Tag Archives: Feminist art history

Hey Jill Soloway who you going to get to play me on your Womanhouse series?

It took a while for the full implications of a small item I read in Robin Pogrebin’s “Inside Art” column in the Times earlier this month to sink in, “Judy Chicago Does TV.”  The first sentence–“An artist isn’t typically rediscovered at 77”–fit into a category of historicization of women artists that I have commented on frequently, as recently as in a blog post here a few days ago. The article continued, “But that seems to be what’s happening to Judy Chicago of “The Dinner Party” fame, who is now going to be represented by Salon 94.” That Judy Chicago, whose work “The Dinner Party” occupies the most square footage of museum real estate devoted to a woman artist that I know of, at least in the United States, and who has been in the public eye and in feminist history for nearly 50 years, is one of these older women artists who are being “rediscovered” struck me as odd, but, OK, I had noticed recently that she has been showing in Europe, and so perhaps “rediscovery” translates here to that fact that a certain layer of the European art marketeriat is paying attention to her for perhaps the first time.

However the core of my dismay centered on the next paragraph, “Jill Soloway, creator of the acclaimed television series “Transparent,” is also making an Amazon series based on Womanhouse, the 1972 feminist art space that Ms. Chicago organized with Miriam Schapiro.”

Some younger women artists I know posted this news on Facebook saying how “AMAZING” it is. I appreciate their enthusiasm for this signal artwork of early seventies American feminist art, for Jill Soloway as someone focusing on pressing gender and trans issues in her popular series Transparent, and in general for anything feminist to get attention in popular culture.

But, I beg to differ: I was a participant of the project Womanhouse and I find the prospect of a dramatization of it something between violation and farce.

This blog post is to try to examine my own reaction and, though I speak for myself, I write with knowledge of the reaction of a number of the other women who worked on Womanhouse, some of whom I quote below, which boils down to WTF.

First the inference of the article is that Judy Chicago is the principal advisor of this project, and therefore that it is her version of Womanhouse and her views and memories of the other participants that will dominate the narrative. That is disturbing. Why? There is no question that Chicago was the co-director with Miriam Schapiro of the CalArts Feminist Art Program and Womanhouse from 1971-1972. Chicago had created/taught/directed the first Feminist Art Program the year before at Fresno State. I highly recommend the section of Gail Levin’s biography Becoming Judy Chicago: A Biography of the Artist that covers that year of Chicago’s most radical pedagogical experiment, it is inspiring and provocative, and having worked with her and Schapiro in the CalArts program I can vouch for the fact that although our program was pretty radical, the Fresno program was ten times more so. Thus the importance of that Judy Chicago is absolutely paramount. Nevertheless, the idea for Womanhouse came from art historian Paula Harper, and was driven as much by Miriam Schapiro’s ideas, goals, dreams, aesthetic views, and ability to proselitize and fundraise for the project as by Judy’s vision for it. Also, and of course paramount to my own sense of violation, Womanhouse was a collaborative project with 20 young women students from the Program and three or four other unaffiliated women artists from the LA community working on installations, paintings, and performances, emerging from consciousness raising sessions and discussions. In a short, difficult, and intense period of time everyone involved worked to bring the project Womanhouse to fruition for public viewing in the month of February 1972.

The students who participated in the CalArts Feminist Art Program and Womanhouse included some of the women who had worked with Chicago in Fresno, the rest were women who had self-selected to join the CalArts FAP in the fall of 1971. This was a major decision for a number of reasons. First, the program was exclusionary–only women students. The program was given a very large shared studio space with a locked door–that women held significant real estate within the school was so important institutionally. The fact that the program was exclusionary meant that one’s fellow students were only women, which not all young women would find attractive socially. It also at first meant that one was somewhat cut off from the rest of the student body and faculty. Second, it was a major decision because it was not just a class, it was a program, an experimental educational program within an experimental art school, so it represented a major commitment of time, energy, political identification, and personal allegiance as well as a challenge to established views far greater than any of the other ways of challenging art that were operative at the school at that time. Being in the program was a radical statement, it was a public declaration of identification with a political movement, Women’s Liberation or feminism, which at that particular moment was gaining importance across the country but which still was an identification with social risk.

