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11 July 2023

The monsters of feminist art

How the audacious artists of the Seventies embraced disgust and redefined female beauty.

By Harriet Baker

In 1975, the American artist Carolee Schneemann stood on a table in East Hampton, New York, naked (though her body was smeared with dark paint), widened her legs, and began to read aloud from a scroll she unravelled from her vagina. The text on the scroll described an imagined encounter with a male artist, in which he denounced Schneemann’s work – as a performance artist and film-maker – for its “personal clutter”, its “diaristic indulgence”, its “persistence of feeling”. In Interior Scroll, Schneemann was parodying the kinds of art criticism levelled at women artists, but she was also making a more serious point about the things that prohibited them. “I didn’t want to pull a scroll out of my vagina and read it in public,” Schneemann said later. Yet, in the mid-Seventies, the work felt urgent and necessary. So there she was, ironically, defiantly reclaiming those characteristics of art by women from the recesses of her own body.

Schneemann is one of Lauren Elkin’s many “art monsters”, the visual and performance artists, sculptors, writers, critics and poets who weave back and forth through this intricate, baggy, brilliant book, and who, from the early 20th century onwards, conceived of making work from or about the female body. Putting the body at the centre of their practice was a “rebuttal” to the literary and art worlds, and to a patriarchal society. Though Art Monsters focuses on the performance art scene of the Seventies and Eighties, it is not a conventional historical or group study. Rather, it is a book about female representation, bringing together an impressive roll-call of artists and writers – Elkin’s own unravelling scroll – through non-chronological connections, juxtaposition and associative pairings. She traces a line from Virginia Woolf sitting naked in her bathtub in 1931 imagining a book about “the sexual life of women” to Schneemann, from the 17th-century painter Artemisia Gentileschi, who was raped by her mentor, to Emma Sulkowicz’s Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight), a 2014 protest against sexual assault.

How else to tell the story of the female body, Elkin suggests, other than through “ephemerality, conceptualism and impermanence”? No wonder the Seventies was a decade in art history that slipped through the cracks. Yet she uncovers a proliferation of work by women exploring all the personal clutter of pregnancy, childbirth, menstruation, sex (and sexual violence), ageing, illness and death. These were artists who, like Schneemann, discovered a way of making art that “lets the body… speak”.

[See also: Feminism Against Progress by Mary Harrington review]

Elkin’s book works towards what she calls a “monstrous aesthetics”. It begins with a rejection of beauty, of the female body as objectified and fetishised, and embraces something more confrontational and excessive. Many of the artworks discussed are fleshy, bloody, sticky: what Elkin (quoting Eva Hesse) calls “ucky”. But “uck” is important: the art monster is interested in “her body as raw material for art”, she “takes joy in the very meat of her flesh”. (This, wrote Schneemann, is the truth of embodied experience; the body no longer tidy, but “defiling, stinking, contaminating”.) In so doing, the monster reclaims her authority, producing work with “a certain kind of wrongness” – work that “prompts us to flinch or curl our lips or even feel a little sick”.

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Elkin lingers over the artworks, giving herself time to evaluate her reactions and formulate responses. She considers the fleshy body, enlarged, pulled into shapes, or made beautifully grotesque in works by Ana Mendieta and Jenny Saville; the sexual body according to Lynda Benglis, who in 1974 had the effrontery to buy a full-page ad in Artforum in which she is naked but for a pair of sunglasses and a giant dildo; the ill and ageing body – or the cancerous and dying – as depicted in photographs by Hannah Wilke, Kathy Acker and Jo Spence. For Spence, art-making was a kind of “phototherapy”; for Acker, pulling open her leather jacket to reveal her scarred chest was a release from having to be “legible in any traditional pictorial way”.

Materials are central: the cheesecloth dipped in latex by Eva Hesse, who was ambivalent about longevity; the chocolate and lard sculptures of Janine Antoni, made by licking. “Too often, the political content of a work… overshadows the made-ness of it,” Elkin notes of Sutapa Biswas’s Housewives with Steak-Knives (1985). This is art that degrades like the body, and invades the viewer’s space. “The tang” – Elkin’s word for our flinching, our distaste, our sentimentalism, the stickiness of our feelings – “that emanates from the work is a sign the artist is doing something right.”

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And yet an art that rejects beauty in favour of ugliness is too binary a way to think about monstrosity. There must be room for sensuality, for pleasure. Watching Acker have sex on film, Elkin realises she is getting turned on: her body is responding to the work. She finds the same burning sensualism in a still life painting of oranges and lemons by Vanessa Bell. The painting’s tactility takes her “back to the material of the work, to physical encounter”.

Elkin is proposing a new definition of beauty, one that allows for the body’s presence in both artist and viewer. Imagine, she writes, an art of connection, in which a process of seduction takes place, and bodily pleasure is a valid aesthetic response. We might look to the monsters, she suggests, to find a way of “bringing touch and feeling back into our encounters with art, centring the body and its viscerality”, and so, finally, “liberating it from patriarchal and normative control”.

Elkin compares her thinking to Woolf’s fishing line, a metaphor for the imagination trawling the depths; or one of Hesse’s cord sculptures, the strings looped and tangled, and yet making beauty out of knots. It’s an apt way to describe a book with no governing argument, and so many connections. I have never read a writer so fearlessly, generously committed to showing her thinking on the page. This is especially true when it comes to confronting the most difficult questions. She discusses the work of the white artist Dana Schutz, whose painting Open Casket – depicting the body of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African American boy who was lynched in 1955 – caused an outcry at the 2017 Whitney Biennial in New York. Elkin asks “whether there are places the art monster cannot, in good faith, go”. She continues: “It is not enough to make work that offends people, claim it as transgressive, and step away.”

Art Monsters is a truly feminist work: unlike many books published on women artists, valorisation isn’t a given, or delivered on a plate. Not all work by women is beautiful, or ethical, or good; and not all feminist critics are right. Elkin picks up on misreadings, mis-evaluations and misjudgements, including her own. She has sought only to follow the line of her thinking, building a “monstrous network” of artists, while allowing the work to shape itself, veering between beauty and excess, and so to find its own monstrous form.

Art Monsters: Unruly Bodies in Feminist Art
Lauren Elkin
Chatto & Windus, 368pp, £25

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[See also: Is a feminist marriage possible?]

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This article appears in the 12 Jul 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Tabloid Nation