Friday, March 26, 2010

The Future is Feminist

American Women: "There was no underwear in space."; Gail Collins

In the mania leading up to the millennial-new-years I heard someone (after a decade I cannot remember who) say that feminism would be remembered as the most important intellectual breakthrough of the 20th Century, topping heavier-than-air flight, the nuclear bomb, and dwarfing the Internet for its impact on human history. Having grown up in the immediate wake of the second-wave feminism, it stuck me at the time as a solid commonsense truth.

In 2003 Gail Collin's history, America's Women (a book with the awesome subtitle: 400 Years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates, and Heroines), further confirmed that now-anonymous pre-millennial assessment. For Collins women’s history encompasses medical science, marriage, fashion, law, labor relations, sexual mores, and colonial era menstruation taboos (they didn’t leave a single written comment on the subject – not one). But like all good chefs Collins left me hungry for more. The women's movement itself was just a small section at the very end of the book, hardly 20 pages. So I was excited to hear that with her new book, When Everything Changed, Collins had decided to tackle the women's movement from 1960 forward. I finished it Friday. It further solidifies that millennial observation that we are living through a sea change in human history.

Our Bodies Ourselves (1972); Rebel Princess (1977)

I have some personal memories of the second-wave, but I was very young, so they are a fragmentary and disjointed. There was a frank conversation with my aunt Jo about the Fonz’s misogyny (“Yeah but he’s really cool, that’s why the chicks like him so much” my 10-year-old self tried to explain). The then-everyday normality of my older sister’s copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves kicking around the house is only remarkable when you think of a world where women had to be encouraged to look at their own vaginas, ask their doctors questions and demand orgasms. Because Our Bodies is a matter-of-fact relic of my childhood I never thought to question the books mix of explicit information about sex and medicine.

Collins writes that Our Bodies began in 1969 when “a group of women in Boston decided to get together and share their feeling of frustration and anger toward… doctors who were condescending paternalistic, judgmental, and noninformative.” It was only as I read Collins and tried to imagine the changes Afghanistan would (and will) have to go through to make a Pashtun version of Our Bodies an unremarkable everyday reality, that I was struck by how radical the book was politically, how transformative its been. (Has someone written a transgender equivalent? Like women in the 1960s that is a community at the crumbling edge of medical science and ethics, and without an authoritative text young men/women and men/women are at the mercy of plastic surgeons and hormone dealing quacks.)

It wasn’t until I was in my early twenties and began to befriend baby boomers, men 10 and 20 years older than myself that I got my first taste of the bitter end of the revolution. I heard about the ways their first marriages had imploded; the friends they no longer spoke to after open marriages turned into open fights. Those guys were raised in the old world and never saw the wave coming (no one did). Most of them had tried to ride it, some of them succeeded, but from what I could gather, a lot of them felt pretty badly thrown. Their jokes, and painful remembrances had lost a lot of edge by the time I was hearing them in the early 90s, but all the same, they were always a bit alien to me. I had empathy for what they had gone through, but it is not what I went through at all.

Guerrilla Girls vs Greasers
During the second-wave I was not the sexist pig boyfriend/husband, I was the only son. Most all of my personal memories of the 2nd Wave are positive. They involve my sisters, my mom and step-mother, my dad, aunts, teachers, neighbors and the mothers of my friends. Sometimes they involved scolding, but never in a way that I remember as harsh. Mostly it was a mater of explaining that the bullshit I was seeing on TV was in fact bullshit. Feminism was a meta narrative. It didn't make the Fonz and Daisy Duke any less attractive, but it did help make sense of their bizarre and extraordinary behavior, and it usually did so in a pretty playful manner, “Actually no John, the Fonz is not cool at all. He's a total jerk.” (usually). All the same these are memories full of smiling women, I don't have first hand memories of the anger and humorlessness I've seen and heard so much about.

The one exception was the first show of contemporary art I can remember seeing. I must have been around 11. My parents had split and my dad had remarried. My mom was dark and pretty, she had the modernist cool of Laura Petrie, she was so very Mary Tyler Moore. My step-mother was cool in a whole new way. She wore batik and was a self-described feminist. If my dad had been Dick Van Dyke while he was with my mom, he was Allen Alda now, his new wife Jane, was very exotic to my ten-year old self (the macrobiotic diet, chop sticks, that kind of stuff). My father had been on the Danahue show, Jane was on Opra they were an early 80s power couple. In 1981, they took us to see Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party. It would be a decade before my older sister and I traded notes on our memories of the exhibition, but as it turns out the show impressed itself on both of us, but for very different reasons.
Chicago vs Milwaukee
 It must have been the opening because we both remember it as very crowded. I was still a pretty small guy, and so I was pressed in low, unable to see faces, and about eye level with the plates. After shuffling around the massive triangular table and checking out each setting there was a short making-of documentary in an adjoining room. My sister, who was in her teens and just beginning to figure things out, remembers watching the film and being hugely relieved to find out the plates were supposed to look like vaginas. She was afraid that she was some kind of pervert who saw vaginas everywhere. What I remember clearest of all was the vibe of the crowd. Pressed down among the plates and crotches I was not worried that I might be a pervert (I had not yet even begun to figure things out), I was trying to understand why every one was so angry. As it turns out I am still puzzling together the answer.

