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 (https://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 pseudo-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.

Frida with cat

Frida Kahlo with cat in classic come hither position

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 https://clarespark.com/2012/10/03/the-sexual-revolution-2/]

(For a related blog that documents misogyny in some famous poets and critics, see https://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 https://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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September 1, 2012

Sex, sex, and less sex

Shulamith Firestone

[For a related blog see https://clarespark.com/2009/12/23/she-who-gets-slapped-the-magic-of-middle-aged-boomerdom/.]

I have written before about the second wave of feminism, reminding my readers that it was civil rights and antiwar movements of the 1960s that generated the revolt of young movement women who wanted respect from the emerging male stars, particularly after such notorious remarks as “A woman’s place is on her back.” (Huey Newton) In other words, young women who insisted that “the personal is political” were already anti-imperialists, and had imbibed histories of the U.S. that painted their country as hopelessly opposed to Nature, to native Americans, to (racial) minorities, to gay men and lesbians, to all women, and to the labor movement. But it was sexuality that became the focus of much of their activism, for sex talk sells, and many a new feminist wrote best sellers cursing out men, including those in the white male canon of literary heroes.  Today their ideological offspring are tenured professors in Women’s Studies, in cultural anthropology, in film studies, in the history of science, and in related fields. I don’t know if any of them compares the 1960s-70s culture to the 1920s, when anticapitalism, primitivism and promiscuity were all the rage among expatriates and artists in general, all of whom were in revolt against “the genteel tradition” and their (“Hebraic”) puritan forebears.

Return to my life after I started the radio broadcasts on Pacifica. I did my best to publicize female artists, designers, and writers when I had my radio program. Thanks to the material collected at CalArts, I was able to mount a slide show on sex and violence in the imagery of women artists and photographers that was delivered in numerous prestigious venues during the 1970s. Thoroughly immersed in the writing of the Frankfurt School of critical theory in those days (e.g. Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization), I did not think of the large audiences I was drawing as an audience for pornography, but rather as a symptom of emancipation from old excessively prudish taboos that were better overthrown. I did notice, however, that the New Left men I had met were womanizers, or, if they were New York writers, had numerous failed marriages, and were not faithful to the wife of the moment.

In retrospect, this obliviousness to the value of traditional marriage was widespread among New Age liberals as well as leftists. I remember one psychologist telling me with great confidence that sexual jealously was unhealthy: that the jealous wife was “giving away her power” to the faithless husband and his consorts. That was Gestalt therapy in the late 1960s-early 1970s as practiced in West Los Angeles.

Alexandra Kollontai and comrade

The leftists and liberals mentioned above were no doubt exponents of Alexandra Kollontai’s famous claim that “sex was a drink of water.” I should have recalled Marcuse’s theory of “repressive desublimation”: that sexuality run amok would serve the aims of capitalists selling goods and services. Today, the cult of Beauty is dominant, and woman expend much of their time and resources defending themselves against bad hair, sartorial dowdiness and aging, at the expense of child-rearing, expanding their minds and their general socio-political-economic awareness.

But the second wave feminists were politically aware and media savvy, all right, and many of the artists I championed during my delayed adolescence were exhibitionists defining their “feminist sensibility” as a presentation of female genitalia.  Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party brought her fame, stimulating a cottage industry of feminist art historians who meditate upon her gestures and her contemporaries, some pro, some con. Personally, I rejected her mystical linking of famous women through the ages as pandering, ahistoric, and reactionary.

Dinner Party postcards

But then there were those New York women (Redstockings) influenced by Friedrich Engels and other materialists from the wild male Left. Here is one example from a book that became a must-read for hip women everywhere:

[An excerpt from Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex:]

“So that just as to assure elimination of economic classes requires the revolt of the underclass (the proletariat) and, in a temporary dictatorship, their seizure of the means of production, so to assure the elimination of sexual classes requires the revolt of the underclass (women) and the seizure of control of reproduction: not only the full restoration to women of ownership of their own bodies, but also their (temporary) seizure of control of human fertility – the new population biology as well as all the social institutions of child-bearing and child-rearing. And just as the end goal of socialist revolution was not only the elimination of the economic class privilege but of the economic class distinction itself, so the end goal of feminist revolution must be, unlike that of the first feminist movement, not just the elimination of male privilege but of the sex distinction itself: genital differences between human beings would no longer matter culturally. (A reversion to an unobstructed pansexuality Freud’s ‘polymorphous perversity’ – would probably supersede hetero/homo/bi-sexuality.) The reproduction of the species by one sex for the benefit of both would be replaced by (at least the option of) artificial reproduction: children would born to both sexes equally, or independently of. either, however one chooses to look at it; the dependence of the child on the mother (and vice versa) would give way to a greatly shortened dependence on a small group of others in general, and any remaining inferiority to adults in physical strength would be compensated for culturally. The division of labour would be ended by the elimination of labour altogether (through cybernetics). The tyranny of the biological family would be broken.”