Thus the women who chose to be in the program were unusual, every one of us, even the ones who were shy and quiet  or the ones barely sane enough to function. And we were doing all this while mostly very young. Who were we, why had we chosen to do this, how did we handle the pressure?  Which ones of us went on to lives in the arts? And which ones contributed further to writing the history of Womanhouse? Does Jill Soloway know anything about this? I am told that she does a lot of research for her projects but not one of the original participants or, in the case of Schapiro, the executor of her estate, has been consulted or indeed heard a word about this project until the notice in the Times. And if Judy Chicago is her only source she won’t learn much of who we were and are and what we know,  because Chicago of course was understandably focused on herself and her own significant struggles in the situation. One of the Womanhouse participants’ said that she thought they would only need two actresses, “Judy and ‘the girl’,” another’s fantasy is that in the series “Judy is a character and everyone else is portrayed out of focus.”

On Chicago’s website, her bio page does not mention either the CalArts Feminist Art Program or Womanhouse and her gallery of images tucks pictures of her much referenced and reproduced piece at Womanhouse, “Menstruation Bathroom,” into the bottom page section “Installations and Performances,” so it takes some work to find it. Further, since that time, Judy Chicago has not been an active participant in the many challenging directions that feminist art and theory has taken in the following decades: in fact she–her ideas and her work–was a major subject of, even a cause of, but not an active agent in the very divisive battles over essentialism that dominated feminist art discourse in the 1980s and more subtly ever since.

The little squib in the Times was vague about whether this Womanhouse based series is already in production or just in development. But, again, not a single woman associated with Womanhouse–and, with the exception of Schapiro, all of us are living–has been approached for our recollections and views and our engagements with that shared history or, for that matter, for what we might feel about this dramatization, how each one of us might balance pride in our participation in an important historical work with a sense of possessiveness or privacy about our experiences of it.

Second, it is very common in such dramatizations of real events and docudramas about famous people to focus on only a few characters that represent specific people. Thus, for example, if this Womanhouse series is an actual dramatization of the actual project Womanhouse, Soloway couldn’t get away with creating a composite character to stand in for Miriam Schapiro because she is a well documented historical figure, although some people in the know feel that Judy has done her best to erase Schapiro from the history. The struggles between the two women were visible at the time including in video documentation of the time. But it is their collaboration that creates that particular event in history. However, once past Mimi, it is likely that many of the rest of us would be lumped into generic composite characters. You know, the kind who hang around the great artist’s studio wearing period appropriate clothing and have one line, like “Pablo, that’s really a masterpiece.” In Gail Levin’s biography of Chicago, I believe I am referred to as “a strange girl from New York.”

Well, as it happens, I don’t see myself as a composite character: for example although probably I fit the bill more than I would like, I don’t think I’m the generic Jewish girl from New York. Since I hope Jill Soloway will see this text eventually, I’d just like to say that I happen to think that I’m a pretty unique and complex figure. Also, of the students who was in the CalArts Feminist Art Program and who worked on Womanhouse, I’m one of the ones who has become, with Faith Wilding, a historian of that time period. But the point is that each one of us was a specific and unique person–our choosing to be in the Feminist Art Program alone being evidence enough of that. That was one of the most important gifts of being part of that program and project, getting to know a number of exceptional and unique people with very different backgrounds from my own, but each with a perhaps atypical relation to her own history for having chosen to participate in a revolutionary program. If one is able to see Lynne Littman‘s 1972 KCET document  Womanhouse is Not a Home in particular as well as the better known and distributed film by Johanna Demetrakas, Womanhouse, you get to hear many of the young student participants speak about their intentions and desires for their installations but not every woman is interviewed and anyway even that doesn’t give you the full information about each person’s background and what drew them to the FAP. Looking back I’m not sure any of us knew all about why each of us had joined up for though we learned a lot about each other since close friendships were formed and self-revelation in consciousness raising sessions was encouraged in the search for feminist subject matter; nevertheless there were also centrifugal forces that spun us apart, in the tumult of a small group and of a revolutionary moment.

