Singing Songs: Revisiting Feminism and the Politics of Memory [1]

William Simmons, Carol K. Pforzheimer Fellow and Mellon Mays Fellow, Harvard University

Concentrator in the History of Art and Architecture and Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Studies

 

Yes, I am Black and Radiant (Dyptich), from Voices from the Song of Songs
© Judy Chicago, 1999
Heliorelief, lithography and hand coloring, 40″ x 24″
Photo © Donald Woodman

“I Learned My History as a Woman” – An interview between William Simmons and Judy Chicago, 4 April 2012

WS: Do you see your legacy in the work of contemporary feminist artists, and what still needs to be done to achieve gender equity in the arts, and in American society generally?

JC: I’m dividing this question into two parts. The first is a question for historians and art historians, though I can see that younger artists (both male and female) can work freely out of their experiences, which was not the case when I was young when women artists and artists of color, gays and lesbians, had to hide their identities behind a seeming ‘universality’ which was actually a type of art making that had been forged primarily by white men. But the white male experience was taken as both the universal and the norm. Fortunately, this has changed at least for young artists, and feminist art has spread all over the world.

Despite these changes, institutions have not changed sufficiently in that education is still male centered, and in major art museums, the statistics are disheartening: only 3%-5% of permanent collections in major museums around the world are made up of women artists and, for example, at the Tate Modern in London between 2000-2005, only 2% of their major exhibitions were women artists. Art history is shaped by permanent collections, major exhibitions and solo publications. In 1970, only 1.7% of solo art publications were devoted to women; today, over 40 years later, it is only 2.5%, so we are a long way from gender equity. As to American society, young women are going to be faced with having to repeat the struggle for reproductive rights all over again. As the women’s historian Gerda Lerner stated: “Women are trapped in a tragic repetition in which they have to repeat and repeat struggles that have been won, only to be lost, and then they have to struggle all over again.” It is this repetition that The Dinner Party recounts and is aimed at overcoming.

WS: Harvard’s Schlesinger Library has acquired many of your papers, and a wide variety of scholars have certainly benefited from your donation to the University. What advice do you have for a student hoping to utilize your work in his or her chosen discipline, be it education, the visual arts, or gender/sexuality studies?

JC: As you mention, my papers are at the Schlesinger Library, while my art education archive has been recently acquired by Penn State, which will maintain The Dinner Party curriculum online in perpetuity. In addition, The Dinner Party is at the Brooklyn Museum; my work in tapestry is going to the Museum of Art and Design in New York, and the National Museum of Women in the Arts has a number of my works. Together, these provide the possibility for extensive research into my life, pedagogical methods and art making. I am often asked how I survived the often-vitriolic criticism of my work; my answer is always the same. I learned my history as a woman. I studied the work of my predecessors and came to understand the obstacles they had to overcome in order to achieve their goals. Knowing, for example, that when Elizabeth Blackwell was in medical school (the first woman doctor), no one spoke to her for two years and women spat on her in the streets (women can often be the most unkind). I was able to say to myself: “If she could do it, so can I.” So my advice is simple; avail oneself of all these materials. They are there for you.

Viewing The Dinner Party – Viewing Selfhood

Judy Chicago evokes a history that seems to be forgotten in the modern search for equality, and it is the nature of this history that will provide the core framework of my article. It would be dishonest of me to not qualify my forthcoming analysis by stating up front that I am a gay, white man whose journey began on a small farm in Northern California and continues at Harvard University. I write from a very specific point of view, and I welcome dissention and productive inquiry in an effort to foster a sustained dialogue about these issues. This spirit is undoubtedly manifest in Chicago’s Song of Songs series, a powerful response to the critique of feminist politics and the role of history in the 21st century.

