Against Political Art

The following is a video and transcript of a guest lecture I gave at the University of New Orleans on Oct 26, 2017.  The event was sponsored by the UNO Women's Center and the Women's and Gender Studies Program.  I was invited to return to my undergraduate Alma Mater by my mentor Dr. Lisa Verner, the director of the Women's Center at the University of New Orleans.

by Megan Gafford

Thank you, Dr. Verner, for inviting me to speak today.  It’s an honor to return to my Alma Mater.  I hope each of you know how lucky you are to have Dr. Verner as the director of your Women’s Center.  When I was a student here she was my greatest mentor, and so I know how devoted she is to her students.  I want to begin by telling you a story, in which Dr. Verner played a part, and then use this story to draw an analogy between the lesson I learned and my opinions on political art.

I hope you don’t mind my starting with an anecdote rather than getting straight to the point - but after all, “the personal is political.”

That phrase emerged during the second-wave feminist movement in the late 1960s to describe the way personal events are connected to the great sociopolitical struggles.  It is a powerful idea.  Every person in this room has experiences that exemplify the painful problems plaguing the human race.

While there is immense value in talking about those problems in a general sense, using the language of statistics, we often find that the devil is in the details; the stories we tell fill statistical knowledge with substance, or they help us understand things we have no data to explain.

And so, here is my story:

I came to UNO as a fundamentalist Christian, but I graduated as an atheist.  New Orleans has a reputation for corrupting debauchery, but what actually shook my faith was enrolling in Dr. Verner’s “Bible as Literature” class.  This wasn’t her intention, of course.  For the first time, I studied the bible as a human creation rather than the revealed word of god, and so I noticed a number of errors.  Because I believed the bible had to be literally true, a single crack made everything crumble.

I came to realize that I couldn’t believe anymore, and poor Dr. Verner felt terrible when she received my soul-searching emails describing how my whole world-view was falling apart.

I remember staring at the hardwood floor, flecked with cat hair, in the exact moment when it all came undone.  The floorboards looked so solid, yet my reality liquidated... and I couldn’t discern what ideas, if any, were worth integrating into a new understanding of how the world works.

My certainty about the meaning of my own life left me.  I felt like I was mourning the death of my father.  Except I also felt like a bit of an idiot, like an adult with an imaginary friend.  It used to be that during such anguish I would have prayed, but I remembered all the times I had prayed before, when I had truly thought I was receiving a response, and it made me feel a little crazy - like a schizophrenic listening to the voices in her head.

This moment is my most edifying lesson.  And as harrowing as it felt, I hope it is an experience that you share with me.  I don’t mean, specifically, that I want you to lose faith in god, but that I hope you feel what it’s like to find out how completely wrong you are about something you had failed to doubt.

Your certainty will be replaced by humility, and in turn your humility will inoculate you against dogma.  Of course, this will not prevent you from being completely wrong again, but it will help you realize your mistakes sooner and arm you with the strength to change your mind.

I wanted to tell you this story before discussing political, feminist art, because politics is similar to religion in that both are ideologies.  Ideologies shape our identities, so that losing faith is like amputating a limb.

I have lost faith in political art.  The revision wasn’t quite as painful as losing my religion, but it was still distressing to shift from creating political art to deciding that it is bad art.  After all, shouldn’t a feminist enjoy feminist art?  No one wants to feel like a traitor to her cause.  But I am no traitor, and I am here to make a feminist argument against political art.

We are living with so much partisan tension that it feels foolish to criticize our own tribe.  It feels as though the stakes are too high, and the other side is so sinister that we cannot risk giving them any ammo.  But this instinct helps us cling to our bad ideas, our bad art.  So I am going to suppress this instinct, and explain my problem with the commingling of art and politics in two parts: first, I’ll analyze the trending all-women art shows; second, I’ll review individual artists.

All-women art shows are an effort to remedy the sexism of art history, and to combat the sexism of today.  This tactic began in the 1950s, then fell out of favor until a blockbuster 2007 show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City called WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution.

MBE-Wack-Art-of-the-Feminist-Revoution-2007-831x1024.jpg

Over the past year, the all-women art show has become more popular than ever.  Here are a few examples of the sexism these shows are meant to counteract:

Perhaps the most infamous comes from Janson’s History of Art,  the preeminent textbook used by most universities to teach survey courses on art history.  I still have my copies of the two-volume set that were assigned to me here at UNO.

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These textbooks did not include a single woman artist until 1987, an oversight that feminists have long bemoaned as a glaring example of the way women are treated as though their wisdom, accomplishments, and talent are too inconsequential to remember.

Art world activist Micol Hebron tried to gather statistical information about sexism today; by her tally, Master of Fine Arts graduate programs are 70% women, but after these artists graduate the ratio reverses, so that 70% of artists with gallery representation are men.  An Australian organization called The Countess Reports found similar numbers.

These were the only two statistics I could find about this drastic reversal, and I am weary of how unscientific it is to trust only two sources, when the numbers don’t have what’s called “test retest ability” -- this means that a measurement isn’t reliable until it has been measured over and over again, by many different people, to check for inaccuracies.

In my own experience, these numbers do hold up to scrutiny; the MFA program I graduated from was about three-quarters women, but in the nearest city to that university the gender ratio flips and only about a third of artists with gallery representation are women.  So it seems that many women would like to be professional artists, but for some reason, disproportionately few become that.

For the women who do make it, there is also a discrepancy in how much their artwork is valued compared to men’s.  The most expensive piece of art sold at auction, made by a woman, is Georgia O’Keeffe’s Jimson Weed, White Flower No. 1 for about $44.5 million, followed by a $25 million sculpture by Louise Bourgeois titled Spider.

Georgia O’Keeffe Jimson Weed, White Flower No. 1 1936

Georgia O’Keeffe
Jimson Weed, White Flower No. 1
1936

You can see one of Bourgeois’ Spider sculptures in the garden at the New Orleans Museum of Art.

Louise Bourgeois Spider 1997

Louise Bourgeois
Spider
1997

Comparatively, the highest record sale goes to Pablo Picasso’s Les Femmes d’Alger (Version ‘O’) for $179 million, and there are zero women in the top echelon of art sales that break the $100 million mark.

Pablo Picasso Les Femmes d’Alger (Version ‘O’) 1955  

Pablo Picasso
Les Femmes d’Alger (Version ‘O’)
1955
 

Art auction prices are the most transparent measure of how much artwork sells for, because private purchases aren’t on record.  On average, only about 8% of all artwork sold at auction is made by women.  In the face of all this, curators create all-women shows hoping to balance the art world.

The most famous phrasing of the imbalance comes from art historian Linda Nochlin, who titled her influential 1971 essay, “Why have there been no great women artists?”

Linda Nochlin

Linda Nochlin

In it, she writes, “The question tolls reproachfully in the background of most discussions of the so-called woman problem. But... it falsifies the nature of the issue at the same time that it insidiously supplies its own answer: ‘There are no great women artists because women are incapable of greatness.’”

Nochlin adds that, “The feminist’s first reaction is to swallow the bait, hook, line and sinker, and to attempt to answer the question as it is put... to engage in the normal activity of the specialist scholar who makes a case for the importance of his very own neglected or minor master.

“Such attempts… are certainly worth the effort, both in adding to our knowledge of women’s achievement and of art history generally.  But they do nothing to question the assumptions lying behind the question ‘Why have there been no great women artists?’  On the contrary, by attempting to answer it, they tacitly reinforce its negative implications.”

