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Thursday, June 14, 2007

by Emma Bee Bernstein

22 May 2007

After attending “The Feminist Future” symposium at the Museum of Modern Art ( January 26-27, 2007) I don’t think I will ever look at or create art as I did before. This is one of feminism’s greatest triumphs: to change the way people look at and experience the world, to challenge assumptions and provoke interrogation. However, why did it take the attending of a symposium for me to experience this change?

All of the seeds for my feminist future were well planted. I grew up around strong feminist artists, my mother Susan Bee and her many colorful friends. I was raised to be aware of the struggles of womanhood. I had subconsciously internalized the fly-by story of 1970s feminist art as many of its practitioners were friends of the family, and its books and manifestos lay invitingly around the house. At a young age I began to subscribe to Ms. magazine, and my early heroes included Frida Kahlo, Gloria Steinem, and Sylvia Plath. It was when I discovered feminist punk music at age thirteen, though, that I truly came of age as a young activist. Kathleen Hanna, who helped form the Riot Grrrl movement in the early 1990s, was the first feminist idol I truly identified with. Although I was slightly late (I discovered Riot Grrrl ten years after its heyday), the closer connection in time period and age made a huge difference. It was something my parents could not understand, and that made it appealing. Hanna’s band Bikini Kill, with their incendiary call to action “Revolution grrrl style now!,” created an aesthetic and a movement that formed my identity as a young teenager. Riot grrrl was a style of dress, an attitude, a way of life… I soon found that there was a NY chapter of what had become a nationwide feminist D.I.Y. (do it yourself) organization, and started attending weekly meetings on the Lower East Side, where I found like-minded punk girls to write zines and start bands with. We rejected ideals of body image, embraced sexuality and wild style, and adapted an aggressive and impassionate attitude. We started pro-choice protests, had “punk proms,” brought food to women’s shelters, and crashed male-dominated mosh pits. The best thing about my involvement with this group was the sense of being a part of something, not apart from everything (a semantic feminist truism Linda Nochlin pointed out this weekend).

Over time though I grew out of my pink hair and fishnet tights, and became tired of the constant battling between the heterosexuals and the lesbians, the man-haters and those of us who wanted to include boys. I became disillusioned with the “sisterhood” and sadly left the scene. I wouldn’t return to my early feminist days for nearly six years, although the effects of my early involvement were always felt. I began to find more solace in denial, in trying to transgress the boundaries of gender and be a person rather than just a woman. In many chats throughout the years with female friends, even former riot grrls, the word feminism seemed to have become shrouded in a veil of fear. I continued to be privately inspired by woman artists and musicians, but I rarely advertised my predilections. I found that feminism was no longer “cool,” and it made me feel unappealing to identify with it.

Throughout college I have gradually outgrown this fear. As an Art History and Studio Art major I never elected to take a course related to feminism, but my artwork and interests became increasingly concerned with issues related to the representation of women. I began to work as a photographer for my school’s pro-sex erotica magazine, and as a result was constantly asked to defend my positions towards pornography and feminism. In my art classes I was also pressed to explain my predilection for taking photographs of scantily-clad femme fatales. My art history BA thesis started as an examination of the intersection of contemporary fashion and art photography, but I kept being most fascinated with how this related to the changing representation by and of women. Eventually I realized that my avoidance of feminism and its history was hurting rather than helping my work and studies, and I began to try and make up for lost time by devouring any text or artwork I could find related to it. It was fortunately at this exact moment that I also found out about the feminism symposium at MoMA, and its scholarship fund. I eagerly wrote up an application for the conference, which appealed to my voracious appetite for feminism at this pivotal moment. When accepted, my enthusiasm only grew, and in the preceding weeks my entire attitude towards feminism changed in anticipation of the conference.

There is no way for me to address here all the issues and ideas that the conference provoked and inspired. There were many highlights, and many sour notes as well. The symposium was successfully bookended by Lucy Lippard and Linda Nochlin who gave the most rousing and positive speeches, making gestures to the power of the collective, the personal as political, and the individual situated in the ism. However, it was in some of the more troubling and complex presentations that the problems of the future were truly allowed to manifest. Marina Abramovic’s defiant (and unquestioned) statement that she was just an artist, not a feminist artist, coupled with her ambiguous video satire of Slavic fertility myths seemed to illustrate the unfortunate consequences of using ribald humor to avoid confrontation. Coco Fusco, however, effectively used comedy to raise the most vital issues facing contemporary feminism: sexuality as subversive power, the personal as profitable, and the artifice of the art market. Unfortunately she was the first and last speaker to take a successful stab in this direction. Even Griselda Pollock, perhaps the most powerful speaker, quickly ran through these issues, using dismissive terminology (the cosmetic commodity culture of spectacle and capitalism) to bypass what are complex and vital issues facing feminism. Why are so many women artists interested in fashion and traditional constructs of feminine beauty? Why is the material spectacle of the art market such an appealing force for young women? Why are women not more defiant towards these forces? Ingrid Sischy alluded to her interest in these subjects, but didn’t address their controversial status.

If the conference was disappointing at all, it was in what seemed to be a general avoidance tactic, instigated through the usual utopian flair for glossing over the truly problematic issues, ranging from tokenism to glamour to the art market. There was a general focus on rehearsing the glorious past, which was essential and enlightening for me, but also seemed to detract at times for the purpose of the conference at hand. This approach seemed most relevant when related to the “writing the history of feminism” and the “institutionalization of feminism” panels, which made understanding of the past an integral element of the future. However, it was less than necessary to rewatch every one of Martha Rosler’s video pieces. The audience participated and perpetuated this waste of time by reciting memories and odd public relations requests, instead of asking relevant questions or taking advantage of the wonderful thinkers on hand.

Despite these setbacks, many of the espoused theories were challenging and inspiring. Anne Wagner’s call to the feminist imagination to continue to reinvent the monstrous; the idea of negation, ambiguity, and opposition as essential feminist tools (Wagner and Nochlin); Uta Meta-Bauer’s thesis that theatrical methods act as challenges to previous systems of reference; David Joselit’s definition of a picture as a transgendered agent, which engenders many attitudes, his inkling that the performativity of any artwork and its activism are linked through a simultaneous process of exteriorization of an interior and interiorization of an exterior; Griselda Pollock’s plea for sustained creativity rather than novelty for novelty’s sake, non-Oedipal models that cause respect rather than rebellion in genealogies, for a feminist future that we live beside not below, “the right to say WHO I am, not WHAT I am,” to have feminism conflated with the feminine, for the feminine and masculine to be understood as metaphors, symbols, tools, that create positive dimensional action in all sexes, that the symbolic gesture of maternity be an art world ethos where artists can rear the next generation without having to claim anything in return; Richard Meyer’s championing of the effeminate man; the Guerrilla Girl’s demand for power in anonymous numbers; Helen Molesworth’s call for a museological genealogy of brothers and sisters rather than fathers and mothers; Nochlin’s powerful quotation from Milton that the feminist future render us “Sufficient to stand, but free to fall." These ideas and more are what made the conference the stimulating and moving event it was. Nonetheless, the most inspiring and powerful effect of the whole conference was still the feeling it gave me of being a part of something, rather than apart from everything. Perhaps this is the true triumph of the conference and the real hope for the future of feminism: the sustained creation of communities of support, the continued bonds of sisterhood, and the never ending symbiosis between the personal and the political.

(This piece was originally printed in M/E/A/N/I/N/G Online #4: Feminist Forum (2007), edited by Susan Bee and Mira Schor. It has been reprinted for Postcard with the consent of the author.)

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