YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

November 15, 2012

Female genitals as Red Flag

militant Judy Chicago

In George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), the great gesture of defiance for Winston Smith is his sexual liaison with the promiscuous Julia. It was the same for Herbert Marcuse, writing to the Sixties’ generation in his Eros and Civilization (1955).  And before that publication, Harvard social psychologist Henry A. Murray and his colleague Gordon Allport suggested that an American “Leader” like FDR, the antithesis of Hitler, should embody the Eros of democracy (http://clarespark.com/2011/03/27/progressive-mind-managers-ca-1941-42/).  A few years earlier, Wilhelm Reich, a refugee from Nazis, first published his seminal work arguing that Nazism was anchored in the German psyche through repression of the orgasm (The Mass Psychology of Fascism, 1933, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wilhelm_Reich).

So when Judy Chicago and other feminist artists took on the Woman Question in the 1960s and 70s, it is not surprising that in-your-face sexual emancipation, focused on a populist critique of “white male modernist supremacy” in the art world, would be their Red Flag. There were sturdy precedents in 20th century culture, and soon Marcuse would be warning about “repressive de-sublimation”—a move that would only impel more consumerism and false consciousness in the working class as the Frankfurt School refugees liked to argue as Marxists and Freudians.

I have been studying the sumptuous catalog published by the University of California Press in 1996, Feminist Politics: Judy Chicago’s ‘Dinner Party’ in Feminist Art History, edited by Amelia Jones, a post-structuralist art historian, attuned to queer studies, performance art, and Da Da (!).  Jones’s Wikipedia page lauds her for her anti-elitist stance, while the catalog rehabilitates kitsch and popular culture– an accurate reflection of the populist politics she brings to her ambivalent study of the work that made Judy Chicago and feminist art a topic of heated debate within the art world and elsewhere.

Amelia Jones

A review of the major claims of the pseudo-revolutionary character of this populist art world move seems timely, now that the Democratic Party has highlighted the supposed War on Women launched by their ostensibly uptight, hyper-puritan adversaries on the Right.

Amelia Jones’s major essay in the catalog is a treat for those readers who define liberation as focus on female genitals.  In guilty liberal fashion, she does complain that a feminist movement that ignored women of color is problematic, but her main point is that Chicago’s representation of great women through the ages is not “essentialist” (“biological determinism” is off the table), but female identity is, rather, “socially constructed,” hence it follows that the “patriarchy” can be demolished by feminist art and criticism.

Since Chicago’s Great Genitals are a colorful and shiny mish-mash, mixing up artists, writers, and an assortment of antique heroines of various religions (many pagan), the entire conception of her mammoth piece is necessarily mystical, perhaps barbaric, which fits in with the Woman as Goddess motif that is the most lasting legacy of the Sexual Revolution. I wonder if Chicago’s fame/notoriety is as original a move as her fans imagine.

Hannah Wilke

Keith Thomas, the late British historian, argued that modernity and puritanism elevated the status of women in marriage. So-called feminist art betrays its critical promise by reducing women to their sex organs.  Men got there first. [On how the Democratic Party has co-opted feminism see http://clarespark.com/2012/10/03/the-sexual-revolution-2/]

(For a related blog that documents misogyny in some famous poets and critics, see http://clarespark.com/2009/10/23/murdered-by-the-mob-moral-mothers-and-symbolist-poets/. For a partial index to all my blogs on feminism see http://clarespark.com/2012/09/04/links-to-blogs-on-feminism/.) Historian Ruth Bloch has traced the “rise of the moral mother”, whose status was improved by Lockean tabula rasa psychology and the decline of paternal authority in the family. Mothers, now the decisive instructors in religious sentiments,  could be seen as malevolently usurping the male role, as father left his castle/home for offices and factories; father was no longer the supreme authority and distributor of material resources within the household economy.

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9 Comments »

  1. […] That line is constantly moving (especially with the revitalization of one version of feminism (see http://clarespark.com/2012/11/15/female-genitals-as-red-flag/), but some features of misogyny and sexism remain invisible to mass media, which generally cater to […]

    Pingback by Ray Rice and domestic abuse of women | YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — September 12, 2014 @ 6:11 pm | Reply

  2. I thought the great gesture of defiance was memory and composition. The trap (!) was sex with Julia. This begs the question of “connection” between the pneumatic tube and the vagina.

    Comment by Douglas Storm — July 18, 2014 @ 4:19 pm | Reply

  3. […] California (see http://clarespark.com/2012/10/03/the-sexual-revolution-1-2/, and its lookalike http://clarespark.com/2012/11/15/female-genitals-as-red-flag/.) Don’t miss this painting showing how New Women as mothers transmit their demonism to […]

    Pingback by The Sexual Revolution (2) | YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — December 28, 2013 @ 2:57 am | Reply

  4. […] Female genitals as Red Flag (clarespark.com) […]

    Pingback by Women artists’ London exhibition | Dear Kitty. Some blog — November 25, 2012 @ 2:24 pm | Reply

  5. Excellent. Your concluding sentence has been my perception of that artwork in particular, and the entire premise of antagonistic feminism for decades. I do challenge students in my courses to acquaint themselves with feminism starting with Seneca Falls, Barton, Anthony, to the “second wave” of Freidan, Daly, & Beauvoir. Not necessarily to agree, but definitely to see the connections between this movement and contemporary culture. One feminist critique in particular gets mentioned, that linear perspective is “male oppression” because it implies that there is only one valid point of view (the vanishing point). Correct analysis, but the attribution to a megalomaniacal sex-based power dynamic is a bit much.

    Comment by Terbreugghen — November 21, 2012 @ 5:05 pm | Reply

  6. Glamour recently named its “Women of the Year” award recipients. Please allow me to share the response of one of these “women of substance”, Lena Dunham, when asked, “What do you appreciate most about being a woman?”
    –“Wow, I think that probably changes on a day-to-day basis. Besides the obvious, which is, like, a greater range of fashion options and an ability to blame my emotions on hormonal ups and downs, which could be considered a minus but I’m really enjoying, I think I’m excited about the fact that I get to have a child if I want to. I’m really excited about the way that women are making themselves heard at this point in history. I’ve never wanted to be not a woman. I’ve never literally had envy about one aspect of being a boy. Even when I recognized that there were things that were unfair about the male-female dynamic, I’ve never felt jealous. It seems like being a guy is boring. Being a girl is so great.”–

    Comment by topelf — November 16, 2012 @ 5:01 am | Reply


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