Sadly, Firestone’s body was found on August 28, 2012, possibly a week after her death in her book-lined East Village apartment in New York City. One report states that she owned many works of the Greek classics. Though she was born into a Canadian Orthodox Jewish family, her rebellion against a religion that supports strong families may have taken her into a paganism that was notoriously misogynistic and revolted by female genitals, despite its proliferation of goddesses. And her obituaries state that she was suffering from paranoid schizophrenia. The latter is a mental illness that presents itself usually in the early 20s. Firestone was twenty-five when she wrote her famous book. R.I.P. Shulamith Firestone, dead at 67.

May 8, 2010

The Free Will-Determinism Debate

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exhibition announcement, Cal State Dominguez Hills

My fight with a Reagan Republican Catholic who hates housework and feminism. 

Two days ago, a Facebook friend who describes herself as a Reagan conservative and as a Catholic, posted on her FB page a protest against housework, which she HATED (she did use caps).  I responded, unwarily, that “after the revolution, men would clean a new dirty house every day.” I was thinking of the day workers (often illegals) whose life did in fact consist of such dreary and repetitive tasks, not pacing their work as a stay-at-home middle-class housewife might (with the potential cooperation of a considerate family), but faced with the accumulation of many days of scum, grease, and other forms of dirt, and dependent on the savvy of the employer with respect to toxic chemicals and allergens. What followed next was a stressful interaction, for this person was in a rage against me, and my supposed cohort, 60s feminists such as Gloria Steinem, who were melded in her mind as disgruntled man-haters. If I had had any painful experiences, I had it coming to me.  Women in general had no grievances: she loved men, period. There was no way to pacify her, but it did give me an insight into how those second-wave feminists might be regarded by a conservative woman age 41. This happened the day of the stock market plunge, and to calm myself I wrote the recent blog on social cohesion and adjustment.

 Some personal history.   Oddly enough, during the late 1960s when I heard the first rumblings of the new feminism, I thought that these must be unnatural women who had abandoned their maternal responsibilities. (I was not that different from the conservative woman who freaked out on May 6.)  Not long afterwards, I began my radio programs on the art world and how artists were faring in powerful arts institutions. That activity took me away from the nest into a wider world of political and social controversy, and the spell of traditional marriage was broken and my political education finally began in fits and starts, but I remained relatively naïve, compared to what I might have been had I been raised in a feminist household. Meanwhile, I had used my Pacifica radio program to publicize the growing movement of feminist art and design, and collected slides of sex and violence in the images of women artists and photographers while I was teaching part-time at Calarts. At some point, during this period of personal transition, I must have read Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (a book that was not only pro-woman, but anti-imperialist), for I used passages from that book to illustrate the slide show I presented during the 1970s at numerous public venues. After I had returned to graduate school, I saw that the 60s women’s movement had elevated some feminists to prestigious positions in the postmodern academy where they confined themselves to women’s issues, and with a few exceptions, did not embed the situation of women in a larger social context. And most disturbingly, some of the women I had assisted had bonded either with the Left (even when those Left factions were supporting Third World countries that were barbaric with respect to gender relations) or had gone entirely mystical.

 Am I socially irresponsible?   To return to the subject at hand: my Facebook adversary had resorted to “free will” as her explanation for my failed marriage. It later occurred to me that she, like many other religious conservatives, had rejected any kind of historical, materialist, and structural explanation for the condition of women, including her own: She was a good woman, had chosen a good man (who did the floors for her), and I was very bad and irresponsible, deserving my fate.  Oddly, she, the out-of-control happy/unhappy housewife, was in a fury, while I remained relatively placid (though inwardly churning) as I attempted to explain myself, finally ending the FB friendship as it was clear that our differences were too deep to negotiate.  

Return of the unrepressed.    As prior blogs here should have made clear, it is difficult, if not impossible, to reconstruct a personal history that cleanly separates structure from agency, or as Herman Melville constantly reminds us in his stories, to separate “fixed-fate” from “free will.” We are left with uncertainty and ambiguity–a no-no to classicizing politicos of either Left or Right who prefer clean boundaries to messy conjectures and possible contradictions. And here, perhaps, we come to the double-binds I have been relating on this website.

    The law holds us personally responsible for all infractions, and yet many of the television crime shows depend on “profiles” of the criminal to track him or her down. These profiles commonly relate parenting deficits and other family catastrophes that shaped , indeed sculpted the future murderer or rapist. In Richard Wright’s Native Son, Bigger Thomas’s lawyer, a Jew named Max, unsuccessfully uses Bigger’s childhood and adolescence of racial oppression and trauma to argue for Bigger’s acquittal in several murders, one accidental, the other deliberate. Nor could any other type of insanity defense been effective, for the McNaughton Rule (still holding in half the states of the U.S.?) states that the test for insanity is to be incapable of distinguishing right from wrong. And long before that, Adam and Eve were expelled from Paradise for eating of the Apple of the Tree of Knowledge—the knowledge of good and evil that elevated them, hubristically, to equality with God. And Eve, distant mother of Pierrot and Lulu,  is the femme fatale in the story. (I am inviting my lawyer friends to explain to me how there is no double bind as described above.)

    Cherchez la femme as they say, but don’t look for me.  I’m still in hiding. And Happy Mother’s Day.

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