Figuring Out the Abstract: Gender, Politics, and Art

Judy Chicago, “The Dinner Party” via Brooklyn Musuem

To view, or “perform” art as Rosie Goldberg argues, is a challenge. We are often at a disadvantage even before we open our eyes to what is in front of us. Still in the 21st century, even after the art sociologist John Berger’s brilliant TV series Ways of Seeing, men look with sex in their eyes.

To cognitive scientists, it is hard-wired and “natural” for men to do this, but not all of us are like the Lemmy Cautions in the world. In the French movie Comment qu’elle est (1960), Lemmy, played by Eddie Constantine, walks around in an art gallery, looks with contempt at a few abstract paintings, and then notices another work, the shapely leg of what appears to be a mannequin. As the camera moves up the leg, we find it is not a work in the museum but a woman. Cherchez la femme! Lemmy makes a wisecrack about how he prefers the latter (figurative) to the former (abstract).

A prominent art critic named Edward Lucie-Smith also preferred figurative works of the female subject in art. In his survey of contemporary art, Late Modern: The Visual Arts Since 1945, Lucie-Smith grossly omits a wide range of female artists. He feels obliged to include the Op Art artist Bridget Riley (1931- ) and the sculptor Barbara Hepworth (1903-1975), but where are Eva Hesse, Carolee Schneemann, and others?

In Edward Lucie-Smith’s book, women are often referred to as Miss, and the art is by men of female nudes, whole or abstracted that testify to the callous way men looked at women—typified by the bordello painting by Pablo Picasso “The Women of Algiers” (1955), the voyeuristic and explicit “Lolita” painting, “The Bedroom” (1954) by Balthus (1908-2001), and Tom Wesselmann’s (1931-2004) “Great American Nude no 44″ (1963). It then comes as no surprise that the artist Carolee Schneemann would title one of her works, “Meat Joy” (1964).

Much of art has to do with space, and unfortunately men have crowded that space for several thousands years. At the end of the book by Lucie-Smith, we see a photograph by Keith Arnatt called “I’m a real artist” as if women weren’t real artists. This demonstrates we are not dealing with men being men, but with a political aesthetic-ideology. Alberto Giacometti (1901 – 1966) can also be found in Lucie-Smith’s survey of art. About the sculpture, “Woman with her throat cut” (1932), Tate Modern writes:

The insect-like forms of the ‘woman’ are inspired by the praying mantis, which is said to devour its mate after copulation. One of the arms ends in a cylindrical weight that, according to the artist, was inspired by the nightmare of not being able to lift an arm to push an attacker away . . . The theme of violence and domination, mingled with fear of a devouring female, is shared by paintings by Picasso and others . . .

Eva Hesse (1936-1970) and Carolee Schneemann (1939-) have challenged this phallocratic approach to art. The work of Hesse has been analysed in reference to her Jewish origins, however in this essay it is her feminist credentials I would like to discuss. Her Accession series (1967-69) was prompted in part by a man, the leading conceptualist and minimalist Sol LeWitt who advised her to go crazy and visceral in her art. More breasts, penises and cunts. She obliged but not in the terms he would have liked, I imagine. Accession is programmatic and formal in the way that Piet Mondrian reduced nature from the naturalist mimetic principle to abstract fun, and yet it is palpably not.

Eva Hesse, Accession II

Hesse’s Accession series illustrates that her point of departure was an already abstract “reduced” form. Her sculptures “Inside I” and “Inside II” (1967), precursors to Accession, comprised of cubes with objects inside that seemed somewhat scatological. Some critics invoke Melanie Klein in their interpretation of Hesse’s Accession series; others see the work as hermaphroditic in that it has a womb space with hundreds of mini penises (microvilli) inseminating it. I prefer to see the work purely as the female orifice and the tubes as representative of the pubic hair.

It is the image of a cunt, both powerful and challenging. The artwork presents the opposition to a penetrative male gaze, and an opposition to the abusive, unconscious manner of Lemmy or Edward. The ready-made industrial-based materials in the series are also proof of Hesse’s command of the media and her overall synthesis of previous work.  With the microvilli, we can see the repetition of the hirsute quality of her earlier works that used cord, wire, and string, which mirrors another dominant theme in her work, that of repetition itself.