I worry that all-women shows are in effect a junior league.  Women may compete for the title Best Woman Artist rather than Best Artist.  My concern was shared by Georgia O’Keeffe, who stated that, “The men liked to put me down as the best woman painter.  I think I’m one of the best painters.”

Georgia O’Keeffe

Georgia O’Keeffe

O’Keeffe refused to lend her work to the show Women Artists: 1550-1950, the very first international all-women show.

Women Artists: 1550-1950 Curated by Linda Nochlin Installation shot

Women Artists: 1550-1950
Curated by Linda Nochlin
Installation shot

Curiously, Nochlin curated this show.  I wonder if she swallowed the bait just five years after writing her famous essay.  Ironically, she borrowed an O’Keeffe painting from a collector so she could include her despite O’Keeffe’s explicit refusal to participate.

This wouldn’t be the last time an artist was included in an all-women show against her better judgment.  Last year, curator Gwen Chanzit of the Denver Art Museum put together a major show called Women of Abstract Expressionism, which toured the nation after it’s time in Denver.

Women of Abstract Expressionism Curated by Gwen Chanzit Installation shot

Women of Abstract Expressionism
Curated by Gwen Chanzit
Installation shot

There was a lot of excitement surrounding the show, because the Abstract Expressionist movement is widely considered the most macho of all art movements, as well as the first truly American invention in painting.  A popular interpretation of paintings by Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning is that the emotional thrust of their heroic, machismo spirit is embodied in their expressive splatters and brushstrokes; moreover, these men had a rugged aura about them, made legendary by stories of their drinking and fighting within a cloud of cigarette smoke at the Cedar Bar in Greenwich Village.

Lee Krasner watches her husband Jackson Pollock painting

Lee Krasner watches her husband Jackson Pollock painting

Elaine and Willem de Kooning in their studio (paintings by Lee Krasner and Elaine de Kooning were both featured in Women of Abstract Expressionism)

Elaine and Willem de Kooning in their studio

(paintings by Lee Krasner and Elaine de Kooning were both featured in Women of Abstract Expressionism)

Feminists have long criticized the key figures of Abstract Expressionism for treating the women painters as unworthy of the boy’s club.  The museum catalog for the show includes a new interview with art critic and historian Irving Sandler, a contemporary of these painters, in which he maintains that, “there didn’t seem to be women of the stature of, say, Mark Rothko, Bill de Kooning, Jackson Pollock…  I don’t think they were of the same stature as the men.”  Women of Abstract Expressionism was Chanzit’s attempt to prove Sandler wrong.

Irving Sandler

Irving Sandler

But one of the artist Chanzit curated posthumously into the show, Ethel Schwabacher, agreed with O’Keeffe.

Ethel Schwabacher Origins I 1958

Ethel Schwabacher
Origins I
1958

Her children were interviewed for a short documentary that Chanzit screened within the museum, as part of the exhibition, and the film ends with Schwabacher’s daughter relating that, “She hated when people referred to her as a woman painter.  She wanted to be a painter.  Period.”  Chanzit included her anyway, admittedly as aware of Schwabacher’s objection as Nochlin was of O’Keeffe’s.

Ethel Schwabacher

Ethel Schwabacher

To be fair, it is normal for curators and historians to contextualize artists in ways they might dislike for the sake of their scholarly pursuits, especially after the artists’ death.  But it is ironic for feminists like Nochlin and Chanzit to include women who explicitly deny consent when so many feminists are deeply troubled by how often a woman’s insistent, “No!” is overridden.

I guess these curators decide to scorn consent “for the good of the cause.”  Maybe they think the ends justify the means, that it’s necessary to subsume the individuality of a couple artists in the name of group solidarity.

But it seems to me that group solidarity should be in service of individual liberty.  The reason why women sought strength in numbers in the first place was to more effectively demand full citizenship, full personhood, full individuality - independent from societal roles that seemed to continuously define women in relation to men.

But it is just as much an injustice to define women in relation to other women, as if the group identity of “woman” is sufficient to encompass each unique individual.

Fortunately, most of the artists who participate in all-women shows do so willingly, usually explaining that they think this kind of thing is necessary for now but not forever, a stopgap until sexism ends.

Many of these shows fail to group artists together with any coherence other than womanhood; at least Women of Abstract Expressionism can be defended on scholarly grounds for contributing to the research of a specific movement in the history of painting.

But I am unconvinced of the efficacy of the all-women show; they are gallery ghettos for artists who share little more in common than a vagina.

Judy Chicago The Dinner Party 1979

Judy Chicago
The Dinner Party
1979

One of the most iconic feminist artworks is about that unoriginal observation that women share vaginas in common.  This is Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party, which toured six countries before going on permanent display at the Brooklyn Museum in 2007.  Completed in 1979, it is known as the first epic, feminist installation artwork.  It includes 39 table settings representing mythological and historical women who made noteworthy contributions to Western civilization.

Each china plate is sculpted to look like a vulva, resting upon embroidered table runners; the piece was intentionally made with materials regarded as women’s crafts.  Chicago said that her goal was to, "end the ongoing cycle of omission in which women were written out of the historical record."

Judy Chicago

Judy Chicago

However, the vulvas Chicago designed represent a selection of the best-known women already written into the historical record; she did not spotlight many obscure figures, although even if she had, I doubt that illustrating those individuals with replicas of the flesh between their legs would do much to educate viewers about their cultural contributions.

Judy Chicago The Dinner Party 1979

Judy Chicago
The Dinner Party
1979

Like Nochlin, Chicago included O’Keeffe despite how much O’Keeffe hated being called a “woman artist”.

Judy Chicago The Dinner Party 1979

Judy Chicago
The Dinner Party
1979

She also included Virginia Woolf, even though Woolf wrote that, “Any emphasis, either of pride or of shame, laid consciously on the sex of a writer is not only irritating but superfluous.”

Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf

The Dinner Party is disrespectful towards the people it claims to honor.  Its sex organ symbolism is banal.  I agree with a 1980 review in the New York Times by Hilton Kramer, who sums up Chicago’s magnum opus as reiterating its theme, “with an insistence and vulgarity more appropriate, perhaps, to an advertising campaign than to a work of art.”

Hilton Kramer

Hilton Kramer

Our next artist, Barbara Kruger, explicitly uses the style of advertising campaigns.  Kruger had a successful career in graphic design, and put that experience to use in her art practice.

Barbara Kruger Untitled (We don’t need another hero) 1986

Barbara Kruger
Untitled (We don’t need another hero)
1986

She was one of my favorite feminist artists when I was a student here; I particularly enjoyed this piece because I grew up playing games like Mario and Zelda, acting out the part of a male hero rescuing a princess, and I longed for more female protagonists.

But when I look at work by Kruger today, I’m put off by the sloganeering.  I don’t want heroines to replace heroes, I don’t want less heroic men in the world, and I don’t want this problem I care about framed as zero sum.  I do want to celebrate more heroic women, while at the same time I still want more heroic men -- sexism won’t improve without them.

Slogans are simple-minded.  Their function is to drum up emotional fervor and suppress contemplation.  The word “slogan” comes from the Gaelic for “war cries”, and like any good war cry, a slogan should rouse your comrades while striking fear in the hearts of your opponents.

A slogan must be concise and easy to chant together, to strengthen unity among warriors.  But although the feminist cause is a struggle, it should not be conceived as a battle between the sexes; men are not enemies to be conquered.  In a war, each army must dehumanize the other side to effectively attack, but feminism ought to be about insisting on the personhood of everyone.