I will begin with a personal anecdote that recounts my experience of viewing The Dinner Party, my first encounter with Judy Chicago’s work. I always dreaded Sundays in New York City. I would wake up every morning to an empty dorm, tasked with the overwhelming responsibility of finding something to do in the absence of my roommate, who spent Sundays with his girlfriend. It was on one of these melancholy Sundays that I decided to take the train downtown to see The Dinner Party at the Brooklyn Museum.  I had of course heard of the icon of feminist art, but I had never been able to visit it in person. It is very easy to think of images as comparable to the work of art itself; in reality, a picture is so far removed from the palpable feeling of art’s physical presence. When I entered the large room that housed the famed piece, I understood the incredible potency of experiencing art first-hand. It is in this moment of discovery, of intimacy, that one can become a part of a grander narrative, specifically, the historically mediated connection between the artist and the audience. The triangular table filled the room with a subtle, ephemeral light that produced a dance of shadow and brilliance upon the wall. The glittering air lightly touched the place settings, the delicately painted markers of history that conjure memories of women past and present. A powerful story told and a rich tapestry woven, The Dinner Party seems to extend in perpetuity; its borders are never sure, and its interaction with the viewer’s own space and experience integrates personal with the collective, thereby consummating a story that is told and retold. Each seat at the table implies the presence of a body that is in an unsure state between materialization and dissipation, remembrance and loss. Each place at the table is equally cherished, and we, too, are invited to dine, to get lost in the multiplicity of names on the tiled floor.

It is not merely for the purpose of self-indulgence that I present this story. I cited my background earlier, and I wish to emphasize the impact of a feminist history on my understanding of my own self, which is informed by a different notion of sexuality than that presented in The Dinner Party. I am removed from the context in which it was made; I can only study it in books and attempt to write about it as cogently as possible. Nonetheless, a palpable reaction emerged within me even as the walls of several decades repelled it, and I understood that history, though perhaps submerged at times in contemporary debates, could not be buried. In the words of Joan Scott, history reverberates, thereby sending tactile, yet distant and patchy, echoes that shake our core irrespective of distance spanned or time passed.[2] The Dinner Party, and, as I will show, Song of Songs put history at the fore and remind the viewer of the tensions and joys inherent in the enlivening of selfhood with a beloved past and an anticipated future.

The Rhetoric of Post-Feminism

Still, as Ms. Chicago indicates in her responses, her work has run into criticism for its particular viewpoint on womanhood. It could be said that The Dinner Party embodies the urge to unite women under an unstable category of femininity. In the celebration of the body in connection with history, The Dinner Party presents a unified vision of Woman, which produces not only a corporeal connection among all female-bodied people, but also the conflation of personal stories into a constructed narrative. Some critics have considered this type of feminist expression to be an erasure, an essentialist vision of womanhood that is tied inextricably to a historical moment. In this way, the celebration of physicality and collectivity as women has been derided as an imperfect platform from which to advocate for women’s rights.

Central to the criticism of Chicago’s work is the concept of gender and sex as culturally produced and ultimately unsustainable products of power relations. Accordingly, any talk of gender-based coalitions became associated with an underdeveloped notion of womanhood. Even today, the disparities between conceptual and practical manifestations of gender remain; an analysis based on similarities within women as a group is almost immediately rejected as insubstantial. Women are constantly being described in terms of their unity with respect to various social and political issues, yet, with increasing prominence, they are being told that the bonds that hold them together are based upon a dangerous lie. The loosely-defined discourse of “women’s issues” is the subject of endless political rhetoric in the upcoming election in the United States. Nonetheless, even as women unite around policies, both gendered and non-gendered, that are directly relevant to their lives, they are told that “feminism” is no longer a viable basis for identity formation or political action. What results is a constant refusal, a conscious forgetting of what has come before and those who labored to bring us to this point. Memory functions in strange ways; it simultaneously holds the power of effacement and appreciation.

For instance, the now canonical article by Anne-Marie Slaughter in The Atlantic tells women that feminism perpetuates quixotic hopes for the chance to successfully manage personal, professional, and familial duties.[3] Similarly, Jennie Bristow of The Huffington Post tells us that feminism is antiquated, and that a new focus should be placed on parents’ rights rather than women’s rights; indeed, in her view, “feminism has had it’s day.”[4] I would argue, however, that this criticism places the same limiting boundaries upon gender that it claims to combat. In rejecting the possibility of unity based on gender, one forecloses the possibility of meaningful connections produced by a celebration of gender as a personal joy that exists independently of societal and historical frameworks. The pleasure gained from understanding and appreciating one’s experience as a unique being can certainly be felt in gendered terms, especially given that the body is not inherently politicized. Freedom to appreciate one’s gender as such has been traditionally denied to women; Chicago removes that barrier and provides the inspiration for a unifying, though personal, experience that rests upon a vision of Woman as an inclusive web of interconnected memories and passions.

