchal gaze challenges the woman, and it approaches this analysis using the tactic of frustrating expectations of cinematic visual pleasure. This is to say, it seeks to negate and annihilate the pleasure associated with the visual domination of woman. Naturally Rosler does not describe the dominant gaze as specifically associated with men, but she does describe a complex web connected to the knowledge-power dualism in the development of bourgeois society and the patriarchal system.
According to Kipnis, works such as the one described have served as cornerstones of the development of feminist videographic practice, and they sum up a position which has brought reactions in later video productions by women. According to this argument, Vital Statistics of a Citizen, Simply Obtained may be viewed today as a radical experience in dis-pleasure. However, “pleasure and curiosity are expectations that are inevitably linked to watching a video or movie screen, and a nude body always offers sufficient emotional stimulation to arouse at the very least some slight interest: and it is precisely for this reason that the video and performance artists take their clothing off. Here, however, a spectator’s initial interest in participating in the experience of watching a video puts the unfortunate spectator on trial, by setting up a perfect dilemma: though a chain of associations made with the off-camera voice that is giving the lecture, we are implicated in an important collection of horrors, ranging from racist intelligence tests to crimes against native Americans and even the mass extermination of human beings.”
Kipnis continues: “Despite the fact that the appraising type of gaze that the video arouses comes fundamentally from the masculine perspective, we cannot assert that we female viewers do not look at the naked bodies without evaluating them and without curiosity, regardless of their sexuality.” Accordingly, the critical reading of Rosler is radicalised, to the point of affirming that “Although the voice track of the video allows us to think that such things as self-measuring are imposed on us as the victims we are, it also implicate us in our own victimisation, since, whether we realise it or not, our participation makes us guilty. The reading that Rosler’s video offers gives the impression of being both self-censuring and at the same time denying some aspects of reality... Although I suppose that what Rosler was thinking about when she made the video was something like a radical rejection of the dominant forms of representation. It was always a fallacy of the Left and of feminism in the 1970s to think that ordinary people can be brow-beaten into enlightenment, by impugning their pleasures, upbraiding them for moral failings, offering nothing from the territory of beauty or utopia, and expect them to obediently submit. What Rosler proposes, aside from making the male or female viewer feel bad, is the authority of her own analysis, i.e., more authority... What Rosler seems to have forgotten is how the off-camera voice that scourges the common folk is a form of domination not unlike what she is criticising, or that her attack against power is simply replaced by a new version of power. As the off-camera voice tells us repeatedly, “this work is about coercion”. And while Rosler’s intention must have been to express these view in a non-coercive manner, it is impossible to conceive of a non-coercive space: while the video criticises the cruelty of scientists and intellectuals, it itself is cruel.”
And so, beyond the somewhat excessive terms used by Kipnis in her criticism of Rosler’s video, I would like to bring up her reflections, since in a way they serve as a clarifying catalyst to show certain recent feminist concerns in the field of artistic theory and practice, in the sense of an attempt to reformulate policies bearing on pleasure and gender, the gaze and sexuality, beyond “de-aesthetics” 19.
Just as Rosler’s video amounts to a virulent rejection of imposed forms of representation, one of the tactics most employed in recent years by feminists and collectives grouped around one of the non-normative sexualities has looked less to rejection or negation as to the subversion and distortion of imposed representations. If indeed, the term “inverted” was once used in psychiatry to refer to homosexuality, it might be said that the reappropriation of imposed representations is the literal development of this originally normative and pejorative term: thus “inversion” would become both an aesthetic and a political tactic. Such appears to be the case of Sadie Benning, who earned fame when, at 16, she began to make home videos. Unedited, and rudimentarily made, Benning’s videos evinced her adolescent attraction to other women with pride, irony and humour. In her 1992 production It Wasn’t Love, Benning appropriates the “masculinising” stereotypes of lesbianism, in order to destabilise them with her representations of sexuality and gender, while appearing to deny the possibility of constructing any new type of standard from alternative options. Returning to Kipnis, “there are an increasing number of videos influenced by policies that aggressively invert heterosexuality and maintain the difference in a precarious fashion”.
The video cited narrates Benning’s crush on an older woman and her crazy plan, which never materialises, to travel with her by car from Milwaukee to Hollywood. Instead of running away together, they end up fighting in the parking lot of a fast-food restaurant. Indeed, Benning’s rebellious attitude, not lacking in self-irony and humour, is made manifest largely in her capacity to play the “bad girl”, and hence to subvert the stereotype of the lesbian as a menacing, masculinised woman. Thus we see her strutting in front of the camera dressed like a proud young lad. Gender, in line with recent political attitudes, becomes a kind of play, a matter of potentially shifting and destabilisable roles, rather than exclusively a question of the oppression of women.