The bolder and more openly provocative “Interior Scroll” of Carolee Schneemann offers a political equivalent. In her performance from 1975 the scroll is pulled out gradually from her vagina, the forbidden locus of art, but also a much appropriated and exploited space. It may be argued that the “scroll” is the text of feminism writ large cutting through the male libidinal demands of acquiescence and silence.

Carolee Schneemann, “Interior Scroll” (1975)

Hesse adds conceptually in “Accession II” to the abstract “reduced” form—she adds WOMAN. In the case of Schneemann’s “Interior Scroll,”  her ritualistic performance undermines the male gaze which wishes to denigrate or tame her. The pulling out of the scroll is a feminist revelation. From out of her interior comes a message, slowly and defiantly. The performance, “Vagina Painting” (1965) by the Japanese flux artist, Shigeko Kubata, and the infamous ceramic “cunts” of “The Dinner Party” (1974-79) by Judy Chicago, stage the taboo of the female interior, one which men seek but do not understand.

Schneemann has consistently described her art as involving both male and female, and she refers to the scroll as a serpent. In my view, her act is the equivalent of the suffragette Emily Davison running in front of the King’s horse in 1913 or Mary Richardson’s attack in 1914 on the “Rokeby Venus” by Velaquez. It puts a woman on stage—on her own terms.

The hegemony of the male in the period of great experimentation was supreme. Andy Warhol ruled over his brood. The art critics and patrons marginalized women to supporting roles or to the one token artist. In another book of the 1970’s, edited by three men, Gerald Woods, Philip Thompson, and John Williams, entitled Art without Boundaries (1950), 70 out of roughly 80 artists are male.

What now of feminist art production in the 21st century? In the popular TV series Sex and the City there is an episode entitled “Power of the Female Sex” (1998). In this episode a male artist paints vaginas which he refers to as “cunts”. One of the female characters is persuaded to model because the artist’s wife had previously posed. This is a classical example of acquiescence. It is okay now for women to willingly pose for men and have their “cunts” exposed to the world, as long as it is authorized by other women.

We see in contemporary art many female performers who indulge in pornographic acts either alone or with others. Do the voluntary acts of masturbation or sex, in the near sacred aesthetic space of a gallery, provoke the male to reconsider the shocking abuses in the sex industry and culture-at-large?

In the 1960’s when the exposure of the body was political and provocative given the social milieu and laws of general censorship, such acts might be deemed justifiable, if we must justify art at all. But today in 2010 when pornography is much worse, and freely available in the Third media, do these acts constitute complicity? Does the very act of exposure or sex itself carry less political weight than before?

The gladiatorial contests of today, reality TV shows, seem to feed sexual bait to their mostly male audiences. The problem we are faced with may have more to do with the separation of the sex act from the theory and motivation behind it. One could see it in terms of a simulacrum where the represented sexual acts have now lost connection with the original referents. To dress up like a prostitute does not mean one condones prostitution. However it is not clear the viewer or audience can see this. There are several artists from the sex industry who today “perform” for the art world. Both Eva Hesse and Carolee Schneemann were of a generation when there was an obvious connection between the theory and the act, one that had far greater popular support than today. The explicit body performance and the theory of commodification were politically sound.

I believe there is a serious perceptual issue surrounding sex in our contemporary society. It is conceivable that men today would consider the images of “Interior Scroll” pornographic, and more so, if the main images were placed in a men’s magazine. Men still prefer the figurative over the abstract even in the reasoned arena of art discussion. In Moscow, for example, since the 1990’s, art without boundaries and censorship is often seen as a license for misogyny. In the latest Flash Art (Jan/Feb 2010) one reads a review of an art gallery which is a men-only zone. That is in itself scandalous, but worse still is the widespread acceptance in Russia that pornography can be art as long as it is in the privileged space of a gallery.

From the perspective of this essayist, the notion of a male hegemony is frighteningly real, from soft drink commercials that are sold using naked women to the sexism still rampant in the workplace, to the one-child policies that have severely reduced the female population, to sex slavery and the continuation of “snuff movies.” It is very apparent something must be done. We can perhaps begin by looking again at art.

I was born in London in 1956. I studied art at Herefordshire College, later went to UEA and studied literature. I worked abroad then came back to do a law degree. I have had poetry published in New Poetry, Snakeskin, Dada, Pif etc. I am a researcher in zoosemiotics based in Denmark.