Feminist myth-making

Certain contemporary thinkers consider, as it is well known, that modernity is characterized as the first epoch in human history in which human beings attempt to live without religion. In its present form, is not feminism in the process of becoming one?
– Julia Kristeva

This quote from Julia Kristeva’s 1979 article “Women’s Time” brings up an issue that I thought might be an interesting first topic for our board. Is feminism, or some part of the feminist movement, or some feminist art and writing engaged in myth-making? If so, is this a good thing? Do we need myths to help us negotiate the world, or do we need to reject all myth and ruthlessly face the world as is (if such a thing is possible)? Can we reject patriarchal myths and invent or recover feminist myths of our own, or is the mythologizing process inherently tied to patriarchal ideas?

These questions have vaguely come up off and on before, but I started thinking about it more intensely during my paper writing last quarter. The most humorous of the strands that started weaving themselves together began when I was staring out my apartment window and observed, to my dismay, two men who were clearly Mormon missionaries in my neighborhood. In my writing-induced semi-hallucinatory state, I tried to come up with something I could say to them that would scare them away immediately. This is the note I wrote down:
If I believe in a God at all, it is a God who created Adam and Lilith together, of the same substance, at the same time, with the same capacity, and for the same equal purposes in the world. I believe in a God who gave Lilith her freedom to pursue her way in the world, unfettered by unhappy Adam, who wanted only another animal he could control. And I believe in a God who punished Adam by creating Eve from Adam’s very flesh, giving him the illusion of control, until Eve proved that, made of the same human substance as he, she would pursue her own course to freedom and knowledge.

Sadly, they did not come knocking on my door, and thus I had no opportunity to discover whether I would have actually handed this to two unsuspecting disturbers of my peace. Feminist myth-making may have been in my mind because I had recently read the Kristeva quote as an epigram for a paper in which a favorite art historian was grappling with the question of whether the meanings and myths tied up in the term artist make it possible for there to be such a thing as a woman artist (she says not, by the way). Myth may have also been in my mind because I will be working this summer with one of the greatest feminist myth making projects, Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party. (For anybody who hasn’t seen it click here for some images.) Elaine Pagels lectured on campus this quarter, and among the stories from one of the Gnostic gospels (I will try to find the reference) is that of a woman who heard Paul preach, was converted, and started traveling with him. After being harassed on the road one day, she decided that it would be better to travel as a man. Paul was outraged, and refused to baptize her until she was properly dressed. Turning to a ditch at the side of the road, she reached down for a handful of water and, pouring it over her own head, baptized herself. I love this myth, and I loved having a very well respected historian tell it to a standing room only crowd in a large auditorium. I find these stories very powerful and very heartening, and they war with the critical, deconstructionist side of me that feels that anything taken to heart emotionally and unquestioningly is ultimately a dangerous route back into reliance on dominant modes of social control.

In terms of my own work, feminist mythmaking is rampant at least throughout the art and art history of the 1970s, and has come under question in the 90s as art historians have begun to argue that the whole idea of a great artist is inherently patriarchal. I tend to agree, in that it glorifies the subject-genius at the expense of considering the web of social contexts in which the artist exists and which shape his or her work and success, and yet I also have to admit that there is something in me that thrills when I see a really great work, something that wants to stand in dumb admiration rather than analyzing its content, form, and context. The bit below is a reading response I wrote for my Feminist and Queer Art History, 1971-present class, a historical survey of art historical work with feminist and queer perspectives. It addresses, in a slightly tighter and less meandering way than the above, the positive side of the issue I’m interested in – do we need a sense of a feminist past to be able to proceed with our future, although I wonder, is this a desire we had at an early less confident point and should we, as Kristeva suggests, steer clear of the dangers of too much emotional reliance on a quasi-religious belief in that history. I have, purposely, left the definition of myth very vague, (I have been using it loosely as history interpreted with desire) because I think that’s an interesting question in and of itself. Another favorite art historian argues that it is impossible to read/see with anything but desire/personal context, and from that perspective perhaps all our histories are myths.

