While on vacation last week, I had a chance to visit the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco with a friend who’s a student at the San Francisco Art Institute. (Sorry–no photos available!) I had been mulling over a post on the exhibition we saw, which is called The Way That We Rhyme: Women, Art, & Politics. My friend has a Ph.D. and taught feminist philosophy for several years, and our shared interest in feminist issues (historically and in the world today) is how we met and bonded. Now today, Tenured Radical has a post raving about a similar-sounding exhibition in New York called WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution at P.S. 1. So, thanks to TR’s initiative (also cross-posted at her new location, Cliopatria), it seems like a good opportunity to draw some attention to these efforts to engage both feminist art and the history of feminist activism that seems to be the raison d’être of both of these exhibitions.
Oh, and have you heard about that senior Aliza Shvarts’s ”Abortion Art” thesis at Yale that everyone was frothing about late last week? Yale claims that the supposed abortions were a “creative fiction” in the service of her performance art, but the student has stuck to her story and published this explanation of the ideas behind her repeated self-insemination and medical abortion. From her statement, I get what she’s doing politically, but I really don’t see the artistry in her political expression.
This was my reaction to The Way That We Rhyme, too. It was interesting and it documented some important moments in the history of “second-wave” feminism, but I was unclear where exactly the art was. (Just to be clear: I know a little art history but I’m no art critic, and I live at a distance from contemporary art galleries and museums, so my friend had to fill me in on some of the new trends in art. So, it’s quite possible that my reaction is a result of me being untutored and unsophisticated. Heck, I just recently took down the “Big Eye” pictures in my bedroom–example on the right.) From what my friend said, the trends on display here were that art is now anti-aesthetic and seem to fetishize “outsider”-style art. So, much of The Way That We Rhyme was either video, installations that involved found objects, and needlecrafts (knitting in particular), and usually two out of three. There were no paintings and no drawings, although I think some paint and drawn images were used in some of the installations.
Most interestingly, many of the installations were explicitly historical, and it made me wonder how exactly a reasonably creative contemporary public historian’s approach to the materials and subject matter would differ, if at all, from the artists’ installations. One of the featured installations was literally of an archive of the art of two second-wave generation artists. The archive boxes were stacked up on steel shelves right on the gallery wall, and interspersed between the boxes were about a dozen video screens (with headphones attached for your listening pleasure) showing different interviews with Gen-X and Gen-Y women artists leafing through and commenting on various items they found in the said archives. Another display was simply some old issues of a feminist ‘zine from the 1980s laid out on a wooden table and secured by chains to the table so that they didn’t walk away. Aside from the hatchet prankishly stuck in the tabletop, it was your basic method of display at even the sleepiest small-town historical society, a “featured publications from our collections”-type display. Another installation was based on an archive of letters written in the 1960s and early 1970s by women seeking information about how to procure a safe abortion. It featured inartful photocopies of the letters arranged on the walls of the installation, and a TV set showing videos of actresses reading the same letters. Where, exactly, was the artist’s intervention in presenting these archival sources? I was much more engaged as a historian than I was impressed by the artistry of it all. Many of the installations were clever–but I didn’t necessarily think they were art.
Based on the Radical’s description of the WACK! exhibition, that show sounds much more like an exploration of the art of second-wave feminism, based as it is on art by women artists who achieved reknown back in the day, whereas The Way That We Rhyme is more of an exploration of second- and third-wave feminism by contemporary artists. I’m not entirely sure of what to make of Aliza Shvarts’s “Abortion Art” project, other than to say that it’s irrelevant to me whether or not the blood she used included aborted embryos or not–the project itself sounds pretty silly and derivative. But, the spectacle she created was a brilliant exercise in the art of drawing attention to oneself as a so-called artist. Was the whole thing a meta-meta commentary on the abortion outrage machine that happily ginned itself up when the story broke, or on the world of contemporary art, or both? Again, I get (and share) the politics. But is it art…?