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.
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.
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.
You can see one of Bourgeois’ Spider sculptures in the garden at the New Orleans Museum of Art.
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.
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?”
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.”
O’Keeffe refused to lend her work to the show Women Artists: 1550-1950, the very first international all-women show.
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.
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.
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.
But one of the artist Chanzit curated posthumously into the show, Ethel Schwabacher, agreed with O’Keeffe.
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.
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.
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."
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.
Like Nochlin, Chicago included O’Keeffe despite how much O’Keeffe hated being called a “woman artist”.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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:
Here is Levine’s After Walker Evans: 4
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.”
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I submit to you that feminists should not present women as genitals served up on platters.
Moreover, the strength of feminism does not depend upon mocking men.
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.