The FEMINIST ART OF 70's MEETS CRITICAL SPICE
8.6.2010 Jenna Jauhiainen
Originally I intended to review this exhibition on the basis of my experiences. I was asked to go and see the Donna: Avanguardia femminista negli anni '70 exhibition in Galleria Nazionale D'Arte Moderna in Rome, and to reflect what kind of experience the exhibition of the first wave feminists’ art would give to me. Instead of a coherent experience during the exhibition, it took me a long time to figure out what had gotten under my skin.
My knowledge of the feminist art of 70's is sucked only randomly from popular culture. Maybe some articles that I've read during the years have touched the subject from a general point of view, too. Also Cindy Sherman's work was briefly considered during a photography course in high school. My young mind expected that the feminist movement of the 70’s was colored by confidence and realization of freedom to be acted upon. What I saw in most of the photographic work in the exhibition gave me a different feeling - I couldn't help but to see narcissism behind many works.
I have always seen myself as a natural person capable to create my own reality. I was born into the world of the nineties, where anybody could be and do anything, at least according to public propaganda. I loved Spice Girls and one of my first introductions to British politics was the following quote from Geri Halliwell: "Maggie was the first Spice Girl. We Spice Girls are true Thatcherites. Thatcher was the first Spice Girl, the pioneer of our ideology, Girl Power”, in reference to Margaret Thatcher who served as the prime minister of United Kingdom from 1979 to 1990.
Popular culture was filled with empowered women and even heroines – Felicity, Xena, Buffy and the like showed a very different image of women in comparison to the passive victims they were portrayed decades back (so I've heard). According to popular imagery I could be slaying vampires, conquering lands or even holding a high paid job like Ally McBeal and still remain a desirable woman. And help me lord when they started airing Sex and the City.
In most of the works in the Donna 70 exhibition the artist had used her body as a tools, and I could say a tools of trade. Having a woman's body at your disposal is, so to say, beneficial if there is a right market. Today we are in a point where 'top models' earn a yearly salary counted in millions of Euros regardless of the financial meltdown. In Italy, practically anything can be advertised by using a female body as bait for attention.
I feel that 'my generation' is very conscious of the possibilities to survive by using one’s body, especially to entertain and sell (products). Both things are very controversial when touching the sphere of art. Maybe there has been something that the artists of the Donna 70 exhibition have wanted to awaken by exposing their tits to the flash of a camera? To comment the supposed 'process of identification,' I have to point out, that a photograph cannot capture one’s soul.
As for the social realm, I appreciate anonymity as an option. The reason for this is, that in a world where anonymity is an opportunity (thanks to mainly internet) people are given a possibility to express what they really are. Conversations behind nicknames can be conducted without any reference to one’s individual qualities, like the holy triangle age, race and sex. Or maybe this is just what I grew up to in the end of the nineties, beginning of 00's, before all these 'social networking' sites, which bring back the holy triangle, among other details, to help create the basis for prejudge.
In my opinion what is crucial in the freedom to express and communicate, is to be without unnecessary information about one’s external matters. And this is something I have understood as an aim for feminism, as well. Instead this, the first wave feminist art hit me with works that pleaded to be analyzed from the psychoanalytical position. In my opinion art is a great venue, maybe 'the venue,' to express oneself without the necessity to put forward the persona of the creator. The danger in objectifying one’s own body is to do so from the realms of narcissism.
Hannah Wilke's work hit my nerve the most. I was completely incapable of reading behind her, to understand from what stand point she presented herself as a topless / nude model in most of her works that were exhibited (excluding the video 'Gestures', which is concentrated on her face and her capacity to alter it mainly through facial muscle control). In connection to her series of photographs called 'Super-T-Art' she says: ' I was very pretty and glamorous and the socially provocative aspect of it prompted me to create my first work.'
After the exhibition I was for a couple of hours intensely haunted by this, and luckily got saved by Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex, which I randomly found from a second hand bookstore. A quick look into the sub chapter of 'Justifications' is 'The Narcissist,' which gave me good back up from the pen of a historical feminist writer:
'The fact is that narcissism is a well-defined process of identification, in which the ego is regarded as an absolute end and the subject takes refuge from himself in it.'
This helped me to return to the above quote from Hannah Wilke. Narcissist or egoist qualities such as prettiness and 'being glamorous' and to be socially provocative are the premises from which the work is now regarded worth of seeing.