That this was a revolutionary project and moment is embodied in the reaction of yet another of the Womanhouse participants: “it makes me think about how there is nothing that cannot be capitalized, commodified, and HBO-ized.”

Third, most people who find that something they lived through is the subject of a dramatization must feel quite bemused or perturbed by the strangeness of that experience, and by the knowledge that not even  the greatest director can possibly recreate the truth of a particular moment in time. If, as a viewer, you yourself have not actually lived through the moment, you can enjoy it no matter how removed from historical veracity. Who hasn’t watched all kinds of preposterous actors play the Kennedys? Maybe even Jackie Kennedy secretly watched some of them. If you know anything about the time period of a dramatization of a historical moment, there is a sort of kick of watching both the characterizations and reconstructions as well as catching the inaccuracies, the compressions of narratives, and, yes the composite characters: Ed Harris’ Pollock, Selma Hayek’s Frida, and Margarethe von Trotta’s Hannah Arendt are very creditable examples of the genre, but there are always those moments that seem inauthentic, if you know anything about the subject, especially if the character is a composite type and not the depiction of a real person, however reductive and distorted.

Fourth, so really, if it turns out that I will be or have already been written in as myself, the character Mira Schor, age 21, who can play me? I realize that I am not much up on young women actresses at this point. Over twenty years ago I had a pretty good idea: in an envelope (currently lost) that I painted, in which I cast myself and the artists associated with a gallery I was represented by, I cast Judy Davis as myself, not that I look like Judy Davis but her characterization of George Sand in James Lapine’s 1991 film Impromptu (pure fiction at least if you look at the photograph of tubercular Frederick Chopin and compare to gorgeous young Hugh Grant, or photographs of plump plain swarthy middle-aged George Sand and compare her to slim Waspy Judy Davis but it was the Bette Davis impulse in Davis’s characterization that I responded to, the drive of intelligence and independence I associated myself with). But now, I can’t imagine. I sat with a young friend who ran through current actresses including everyone from the stars of Broad City to Emma Stone and, her first choice to play me, Kristen Stewart! Frankly I don’t see any of it. The best I can do is think of my admiration for some of the great comedians of our time–Tina Fey, Samantha Bee, Kristen Schaal, Jessica Williams. Yeah, make a composite of them, and I’ll accept that person + a little Semitic New York strangeness. This will have practically nothing to do with me, but at least I will enjoy the character.

Fifth, and most important, probably I am misunderstanding the whole thing: most likely this is a series that will be based on Womanhouse, allowing for total fiction based on whatever research Soloway does and thereby handily preventing law suits. So perhaps some Semitic-looking actress portraying a scowling Jewish girl from New York or a sexy smart ass Jewish girl from New York or whatever works best for the ensemble of the plot line may float through. Perhaps imagination can create a character more cinematically interesting than my own complex self. And a Miriam Schapiro-like oppositional figure to the transformational radical pedagogue Judy Chicago-based heroine may perhaps be inserted to provide some necessary conflict. I can’t help thinking of all the survivor series, the “reality” shows that identify likeable and villainous characters for the gullible audience and that are so carefully edited and scripted to highlight the most conflict in order to maintain ratings.

The young women artists whose enthusiasm for feminism, which is so welcome, makes them look forward to this series as “AMAZING” will accept this fictionalization as reality because what other options would they have.