Kruger’s stated purpose is to, “deal with the complexities of power and social life,” but her use of slogans as art medium is antithetical to complexity.  Worse, experiencing her installations feels like being shouted down.

Barbara Kruger Mary Boone Gallery, installation shot 1991

Barbara Kruger
Mary Boone Gallery, installation shot
1991

Kruger also said that,  "I think what I'm trying to do is create moments of recognition. To try to detonate some kind of feeling or understanding of lived experience."  She doesn’t specify whether her target audience is people who already agree with her or not, but because sloganeering pits one group against another, it’s unlikely that her all-caps assertions will make a sexist person feel understanding towards an other’s lived experience.  Compassion is not fallout from detonating ideas like bombs.  Shouting people down does not change their minds.

Barbara Kruger

Barbara Kruger

Another approach taken by political artists is mockery.  Sherrie Levine is best known for re-photographing the work of male photographers.  In 1981 she photographed photographs by Walker Evans.  His images are memories of the Great Depression.  Here is an original Evans:

Walker Evans Alabama Tenant Farmer Wife (photo of Allie Mae Burroughs) 1935

Walker Evans
Alabama Tenant Farmer Wife (photo of Allie Mae Burroughs)
1935

Here is Levine’s After Walker Evans: 4

Sherrie Levine After Walker Evans: 4 1981

Sherrie Levine
After Walker Evans: 4
1981

She created this, in part, as a criticism of patriarchal authority.  Evans’ legacy is that of a modern master and an American treasure, and Levine appropriated his work desiring to undermine the idea of genius.  Her gesture anticipated Kruger’s assertion seven years later that, “We don’t need another hero.”

Levine wanted to convert a masterpiece into the mundane, or maybe it’s more accurate to say that she thinks the masterpiece was always mundane.  She said, “The world is filled to suffocating. Man has placed his token on every stone. Every word, every image, is leased and mortgaged. We know that a picture is but a space in which a variety of images, none of them original, blend and clash.”

Sherrie Levine

Sherrie Levine

This is a rather pessimistic perspective on a prevailing understanding of creativity as a syncretistic act, that is, the union of diverse influences that transcend the sum of their parts.  For example, jazz was invented by musicians influenced by the blues and gospel music; these influences do not detract from the creative genius of jazz artists who used them to generate an entirely new genre, nor does the influence of jazz on the following generations take away from the imaginations that spawned rock’n’roll, disco, and hip hop.

Creativity flourishes like biological evolution: all the diversity of life grew out of common ancestors, a mutual past, a shared lineage -- and who among us would mock the natural world as mundane?  Levine argues that the cumulative nature of creativity implicates the history of “male genius” in the crime of unoriginal hackery, and in re-photographing their photographs she meant to announce that these emperors have no clothes.

I argue back that her opinion on creativity is merely misanthropic.  Her tacit response to the question, “Why have there been no great women artists?” is to claim that there is no such thing as greatness in the first place.  Levine’s contempt is paltry revenge that fails to redress the actual problem: the yearning for a better understanding of genius that has no fixed gender.

Fortunately, there are many excellent artists devoting themselves towards a real remedy to this problem; the next three people I’ll review deal with the “women question” by using their life’s work to prove it wrong.

Yayoi Kusama Aftermath of Obliteration of Eternity 2009

Yayoi Kusama
Aftermath of Obliteration of Eternity
2009

First up we have Yayoi Kusama; pictured here is one of her infinity mirror rooms, her best known body of work.  Impressively, Kusama is still a working artist today at age 88.  She lives at a mental health hospital, but spends much of her time across the street in her studio.  Since she was ten years old, she has suffered from the hallucinations that inspire her creative output.  Kusama has described her hallucinations like this:

“One day I was looking at the red flower patterns of the tablecloth on a table, and when I looked up I saw the same pattern covering the ceiling, the windows and the walls, and finally all over the room, my body and the universe. I felt as if I had begun to self-obliterate, to revolve in the infinity of endless time and the absoluteness of space, and be reduced to nothingness.”  Kusama says that her artwork comes from repeatedly undergoing this “self-obliteration”.

Yayoi Kusama

Yayoi Kusama

Meanwhile, World War II waged around and above her; she has related how, “The air-raid alert went off every day, so that I could barely feel my life.”  These and other traumas motivated Kusama to make, “art that does battle at the boundary between life and death, questioning what we are and what it means to live and die.”  Kusama’s suffering galvanized her to turn hardship into beauty.  It seems to me that in the boundary between life and death, Kusama’s creations fight for life.  I cannot detect any misanthropy inside her installations.

Yayoi Kusama You Who Are Getting Obliterated in the Dancing Swarm of Fireflies 2005

Yayoi Kusama
You Who Are Getting Obliterated in the Dancing Swarm of Fireflies
2005

If you enter a Kusama installation alone, then looking into her reflections of reflections of reflections is like straining your eyes to see travel-worn light from simmering stars.  Or if you share the experience with many people, it’s like standing on a bustling city block at night, where the fluorescents and neon are endless no matter which way you look, and a multitude mills around you.  Kusama’s work heightens my sense of being part of the complexity of the world, and I remember Carl Sagan’s wisdom that, “We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.”

We can measure Kusama’s genius.  In 2008, one of her paintings sold at Christie’s auction house for over $5.5 million, setting a record for the most expensive price paid for a living woman’s artwork.  She broke her own record in 2014 when another painting sold for over $7 million.

Appreciation for her work can also be measured in museum attendance - that same year, she was recognized as the most popular artist in a worldwide survey of ticket sales.  A retrospective of her infinity rooms is currently touring the country; at the moment, the show is at The Broad Museum in Los Angeles, and much to my dismay, advanced tickets have already sold out.

When I visited the Broad, where one of Kusama’s infinity rooms is in the permanent collection, I had to reserve a time to see the installation, then wait in a winding line of people who had reserved the same block of time, and once I finally reached the threshold the museum attendant used a stopwatch to make sure I stayed in the room for just thirty seconds - the maximum time allotted for each visitor, because otherwise the line would have been unbearable.

And do you know what?  It was worth it.  All of this is to say, that Kusama’s artistic excellence exposes the question, “Why have there been no great women artists?” as self-evidently dumb.  What is more, she widened the path toward success for women artists.

One such woman who entered the art world about a generation after Kusama is Anila Quayyum Agha.  Agha works within Kusama’s tradition of using light to create installations of elegant complexity, and finding grace within pain.  Agha’s struggle began as a child in Pakistan, her home until she immigrated to the US at age 34 to attend graduate school.

She has said of her birth country that, “Living in Pakistan for me during my formative years was about navigating unsafe public spaces,” and she has described the way women were under constant male supervision, how they were not permitted to pray in mosques and were sequestered at home.  Agha felt excluded due to her gender.

Anila Quayyum Agha

Anila Quayyum Agha

In 2011, she received a grant to travel to the Alhambra palace in Spain, which was constructed and renovated over many centuries as it passed hands between Muslim and Christian rulers.  Agha described the way it influenced her artwork this way:

“Maybe it was a romantic moment in my mind where I saw this architectural wonder as being central to the Eastern and Western discourse... [as a] testament to the symbiosis of difference.... I wanted to recreate the feeling of awe and wonder that I saw on the faces of the tourists at the palace. I myself felt peace and quiet descend on me... I am often brought to tears when confronted by extreme beauty, and like the knife-edge quality of deep sorrow and extreme joy simultaneously... I like to strive for that knife-edge in my own artwork.”