It might thus be concluded that the distortion of or the departure from gender representations, along with the claim that sexuality should be a sphere for pleasure and also a territory made for the creation of alternative forms of visual pleasure, in recent years have been widespread and successful tactics used by groups normally associated with non-normative sexual options. However, it is much harder to find such tactics used with regard to female heterosexuality. Vanalyne Green’s 1989 video, entitled A Spy in the House that Routh Built, was an exceptional and liberating gesture, with few precedents in the field of video. Green’s video is a first-person narrative of her three-year obsession with and immersion in the man’s world of baseball. Looking beyond her constant attempts to find theoretical justifications for this, Green falls time and again into the acceptance of her enjoyment of looking at male bodies, and she comments ironically about her incapacity to distance herself enough to allow her to develop a sophisticated view of her own obsession and desire.
To be sure, more than a few feminists have reflected about the possibility of using visual art to construct a feminine “new space of desire”, and which does not renounce criticism and negation of the dominant portrayals of women that we have inherited from previous generations of feminist artists. The essay by Laura Kipnis from which I have quoted is certainly part of this trend. In the videos that Kipnis uses as counter-examples for her essay, as contrasted with the earliest feminist videos, the tactics women use generally involve a reappropriation of the narrative, of humour and of certain forms of visual pleasure. However, honesty demands that we acknowledge that such tactics are not necessarily in opposition to feminist “de-aesthetics”, which probably constitute the historical pre-condition for today’s efforts by feminists to construct spaces for visual pleasure that serve as alternatives to the dominant ones. This appears to be how Kate Haug understands it, when she notes that “important artists continue to work with the female body and feminine sexuality [...]. Regardless of whether or not the work is sexually explicit, and although it poses a notion of identity that is different from the works of the 1960s and 1970s, the sexual free will of the female body is crucial for them: concern to create and show [...] sexual activity underscores both the importance of sexually explicit works and the questions surrounding them”. And she notifies us of the following: “If women artists were to stop using sexual free will and sexual activity in their work, the cultural production of sex would be exclusively masculine: men literally create the signs of sex.” 20.
This essay is based on the following texts and materials, in which the arguments pursued and questions addressed are developed further: the research project Tu cuerpo es un campo de batalla. Las imágenes de la mujer en el arte posfeminista [Your body is a battleground. Images of woman in post-feminist art], School of Fine Arts, University of Valencia, 1991); the introductory essays and the videos in the series Políticas de género. Feminismos, representation, arte, media [Gender politics: Feminisms, representation, art, media], made in collaboration with Marcelo Expósito, Filmoteca Valenciana/Institut Valenci de la Dona, 1993); the printed version and by projects submitted at the lecture “Re-visión. Notas para un debate sobre arte y feminisms” [“Re-view: Notes for a debate on art and feminism”], in the series Crítica cultural y creación artística [Cultural criticism and artistic creation), coordinated by José Miguel Cortés, and sponsored by the Cultural promotional Agency of the Valencia government in 1998; and lastly, my lecture notes and videos from the seminar Mujeres y cámara [Women and camera], School of Phililology, University of Valencia, 1999.
1 Feminisms, in so far as it must be established that feminism has historically been characterised as a diversified discourse, which has continually questioned itself, posing its own contradictions and self-criticism, and in no way being a reactionary or fundamentalist theoretical corpus, thus it is not necessarily homogeneous.
2 Jorge Luis Marzo, “La revisión feminista de la historia del arte” in Lápiz, no. 78, july, 1991, p. 38; Anna C. Chave, interviewed in La Vanguardia by Marzo and Jeffry Swartz, in the series “Revisión de la crítica americana”, February-March, 1991.
3 Estrella de Diego, El andrógino sexuado. Eternos ideales, nuevas estrategias de género, Madrid, Visor/La balsa de la Medusa, 1992.
4 Annie Higonnet, “Secluded Vision”, reprinted in Broude and Garrard (eds.), Feminism and Art History. Questioning the Litany, New York, Harper and Row Publishers, 1982.
5 Linda Nochlin, “Why Have There Been no Great Women Artists?”, reprinted in Women, Art, and Power, and Other Essays, New York, Harper & Row, 1988.
