Ugly Feeling – Notes on Feminist Art Today

Ugly Feeling – Notes on Feminist Art Today

Joanna Fiduccia

In her book A Decade of Negative Thinking (2009), the painter and writer Mira Schor laments the fate that befell so-called ‘Generation 2.5’ feminist artists, those who came of age at the acme of the women’s liberation movement, who participated in the first feminist studies departments, who solidified feminist tropes and techniques—and yet who were all but excluded from recent survey exhibitions of feminist art. They are the victims, Schor presumes, of ‘the boredom factor’, their absence signifying the pernicious social logic that tallies only what’s new with the worthy and interesting, regardless of whether the goals of the old have been achieved. For the kiss of death of any struggle is to become familiar. ‘As the repeated declarations of feminism’s death in the mainstream media and the academy make clear’, writes Jane Elliott writes in her 2006 essay ‘The Currency of Feminist Theory’, ‘the production of the new as the signal intellectual value can be used to dismiss uncomfortable insights, which don’t have to be disproved as long as they can be made to seem passé.’ The boredom factor, in other words, serves not only as a diagnosis but a occlusion, forestalling change by announcing that its impetus is history.

If the boredom factor burdens Schor and her peers today, subsequent generations of artists have not necessarily experienced a renewed feminism so much as one enlivened by the tension of critical distance. Sophisticated projects often frame a feminist position within another (evidently exterior) stance. The second edition of the curatorial platform ‘If I Can’t Dance, I Don’t Want To Be Part of Your Revolution’ (the famous misquote of anarchist Emma Goldman), for instance, ‘examine[d] the legacies and potentials of feminism […] from a variety of contemporary artistic positions’ (my emphasis)—a multiplicity that, though it might be reconciled with claims for the heterogeneity of feminism today, looks rather like a concession to those participating artists who do not identify as feminists. This dispersion is used to take up Bell Hook’s concept of continuous ‘feminist movement’, as opposed to the historical entity of ‘the feminist movement’, its various positions offering a ‘way out’ of whatever depleted, inspissated arteries once pumped feminism’s lifeblood.

Yet are we so sure that we need a way out rather than a way in? In, that is, back toward the negativity that feminism has so long fled. Indeed what Schor neglects is that boredom itself, like a good many other ugly feelings, may be the lodestone of feminist art today—affects paradoxically capable of attracting new feminist thought through their mild repulsiveness, repetitiveness and anachronisms.

Marked woman

In Kate Davis’s 2009 video Disgrace, a still frame of a 1972 catalogue of Modigliani drawings alternates with ten seconds of black screen. Each successive shot shows a tracing of one of Davis’s body parts on the page, contours that accumulate into a tangle of lines defacing Modigliani’s pear-shaped paragon. In the intervals, a chorus intones ‘Boohoo!’—one less voice with each repetition, such that by the time the artist has inscribed twenty outlines of her body onto Modigliani’s, a lone voice sounds this self-deprecating watchword. Like the stand-up comic whose charm wears off before she has exhausted her self-pity, the ‘boohoo’ satirizes Davis’s act of applying herself (most literally) to art history. The ‘real’ representation of the female body (Davis’s) is reduced to indecipherable squiggles while, as if in defiance, Modigliani’s figure remains coherent, even retrogressively incorporating Davis’s antic lines into the clarity of its original rendering. The ‘disgrace’ of the title would seem to be Davis’: the disgrace of a desperate act of self-inscription, the disgrace of the book’s defacement, the disgrace of its ineffectuality.

Disgrace’s structure, however, deftly subverts this reading. Much like Rauschenberg in his Erased de Kooning (1953), Davis manages to escape the scene of the crime—a crime doubly exposed as Davis’s trifling vandalism and art history’s grave exclusions—by virtue of never appearing directly on film. Leaving her mark on Modigliani’s ‘marked’ woman, she tags the book with lines unidentifiable as a representation of a woman, but certainly representative as women’s. No longer content to be (literally) marginalized, they swell over Modigliani’s nude, taking up what Monique Wittig, drawing from Colette Guillaumin’s writings on racial markings, describes as a ‘materialist feminist position’: one that recognizes that ‘what we take for the cause or origin of oppression is in fact only the mark imposed by the oppressor: the “myth of woman”.’ Or what Virginia Woolf calls ‘the Angel in the House’. Who must be killed.

