Women’s Art: Lee Miller

March 15, 2009

Tonight, as I was reading How to Impress A Hipster in an effort to either gain inspiration for writing or to avoid writing altogether, I came across a post on Lee Miller. Firstly, I was somewhat disturbed by how many of the hipster things that I loved. I guess I lose hipster creds for not really knowing who she was? But then I knew all the Bauhaus/Cabinet of Dr Caligari ones and I was a fan of Tom Waits before the y’all were born. Oh wait – boasting isn’t really hipster-ish, is it? ok maybe I fail at Hipsterdom. Why does that just make me happy?

Anyways, Lee Miller (this link takes you to her archive site). The name sounded vaguely familiar – something about a woman starting as an assistant to a Great Artist, maybe even actually being responsible for some of said Great Artist’s work, then going on to do her own amazing stuff which is quickly forgotten. Ah yes. Never happens to female artists at all. Instead, she tends to be reduced to the Great Artist’s Muse or some such (She has since been rediscovered, of course, and is no longer considered just some dudes’ muse). A surrealist photographer of the 30s and 40s, this “muse” was also the official war photographer for Vogue Magazine during WW2.

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Reusable Cover Art, reusable females

February 1, 2009

Yes, I know I’ve said before that one shouldn’t use “female” as a noun; don’t worry, I’m doing it on purpose and in an ironic way. You’ll see why in a minute, but first check out this page, brought to me by StumbleUpon: Reusable Cover Art.

Scroll through the whole thing. Yes, really, the whole thing! It’s OK if you start skimming a little, I did too; I just want you to see how many there are.

Okay, done? Great.

At first I found this site interested from the perspective of a graphic designer. I thought it was fascinating seeing how different people came up with such different (or such identical!) covers by working from the same images. How fascinating, I thought, that cropping and color balance can convey such different moods!

But then I noticed a couple other things. For one, these pictures were almost exclusively of women. I originally chalked that up to the fact that a lot of them are very old paintings (public domain!) and the “classics” in art tend to do a lot of lady-ogling. (Hence the need for the Guerilla Girls.) But that’s not true of all of them. And there’s something else going on, too.

Let’s take a look at those lovely titles!

First, woman-as-property, with the bonus that a woman’s identity is defined solely by the man she belongs to:

  • So-and-so’s daughter: 5
  • So-and-so’s wife: 2

Then, how about some hot and spicy virgin/whore dichotomy?

  • Saints and ladies: 6
  • FILTHY WHORES, uh, “courtesans” and other sexy times: 9
  • Mary Magdalene: 3

Minimizing women’s personhood by referring to them by nothing but their job title:

  • “Courtesans” etc: 4
  • Maids and slaves: 2
  • Queens: 1
  • Other employment: 0

Other random statistics:

  • References to love: 3
  • References to stars: 3
  • Dudes pictured: 14
  • Ladies pictured: 83
  • Ladies pictured with their boobs totally showing: 6
  • Dudes with their nipples totally showing: 2

This is out of a total of 90 books, so that those 9 books about “courtesans” make up 10% of all the books featured. And those are just the ones that tell you up-front that they’re about ladies having sex to get stuff (probably quite important stuff– like shelter– but still, you know, not totally consensual.) Looking at these covers, I’d bet you that about 75% of these spend a lot of time talking about ladies and sex (possibly for stuff, at least indirectly). (A note about my use of the word “courtesan”– I think it is a totally ridiculous word that sugar-coats sex work to make it seem glamorous and fun and not at all ever unpleasant like prostitution. I don’t distinguish between prostitution that happened in the past and prostitution that’s happening now, hence the scare quotes.)

What does all this tell us? I mean, not a lot. It’s a pretty random group of books. I just sort of found it on the internet. If we wanted to talk about current trends or something, I’d go out to Barnes & Noble, photograph all the books they have on their main “these books are awesome!” display, and pick them apart. (Note to self: go to Barnes & Noble, and see what they have on display…). It would be Bad Science to suggest that these totally random books somehow Prove Something.