Linda Nochlin’s article “Why Have There Been No Great Woman Artists?” accurately predicts on the second page the direction in which feminist art history has been most influential when she says “A feminist critique of the discipline of art history is needed which can pierce cultural-ideological limitations, to reveal biases and inadequacies not merely in regard to the question of women artists, but in the formation of the crucial questions of the discipline as a whole.” (2) Such a demand may, however, have been ahead of its time. When I look at the feminist art and writing of the 1970s, including Nochlin’s own, the women involved could more accurately be described as creating a framework of positive images and history than as deconstructing the basic assumptions of art and art history. I do not want to trivialize these projects, but rather to acknowledge them as absolutely essential for the radical way they changed how women artists and art historians thought of themselves, which laid the groundwork for the later more intense critiques Nochlin calls for.

Nochlin herself acknowledges this in “Memoirs of an Ad-Hoc Art Historian” when she writes of what women have said to her about the Women Artists show, “That show changed my life. I never knew before that I, as a woman artist or art-worker, had a history. After that show, I knew I was part of a long tradition and it gave me the courage to go on.” (33) In other words, women were finally getting to have a share in the kind of history that Nochlin calls “the whole myth of the Great Artist,” (7) and discovering how empowering it was. Knowing that there were others who had struggled as they had struggled, had made the same sacrifices for their art, had fought the same doubts and continued on seems to have made all the difference for these women artists and art historians of the 1970s. I think this recovery of women artists may be a necessary step for the larger project of destroying these myths that Nochlin wanted to engage in, and to some extent I question how possible it is for us to truly let go of all our heroic artistic mythology, even as I whole heartedly believe she is right. I saw Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party at the Brooklyn Museum of Art last year, a feminist mythologizing project if there ever was one, and found the experience deeply moving. From a 2003 perspective it was moving in part because I have not had to struggle in the same way that those women, those of the history portrayed or those of the 1970s who made it, did, mostly due to their efforts. But along with the swelling forms struggling to rise off the plates as women’s liberation increased through the centuries, I felt a corresponding rise of my own resolve to continue the struggle in the myriad areas that remain to be changed. Julia Kristeva accused feminism of becoming a religion in her 1979 essay “Women’s Time,” and I have to admit that seeing the Dinner Party is probably as close as I have ever come to a religious experience.

In “Vaginal Iconography” Barbara Rose addresses something of the mental effect of this experience when she compares feminist art to the “Black is Beautiful” art of the Black Power movement, which she sees as “essential in creating not only an ideology of equality, but a psychology built on the confidence that black is as good as white.” (576) Before women could proceed with a project of tearing down and rebuilding an entire way of thinking about a discipline, women needed the confidence that they were worthy, beautiful to themselves beyond the codified and frequently represented signs of their sexual availability to men, strong, and not monstrous in their desires, as their desire and actual sexual organs had so frequently been termed. As Rose writes,
“For much of the feminist art that has been labeled ‘erotic’ because it depicts or alludes to genital images is nothing of the sort. It is designed to arouse women, but not sexually… What is interesting about them is the manner in which they worshipfully allude to female genitalia as icons – as strong, clean, well made, and whole as the masculine totems to which we are accustomed.” (576)
Both the vaginal imagery of many feminist artists in the 1970s as well as the feminist art history recover projects were in a sense engaged in creating the psychological supports for women that the myth of the Great Artist has provided for centuries to white male artists. Crucial among these supports were the feelings of having a history, a community, a vocabulary, and an audience.

In this context, Nochlin’s article reads more as an examination of the norms and institutions by which the white male Great Artist was constructed so that women might be able to finally become Great Artists than a true attack on the bedrock assumptions of the discipline. She closes the section on Rosa Bonheur with a summary of what she sees as the reason she could not achieve greatness, “the voice of the feminine mystique with its potpourri of ambivalent narcissism and internalized guilt subtly dilutes and subverts that total inner confidence, that absolute certitude and self-determination (moral and esthetic), demanded by the highest and most innovative work in art.” (36) Despite Nochlin’s astute assessments of the role of the broader social context in creating the Great Artist, she is not yet ready to give up that ideal goal, and in that sense is very much part of what I see as the 1970s project to create the psychological, historical, mythical, and iconographical framework for women to create great art and become great art historians.