And why not applaud the whole thing because so few artworks by women artists are the subject of a television series or film? And, further, as an artist, I should trust in Soloway’s artistic vision and her narrative skill in re-imagining a very significant moment in the history of feminism and the American Women’s Liberation Movement–though, heads up, it really wasn’t much like that “Wimmin’s” festival in Transparent‘s Series 2 episode “Idlewild” although perhaps from the outside we were indeed just the younger versions of the women sitting around the campfire critiquing patriarchy. The casting and acting in Transparent are exemplary so why doubt that she would do a more than creditable job in representing Womanhouse?

Certainly I should recall, as a cautionary note to self, my understanding, shared by many others, that Miriam Schapiro’s desire for control of the narrative when working with potential biographers and documentarians (followed, sadly, by her later struggles with dementia) cost her in terms of historicization–for instance, Schapiro does not appear in Demetrakas’ film Womanhouse–allowing Chicago the historical field and the ground to be the one to influence this planned series on Womanhouse.

And it’s always important to remember the rule so succinctly articulated by John Ford at the end of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, when a reporter is given the choice between revealing the truth of an important part of the history of the West or sticking with the story as long told, “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” However, in that film, the whole story is a flashback, so we, the audience, know the legendary outcome before we learn the truth, and there is a kind of logic to the story, each of the two main protagonists “who shot Liberty Valance” is in a way a hero, so then a related ending occurs to me, of another Ford movie about the West, his 1948 Fort Apache: here the audience has experienced the story of the massacre caused by an arrogant and racist commanding officer diegetically–read Custer’s Last Stand seen from the critical point of view of US soldiers more experienced with and more respectful of their Native American enemy–so when at the end a reporter refers to the martinet as a hero, as depicted in a totally inaccurate famous painting of the event as reimagined by the winning side of history, the hero dutifully but ironically chooses not to correct the “legend,” but the unfairness is stinging.

But you never know, perhaps I will in the end find myself grinning at the contact glow of secondary fame of being in any way associated with a television series by an Emmy Award winning producer-director. Maybe the dramatization will eventually replace my own fading memories of what actually happened and what it was actually like and what I thought of it at the time. And given the simulacral aspects of contemporary life, where entertainment trumps all, that aphasic self will be a totally representative, contemporary, composite character.

***

 

I originally had planned to put a bibliography and filmography on Womanhouse here at the end of this text, but why be a goody goody? Thus I have not included any such references or pictures despite being sorely tempted to do so, except for a picture of the original catalogue.

The+original+catalog+cover+designed+by+Sheila+DeBretville+for+'Womanhouse'+(1972)

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditmailFacebooktwittergoogle_plusredditmail

A Feminist Correspondence

Just over a year ago I wrote In Memoriam: Rozsika Parker, Feminist Art Historian and activist to mark the death of the noted British feminist art historian and psychotherapist Rozsika Parker (December 27, 1945-November 5, 2010). A conference in honor of her work was held in London December 10, CELEBRATING ROZSIKA PARKER 1945 – 2010, A DAY SYMPOSIUM ON ART, FEMINISM, AND PSYCHOANALYSIS, convened by Griselda Pollock, Lisa Baraitser, Anthea Callen, Briony Fer, and Sigal Spigel, women noted for their expertise in art history and in psychoanalytic practice and theory, in keeping with Parker’s important contributions to both fields: indeed the themes of the panels cover the range of Parker’s interests: “Art Writing & History,” “Femininity & Cloth,” Between Art & Psychoanalysis,” “Maternal Studies,” “Body Dysmorphia”–all of these topics of continued central relevance to women artists and feminist practice. [update: 300 people tried to register for the conference which had to be moved to a larger venue to accommodate the numbers of young and old from the art and the psychoanalytical communities who came to spend the day. A podcast of the entire Conference is available here.]

In honor of this conference, I would like to reprise part of my original post, which was quite short, and then publish for the first time an extraordinary correspondence that followed over the past year, between me and Griselda Pollock. I hasten to say it is extraordinary entirely due to the quality and interest of Pollock’s writing and, in my own mind, due to my astonishment to be communicating in any way with Pollock, a brilliant art historian whose work influenced me so much at a crucial time in my personal development within one of the most significant moments in the history of feminist art.