But I do think they’re interesting, especially the way that there seems to be some kind of “agreement” that a certain image shows a Certain Kind of Woman. Like, clearly THIS woman is a wife:

reusablecovers02And THIS woman is a “courtesan”:


And THIS woman is a daughter (or a murder victim, funny how well those go together):

reusablecovers032Take a look at that far-left one again, actually. Tom Wasp gets his whole name, first and last, but the woman– who is apparently important enough to be on the cover!– is just a generic “stunner”? This is really a classic case of a woman being “central” but still not important or self-determined the way a man would be. It’s the concept I tried to show with the current header image: the woman is in the center of the composition, so many people would say that there’s nothing to argue with, feminism-wise, but she’s being physically supported by the men around her and (due to my intentional cropping) she has no face, giving her less personality than the men around her and even than the camel. So it is here, and with many murder mysteries with female victims: sure the plot has a woman in the middle of it, but that doesn’t mean that it’s feminist-friendly. Often it means the opposite.

But getting back to the book covers, I wanted to think about how we define women into these categories based on their images. I think it has to do with how much body they’re showing, how much face they’re showing, and how the image is centered. I’m not sure quite how all the aspects go together, though. I’d like to take some of the images and see if I could get any of them to look like a wife in one instance, daughter in another, and “courtesan” in a third. A couple of these novels have already gotten started:

reusablecovers01Josephine Bonaparte isn’t looking too wifely in the first one… until you compare it to the second. Something about the way they zoom in on her body, crop out her face, and take her name out of the title… this is definitely something I’m going to want to look into more methodically.

Women’s Poetry/Spoken Word: Staceyann Chin

December 19, 2008

In light of the downer thought-provoking post of yesterday, I decided to post something more uplifting, more inspiring. Some of you may recall eloriane introducing (some of) us to Marty McConnell. Such fiercely feminist poetry as McConnell’s is quite rare in the mainstream. This brilliant feminist artist reminded me of another brilliant woman, Stacyann Chin. I’ve seen her live at the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival a couple of years running and she is fantastic. Very intense, very political, she once said as a part of her piece “I want to look out and see thousands of fists raised in defiance!” and immediately nearly the entire crowd of some 5000 women leapt to their feet with their fists raised. She is funny, inspiring, moving, smart, and a dyke 🙂

Here’s a taste:

Rise up! 😀

More Thoughts on Yoko Ono’s Cut Pieces

December 17, 2008

I’ve been thinking about the Vancouver Art Gallery’s exhibit, Wack! Art and the Feminist Revolution, and about the IM discussion that eloriane and I shared with you earlier. One of the pieces that stood out for us was Yoko Ono’s Cut Pieces. If you like, you can find it on youtube, but take a note of the comments – so many people really just don’t get it. We got it. And yet we were still having such a hard time articulating it. I would be interested in knowing what Ono was hoping to illustrate with that piece. The only thing I’ve read so far was that it was her “angry phase.” No doubt. What that piece exhibited makes me angry as well.

I had been talking about this video with my coworkers and one of them articulated a part of what we had been struggling with. The last man to cut at her clothing, you’ll recall, went above and beyond what anyone else had done (and with a grin) and cut away nearly all of the upper half of her clothing. My coworker had suggested that beyond wanting to participate in some kind of modern performance piece, he had wanted to subjugate her, and did, by cutting and cutting and cutting. Overall, the video was a powerful statement about female vulnerability and violence, and its partner subjugation, as well as the objectification of women. Well, really, all of that is about subjugation. It was also a comment on how far some people are willing to go when given permission. So many levels!

One of the things eloriane and I had discussed was this subtext of threat that men embody, consciously or no, willingly or no. I think a small part of it is the sexual dimorphism of humans in general; men are, most of the time, larger than most women. In the post-revolution society this might be irrelevant. However, currently coupling with this (made possible because of this?) is the power differential between men and women in society. Men dominate every social, legal, political, religious and artistic institution. But it is also how much violent crime is gendered. Statistically, men account for 97% of all sexual assault perpetrators (FBI) and 89% of all murderers (Bureau of Justice). Now, I don’t believe for one second that this is biologically based. In fact, I get really annoyed at these biological/evolutionary excuses that people come with to explain these facts. I mean really, if males are just that biologically more prone to rape and other forms of violence then we really should be giving them mellowing drugs or hindering their movement in some form. But no one would agree with that. And if you point out how men, if they are intrinsically more dangerous then they should be more controlled, then the excuses about men-as-a-class’s violent behaviour becomes about individuals rather than men as a group.

