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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