Anila Quayyum Agha Crossing Boundaries 2015

Anila Quayyum Agha
Crossing Boundaries
2015

Agha wanted her artwork to compensate for the marvelous mosques forbidden to her in childhood.  I have not yet been able to experience Agha’s work in person, but descriptions from arts writers offer us insight:  Agha drew upon her experience of exclusion to create a place that Laura Mallonee described in Hyperallergic Magazine as, “an inclusive space, wherein visitors of any color and stripe, holding any opinion or belief, can feel welcome.”

Anila Quayyum Agha Alahambra Nights 2016

Anila Quayyum Agha
Alahambra Nights
2016

This sentiment is echoed in the publication Art in America, where Jason Foumberg describes how, “Agha's piece drew pilgrims: thousands flocked to the Grand Rapids Art Museum to contemplate the filigree shadows cast by her shadowbox. The mood among the swarming crowds approached spiritual exuberance.”

Anila Quayyum Agha Intersections 2013

Anila Quayyum Agha
Intersections
2013

When her work was on display in Grand Rapids, it was for a well-known competition called ArtPrize, and Agha’s installation is the only artwork to ever win first prize in both the public and juried categories.  This means both experts and laypeople alike agreed that her installations are masterpieces.

The last artist we have time to look at today is Teresa Margolles.  She is a Mexican artist of the same generation as Agha, and earned degrees in both art and forensic medicine.  Her studio is in the Mexico City morgue, where Margolles bears witness to the suffering of drug cartel violence.

Of this she says, “There I discovered that a morgue is a thermometer of society.  What happens in a city morgue is what happens outside....  In the morgue I see... the thin line that separates life and pain.  As an artist I feel the need to tell what I see inside the morgue...  I must communicate what I see, what I learn there.”  Margolles’ purpose is embodied in the materials she uses to create her artwork, some of which come directly from the morgue.

Teresa Margolles

Teresa Margolles

In her 2003 piece En el aire (In the Air), Margolles filled a room with bubbles.  The space is cheerful; only curmudgeons are immune to the pretty orbs.

Teresa Margolles En el aire (In the Air) 2003

Teresa Margolles
En el aire (In the Air)
2003

But then you learn that they are made from water used to wash the corpses in the morgue, and in the next moment when one of them bursts against your skin it feels like the splatter of someone else’s blood.  The bubbles’ charming delicacy becomes a frightening reminder about the fragility of living things.  Whimsy gives way to horror.

Teresa Margolles En el aire (In the Air) 2003

Teresa Margolles
En el aire (In the Air)
2003

For me, Margolles’ artwork is like inhaling a deathrattle.  That final breath is the last act of a living body, and its exhale is the beginning of nothingness.  The air undulates as the lifelong labor for survival finally fails.  It seems as if the lungs must be pushing out decay already eating away the organs, so I imagine this breath smells faintly of rot.  Margolles’ artwork gives us a taste of the death she devotes her life to observing.

Margolles has been honored with many distinguished awards, including the Prince Claus Fund from the Netherlands, the Artes Mundi prize for contemporary art, and most notably, exhibiting in the Venice Biennale, which is the original and most renowned international art exhibition.  Artists at the Biennale represent their countries, like olympic athletes.  For an artist to show her work there is like winning the gold medal of the art world.

Untitled-1.jpg

This second group of artists are just as feminist as the first group, but their artwork does not begin and end with a simplistic statement.  Rather, the immediate and primary experience of artwork by Kusama, Agha, and Margolles is an aesthetic one, while with the first group, their hierarchy is clearly politics before aesthetics.

Untitled-2.jpg

This is why I refer to Chicago, Kruger, and Levine as “political artists”, even though all of these artists clearly have strong political opinions.  The difference is that when political artists demote aesthetics, they have their priorities out of order.

True artistic masters know how to visually seduce their viewers, and then once they have a captive audience, these artists open a chasm in their hearts to release catharsis.  I began this talk with the idea that “the personal is political”.  Kusama, Agha, and Margolles mine their personal stories of trauma, misogyny, and death to create artwork that touches universal experience.

They avoid the trap of obnoxious navel-gazing, which is always a risk when using one’s own life as inspiration, and manage to create magnificence from the kind of suffering that cripples those who resign themselves to bitterness.  In doing so, they might actually change someone’s mind in a way that proselytizing rarely does.

Conversely, the political artists deal with generalities.  They foreground group identity before individuality, and the result is shallow propaganda.

kruger_2.jpg

I submit to you that feminists should not present women as genitals served up on platters.

168679630_c7cf7b5190_b.jpg

Moreover, the strength of feminism does not depend upon mocking men.

pictures-generation-slide-L168-superJumbo.jpg

Because although making men weaker has the effect of making women seem stronger by contrast, that is a pathetic undertaking compared to the noble task of helping all people become exemplary.  Of course, it is much easier to tear others down -- and that is what this political art is: a cheap shot.

I don’t know how many of you are artists, but this topic is bigger than the art world.  Earlier, I admonished us to suppress tribalism, an older term that today goes by the phrase “identity politics”.  Judy Chicago, Barbara Kruger, and Sherrie Levine are identity politics artists.  All-women shows are a symptom of identity politics.

My larger point is that identity politics itself is rotten, because it emphasizes group identity over individuality.  But the idea that the personal is political is not reversible; group-wide descriptions are meager and incapable of characterizing individuals.  Each of us is particular.  Singular.  A person is too vast for identity politics to contain her.

I don’t know how many of you are feminists, but I’m guessing at least some of you are.  So I want to conclude by saying, from one feminist to another, please don’t be fundamentalist feminists the way I had been a fundamentalist Christian.  Do the hard work doubting the beliefs and behaviors of our tribe.  I certainly won’t mind if you begin by doubting me, because debate defends us against dogma.  And so, I eagerly await your questions.

Jitterbug and Pushing Daisies

The following is a transcript of an artist talk I gave during the 48 Hours Summit at RedLine Contemporary Art Center on Aug 12, 2017.  It is about two artworks that are in-progress as of this writing.

by Megan Gafford

Jitterbug and Pushing Daisies were shown as works-in-progress in an exhibition titled LAND TRUST at RedLine Contemporary Art Center in Aug 2017, as part of the 48 HOURS Summit.  Photo credit: Wes Magyar

Jitterbug and Pushing Daisies were shown as works-in-progress in an exhibition titled LAND TRUST at RedLine Contemporary Art Center in Aug 2017, as part of the 48 HOURS Summit.  Photo credit: Wes Magyar

My art is inspired by my passion for science.  Science is a way of finding truth that I hold close to my heart in a kind of religious way.  Put simply, science is the conviction that we ought to try to prove our ideas wrong, over and over again, until we fail to prove an idea wrong so many times that we can feel some confidence in it after all.  And people all over the world are doing the same thing, and taking a crack at other people’s ideas with even greater enthusiasm, so that the result of all this effort is a body of knowledge that enables us to perform miracles.

The scientific method is simple yet revolutionary, a classic example of how some tasks “are easier said than done”, because human nature makes us far more talented at proving ourselves right than wrong.  But when we succeed at science, we learn something fundamental about how the world works.  As my hero Carl Sagan put it, “We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.”

I also recognize that science is like the Buddhist proverb, "To every person is given the key to the gate of heaven; the same key opens the gate to hell."  Science is a completely amoral tool, and it comes with no manual on how to use it to answer the question of where, precisely, scientific progress leads.  I spend a lot of time wondering about the blind nature of science, and I use my artwork as a way to ask people to wonder about it with me.

Image from the University of California, Berkeley and Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, where researchers are studying cyborg flower beetles.  