To recap: men are mostly larger than women. Men are responsible for 89 and 97% of all murders and sexual crimes. Here’s another statistic: 73% of women who are raped are attacked by men they know (Dept of Justice). In Canada, in the 80’s, approximately 80% of women who were murdered were killed by their former or current male sexual partner. Intimate partner violence in Thailand is the leading cause of death for females between the ages of 15 and 24 (millenniumproject.org). Murder is the leading cause of death for pregnant women in America (now.org). Worldwide, violence is a major cause of death and disability in European women between the ages of 15 and 44, occurring more frequently than that caused by war, malaria or car accidents(UN Development Fund for Women). More than 80% of the 3/4 of a million people enslaved in the sex trafficking trade are women and men are overwhelmingly the “consumers” (millenniumproject.org). Again, I do not believe that the reasons for this are biological in nature. I suspect a host of complicated and interweaving reasons, but the primary ones being masculinity as perceived in society being about being domineering and pimp-like towards women, and male supremacy in general.

There’s also this feeling that men can do to women what they want and women really have no means of stopping it, either individually when it’s happening, or culturally as a whole. Looking at the above statistics this isn’t just a feeling. We are constantly told, not always in so many words, that we need a man to protect us from other men. But who is going to protect us from the man we’re with? A number of years ago there was a mass outbreak of sexual assault and harassment in New York one summer day. Women went up to the police to ask for help and they did nothing. Gangs of men were hanging out in the park and sexually assaulting women as they walked by. Who stopped them? The men the women were with? Were they afraid also? The police didn’t stop them. Men took pictures of the events. For the police? Or to watch later?

We know as women – we know how little we are protected. How little we are believed. We know who has the power in society. And so do men, consciously or no (the unconscious awareness would be your male privilege). Many men might be appalled by the behaviour of all these other men in New York that day. Many men are pro-feminist, or at least try to be. I know many of those men. Many men will protest that they don’t hate women and don’t think of women as inferior. But did they laugh when that character in XXX called to the women saying “bitches, come!”? Do they laugh when sexist jokes are made about Sarah Palin? Do they watch porn? Do they tell you you’re being oversensitive when you try to talk to them about sexism? You might argue that there is a world of difference between laughing at a sexist joke and committing mass sexual assault in Central Park, and while this is obviously true it’s also all of a piece. They are on the same continuum of subjugation of women.

Feminists are often accused of hating men, and some might accuse me of being mysandrist in what I’m saying. But calling a group of people to account for their actions is not exhibiting hatred of them. Describing what so many members of a class of people do to another class of people is not “reverse sexism.” Telling the truth about what life is like for women is not hating on men. I’ve had people say to me, after I’ve talked about what men as a class do, how society is structured, that I “must really hate men.” It’s always confused me. It seems like such a non sequitur. “buuh. What?” I sputter back. I’ve just described what’s going on and I haven’t said anything about how I feel about it. It’s as if they think I’m making it up because I hate men, the way bigots will make shit up about people of colour, or immigrants.

But I’m not making this up. These are verifiable, well researched statistics. The statistics of the gender make-up of sexual abusers comes from the FBI. Hardly a bastion of radical feminism. So much sociological research has gone on in the last 30 years from all sorts of people that it’s a given, now, that we live in a male supremist society. Even my Sociology 101 textbook recognized the ground-breaking work done by feminists and feminism. In fact, it broke sociology down into two basic types: functionalism and critical perspectives. Their examples of critical perspectives were feminism and marxism. Ha! We’re mainstream, yo. And yet so often, that fact is ignored.

Yes! Yes! YES!