As a final introductory comment, the epistolary form can be a difficult one to read due to the episodic stop and go pacing imposed by the time frame of an exchange of letters, as well as the formal niceties of letter writing, all the flourishes that frame the heart of the narrative at hand, though when the first major epistolary form novels began to appear in the 16th century one can well imagine how much they would have appealed to people for whom communication by letter was a more extraordinary event than we might understand now as we are buried under our crowded email inboxes. Yet perhaps just now, when emails, text messages, with their presentation in thought balloon form on the iPhone for example, and Facebook comment threads dominate our communicative life, a return to an epistolary format may be the perfect format for a feminist conversation, given that the epistolary novel has a notably feminist history, with Aphra Behn, Jane Austen, and Mary Shelley using the form.

November 22nd, upon hearing of the death of Rozsika Parker, I wrote here on A Year of Positive Thinking:

I consider Old Mistresses: Women, Art and Ideology, which Parker and Pollock co-authored, one of the most important books of feminist art theory and history that I ever read: Parker and Pollock examined how art history as a discipline had misogyny at its core, almost as one of its foundational purposes, with all its terms of value strongly gendered to condemn anything that smacked of the so-called feminine, although of course behind the naturalized frame of universalist neutrality. Their second collaboration, Framing Feminism: Art and the Women’s Movement 1970-1985 was and is a great source of information about the feminist art movement in Britain, which sometimes got overwhelmed by the American Women’s Liberation Movement’s belief in its own unique importance. Parker’s The Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and the Making of the Feminine is also a very influential and still relevant book, considering how much we now may take for granted that knitting or embroidering or weaving are acceptable media for high art, instead of being seen as crafts or as the hobby of well brought up girls or domestic servants.

Parker was a bit of a mysterious figure for all of us in the United States who admired these books because Griselda Pollock was the public figure of the two in the context of the art world and academia, speaking at many art history symposia here in the US, while Parker continued her feminist activism working as a psychoanalytic psychotherapist in Britain. Because it has been possible to follow the development of Pollock’s feminist ideology and aesthetic views in the books she wrote without Parker, I always have been curious about Parker’s role and voice in their collaboration and have tried to intuit it in the way one measures a black star, almost by negation, by what was not Griselda Pollock. I formed an image of a fierce feminism tempered by a compassionate focus on the work and the cultural issues affecting women, in life and in history, rather than the approach which won out in the 1980s, one that negated the “theoretical” existence of the (biologically determined) category “Woman” in favor of an interest in (socially constructed and non-biology specific) gender.

Sadly Old Mistresses and Framing Feminism have long been out of print. I hope that they can be re-issued because the passion and clarity and sheer historical data in these books would be of great interest to young women artists now.

Last February 2011 there were a number of panels related to feminism and art at the College Art Association Annual Conference in New York City, including “Feminism,” a panel co-chaired by Griselda Pollock and Norma Broude, held on February 9 at the Hilton Hotel, as well as “The Feminist Art Project: A Day of Panels” held at the Museum of Arts and Design, which included “The Problem of Feminist Form: A Talk by Aruna d’Souza” followed by a response from Connie Butler, The Robert Lehman Foundation Chief Curator of Drawings, MoMA. [As an aside, but one of general significance, at all of these panels at the main CAA conference at the Hilton Hotel and the Day of Panels at the Museum of Arts and Design, the attendance was huge: at the Museum, New York city fire laws were massively flouted, as hundreds of women were jammed together with their bulky winter coats and book-filled tote bags, crowding even the aisles and standing up along any wall surface available. The high level of interest was a bracing indicator of the continued and now renewed interest in feminism and art]

I had wondered if Griselda Pollock was aware of my blog post about Rozsika Parker but didn’t get a chance to talk to her either day. But February 10 after the Feminist Art Project “Day of Panels,” I received the following email from her, which I reproduce with her permission, followed by two more emails. I have added some links within the letters for background information and edited slightly the last letter because, not having Griselda’s permission to publish this last communication, I feel it is appropriate to publish only information I can be fairly certain she would not mind being made public.

