Feminist Art

There’s an exhibition in town about feminist art called The House We Built. It’s at the Katherine E. Nash Gallery. With a related show in another location, it is meant to chronicle the history of feminist art. This morning, I went to see the show on the University of Minnesota campus with an acquaintance. It was a good show, and I liked the pieces in it. Beside, it was nice to have someone to view the show with, someone who appreciated it and was quite intelligent, who had lived through the decade of the ‘70s and experienced the struggle. (She wasn’t reacting “Huh?” to the pieces, either.) As we noted, it might be hard for someone today to realize the earnestness and importance, let alone the significance, of women’s struggles. Attitudes in society have evolved rather quickly in the past forty or fifty years, after all. Remembering the issues, pervasiveness, and difficulties of the Civil Rights movement and the anti-Vietnam sentiment in the U.S., feminism now seems, perhaps, an after-thought to those struggles. Yet, it involves the right and recognition of contributions of roughly half the population. Women’s rights are civil rights, after all. There is still a lot of progress to be achieved, even if it sometimes seems most of the bedrock issues have been discussed, even if their resolution, especially upon close inspection, is incomplete, and often leaves much to be desired. Reproductive rights, equal pay, objectification of female forms, even certain “glass ceilings,” are still issues; but the discussion isn’t perhaps as strident or earnest (or simple) as it once was. Today, we take a lot of what the show was about for granted. Such as art by women, that women are museum directors and fill many other previously mostly male positions, that women’s contributions to society make a difference and can and should be acknowledged. No one would dare dispute the contribution of “women’s art” to the art scene. It’s important to remember that the rights women enjoy in North America and Europe are not available to women in many countries. Even things like an education are still being fought over. In developed countries it wasn’t so long ago that women got to vote; that women had careers beyond “womanly” professions such as teaching, nursing, and typing; and that women were no longer defined solely or primarily by the man they were married to.

The show had names like Judy Chicago, but omitted artists like Louis Nevelson and Annie Leibowitz. These latter artists were, one got the message, perhaps too mainstream and not “feminist enough.”

Also annoying were the typos on the labels, most of which were, imo, a bit long. A typo was even in the first line of the entrance summary to the exhibition. Leeway had to be afforded on account of the fact that this was an exhibition at a state educational institution. At one point, however, I felt that the typos, most of them very obvious, could have been avoided if someone had just proofed the verbiage, which could have benefited from editing as well, I thought. (However, the show’s organizers and/or stagers may not have had time to re-read everything, in which case, I hope, a lesson was learned to leave adequate time for an installation.) Wouldn’t one, even after the the show opened, want to re-do a label with a typo? (It’s not like the show opened yesterday, and it’s hard to believe the typos haven’t been noticed since the exhibition open.) Mostly, this seemed like blatant carelessness, plus the fact the labels were scotch-taped onto the walls was a cheap touch, imo, that detracted from the show and seemed also, unfortunately, to cheapen the installation. The art, however, was quite spectacular. There were a number of pieces I felt were stellar; all of them carried a message.

In some, the imagery conveyed the message, like the painting near the start of the show by Patricia Olson featuring a woman dressed in a man’s tuxedo holding a tampon. Now, this was an arresting image even if it was one that clearly referenced the maleness it was in reaction to, and a good way to start the show. In other pieces, it was the virtuosity, such as several drawings where the patient and usually realistic rendering of subject matter was noteworthy. In others, it seemed to be the medium, though there were surprisingly few pieces in “soft” media; nevertheless, there were the occasional pieces that drew on media traditionally thought of as more “crafty,” such as clay or a piece rendered in fabric sewn onto a cloth background. There were other pieces that exhibited allegiance to an ideology mainly through their titles.

There was only one piece by most of the artists, making it difficult to get a sense of what an artist’s body of work was like and the labels—beside seeming to refer to the fact that nearly all the artists were members, at one point or another, of WARM, a gallery in the warehouse district of Minneapolis—had to be trusted for information about the focus of each artist’s work. (Unfortunately, photography was not permitted. Even though I brought my camera to take pictures, some of which would have been used to illustrate this posting, my camera ended up being just another weight in my backpack.) Each artist seemed to view their art as part of an effort to change the world, though how much art can do this, marginalized as it often is, is arguable. With all these pieces, I reflected, the artists did emphasize a point and, perhaps, change the world at least a little. Today’s understanding of art, not to mention the role of women in the arts, is much different than when these efforts started.

What is important to realize is that the identity politics of this initiative have paid off and now even seem largely irrelevant and taken for granted. For instance, would anyone today refer to an artist as a “woman artist” to define her? Such a reference would be viewed as not only politically incorrect but dismissive. Artists can be of either gender; what is relevant is simply the question “Are they good, and what is the message they are trying to convey?”.

It wasn’t always this way. This show provided a glimpse of the progress made and the beauty generated to achieve it. You go girls!.

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Catching Up

Reading, though it takes time and patience, gives entry to whole new worlds, and helps one understand an author’s works better. Besides, it’s fun. Lately, I’ve been “catching up” on several authors, reading titles to fill lucanae in my readings of their works.

It started with Catherine Friend. I hadn’t actually read anything of hers, but was fascinated by her as an author.

First, I read Hit by a Farm, a hilarious work with short chapters. I liked the book with its self-effacing humor and the autobiography (not so much that I was ready to read her books for children or her mysteries—there’s nothing wrong with mysteries; they just aren’t for me).

Next, I picked up The Compassionate Carnivore, a serious work about eating farm-raised animal, also by Catherine Friend. It was polemic but again featured short chapters. When I finished it, I felt that organic wasn’t enough and that I should look into buying meat directly from a farmer, splitting a cow, sheep/lamb or a pig with others.