Image from the University of California, Berkeley and Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, where researchers are studying cyborg flower beetles.
 

With one of my works-in-progress, titled Jitterbug, I am delving into the implications of how computers have infiltrated the world.   My medium is cyborg insects that I am creating by surgically attaching circuit boards to the bugs’ neural pathways, so that I can control their movement.  I’m using a Bluetooth signal to transmit a choreographed dance for them to perform.  So far I have begun raising colonies of exotic beetle and cockroach species, and I have started practicing the surgical procedure to attach my first generation circuit boards.
 

Cockroaches are the easiest kind of insect for me to turn into cyborgs.  After I finish practicing surgery on the ugly roaches, I plan on designing circuit boards to fit this exotic species of Domino Roaches.

Cockroaches are the easiest kind of insect for me to turn into cyborgs.  After I finish practicing surgery on the ugly roaches, I plan on designing circuit boards to fit this exotic species of Domino Roaches.

My goal is to synchronize the graceful movements of many insects together in the same dance, so that their terrarium becomes a stage.  Learning how to influence an animal’s neurology is a way to gain knowledge of how a mind works, aiding humanity’s perennially pressing concern of understanding how our minds work.  We crave comprehension, especially of the seat of consciousness, of the act of comprehending in and of itself.  It is an old human need: the ancient Egyptians and Greeks carved the proverb “Know Thyself” onto their temples.  Sagan’s famous remarks about being the cosmos knowing itself is just an expanded view of the same wisdom.

My post-operative check-up on the first cockroach I practiced my surgical procedure on.  Unfortunately, it died a few days later.

My post-operative check-up on the first cockroach I practiced my surgical procedure on.  Unfortunately, it died a few days later.

But the doors to heaven and hell are not labelled.  And this leads to a broader philosophical question - that is, once humanity understands itself, what will it do with that knowledge?  What if the kind of technology that I’m using to create Jitterbug someday leads to human cyborgs that could be hacked and controlled?  This kind of question, about the existential implications of Jitterbug, is why my working title for this piece had been Ghost in the Exoskeleton.

Image from North Carolina State University, where researchers are studying cyborg cockroaches.

Image from North Carolina State University, where researchers are studying cyborg cockroaches.

But that name would have had too narrow a scope, because the ramifications have a wider range, into fields like medicine, search and rescue, and the military.  For example, some researchers are trying to create fleets of cockroaches that can be sent into collapsed buildings to locate victims, because finding them is the most difficult part of rescuing them.  Or more metaphorically, imagine riding in a driverless car that gets hacked, so that you are forced to move to and fro at another’s whim, just like my cyborg insects.

By attaching an electrode to the insect’s antennae, I can send electrical signals to its neurons to control its movement.

By attaching an electrode to the insect’s antennae, I can send electrical signals to its neurons to control its movement.

And what about the ethics of body-snatching another species with circuit boards?  I believe that developing an accurate theory of mind is a profound existential goal, for which it is worthwhile to compromise the well-being of our insect cousins.  In other words, they’re just bugs.  And we ought to take care not to anthropomorphize bugs, and consider the lack of moral rules governing insects.

Insects are anesthetized by submerging in ice water

Insects are anesthetized by submerging in ice water

Entomologists don’t know if insects are capable of feeling pain the way humans do, and insects do not demonstrate a sense of self.  For example, an injured cricket might smell its own nutritious innards and self-cannibalize because its mind is a rudimentary biological machine with predictable reactions to stimuli.  Moreover, if we pretend that insects are capable of sentience, we can imagine that they would be surprised at the kindness I show them.

Parasitic wasp larvae

Parasitic wasp larvae

Wasps, in comparison, are brutal.  There are species of wasp that lay eggs in other insects, so that their children burst forth from their hosts to inspire movies like the Aliens franchise.  The Glyptapanteles wasp larvae even burrow into caterpillar brains to control its behavior while they devour it alive.  But my bugs live in luxurious terrariums.  And in part because my studio is a safer place than the wild, I don’t feel guilty about performing cyborg surgery on them, even if it is philosophically messy.

At least 7 of these possible endings results in nuclear war

At least 7 of these possible endings results in nuclear war

The story of scientific progress is like a choose-your-own-adventure novel.  Which door do you open, what path do you go down?  Do you save or annihilate the world?  At the beginning of our story, I wonder if humanity knew how many forks there would be in the road and how many accidents we would see along the way.  Perhaps the wisdom of using science carefully was not fully understood until after the bomb.

As Susan Sontag put it, there was a "...trauma suffered by everyone in the middle of the 20th century when it became clear that from now on to the end of human history, every person would spend his individual life not only under the threat of individual death, which is certain, but of something almost unsupportable psychologically - collective incineration and extinction which could come any time, virtually without warning."  Sontag offers the most somber reminder that this thing that I love - science - is inanimate and unfeeling in return.

My daisy seeds immediately before irradiation by this machine, which is normally used for cancer treatment.

My daisy seeds immediately before irradiation by this machine, which is normally used for cancer treatment.

Nuclear fear inspired another of my works-in-progress, titled Pushing Daisies.  This past June I dosed hundreds of daisy seeds with radiation to try to mutate them...

Mutant daisies found near the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Disaster Site

Mutant daisies found near the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Disaster Site

...like daisies found near the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster site.  The Japanese daisies had enlarged and elongated blossoms...

Picture11 sm.jpg

...that resemble caterpillars...

Picture12 sm.jpg

...or conjoined twins.

They reminded me of the infamous daisy ad from Lyndon Johnson's 1964 presidential campaign: a little girl counts daisy petals until she’s drowned out by a voice-over, which counts down to a nuclear explosion that engulfs the TV screen.

Lyndon B. Johnson’s infamous daisy ad from his 1964 presidential campaign

Lyndon B. Johnson’s infamous daisy ad from his 1964 presidential campaign

The cartoonish and childlike quality of daisies makes this flower a potent symbol of innocence, or in this case, innocence corrupted.

Not found near Fukushima.

Not found near Fukushima.

Radiation may not have caused the Japanese daisy deformities, and I don’t know if I’ll succeed in causing mutations myself.  If I am able, Pushing Daisies will be an elegant display of my transformed blossoms.

Some of these seedling show irregularities

Some of these seedling show irregularities

Right now they are six-week-old seedlings, and I have noticed some irregularities, but it will be months before I find out if these are, in fact, harbingers of mutant blossoms.

A scene from Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

A scene from Stanley Kubrick’s
Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

Even though unlocking the secrets of the atom created the possibility of Mutually Assured Destruction, I’m glad that our scientists did it.  Given the option, I would not want to live in an alternative universe where we remained ignorant of the fundamental laws of physics but safer from global politics and nuclear power plant disasters.

The Large Hadron Collider at CERN, a giant particle accelerator for studying fundamental physics and the largest machine ever created by humanity.

The Large Hadron Collider at CERN, a giant particle accelerator for studying fundamental physics and the largest machine ever created by humanity.

The knowledge is just too interesting - the laws of physics were written to describe the most basic inner-workings of reality.  It seems to me that my daisies also symbolize how incredible it is that we can learn about something as mysterious as nuclear physics, that we can manipulate the world around us with invisible energy rays.  I mean, listen to that - “we can manipulate the world around us with invisible energy rays” - that sounds crazy, yet in practice it has become commonplace.  We do this every day, not only in science labs, but with our microwaves, WI-FI signals, and routine dental check ups.  Science is a paradox; the good cannot be decoupled from the bad.  Both Jitterbug and Pushing Daisies are about this catch-22.

