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.

One Reply to “Feminist myth-making”

  1. I happened to be on the plane flying home from my aunt’s graduation in Vermont when I first read Nora’s letter. Incidentally, our cross-country movie turned out to be Mona Lisa Smile, which, while not the most radical feminist flick I’ve ever seen, certainly poses some interesting questions. I don’t normally get into the movies on planes, but I started watching this one and was immediately engaged, and soon discovered how much it had to do with Nora’s letter. If you haven’t seen it, the basic plot of Mona Lisa Smile is that a progressive young art history teacher comes to Wellesley and tries to shake up how the students think of “Great Art.” She poses questions such as, what is Great Art? Who names what Great Art is? Etc … and in the process asks her students to also think about who creates and dictates their own self-conceptions vis-à-vis personal capacities for “success” and future goals. It’s this idea of naming and person myth creation that is relevant to Nora’s letter and to which I’ll return in my response.

    I think that Nora’s essay actually makes reference to two different conceptions of “myth.” The first definition I see as essentially positive. Nora asks if it is necessary to create myths to help us navigate the world. In this case, myth is about story telling—the way in which we create or bind ourselves to stories/myth in order to develop self-awareness in relation to the world around us. The second conception of myth—closely related but perhaps slightly different—is that used by Nochlin when she says, “The myth of the Great Artist.” As I read it, myth could essentially be replaced with the word “lie,” as opposed to merely “story.” My reading of Nochlin is that she is exposing the myth (the lie) that we’ve been told all our lives—that the Great Artist exists, and that there is someone who knows who [he] is. That, in itself, is the myth. This second conception of the word myth points further to the idea of naming. That is, who holds and dictates the power to name art as Great Art and particular artists as Great Artists?

    Regarding the first definition of myth, as in the creation of stories, I think in a sense, yes, the mythologizing process is inherently tied to patriarchal archetypes and our male-centered history. Fortunately, I think it is possible to create myths, as least personal ones (in fact I think we do it all the time), without the use of male iconography or archetype. I think it may even be possible to create myth without any form of iconography or archetype. Or, if we do choose to use icons and archetypes, those icons and archetypes can be situated within our inner symbolism, as oppose to our societal, public symbolism In other words, I may construct a myth about my life that centers around a flower vase that, to me alone, symbolizes my mother and all of the women before her. But this is not a symbol familiar to anyone other than myself—this is internal symbolism.

    In other words, I think it’s absolutely possible and even central to our personalities, to constantly create myths for ourselves in order to navigate our worlds. And since story telling is about making choices, I think as women we can make choices about how we tell stories in order to place women at the focal points of our stories and our art. Whether or not we think of ourselves as writers, each of us are story-tellers and have the opportunity to understand ourselves and our histories outside of patriarchal constructs. Or once we awaken to the way in which we have been constructed by patriarchal boundaries, we can begin to break them down for ourselves. Seeing them is probably half the battle. We can help each other in terms of beginning to establish female-centered narratives and the creation of (positive) female archetypes and icons.

    What’s been really interesting to me lately is what I see as a common predicament among women who have a story to tell (that’s all of us!). The predicament is this: So many women I have talked to feel that they basically have two stories about their female (most especially, sexual) experience—one that discredits their experience and the other that features and makes their experience important. So many women I have talked with, including myself, have learned that it is not okay to think of their “victim” story as important, precisely because we are afraid of the term victim and don’t want to think of ourselves as victims. However, if we choose not to tell the story at all, our legitimate (negative) experiences are inaudible. In my case, I’ve never felt comfortable using the term rape to describe my sexual experience. For years, by choosing not to use that term, or worse, by choosing not to tell the story at all, I found no outlet for my anger/confusion/sadness. So it continued to exist, regardless of how I framed it (Rape or no rape, the nausea will not cease, I wrote once).

    In the case of one of my friends whom I talked about this with recently, she said of her own experience something to the extent of, “I don’t know! I’m fucked up, my sexuality is fucked up and I can whine and complain and say, well, its because I had an abortion and my ex-boyfriend was addicted to porn but wouldn’t touch me … but then I just feel stupid because I would hate to think that I’m totally fucked up just because of that.”

    I think many women learn to delegitimize their experience, but simultaneously cannot deny that they don’t feel quite “right” in their female/sexual skin. One voice is saying, Yes I have a story to tell! The other voice is saying No, you don’t, you dramatic bitch! Or this is very close to what I’ve experienced. The only thing that really helped was for me was to begin to record my own myth—tell my story and construct it in a way that tried to include both those contradictory voices.