In the second wave feminist movement of 70's there seems to linger an idea about protesting the 'cult of genius.' I would like to know why, because for my eyes the various and deep works of geniuses are exactly those which lack the hidden ego-ism. From the above mentioned chapter in The Second Sex:
'Ineffective, isolated, woman can neither find her place nor take her own measure; she gives herself supreme importance because no object of importance is accessible to her.'
In the light of the above quote I would like to throw in the air an interpretation of the works of art in the exhibition. Without the capacity or stealth to become a 'genius,' most of these works have been born from the inability to conceptualize anything that is profoundly important. A work of art, which is largely objectification of the creator’s 'corpus' shows us a glimpse of the psyche of the artist. Poetically it could be described and seen in the light of the mystery of the self, the infinite search for a lost identity. But when looking at the real aesthetic merits, there is no meaning that would last beyond time.
To throw in a small piece of a puzzle of art definition, I should say that art definition excludes such ego driven works with their goal to broaden the awareness of others. I say this, because I believe the ego can speak only about itself. Our current popular culture bombards us with works hugging the ego that produced it, leaving us to compare ourselves with other individuals, instead of allowing us to mirror ourselves to what we ought to be as human beings.
When I looked at the images from the 70's , I couldn't see anything uplifting, which I assumed to be part of the intention behind feminist art. I saw desperation, confusion, even a compulsive need to present oneself by hiding behind constructed identities. Cindy Sherman has been consistent enough in her work to nullify it all as an important visual representation of something that does not matter.
By taking a variety of physical forms she manages to show that she is none of those fictive characters, which soothe the viewer. Appearance does not matter. Her essence is not to be found in the form of an image. A person looking for a profound idea in art can linger through her work and sigh 'ah, nothing to see here.'
My gift of black and white thinking allows me to take a different standpoint towards objectifying oneself. I am in full support of the following quote, which I randomly found while reading some material unrelated to the creation of this article:
'When a soul evolves, that soul has the ability to enter into their Spirit or Overseer and that soul can look at herself from the eyes of the Spirit rather than the flesh, and so one can see oneself as the Witness of oneself. In other words, you can see yourself objectively. This is a great grace and a great attainment of spiritual evolution.'
Witnessing ones own consciousness is an approved and pretty ancient practice of the yogis to attain a 'higher' perspective to existence. Thus by combining one’s creative capacity and one’s physical existence in an image could be seen as an attempt to observe one’s very consciousness– or at least a sparkle of it – from a higher ground. This is an interesting option that shines through the work of Fransesca Woodman.
She situates herself in space, mostly spaces of abandoned buildings (I know, that psychoanalysts have a lot to say about abandoned buildings between the ears). She takes garments, unusual objects of interest, furniture, wallpaper, naked girl friends and so on, to reflect her mind in the images inside the symbolic abandoned house. Majority of her images, which are black and white photographs, indicate incapacity to handle complex matters like that of color variety. I totally feel for her.
Early forms of 'social networking' sites, like irc-gallery in Finland, have shown me the same process, the same search for a shortcut to see oneself by objectifying symbols of the mind and the body of the mind. I recommend to browse such sites, in which young women using a pseudonym and persons from other age and sex groups share works where they show themselves 'as they are' not only for others, but most importantly, for themselves.
Is this spiritual evolution? Maybe so, and maybe this led Fransesca Woodman to incurable boredom: she had solved the first riddle of life before the age of 22, when she committed suicide.
Has our society experienced spiritual evolution due to technology that made it very easy to take self-portraits jammed of body and reflections of soul? I think I have gone beyond wishful thinking here.
As for Rome, the exhibition was in a right place when it comes to a 'need' for feminism. Personally I think that this is not the sort of feminism that is of importance here, as you might have read between the lines. I've discussed the subject with other foreigners living in Rome to find out how they feel about the 'gender atmosphere' in Rome.
We had to admit that life is easier here for a young woman. Attention is easily achieved, men always pay wining and dining, and in general one gets treated like a child incapable of finding her way back home. It is a trap for ladies. After the inevitable shedding of youthfulness it is very likely that a woman is confined to bitterness while men continue to conquer young flesh until the grave (a friend of mine in her twenties has received suggestions from men over the age of 60).
There's a need for girl power down here - narcissism is something Italians are already familiar with.