December 8, 2008

The title is so exuberant because when Crowfoot and I finally started trying to talk about the feminist art exhibit at the Vancouver Art Gallery (also known as the VAG 😉 ) we just kept saying to each other, “Yes! Yes!”

It’s an excellent exhibit, and if you live anywhere near it you should go. It’s also so thought-provoking that we knew it would be a million years before we could write some proper posts about it. To at least get started, we decided to IM each other and record the conversation. And so, I present to you: the highlights!

Well, sort of. It’s a bit long, but I figure you guys don’t mind that.

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Marty McConnell, and poetry.

October 27, 2008

Don’t think of this post as a cop-out. I simply can’t think of any better words than the ones than Marty  McConnell writes herself.

She came to a poetry reading at the local university and I was completely blown away. Maybe I don’t get out much, but I’d never heard such fiercely feminist poetry. I felt silly, meeting her afterwards and trying to hide how awed I was. I had to borrow the money to buy just one CD, but I wanted to buy all her booklets of poetry too. If you know anyone else like this, please, let me know.

In the mean time, here’s more from her.

Joan of Arc to the $2,000-an-hour woman

Jason would be saying, “Natalia is the greatest escort in the history of the world, as good as Cleopatra or Joan of Arc,” and I’d be like, “Jason! Joan of Arc was not an escort, she was a religious martyr.”
— New York Magazine, July 18, 2005

at least your pimp has a name, a neck
you could put your two good hands around.
he loves you like all men love
what they sell, what comes back
in gold. make no mistake, my God
was a man: men with their mouths
at the entrance to the cave, whispering,
men dripping hallucinogens into the milk,
men insisting lead us, lead us, have this horse
this sword this sentence this pyre. men naked
under their robes, their armor, their teeth
bartering my skin for their country, a cause
I would have sworn was mine.

Cleo and I place bets on women like you.
from this distance, your dance looks like ours.
and Vashti’s, and Salomé’s, and Helen’s,
and you’re acquainted with the Magdalene.
our mythical knees locked or spread,
bringing men to theirs and us to the gallows
the tower the stake / trade your corset for a habit
and they’ll hate you all the same: whatever cannot
be possessed is poison. the body is never bought
but rented which is why he wants your heart, bound
like feet, dancing only for him.

let me tell you something about possession: never
let a man dictate your wingspan or your footwear.
there’s a god on every corner and not one
would have you mortgage your given body
for this man and his fur-lined tongue. don’t think
I don’t know about love; more goes unreported
in history than in myth. sell your story, Natalia,
before they scrape it from under your fingernails
as evidence / cut your hair. buy a building
in Brooklyn. lay down on a bed of teeth, alone.
peel back their fingerprints one by one, each incision
the hot face of a god, unfolding.
© Marty McConnell

Women in Art: the video.

September 15, 2008

Oh, StumbleUpon, the things you bring me.

The video’s titled “Women in Art,” which I originally thought meant “Female artists over time,” and I expected to see either a documentary, or a montage of some women’s work, or– since the frozen frame was a painting of a woman’s face– maybe a montage of self-portraits. (Wouldn’t that be cool? A montage of women’s self-portraits?)

Instead, it’s a montage of completely random women who were the subjects of art. (Why is it that subject usually means “person who does something,” but in art, it means “object of the sentence, who is being paintED?” Shouldn’t the artist be the subject of the painting? But I suppose then we’d have to call the women OBJECTS, and that’s too close to the truth for comfort.)

Now, don’t get me wrong, it’s completely beautiful, and fascinating to watch as the styles shift– especially when we get into Impressionism and beyond– and I have no idea how they did it, but the faces melt seamlessly into each other in an effect that’s worth seeing.

But even if the faces change, all the paintings are the same…pretty white women, smiling sweet, passive smiles for a male audience, glancing sideways but never quite making eye contact, always posing. And nothing about their expressions changes, even in the modern art (no Frida Kahlo!). Always an object for the male gaze, never the subject.

It makes me want to call in the Guerrila Girls. Or maybe do my own montage, where the women are truly the active subjects.