6 Lucy Lippard, “What Is Female Imagery?” [an interdisciplinary debate with Susan Hall, Linda Nochlin, Joan Snyder, Susana Torre], reprinted in From the Center. Feminist Essays on Women’s Art, New York, E. P. Dutton, 1976.
7 Kate Linker, “Representation and sexuality” (1983), Spanish version in Mar Villaespesa (ed.), 100%, Seville, Museo de Arte Contempor neo/Instituto de la Mujer, 1993.
8 Referring to a releveat text in this order, the anthology Universal Abandon? The Politics of Postmodernism, Andrew Ross (ed.), Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1988.
9 Rey Chow, “Autómatas postmodernos”, in Giulia Colaizzi (ed.), Feminism and Theory of the Discourse, Madrid, Cátedra, 1990.
10 Nancy Fraser and Linda Nicholson, “Social Criticism without Philosophy: An Encounter between Feminism and Postmodernism”, in Andrew Ross (ed.), op cit.
11 Craig Owens, “The Discourse of the Others: the Feminists and Postmodernism” (1983), Spanish version in Hal Foster (ed.), La posmodernidad, Barcelona, Kairós, 1985.
12 Michéle Montrelay, quoted by Craig Owens, op. cit., p. 96.
13 In any case, before going beyond this matter, one should remember that such a genealogy would lead us to mention many names, such as those of Laura Mulvey, Constance Penley, Claire Johnston, Pam Cook, Stephen Heath, Peter Wollen and Jacqueline Rose, and an ample bibliography linked to film theory and other sources of visual criticism.
14 Teresa de Lauretis, Estética y teoría feminist: reconsiderando el cine femenino (1985), Spanish version in Mar Villaespesa (ed.), 100%, Seville, Museo de Arte Contemporáneo/Instituto de la Mujer, 1993.
15 Thus, Giulia Colaizzi is able to assess as film “de-esthetics” the critical project linked to the idea of “women’s films”, just as the feminist film theory (Colaizzi (ed.), Feminism y Film Theory proposed, Valencia, Episteme, 1995). Thus, one might speak also, at times, of an artistic de-aesthetic.
16 Lauretis links these reflections to a large degree to the way in which Laura Mulvey defends “the destruction of visual and narrative pleasure as the main objective of feminine film”, referring, of course, to her pivotal essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Films” (1975), Valencia, Centro de Semiótica y Teoría del Espectáculo, Vol. 1, 1988; as well as the films she made with Peter Wollen. In any case, although it is not possible here to enlarge on this nuance except as a footnote, it could be pointed out that, in face of the growing, diverse reconsiderations and criticisms of Mulvey’s classic text —and the second part of the present essay shows this—, her formulations were never so monolithic, important aspects of this work having been revised later. With reference to the outlines of the subject under discussion, I think it is of interest to refer to Mulvey’s essays on Barbara Kruger, Victor Burgin and Mary Kelly, written in the mid-1980s, and reprinted in Visual and Other Pleasures, London, MacMillan, 1989.
17 Title of a work by Sue Williams, dated 1992.
18 Spanish version in Erreakzioa/Reaction, np. 9, 1999. (Address of the women artists’ collective Erreakzioa/Reacción: Apdo. Correos 20148, 48080 Bilbao). From now on, in the second part of my essay, the quotes in inverted commas, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from this work by Kipnis.
19 To quote another reference available in Spanish, a work by Kate Haug in 1998 also explains how feminist films confront the problem of women filming female sexuality, and, also through a further study of the essay by Laura Mulvey. In it, Haug refers to the censorship inflicted on Carolee Schneemann by other feminists —because of her film Fuses, made in 1974, which contained erotic sex scenes, showing Schneemann having homosexual relations with her lover before the camera, and showing and studying her genitals— which led the writer to ask herself: “Did I go too far, or does my work explore an erotic integration, aimed at women as self-contained, self-defined and pleasure-loving beings?”. Kate Haug, The Experimental Woman. Avant-garde film with sexually explicit images filmed by women, in the catalogue For Your Eyes Only; the feminist factor in relation to the visual arts, Donostia, Arteleku, 1998. I am aware of a similar instance of censorship, which took place close to home and recently, when a festival of women’s film and video refused to show a video by Annie Sprinkle called Sluts and Goddesses (1991), which was a sort of crash course in women’s sexuality and autoeroticism —a very humourous work based on TV “infomercials” and aerobic exercise videos..
20 Kate Haug, ibid., p. 181.