    Speaking to the use of the word myth in Nochlin’s phrase, “the myth of the Great Artist,” it seems to me that the utterance of this phrase is half the battle. It is the first step in exposing the myth as myth—as lie. There is no such empirical Truth as “Great Art,” there are only power structures in place which allow Great Art to be named as such. The myth is that the Great Artist exists somehow independent of power dynamics, specifically of patriarchal power dynamics. It is our responsibility as feminists (men and women) to acknowledge the myth, to expose it, to understand it and move on. In that sense, acknowledging the myth is the most important thing we can do.

    I suppose the truth is, I don’t buy into the idea of “Great Art” other than acknowledging that a variety of work thrills me in a variety of ways … aesthetically, intellectually, historically, politically. Some works are just “smart.” Some are incredibly beautiful, in addition to being smart. In all good conscience, no, I do not believe we should continue to seek the “Great Woman Artist,” unless we truly believe we can pinpoint borderlines between (1) good and bad art and (2) art and not art, and also believe that we’ve had the opportunity to see all the competition (that is, that our judging forums are equally accessibly by all humanity). I don’t believe we can believe in Great Art without condoning some form of hegemonic power structure any more than we can really be nationalists without buying into ethnocentrisms and racism. Why would we (ultimately) want to? I think it is possible (and important to our larger goals) to acknowledge what particular artists bring to the world of art and regard them individually as such. Some artists create pop-cultural icons. Others create highly intellectual art that may never be seen outside gallery walls. Part of our responsibility, it seems, is to note the contributions of both, regardless of our individual preferences for one type over the other, or one artist over another.

    If we were to attempt to define those borders I ask about above, what would they look like? They certainly seem to exist in “someone’s” mind. Sure, we have let some women into our conception of Great Art. But then how about women of color? If some of them, then how about poor women of color? If some of them, then how about Third World Women? If some of them, then how about uneducated Third World Women who have no access to art “tools”? Is their life in and of itself a piece of art? Do white women photographers need to come in and establish their lives as such? (read the poem by Jo Carillo called “Take Your Pictures With You” from This Bridge Called My Back). The location of that border between art and not art becomes endlessly elusive … The margins (should be) forever expanding. Is feeding a baby, is malnutrition, is living out each day of a life of poverty a form of performance art? Some hipster Performance Artist in the San Francisco Mission District physically sews a piece of clothing into her skin with a big needle. It is her feminist performance art piece. Think of the pain. Think of the sacrifice in performing that. But then think of the pain and sacrifice in performing the daily task of sewing a shirt together in a sweatshop and earning next to nothing. Or of a rural Guatemalan woman cooking just beans and tortillas over an open stove. This is art, right? It could be performed if there were an audience who acknowledged it as performance, who named it as art. If they named it as art … Come to rural Guatemala and see our performance art! Watch our reality lives as they unfold. You see what I’m getting at? Art is a myth—it is! It must be. And yet, yes, we have to constantly expand the margins of what art can be. Of course we must. But then who is the we?—is the we feminists, you and I? And are we really all-inclusive of “women”? Of course not.

    Then again, at some point maybe women will decide to no longer take part in the endless task of expanding the meaning of art. Why keep trying to expand it? Why not leave it to the hands of some elitist center? Is it not? Must it not be kept there, in some way, won’t it forever be held in elitist hands unless everyone in the whole wide world were able to claim art as theirs? The question becomes mute.

    For me personally, simply exposing the myth is radical in and of itself. This opens us to better hear those artists that are working in the margins of our (male centered, white, elite) discourse. By exposing the lie, we constantly redraw the borderlines—allowing a slow entry to the center those artists situated in the margins, those that are inaudible by the Great Art Namers.

    It is here that the two definitions of myth seem to interact. I think the work of creating a “framework of positive images and history,” in other words, stories/positive myths, is important, even as people work to expose the myth (lie) of greatness. That’s not to say that in a temporal sense we might choose to attach ourselves to the idea of the “Great Woman Artist” for the sake of creating some tangible goal. I mean, if we’re hell-bent on being the next Frida Kahlo or Georgia O’Keefe, why not set our sights on them? We can (and must) expose myth inside the framework of myth. As part of our newly developed female-centered stories, we can simultaneously begin to expose the falsehood of greatness. As Dorothy Allison says, “crucial among these supports [to create art at the radical fringe, that debunks the hierarchy] are the feelings of having a history, a community, a vocabulary, and an audience.” Like any wall, this one must be brought down with all types of work, with our various occupations and personal strategies, some of which may appear to be, in the immediate sense, counteractive. I liken this to the way in which some of us are conquering heterosexism by supporting gay marriage rights, while some of us want to reject marriage altogether and are working on rights for single people. I believe that both of these are valid, important and even complimentary campaigns that can coexist.

