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?