Dear Mira,

I read with interest your brief report on the sad death of Rosie Parker last November. It was so shocking to us all that she could be snatched away so very young. But you have already experienced that grief through the loss of your sister. I appreciated your comments a a great deal as I wanted to affirm that Rosie was the original and powerful force in creating a feminist art writing shall we call it in Britain. She began alone writing her reviews for Spare Rib making it up as she went along. I keep thinking back now to what it was she gave me and what she enabled us to do in writing Old Mistresses. Collaboration is such a remarkable experience as neither party can claim authorship for what only happens when two people openly explore together, bringing their differences into creative play and each discovering their special resources and abilities only in the safety of an often hilarious as well as tough experience of pushing back the very limits of patriarchal authority which imposes such shame and fear on our minds as much as on our bodies. In your blog you rightly captured what it was that Rosie gave us and me in terms of making me a feminist writer on art: that things mattered deeply and seriously and that art touches on things that matter to us as we live them. That was what saved me from a bloodless and remote art history which i still cannot inhabit. But I wanted to correct one thing if I may: the shift from the engaged and passionate feminism that matters to real lives and real embodied people into the social construction of gender of the 1980s is both true and unfair. True I think in American academe in which intellectual women could not break through the internal shame police and made themselves respectable through a kind of intellectual transvestitism which prefers the social construction of gender because they then never have to deal with the messier aspects of our compromised and ambivalent bodies and sexualities. I began in the 1990s to engage with the work of Bracha Ettinger sharing with Rosie the continuing fascination with a feminist reworking of psychoanalysis – she went into it as a practice, I into its metapsychological domain. I remain interested in what we do not yet know about the realm of actual femininities and women’s lives and bodies and minds and what the more theoretically suggested notion of the feminine as a resource for non phallic thought, art and being might be. It is almost impossible to speak this in public without being booed off the stage or treated indulgently as a mad and embarrassing woman. I am not sure that we share similar positions on ‘woman’ or women; but I know that you too have battled against a kind of intellectual disowning of the feminine/the female, women. Ettinger is theoretically extremely difficult and arcane coming through what she has to say via Lacan and those whose works provide her with a means to insert a radical feminist rethinking of the meaning of the feminine. It is difficult to bridge the realms of everyday experience and the esoteric languages of philosophical analysis and certainly psychoanalytical theory. I know I do not succeed and people find my texts difficult and even excluding as they are written from within a realm of theoretical work few inhabit. I try to maintain some kind of deeper responsibility to bridge the realms or art and theory where important work is being done and the ordinary readers not able to spend a lifetime entering into their specialist ways of thinking and writing. I have functioned as an interpreter for Matrixial theory but I constantly find the American art historians blocking me with their discomfort with any discourse that assumes that there might be meaning in being a woman, however that has come about, or as I think Ettinger is saying that’ the feminine’ as she conceptualises it as a primordial gift of the ethical ability to share with an unknown other, to co-emerge into a coaffecting humanity.

I just wanted to respond to your very insightful blog about Rosie’s feminism> Her last book was about body dysmorphia and the agony caused by this dislocation of person and body. She taught me so much to engage with what really matters and that is about suffering, pain and the strange ways we have of negotiating both. She wanted to make things better through her work and her writing, through exploring difficult issues of love and hate and reflecting upon how she fostered the emergence of feminist art writing and thinking and shaped me as a feminist thinker, I go back to that. Yet I want to find a way not to be pigeon-holed as a theoretical Brit, a social constructionist. I never understood gender theory anyway since I was always in the psychoanalytical camp of exploring subjectivity and sexual difference. At the MoMA Feminist Futures it was Linda Nochlin and Anne Wagner who disowned by daring to say that the feminine has something vital to say to our worlds, futures and us.