    We have to decide for ourselves how to be active in this struggle. I’m going to end by quoting from Dorothy Allison’s essay, “Believing in Literature,” from Skin: Talking about Sex, Class and Literature. To be honest, I’m attempting to paraphrase nearly the entire essay, in lieu of actually sending you a copy. If you do get a chance, this essay is worth reading. As a writer, this essay interests me because it places Nora’s question in the realm of literature as opposed to art. If you substitute the word Literature for Nora’s Great Art, you’ll see that Allison is grappling with the same problem:

    “I used my belief in the power of good writing as a way of giving meaning to some injustices I saw around me. When I was very young, still in high school, I thought about writing the way Fay Weldon outlined in her essay, “The City of Imagination,” in Letters to My Niece on First Reading Jane Austen. I imagined that Literature was, as she named it, a city with many districts, or was like a great library of the human mind that included all the books ever written. But what was most important was the enormous diversity contained in that library of the mind, that imaginary city. I cruised that city and dreamed of being part of it, but I was fearful that anything I wrote would be relegated to unimportance—no matter how finely crafted my writing would be, no matter how hard I worked and how much I risked. I knew I was a lesbian, and I believed that meant I would always be a stranger in the city … When feminism exploded in my life, it gave me a vision of the world totally different from everything I had ever assumed or hoped …

    … it forced me to understand, suddenly and completely, that literature was written by men. Judged by men. The city itself was a city of Man, a male mind even when housed in a female body … Literature was a lie, a system of lies, the creation of liars, some of them sincere and unaware of the lies they retold … I had to make a life raft for myself out of political conviction, which is why I desperately needed a feminist community and so feared being driven out of the one I found …

    … Many of us lost all sense of what could be said to be good or bad writing, or how to think about being writers while bypassing the presses, grants, and teaching programs that might have helped us devote the majority of our time to writing, to creating a body of work … I had no independent sense of my work’s worth … I never imagined that what we were creating was also limited, that it, too, reflected an unrealistic or dishonest vision …

    … I began to teach … All of this helped me to systematically work out what I truly believed about literature, about writing, and its use and meaning, and the problematic relationship of writing to Literature … The result has been that I have come to make distinctions between what I call the academy and literature, the moral equivalents of the church and God. The academy may lie, but literature tries to tell the truth. The academy is the market—university courses in contemporary literature that never get past Faulkner, reviewers who pepper their opinions with the ideas of the great men, and editors who think something is good because it says the same thing everyone has always said. Literature is the lie that tells the truth, that shows us human beings in pain and makes us love them, and does so in a spirit of honest revelation. That’s radical enough, and more effective than only publishing unedited oral history. It is the stance I assumed when I decided I could not live without writing fiction and trying to publish it for the widest possible audience.”

    Allison solved the problem for herself on a personal level by making a semantic distinction between Literature and the Academy. If she thought of herself as outside of Literature itself, then she was rendered paralyzed. But by accepting that she might be merely outside of the “Academy” or the cannon, she was able to move forward to create Literature that was pushing at the boundaries of the cannon and also accessible to a wide audience (Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina, for example, sold to a much wider audience than did her essays in Skin).

    I like what Allison says because I agree that each of us must make our own peace with what may appear to be a bastion of patriarchy in the Art World, including Literature. Sometimes, I believe, it does come down to merely a question of semantics, and how we choose to define the terms before us so that we can move past paralysis and continue to create, regardless of how it will be categorized by our critics or by future generations of artists.

    Thank you, Nora!!


    P.S. Incidentally, this relates to a Don DeLillo play I saw the other night entitled Valparaiso, which is essentially (can I really use that word, given the play’s complex lacing of subplot?) about how the media and the play Valparaiso itself (I suppose it is more accurately termed a meta-play) created art out of the distinctly non-artistic and mundane experience of a business man, who, on a routine business trip, accidentally boards the wrong plane and flies to Valparaiso, Chile, instead of Valparaiso, Indiana. Whoops! The meta-play exposed the question of whether this incident “is” or “is not” art. We were, after all, an audience, Don DeLillo declared himself author, the talk shows and media stories portrayed in the play all declared the act itself as art (and not only the act itself, but the history behind the act—the man’s life with his wife, the reading of the paper that morning before boarding the place, the decision to marry, the decision to be born, in fact, the entire life belonging to the man became “art”). And what, exactly, anyway is “distinctly non-artistic” about him, anyway? Is that really fair? Is it true that he’s not worthy of art, or that he is not in fact already art? Aren’t we all just walking art pieces? My body is a performance art piece—‘cause I name it so. As Dylan says, I said that.

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