Feminism Sings Again – Song of Songs

History represents a perpetual looking backwards, one that engenders feelings of melancholia and joy that result from the complex relationship between the present and the past. Any history can never be recounted in its entirety, which results in the navigation of an unrequited desire within the historian that can only be partially fulfilled with the help of memory. It is this memory that is debated today in the constant back-and-forth between feminists and post-feminists, those who might say that Chicago’s work is no longer relevant in an increasingly complicated society that resists an association with the alleged shortsightedness of feminism’s Second Wave. What, then, are we to make of the progress we have made, and how can we incorporate it into developing notions of gender and sexuality?

Judy Chicago herself addresses the implications of this debate in her tour of London and the surrounding area this coming November, specifically in her Song of Songs series, a set of prints that illustrates the Biblical story of love and eroticism, which will be on view at the Black-E Gallery in November. She visually retells the story of desire using a new translation that uses both male and female voices. What defines Song of Songs is the sexual indeterminacy of the images; though they are arranged by the gender of the speaker, the bodies that Chicago represents are decidedly unsexed, and there is no discernable hierarchy. What results is a process of subversion that explodes the gender binaries inherent in the use of language by filling dichotomies to the breaking point with what could be called queerness, an unabashed refusal to stabilize either the objects or subjects of desire. Chicago thus recounts the history of the feminist tradition of critique that has made so many indispensible gains, despite a contemporary urge to abandon the tenets that produced such progress. She acknowledges the process of differentiation that defined Second Wave Feminism in the gendered voices of the Biblical speakers and evokes the battle cry for equality with men even as she affirms the development of new conceptions of gender and sexuality that followed the necessary confirmation of gender-based inequality in the 1970s and 1980s. Song of Songs is the reenactment of the historical debates that plague women in this polemical age, and it brings together the binary-based concerns of earlier decades with the expanded discourses of the present without discounting the viability of either.

This is intended as an exploratory piece, and by no means do I hope to offer a conclusive study of Song of Songs. My goal is to encourage readers to view these works for themselves and assess their own conclusions. Judy Chicago’s works will be on view in the following locations: Ben Uri Gallery from 14 November – 10 March 2013, the Black-E Gallery from 8 November – 31 December 2012, and Riflemaker from 13 November – 22 December 2012.

I would like to thank Judy Chicago, Chris Hensley, Edward Lucie-Smith, and Sarah Greaves for all their kindness and support. Additionally, Professor Alice Jardine, Professor Afsaneh Najmabadi, and Professor Ewa Lajer-Burcharth have had an immense impact on my development as a scholar, and I am incredibly grateful. Feel free to reach out to me at wsimmons@college.harvard.edu .

Come Let Us Go Out into the Open Fields (Dyptich), from Voices from the Song of Songs
© Judy Chicago, 1999
Heliorelief, lithography and hand coloring, 40″ x 24″
Photo © Donald Woodman

[1] Portions of my interview and subsequent essay originally appeared in The Harvard Independent, 5 April 2012.Reproduced with permission of Judy Chicago and The Harvard Independent.

[2] Scott, Joan Wallach. The Fantasy of Feminist History. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012. See “Feminist Reverberations.”

[3] Slaughter, Anne-Marie. “Why women still can’t have it all.” The Atlantic Magazine. July/August 2012. < http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2012/07/why-women-still-cant-have-it-all/309020/1/&gt;

[4] Bristow, Jennie. “Why we need a parents’ liberation movement.” Spiked. No. 14, June 2008. < http://www.spiked-online.com/index.php?/site/reviewofbooks_article/5386&gt;

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