Perhaps we share the fate of being not the mainstream of whatever has become hegemonic feminism: but to me it is not feminism at all. Feminism is about constantly questioning ourselves and daring to stay with what we find most difficult and uncomfortable long enough to work it through: no policing of correct thinking or orthodox positions. This is one of the vices I see in US academe: I am constantly told that what I am still thinking through is over, old hat, out of date. yet we hardly started on this vast project.

I am organizing a commemorative conference in London on 7 April for Rosie and I would like to reference your blog if I may as a way into really remembering and recognizing her groundedness in what matters for women and that art matters and art that is not about what matters matters very little.

Excuse this long screed. Yrs with best wishes, Griselda

Anyone who has ever admired someone from afar will understand the degree of my astonishment at this letter. It took me a few days to answer, writing to her on February 14:

On 14 Feb 2011, I wrote:

Dear Griselda:

Thank you for your touching and quite amazing email. First of all and above all I am so glad that you found my piece on your friend Rosie, and I’m honored that you would take notice of my really very humble attempt to mark her passing. I was in the audience for your introduction of your part of the panel on Friday and was very moved by your dedication of the panel to her and, sitting next to my friend and frequent collaborator Susan Bee, I felt very keenly the importance of a friend with whom you not only share experience and intellectual discovery but also with whom you create something in collaboration.

Upon reading your email to me I returned to my brief text to figure out why you should feel in any way that you would need to defend to me your position in the 80s on some of the theoretical and political ideas about gender and feminism that were, it is true, extremely divisive and occasionally maddening. So I just want to say how important your writings have been to my second education in feminism, in the 80s, when I had to sink or swim in a new theoretical situation quite different to my first in the early 70s.

It was a very contentious polemical time –once the 80s were over I sometimes referred to them as the decade from hell but on the other hand it was an incredibly interesting time — the disagreements were vicious and with genuine real life consequences (jobs and shows or not depending on what side you were seen to be on) but at least the arguments were over ideas, not like now when the market often dominates or subsumes discourse!!! I did feel that I ended up on what was perceived as the wrong end of the argument, or rather, that I was perceived as being on what was considered the wrong side, it always bugged me that I was consigned to the second class of “essentialist” — a bugaboo my sister and I both struggled with, although in my case the problem was compounded by my being a painter and one who did seem to work with difference (not sure which was worse, since painting, as I came to understand, was itself seen as essentialist).

As I think I can see from your comments, and as I experience myself, the divisions continue, somewhat the same though masked by new terms and conditions, with all the possibilities for (and exploitations of) misunderstandings that Sharon and Miwon seemed to underline yesterday. [I arrived at the very tail end of Connie’s and Aruna’s conversation, due to total stoppage of several subway lines because of what I later learned was the tail end of a murder spree, so I wasn’t clear on the issues you addressed in your response from the audience].

Griselda, I don’t know if you read my piece on Rozsika on The Huffington Post or on my blog A Year of Positive Thinking. I cross-posted the same piece since each site reaches a very different audience.

I designed my blog without a comments section, in part because I think they are unsightly and also because they are often too vicious. But I wonder whether you would consider letting me publish your email on my blog along with information about and a link to the commemorative conference you are planning for April–edited as you would wish, but I hope you would not feel the need to edit it too much because it is so insightful & touching about the nature of collaboration and so interesting as to past and present debates over gender and the feminine, and, as always, brilliantly written even as an email. It is really quite an extraordinary document and I continue to be astounded to have it addressed to me. On the blog I would recall my previous post on Rozsika (don’t feel I can call her Rosie but will think of her as such) with a link, would present your email as an extraordinary response, and give some information on the conference on her with a link to it if there is one. Do let me know if you would consider this. I hope you will.