Stories Under the Stars: Aquila

I told two stories, a comedy and a tragedy, on March 9, 2017 in my site-specific installation Hemisphere at the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art.  My intention was to weave together ancient myths about the constellations with the contemporary science exploring those same stars.  This is the comedy.

by Megan Gafford

 

The constellation Aquila takes its name from the Latin for “eagle”, but in ancient Egypt this pattern was considered the falcon of Horus.  It is said that Horus is the sky.  The sun is his right eye, and the moon his left; they cross the heavens as the falcon god flies through them.  There is a story that explains why the moon is dimmer than the sun, that tells of how Horus’ uncle Set, god of the desert, battled with him for control over Egypt.  It is the tale of the first dick measuring contest.

This story begins before Horus was born.  His father, Osiris, the god of the dead, was dismembered by his jealous brother Set.  Set dumped Osiris’ body in the Nile river, where a catfish nibbled off his penis.  His wife Isis, goddess of nature and magic, gathered the dispersed body parts and used her sorcery to put Osiris back together like a successful version of Dr. Frankenstein’s experiment.  She made him a golden phallus, so that they could conceive their son Horus.  And so when Set challenged Horus for control over all of Egypt, Horus taunted him and asked, “You think you can defeat the god from the golden rod?”

The war was triggered by an adolescent prank.  Horus spread his semen on some lettuce, because it was Set’s favorite food, and then he went around and told all the other gods that Set ate his seed.  Set was enraged and sent his warriors to battle Horus’, and for eighty years the armies of Upper and Lower Egypt fought each other in defense of their respective gods’ honor.  Many Egyptians died in the long war, and even the gods were not unscathed: Set lost a testicle and Horus took an arrow to his left eye, and after that it was always dimmer than the other one -- this is why the sun is brighter than the moon.

After nearly a century of war, the other gods insisted that they settle their differences with a boat race, where they each had to make a vessel of stone for the contest.  Horus and Set agreed.  But Horas secretly made his boat out of wood that he painted to look like stone, so that once the race began Set’s boat sank and Horus won.  The gods declared Horus ruler of Egypt, but as a consolation, they gave the desert to Set because it was fitting that the lord of an infertile land be one testicle short.  And so Horus won the first dick measuring contest, and with it, control over all of Egypt.

As this story about the constellation Aquila shows, humanity has always thought its power comes from the gonads, and to take them away is to neuter that power.  Little has changed, of course, and the contemporary tale about Aquila also tells of tempered vitality.  This story begins in America in the 1970s, when NASA was building the Pioneer 11 space probe; the probe has flown by Jupiter and Saturn, and it will pass near the star Lambda Aquilae in about 4 million years.  This spacecraft flying towards the falcon of the sky carries a golden plaque.  Etched onto it is a hieroglyph designed to explain the object’s origins in case extraterrestrial life ever discovers it.

The image was designed by Carl Sagan, and drawn by his wife Linda.  It shows a map of our solar system, along with a drawing of two nude humans.  Linda chose to draw the figures nude so that the clothing wasn’t specific to any time or place, and so that the image would be more educational for extraterrestrials... but people believe that the power of their gonads is potent even as a picture.  And so NASA would not approve the hieroglyph unless the vertical line that indicated the woman’s vulva was removed, although they allowed the man’s penis and testicles to remain.  It seems that the vulva’s strength was too great to depict, and NASA trembled before it.

pioneer_plaque half size.jpg

But the American public blushed at the image NASA sent towards Aquila, even without the vulva’s vertical line, and they worried about the morality of exposing aliens to the power of their private parts.  The newspapers, fearful of the pornography, removed the women’s nipples and the man’s genitals before publishing their papers.  Yet still, angry letters to the editor poured into newspaper offices, crying out at the obscenity of it all.  Some people shouted back that the vigor of humanity ought to be proclaimed to the cosmos, and to stop being such prudes.  After all, the Pioneer 11 probe is like a gift to Horus, the falcon from the golden rod, and an impotent image would be an insult to this great god.
 

Stories Under the Stars: Cygnus

I told two stories, a comedy and a tragedy, on March 9, 2017 in my site-specific installation Hemisphere at the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art.  My intention was to weave together ancient myths about the constellations with the contemporary science exploring those same stars.  This is the tragedy.

by Megan Gafford

 

Cygnus, the swan constellation, represents the legendary musician Orpheus, son of Calliope, the muse of eloquence and epic poetry. He plays a lyre, represented by the constellation Lyra.  The Orpheus myth is about loneliness.
 
It is said that while Hermes invented the lyre, Orpheus perfected it. His music shook the Earth the way Louis Armstrong’s bellowing trumpet made New Orleans throb and tremble. His voice was so booming and bewitching that he could drown out the Siren’s song. No wonder the ancient Greeks venerated him as the greatest of all poets and musicians.
 
Orpheus fell in love with a tree nymph named Eurydice, but a viper bit her ankle as she danced on their wedding day.  In mere minutes the venom made Orpheus a widow, and in that moment the sound of his lyre stretched into a wail. His wedding guests could not help but howl along with a broken feeling. Without pausing his song, Orpheus walked away and traveled to the Underworld. When he arrived, the three-headed guard dog Cerberus, who prevents the dead from rejoining the living, whimpered at the first note.
 
He stepped pass Cerberus, who pined and yelped like a dog chained outside a corner store. Hades was already sobbing as Orpheus approached the cold throne. His wife Persephone sat slumped beside him, and her silent tears smelled faintly of moist soil and pomegranate seeds. Then, suddenly, Orpheus fell silent.  It was the silence of a body that has stopped breathing and beating.
 
Hades’ heart was stirred, so he permitted Eurydice to follow Orpheus back to the land of the living. But if he looked back at her before they both emerged into the sunlight, she would be pulled away into the Underworld with no chance of resurrection. Orpheus played no music during the ascent, straining his ears for the sound of his wife’s footsteps behind him; they were so quiet he could not be sure she was really there. The moment the sunlight struck his skin he spun around to embrace her, but he only got a glimpse of her gray face before she fell back. He had turned around too soon; the sunlight had not touched her yet.
 
Orpheus spent the rest of his life wandering the Earth, singing the blues. When he died, and arrived in Hades a second time, the god of the Underworld remembered his song and said, “I tremble to take you.” Upon realizing that he would not see Eurydice even after death, his perfect voice cracked. His cries reached Apollo, the god of music and poetry, who took pity on him, and turned his soul into a swan and placed him in the sky beside his lyre. This is how Orpheus became the constellation Cygnus.
 
Maybe it was the musician’s forlorn warble that transfixed humanity’s gaze. Something about the loneliness in his voice is familiar to us, adrift in the inky universe on a pale blue dot, looking up at the stars and wondering if anyone else is out there.  We might be alone in the void, as solitary as Orpheus wandering in listless mourning.
 
The contemporary story about Cygnus is still about loneliness.  Like Orpheus, astronomers have traveled into the dark in search of life.  They built the Kepler telescope to look closely at Cygnus and Lyra, to search for other planets like our Earth. Since life could evolve here, then it might have evolved on another planet just like this one. If humanity finds companions in the cosmos, they will probably be in these constellations.
 
A couple years ago, astronomers found the first Earth-sized planet in Cygnus. The red dwarf star warming that world is so dim that high noon is like twilight; there may be chilly oceans on its surface. There are also water worlds far larger than Earth, each covered by a singular, titanic ocean. Life might have evolved under these alien waves just as it came to be within our own history. But of the thousands of planets observed with the Kepler telescope, only 21 might harbor life.
 
