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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November 5, 2010

Hamburger’s Separation of Church and State

Philip Hamburger, Professor of Law, Columbia U. Law School

Before reading this blog, I ask the reader to examine two separate accounts of Philip Hamburger’s book.

http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9B02E6D61131F935A35754C0A9649C8B63 (Peter Steinfels reviews Hamburger, 2002 in NYT.)

http://www.law.columbia.edu/media_inquiries/news_events/2007/December07/hamb_profile.  (Columbia Law School describes the controversy over Hamburger’s book., December 2007 issue of Columbia Law School Magazine.)

[My blog:]    In the conclusion to his 492 page study, Separation of Church and State, the author instructively contrasts two clashing visions of “liberty” (though not in terms that a libertarian would recognize). These paragraphs would seem to identify him as a neutral party to the culture wars (traditionalism versus secularism) that have inflamed the republic longer than we might think. I quote his paragraphs, then lay out the strange associations and claims that this Harvard-published book maintains.

[Hamburger, p. 485:]…[Summarizing Tocqueville] By inculcating morals, by encouraging mutual love and forgiveness, and by directing ambitions toward another world, religion could diminish injurious behavior, dissension, and distrust. Accordingly, it could reduce the necessity of civil coercion—a necessity that might otherwise lead a people to desire harsh or even tyrannical government. Religion could also establish a lasting foundation in public opinion for the various rights that seemed particularly vulnerable to fluctuations in popular sentiments. It thereby could temper the selfish passions and oppression to which republics were all too prone. Thus religion—specifically the Christianity inherited and shared by a community—seemed essential for the preservation of liberty.

[Hamburger, cont., p.485:]    Increasingly , however, this perspective coexisted with another, very different point of view, drawn from European experiences and fears—a perspective that survives most prominently in the writings of Thomas Jefferson. Together with expanding numbers of other Americans, Jefferson feared that clergymen, creeds, and therefore most churches undermined the inclination and ability of individuals to think for themselves. He worried that individuals would defer to their church’s clergy and creed in a way that would render them subservient to a hierarchy and would deprive them of intellectual independence. In such ways, the clerical and creedal religion of most churches appeared to threaten the individual equality and mental freedom that Jefferson increasingly understood to be essential for the citizens of a republic.

[Clare:] One might think from these excerpts from the chapter entitled “Conclusions” that the author had actually set up throughout his lengthy text discussions of Toqueville and Jefferson. But he had not. Rather, he created a genealogy for “American identity” that conflated his secularists with Roger Williams (unconscionably insulted and dismissed in the brief pages on his pathbreaking religion and politics); with Republican Jefferson’s political ambitions in the campaign of 1800 (in which he determined to defeat statist Federalists); with viciously anti-Catholic, anti-working class Protestants who forced compulsory free public education down our throats; with Know-Nothings, “Liberals,”“nativists,” “freethinkers”, “white supremacists,” “individualists,” and  “Americanists”; with Reform Jews, including Felix Frankfurter (!); with Unitarians; and most breakthtakingly, with the Ku Klux Klan, spending endless pages on the tricky Klansman SCOTUS Hugo Black and his fiery crosses (crosses that the author linked to the Statue of Liberty).

I try not to be paranoid, but this wild and undisciplined book could be a through-the-looking-glass rewrite of Disraeli’s novel Lothair (1870), in which the author describes an elaborate [ultramontane] Catholic plot to lure the fabulously wealthy hero (Lothair) away from Anglicanism, a conspiracy to restore the Pope as the supreme authority in Britain (along with his confiscated lands) that fails in the end. In Hamburger’s drama, however, the (undifferentiated) Catholics are the victims of (undifferentiated) Protestants and their white-sheeted knights.

Nowhere does the author examine whether or not the “secularists” had any reason to fear authoritarian religion as an obstacle to intellectual independence. Nowhere does he examine the propaganda churned out by elites since antiquity that declared the people incapable of the self-control and community spirit of their betters. Nowhere does he lay out the case law that addressed the (non-existent or illegitimate) separation of church and state. But what is most shocking is that in both of the reviews and summaries of the controversy linked above, what I have written about the iconographic program of this book is utterly absent, like Roger Williams himself, who was the true originator of the notion that church and state should and must be separated, that faith was an entirely private matter of individual conscience. (Herman Melville said the same in a marginal comment in Goethe’s autobiography, and also echoed Williams’s respect for native Americans and his questioning of what was to become the conquest theory of property.)

Another lacuna in the text is the vexed question of the taxation of Church property. As Keith Thomas wrote long ago in his Religion and the Decline of Magic (1971), one reason for the witch-hunts in seventeenth century England might have been this confusion: Who was responsible for charity and the protection of the poor and disabled? Was it to be the state or the church? And to bring Thomas’s  question up to date, if churches, public schools, universities, and non-commercial media are to be ideological weapons of one narrow politics—the crazy-making statist politics of “moderation” (a.k.a. round-the-clock “compromise”)– should taxpayers be asked to support them? Or should they compete in the marketplace of ideas? Hamburger never uses that expression, and I doubt that any Harvard UP editor suggested it to him. The major university presses are firmly committed to self-sacrifice, duty and service to the “community” above creativity and innovation. The “self” has been erased and “laissez-faire capitalism” reduced to a dirty conception.

(For a related blog, see https://clarespark.com/2009/07/04/unfinished-revolutions-and-contested-notions-of-identity/. ) Also https://clarespark.com/2009/11/22/on-literariness-and-the-ethical-state/. It will be clear that Hamburger is an advocate of the “living Constitution” that enhances the “positive state”–i.e., the ethical state. Cf. Mussolini’s Fascism.

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