Then, I read Catherine Friend’s book Sheepish, a follow up to Hit by a Farm, which also displays her humor while bringing the reader up to date on her and her partner’s farm adventure as they sell their sheep’s wool to “spindle-operators” and knitters. It was revealing and entertaining.Image

I learned that Friend is a hilarious but thoughtful writer. She is, I imagine, the same in person. I’ve heard her read twice, and have been greatly entertained each time.

Humorously self-effacing books were so much fun that next I read works by comedian Ellen De Generes (I’ve also seen her name written Degeneres, though never de Generes.). I started with her recent, Seriously . . . I’m Kidding, followed by The Funny Thing Is . . . and then, her early volume, My Point . . . and I Do Have One. (She likes ellipses.) Though she consistently amuses with her quips, she was funnier in her earlier books. The pictures of her showed she was younger in the earlier ones too.Image

Then, I read Robert Alexander. His The Kitchen Boy has gone unread by me too long. I read it, then Rasputin’s Daughter. It’d be nice if I had a good reason for not tackling his third volume in this series, The Romanov Bride, but I can only say it wasn’t in the library I checked the first two out from. I’ll get to it; even if I thought his Rasputin’s Daughter took a few lurching turns, he tells good stories that hold my interest. Though I’m not about to tackle his mystery novels, published under his real name, R. D. Zimmerman, he deserves his readers, plus he has a certain facility with Russian historical material.

Another thing I like is well written biographies and autobiographies. I fit in Jock Soto’s Every Step You Take, an autobiographical memoir by a retired principal of the New York Ballet. Then, at a book sale, I found a well known biography of Rudolph Nureyev by Otis Stewart, Perpetual Motion, which I also read. I seem to relish reflections by or about gay dancers.

Next, I read works by Edmund White that I’ve missed over the years. His Hotel de Dream, about Stephen Crane’s death from tuberculosis, seemed to fit with the volume of short pieces he published with Adam Mars-Jones on AIDS, The Darker Proof: Stories from a Crisis. Tuberculosis and AIDS seem strangely fitted to their respective times, fatal and too little understood by the medical profession for them (or anyone else) to discover a cure. Of course, there are differences, including the fact that HIV has been made a chronic condition so that the condition it leads to—AIDS—no longer needs to be a killer.Image

First, I had read White’s collected essays, Arts and Letters, a volume I realized I’d read before but which I re-read anyway. It’s composed of mostly short pieces about famous authors, artists, and personalities.Image

I’ll work on White for a while; he’s been prolific. Most of his books I’ve already read, but every so often I miss a title, such as his novel Fanny, A Fiction, or his The Flâneur: A Stroll Through the Paradoxes of Paris.

Maybe you’ve noticed a theme here. Meanwhile, I’m also reading The New Yorker and a subscription to The New York Review. Issues come too often, imo. Magazines, like books, spark ideas and transport me to new worlds.

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Hope Springs

New Year’s is a holiday to enjoy, as well as one affording a reason to reflect on the year ahead and the one just past. Yes, New Year’s happens only because of the calendar, and a repetition of days and months. Arbitrary as the calendar may be, the return to a beginning of the year presents occasions for self-reflection and resolutions. Will this be the year I will finally change, get away from bad habits and successfully cultivate better ones, realize riches, achieve great things, and generally improve my lot in life? Every year brings fresh opportunities.

Recently, I’ve given up on or simply forgotten about New Year’s resolutions because I have realized (1) it won’t be long before any I make are broken, (2) that change will come at its own pace during the year, and (3) that any resolutions I make are probably changes I have been thinking about for a while. Making resolutions for New Year’s seems a little like winning the lottery: lucky if I keep them though it’s improbable I will. Though it’s true that you can’t win the lottery if you don’t play, the chances of winning make spending money on tickets a little like throwing cash away.

Mostly, New Year’s is an excuse—or rationalization—for hope. That part of it I like and find easy to relate to. I don’t need to make resolutions to feel hope. In fact, resolutions broken make hope feel false and futile.

Maybe that’s why I’ve given up on resolutions: because they prove counterproductive when they rob me of hope. Besides, hope is needed for many reasons. There’s the long winter ahead, the cold a bit anticlimactic and difficult to endure in the months after the holidays. Hope provides a lift to efforts exerted toward change. Hope also sustains a vision of a new, improved self.

There is the other side of hope, the one that is harder to acknowledge, perhaps. It can be a palliative to real change, an illusion that makes it easier to forego efforts at change, and that provides a substitute for exertions or attempts to accomplish a new, improved self, at least until it’s too late. Hope can take away energy or efforts to change. Typically, one comes to a “realization,” at least in retroactive perspective, that until then hope was preventing progress, change, or the “realization” of “reality.” Hope gets blamed for our own failures.

But, the blame isn’t an excuse—or rationalization—for eliminating hope, just as hope isn’t an entirely sound reason for giving up resolutions. There is power in believing that one can control and make positive change happen. No pain, no gain, goes the saying. That is what resolutions are all about. So resolve away: this year will be different than last year. One can change.

Proof  came when the results of a recent study were announced. People can see that they have changed in the past ten years; they don’t acknowledge and can’t imagine that they will change in the decade ahead. It’s like imagining that change stops today, when, in fact, it doesn’t. Why not control the process a little bit? Self-reflection and resolutions are a start.

Whether it’s hope or resolutions, the New Year’s brings an excuse—or rationalization—for both. After all, New Year’s is a time to hope that resolutions can be effect positive change. Besides, change is inevitable. Hopeful resolutions can be a start toward positive changes.

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