Soon, either this year or the next, the Kepler spacecraft will cease functioning. It has grown old since its launch in 2009. Part of its machinery failed four years ago, spurring NASA to declare a state of emergency. Astronomers brought Kepler back from the dead, but the telescope was crippled. Like Eurydice, Kepler will fall back into the darkness, unable to gaze at Cygnus any longer.

Permit Us To Doubt

On the civic duty of artists

by Megan Gafford

 

It is two and a half minutes until midnight.  On the stroke of twelve, the world will be broken, and everything will be as it has never been before.  Each year scientists wind the Doomsday Clock, hoping that the sound of its ticking might make us recall the better angels of our nature.  Manhattan Project physicists formed the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists and created the clock in 1947 because they “could not remain aloof to the consequences of their work.”  In 1953 they set the time at two minutes ‘til, after the U.S. tested the first hydrogen bomb; this was the closest the minute hand has ever been to midnight, and today it is the closest since that year.

Retired U.S. Secretary of Defense Bill Perry, remembered by colleagues for his great calmness, warned in the first week of 2017 that, “We are starting a new Cold War.  We seem to be sleepwalking into this new nuclear arms race.”  In the 2017 Doomsday Clock Statement, the Bulletin wrote that it,

...has decided to move the minute hand of the Doomsday Clock 30 seconds closer to catastrophe. It is now two minutes and 30 seconds to midnight. The board’s decision to move the clock less than a full minute—something it has never before done— reflects a simple reality: As this statement is issued, Donald Trump has been the US president only a matter of days... even though he has just now taken office, the president’s intemperate statements, lack of openness to expert advice, and questionable cabinet nominations have already made a bad international security situation worse.

Trump’s rise to power is a stress test for US democracy.  The Great American Experiment tries out the idea that people should be free to govern themselves in pursuit of happiness.  It is humanity’s longest-running democratic experiment, and democracies are extraordinary systems – if for no other reason than because they never wage war on other democracies.  This cannot be said for any other kind of society.  In a warming world full of nuclear weapons democracy is obligatory for survival, therefore Americans have a duty, not just to their fellow citizens but to the world, to keep the experiment running.

But how?  In the words of Richard Feynman, one of the Manhattan Project physicists, “If we want to solve a problem that we have never solved before, we must leave the door to the unknown ajar.”  He reflected that:

[Scientists] have found it of paramount importance that in order to progress we must recognize the ignorance and leave room for doubt.  This is not a new idea; this is the idea of the age of reason.  This is the philosophy that guided the men who made the democracy that we live under.  The idea that no one really knew how to run a government led to the idea that we should arrange a... trial and error system.  Even then it was clear to socially-minded people that the openness of the possibilities was an opportunity, and that doubt and discussion were essential to progress into the unknown.

This idea is what made the American Revolution so revolutionary.  The unknown is such an uncomfortable place to rest that all of human history describes the deadly clashing of ideologies, each equally and incompatibly sure of itself.  Feynman’s advice seems simple – permit us to doubt – but it is an affront to the heuristics of human nature.  Everyone has groaned at the Sisyphean task of trying to change another person’s mind, and decades of research about cognition testify to the tenacity of this deadlock.   At this late hour, certainty is a seductive yet treacherous bedfellow.

Truth atrophies in every kind of dogma, because it threatens established opinions so that people too sure of themselves tend to lash out at the way things really are.  As Trump intimidates the press and offers “alternative facts”, American citizens must question not only his lies but their own misconceptions.  Confronting false certainties from within will be the greater challenge.  This kind of soul-searching demands an appreciation for dissent, which is no small task.  Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at New York University who studies political civility, described the difficulty in a lecture he gave in London just a couple weeks after Trump was elected,

My favorite philosopher is John Stuart Mill, and one of his lines is, “He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that,” and this is what I think we need to understand about ourselves.  Human nature is really unsuited for life in large, multi-ethnic democracies.  We’re a small, tribal-living primate, and somehow we’ve created conditions where we can actually do it pretty well, but we have to always be vigilant that we are, in a way, living above our design constraints.  We need to recognize that the urgent need of the 21st century is to really think through democracy, governance, and morality.

Everyone has a civic duty to become more comfortable with ambiguity.  The success of every democratic experiment depends on it.  Right now, the US is fractured along partisan lines, repeating the tired human tale of ideological discord.  In 2014, the Pew Research Center published results about political polarization from its largest survey on domestic politics to date.  Of particular concern, the center pointed out that most Democrats and Republicans are afraid of the other party.

This polarization antagonizes the pursuit of knowledge.  If people are too afraid or angry to consider ideas they loathe, then the healthy debate necessary for democracy deteriorates.  Finding value in dissent enables people to discover better solutions to complex problems.  Opposing perspectives can strengthen each other like interlocking reeds woven into a basket, the perpendicular fibers coming together to bear heavy loads that would snap unwound material.  And herein lies a clarion call for artists:

Creation takes place in the unknown.  Anything new, by its nature of being a thing unprecedented, comes from previously unexplored territory.  Even if the new thing is familiar knowledge updated, it is invariably discovered by an explorer who pushed past former limits.  Artists become comfortable with ambiguity so that they can create.  In turn, their creations may entice others to enjoy uncertainty.

Contemporary luminary Rebecca Solnit wrote in A Field Guide for Getting Lost that,

It is the job of artists to open doors and invite in prophecies, the unknown, the unfamiliar; it’s where their work comes from...  Scientists, too, as J. Robert Oppenheimer once remarked, “live always at the ‘edge of mystery’ – the boundary of the unknown.”  But they transform the unknown into the known, haul it in like fishermen; artists get you out into that dark sea.

The civic duty of artists is to get people out into the dark sea.  Like a parent coaxing a child into the deep end of a pool, artwork can extend a sure and safe guiding hand.  Such support is invaluable kindness at a historic moment when humanity must master its nature before time runs out.  Art can demonstrate that the unknown holds hope as well as anxiety, so that every trembling heart that gazes into its haze peers at new possibilities.  In this way, artists are bulwarks of democracy.

Personhood and Art

A response to Women of Abstract Expressionism at the Denver Art Museum

by Megan Gafford

 

You might not be a person if enough people don’t consider you one.  Of course you will be human, but if you try to define personhood it becomes apparent that it is not the same as humanity.  For example, after your death your body will be just as human, but those who love you will say that you are “gone.”  Philosophers define persons as beings who are part of our moral community, but they continue to argue over who should be included.  What must one possess to be part of our moral community, to be deserving of our moral consideration?

Your opinions on vegetarianism, abortion, and whether or not to pull the plug on a comatose loved one, reflect which beings you include in your moral community.  In each of these scenarios and in many others, a societal consensus on personhood means the difference between life and death.  Questions of personhood come with high stakes.  You must ask yourself: Which animals count as persons, and are there any humans who do not meet the threshold?  Does personhood fall on a spectrum, so that one being might be less of a person than another?

Many people grant personhood to pets or intelligent species like elephants, while poachers and those who torture cats might disagree.  There appear to be conditions when a human is not a person, notably slavery, which has classified humans as property since before the invention of written records.  When criminals are executed, it is because the state has determined that they no longer deserve our moral consideration.  I believe that a woman has more personhood than a fetus, so I defer to her decision about whether or not to carry the fetus to term.  Someone who disagrees with me probably believes that the fetus has equal to or greater personhood than the woman.  Indeed, questions of personhood permeate feminism.