Collins writes about the contempt and sneering jokes that the early feminists faced, and while I wasn’t surprised by any of the stories she told (and many of them I half remembered hearing about at one time or another), it is amazing to read about them in detail one after another, to have them fit together in the context of a chronology. But all the same what I remember for myself, what I have heard from my older friends and family, is that while the jokes and sneers were constant, and there was real anger, for a while the optimism outweighed the anger.
Suffragist, Alice Stokes Paul (1965); Joan Mitchell, La Grande Vallee XIII (1983)

Collins writes that “If, in 1972, you had told ERA supporters that the amendment wouldn’t be ratified by 1977, they would have been surprised and alarmed… It felt as though the women’s movement had become an unstoppable wave.” And in the introduction of her book The Pink Glass Swan the art critic Lucy Lippard describes that period as “that early bloom of optimism, when we though, or hoped, that in ten years feminism would have changed society itself.” With the advantage of hindsight Collins paints a complex picture of the backlash and blow-back in the late 70s. The economy tanked, liberalized divorce laws left a generation of middle-aged housewives cut loose and stranded, and the Republicans had regrouped as social reactionaries. (This had not always been the case, first wave of feminists had been wealthy women fighting for their emancipation and the Republicans had been nominally supportive of their cause.)

Judy Chicago (1970); Rainbow Pickett (1965)

The ERA amendment failed to be ratified, Ronald Reagan was elected president (not a good thing for woman’s rights, or anyone else's) and, as my sister and I pieced together our bits of memory, a third component came into focus – when the Dinner Party came to Chicago, Judy Chicago’s hometown and chosen name sake. But it was not at the invitation of a museum, it was exhibited in some sort of space on Printers Row in the south end of Loop (my sister and I agree on that, she remembers the building as low I remember it as a tall 19th century industrial building). This was not a good thing, this was as backwater as the art world got in 1981. Like Lippard, Judy Chicago had begun as a partisan of minimalism. Her work Rainbow Pickets was shown next to Robert Smithson’s work in the Primary Structures show in 1966. She was a badass, or should have been.

As a native Chicagoan I am ashamed that the Dinner Party was treated so shabbily, and ashamed that it took me all these years to piece together why everyone was so angry that night (I sorted it out as I wrote this post). The women in the room had lots of general reasons to be unhappy and disappointed in 1981, but they had an immediate reason to be furious that night. They should have been fĂȘting Judy Chicago at the Art Institute or the Museum of Contemporary Art. Chicago (the artist) was a nationally known artist, and a native Chicagoan, but like women in Houston, Boston, Cleveland and DC who organized exhibitions of the Dinner Party, women in Chicago (the city) had had to raise money and find a non-art space to show the first monumental feminist work of art. That had to suck.

Donald Judd, Untitled (1968): Judy Chicago. The Dinner Party, 1975–1979

After years of floating around without an institutional home, the Dinner Party was finally bought by the Brooklyn Museum and in 2007 it was permanently installed in a gallery that looks like something out of Star Trek the Next Generation. I am always hesitant to revisit art works that has had a strong influence on me (I am afraid they will disappoint), but I took my nephew to see the Dinner Party. He was about the same age as I had been when I had seen it, and I wanted to share it with him. I had remembered the piece as being somewhat corny (not that there's anything wrong with macrame and batik) and was pleasantly surprised to see how polished and impressive the work is (especially the textile work, which floored me). Looking at The Dinner Party with adult eyes Judy Chicago’s minimalist roots are clearly visible.

The feminist art historian Anna Chave begins her essay Minimalism and the Rhetoric of Power (now canonical, yet WTF she has no wiki page) by describing two teenage girls kissing their own reflections and then kicking a Donald Judd brass box at MOMA. She criticized minimalist art as “Representing power in such an abrasive, terse and unapologetic way, the work none the less has a chilling effect: this is authority represented as authority does not usually like to represent itself; authority as authoritarian.”

Chave rigorously interrogates minimalist art in terms of power, and uses the philosopher Michel Foucault as a touch point, arguing that, “Foucault admits no possibility of a radical dismantling of systems of power and undertakes no theorizing or imagining of a society or world without domination.” And points to the possibility of a distinctly female “capacity” (as opposed to power) of nurturance. Judy Chicago like Lipard and Chave turned away from minimalism. Chicago was rejected by the sexist power structures of the art world of the 1970s, and righteously charted her own course, but I am not at all convince that she avoided power. On the subject of power I side with Foucault:
“I don’t believe there can be a society without relations of power, if you understand them as means by which individuals try to conduct, to determine the behavior of others. The problem is not of trying to dissolve them in the utopia of a perfectly transparent communication, but to give one’s self the rules of law, the techniques of management, and also the ethics, the ethos, the practice of self, which would allow these games of power to be played with a minimum of domination.”

Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art (2007); Star Destroyer (1977)

As my nephew and I circled the massive triangular table checking out the settings, we talked about the goddesses, saints, queens and finally, artists valorized at each setting. And we did so in the absence of women, angry or otherwise, there was no crowded press that day, we had the room to ourselves. Two guys raised in the wake of a Wave. Me in the second-wake him in the third. Two men very accustom to the new structures of power.

Like my boyhood self, my nephew enjoyed the settings more and more as they became more sculptural. As we reached the Georgia O’Keefe plate (easily the most sexually graphic setting at the table), I couldn’t help but point out that the relief had become so deep “you could drink soup out of this one.” As far as I could tell the vaginal imagery was largely lost on him, and so was my joke. But like me, he will remember the piece in terms of who he was with, in the context of his family, and the life he sees the women around him leading. I wanted his memories of The Dinner Party to be fun. A game played with a minimum of domination.

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