And thank you for remembering my sister. That means a great deal to me.

All the best,

Mira

I didn’t hear back from Griselda for several months, until September 1, 2011:

Dear Mira,

I am so sorry for the long silence in reply to your email. Many things got int the way of our organizing a conference about Rosie. At last we have got this planned for 10 December 2011 in London. Details are below. I really like the idea of including my reply on your blog to open this all up a bit. I have no money for this event at all. But I wondered if we could circulate your piece on Rosie in the event or include it in some form, for instance you reading it – a digital recording or even a dvd recording as it would really add to the debate so much to have some transatlantic feminists involved.

I wonder what you think or we could read it out with a painting by you on the screen.

There are so many issues raised in your reply as well – notably about painting. What irritated me at the CAA event […]’s exploration of the question can painting be feminist as if this had never really been raised. It was a big issue with the usual misunderstandings in the later 1980s and early 1990s in Britain and Hilary Robinson wrote powerfully about women and painting as did my beloved friend Judith Mastai in Canada. Katy Deepwell was involved as was Rebecca Fortnun. I find myself now writing about painting amongst the many other practices and I felt once again the typecasting of British feminism and the fixing of boundaries and camps at the CAA – instead an openness to constantly revisiting the very varied landscapes of feminist thought and practice and building on bodies of debate.

The good news is the Old Mistresses will be reprinted in a new edition with a new preface sometime next year so that Rosie’s words and inspiration will be back with us again.

[…]

all the very best Griselda

My thanks to Griselda Pollock for her permission to reproduce this correspondence and my best wishes to all the participants of tomorrow conference in London.

 

 

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditmailFacebooktwittergoogle_plusredditmail

In Memoriam: Rozsika Parker, Feminist Art Historian and activist

The sad news of the death of British psychotherapist and feminist art historian Rozsika Parker provides the opportunity to bring her work to the attention of anyone interested in feminism, art, and women artists. Parker was a pioneer feminist art theorist and activist from the early 70s to the 90s, often collaborating with the art historian Griselda Pollock.

I consider Old Mistresses: Women, Art and Ideology, which Parker and Pollock co-authored, one of the most important books of feminist art theory and history that I ever read: Parker and Pollock examined how art history as a discipline had misogyny at its core, almost as one of its foundational purposes, with all its terms of value strongly gendered to condemn anything that smacked of the so-called feminine, although of course behind the naturalized frame of universalist neutrality. Their second collaboration, Framing Feminism: Art and the Women’s Movement 1970-1985 was and is a great source of information about the feminist art movement in Britain, which sometimes got overwhelmed by the American Women’s Liberation Movement’s belief in its own unique importance. Parker’s The Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and the Making of the Feminine is also a very influential and still relevant book, considering how much we now may take for granted that knitting or embroidering or weaving are acceptable media for high art, instead of being seen as crafts or as the hobby of well brought up girls or domestic servants.

Parker was a bit of a mysterious figure for all of us in the United States who admired these books because Griselda Pollock was the public figure of the two in the context of the art world and academia, speaking at many art history symposia here in the US, while Parker continued her feminist activism working as a psychoanalytic psychotherapist in Britain. Because it has been possible to follow the development of Pollock’s feminist ideology and aesthetic views in the books she wrote without Parker, I always have been curious about Parker’s role and voice in their collaboration and have tried to intuit it in the way one measures a black star, almost by negation, by what was not Griselda Pollock. I formed an image of a fierce feminism tempered by a compassionate focus on the work and the cultural issues affecting women, in life and in history, rather than the approach which won out in the 1980s, one that negated the “theoretical” existence of the (biologically determined) category “Woman” in favor of an interest in (socially constructed and non-biology specific) gender.

Sadly Old Mistresses and Framing Feminism have long been out of print. I hope that they can be re-issued because the passion and clarity and sheer historical data in these books would be of great interest to young women artists now.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditmailFacebooktwittergoogle_plusredditmail