Curator Gwen Chanzit insists upon the personhood of women in Women of Abstract Expressionism at the Denver Art Museum.  It is an historic exhibition, because it is the first major museum show to exclusively include paintings made by women in that most macho movement of modernism.  Over forty artists are highlighted in the accompanying catalog, and major works by twelve key artists are displayed: Mary Abbott, Jay DeFeo, Perle Fine, Helen Frankenthaler, Sonia Gechtoff, Judith Godwin, Grace Hartigan, Elaine de Kooning, Lee Krasner, Joan Mitchell, Deborah Remington, and Ethel Schwabacher.  In presenting their paintings together for the first time, Chanzit posits that Women of Abstract Expressionism will, “challenge and correct,” the prevailing opinion that women were largely inconsequential to abstract expressionism, and, “insist upon… [their] individuality.”  Both the structure of the show (each artists’ paintings are grouped together and coincide with an insightful profile) and the essays in the catalog explicate the artists’ individuality – that is, their personhood.

In Chanzit’s introduction to the catalog, she reminds us how the “heroic machismo spirit” of the male individual became ingrained in the history of abstract expressionism, and concludes with the assertion that, “canvases by Abstract Expressionist women… express compelling points of view by individuals who were individual in every sense.”  The following essay by Joan Marter, “Missing in Action,” outlines the systemic discrimination against painting women in the 1940s and '50s, and how they were written out of history.  Artists’ relationships with their male colleagues – and lovers – is explored by Ellen G. Landau in “Biographies and Bodies.”  After the essays there is an interview with art critic and historian Irving Sandler, who was a contemporary of the artists in the exhibition, in which he maintains that, “there didn’t seem to be women of the stature of, say, Mark Rothko, Bill de Kooning, Jackson Pollock…  I don’t think they were of the same stature as the men.”  Subsequent pages are filled with images of paintings and artist profiles.

Women of Abstract Expressionism is Chanzit’s attempt to prove Irving Sandler wrong.  She tries to demonstrate how the women were just as good as the men: “Female artists exhibited paintings alongside their male colleagues…  Many studied in the same classes as men, taught by Hans Hofmann, Hassel Smith, Clyfford Still, and Esteban Vicente, among others.  They socialized and worked in studios near each other.”  This emphasis on participation highlights the discrepancy between what happened in the 1940s and '50s verses what is remembered about that period.  Remembering that women were active participants in abstract expressionism may diminish machismo connotations about that movement.  Chanzit wants to write the women of abstract expressionism back into history, and hopes that the catalog will live on as crucial new scholarship to that end.

Problems of personhood are central to the way humanity writes history.  The stories we choose to tell reveal priorities about which lives we deem important and influential enough for creating a legacy.  So, too, do the stories we choose to forget, and so few of our stories are about women.  Janson’s History of Art is infamous both for being assigned in most college art classes, and for failing to include a single woman artist until 1987.  If roughly half the population is treated as though her wisdom, accomplishments, and talent are too inconsequential to remember, it is because she is not given as much moral consideration as the other half – that is, she is not granted full personhood.

In 1971, Linda Nochlin tried to deal with the question, “Why have there been no great women artists?”  She described the institutional and social barriers that prevented women from achieving and being recognized for greatness.  Women were simply not allowed to be great.  I wonder if Nochlin is unimpressed with Women of Abstract Expressionism, because a passage in her essay seems to suggest that it should be received with skepticism:

The feminist’s first reaction is to swallow the bait, hook, line and sinker, and to attempt to answer the question as it is put: i.e., to dig up examples of worthy or insufficiently appreciated women artists throughout history; to rehabilitate rather modest, if interesting and productive careers; to ‘re-discover’ forgotten flower-painters or David-followers and make out a case for them; to demonstrate that Berthe Morisot was really less dependent upon Manet than one had been led to think – in other words, to engage in the normal activity of the specialist scholar who makes a case for the importance of his very own neglected or minor master.  Such attempts… are certainly worth the effort, both in adding to our knowledge of women’s achievement and of art history generally.  But they do nothing to question the assumptions lying behind the question ‘Why have there been no great women artists?’  On the contrary, by attempting to answer it, they tacitly reinforce its negative implications.

I worry that all-women shows are in effect a junior league.  Women may compete for the title Best Woman Artist, but rarely Best Artist.  My concern was shared by Georgia O’Keeffe, who stated that, “The men liked to put me down as the best woman painter.  I think I’m one of the best painters.”  In 1976, she refused to lend her work to Women Artists: 1550-1950, the very first international exhibition of art by women artists.  Nochlin was curating the show (did she swallow the bait just five years after writing her famous essay?), and she borrowed an O’Keeffe painting from another source so she could include her anyway.

Ethel Schwabacher, who lived from 1903-1984, agreed with O’Keeffe.  Her children were interviewed for a short documentary that Chanzit screened within the exhibition about Women of Abstract Expressionism, and the film ends with Schwabacher’s daughter relating that, “She hated when people referred to her as a woman painter.  She wanted to be a painter.  Period.”  Chanzit included her anyway, not just in the more expansive catalog but as one of the twelve artists profiled in the exhibition.  It is normal for curators and historians to contextualize artists, especially after their death, in ways that artist might protest against, but it is ironic for feminists like Nochlin and Chanzit to include women who explicitly deny consent.  Contemporary feminism is deeply concerned with consent, because agency is prerequisite for personhood.

Issues of consent are central to the most life-threatening aspect of women’s diminished personhood status.  In her 2014 essay, “The Longest War,” Rebecca Solnit lists a stomach-turning variety of statistics about violence against women, such as: “in the United States, there is a reported rape every 6.2 minutes, but the estimated total is perhaps five times as high;” “a woman is beaten every nine seconds in this country… it’s the number-one cause of injury to American women;” “Spouses are the leading cause of death for pregnant women in the United States;” and, “Women worldwide ages 15 through 44 are more likely to die or be maimed because of male violence than because of cancer, malaria, war and traffic accidents combined.”  Solnit tells the story of an incident that occurred in San Francisco in January 2013, when, “A woman was stabbed after she rebuffed a man’s sexual advances…  The 33-year-old victim was walking down the street when a stranger approached her and propositioned her…  When she rejected him, the man became very upset and slashed the victim in the face and stabbed her in the arm.”  On my walk to the Denver Art Museum to see Women of Abstract Expressionism, a man whistled at me from a passing car; on my way home, someone hollered, “Nice legs!”  How much of a person was I to those hectors?

Sometimes I think about these statistics, or the ones that tell us that by most measures women only make up about 30% of the art world (gallery representation, museum solo shows, ratio of MFA graduates to professionals, etc), or how there are zero women in the top echelon of the highest-earning artists, and my throat tightens with fear for my future.  I have it better than O’Keeffe and Schwabacher, because feminists have accomplished a lot since the abstract expressionists sat around the Cedar Bar.  But continued progress requires continued effort, and we are all culpable for women’s inequality.  Chanzit is continuing the effort, even if she is also tacitly reinforcing the negative implications of the question, “Why have there been no great women artists?” because she is telling the story of women of abstract expressionism.  She does those artists the dignity of being remembered.

Women are still being written out of history.  For example, Jerry Saltz conducts an annual ritual of analyzing Artforum magazine, and consistently calculates that merely 15-25% of its pages are about women artists; he concludes that, “Nearly a half-century on from feminism, simply being a woman artist is still a revolutionary act.  And getting one’s work shown continues to be met by enormous inbuilt resistance.”  This discrimination will continue until the art community actively ends it.  If you are a gallerist, museum director, curator, art collector, arts writer, or artist, then you are culpable for this inequality.  What are you going to do about it?