The Dark Continent

In Sianne Ngai’s Ugly Feelings (2005), from which this text draws its title, the author considers Adorno’s analysis of the political and social ineffectuality of bourgeois art. Adorno notes that the aesthetic autonomy or ‘separateness from “empirical society” which art gains as a consequence of the bourgeois revolution ironically coincides with its growing awareness of its inability to significantly change that society—a powerlessness that then becomes the privileged object of the newly autonomous art’s “guilty” self-reflection.’ Ngai goes on to argue, however, that this ineffectuality may be uniquely enabling. ‘[Autonomous art’s] own “powerlessness” and superfluity in the “empirical world”,’ she writes, ‘is precisely that makes it capable of theorizing social powerlessness in a manner unrivaled by other forms of cultural praxis.’ If feminist art of the 1970s and 1980s articulated itself in contrary terms—organizing its efforts around social change (both within and without the art world), and expressing triumphant self-reflection (after centuries of the suppression and omission of the female self)—works like Davis’s Disgrace or the prints of English artist Lucy Skaer take a tack much closer to Ngai’s paradox of ‘powerless’ autonomous art. Making of their ineffectuality or latency a theme, they suggest an alternative approach for feminist art today.

For Fabrication (2009), Skaer produced a series of black woodblock prints from the surface of a dining room table. By reconfiguring the five table leaves, she evokes a wordless syntax made explicit by painting punctuation marks (commas and semicolons and periods) around the inked segments on the paper. The same procedure reappears in Ibid (2009), among her contributions for the Turner Prize at the Tate Britain last year, in which Skaer printed the many planes of a chair onto a scroll of paper, diagramming the object’s surfaces as one might diagram a sentence: by dismantling it (and thus denying its function). The resulting forms are vaguely cuneiform; they seem to promise the possibility of their own decryption, if only one had a Rosetta stone for domestic objects. They gesture toward speech embodied by things (among which, historically, one can count women), or rather, written by them—an écriture for the repressed.

In ‘The Laugh of the Medusa’ (1971), Hélène Cixous’s explosive manifesto, Cixous calls for the practice of an écriture feminine, writing that ‘inscribes femininity’ and that ‘bring[s] women to writing, from which they have been driven away as violently as from their bodies—for the same reason, by the same law.’ As Cixous explains, ‘there is such a thing as marked writing […] [which] has been run by a libidinal and cultural—hence political, typically masculine—economy.’ She summons the woman writer to overcome this locus of repression, to ‘write [her] self’ by giving voice to her body and thus overcoming the bodiless, superegoized figure she has been compelled to play, the ‘dark continent’ of her sexuality, in Freud’s words. Curiously, like Woolf, Cixous stages this overcoming as a violent act against another woman: ‘We must kill the false woman who is preventing the live one from breathing.’

This summons, while pertaining specifically to a feminist cause, arose in the context of a larger theory that sought to analyze and undermine the hierarchy between speech and writing, which had dominated understandings of both for centuries. Speech, as the primary act, supposedly manifested a fundamental Truth or logos, while writing was but a secondary act of notation. Part of the project to overturn this hierarchy, as undertaken notably by Derrida’s Writing and Difference (1967), consisted in exposing the mediated nature of speech itself through its division into signified and signifier.

Skaer’s prints present an extremely subtle farce of this history of deconstruction through the direct application of the signified and its fantastical sublation into (the affects of a) language. This embodied language, with its veiled erotics of exhaustively pressing and imprinting, confronts the liberation of repressed, sensual speech with its fundamental unintelligibility.

Bad timing

The latency in Ibid and Fabrication signals an ‘ugly’ aspect of écriture féminine: its lateness. Écriture féminine was bedeviled by a certain aesthetic tardiness, a ‘belated modernism’ in Ngai’s words, arriving at exactly the wrong moment for feminist struggles as a whole. As Rosi Braidotti notes, écriture féminine (and écriture generally speaking) entailed ‘deconstructing, dismissing, or displacing the notion of the rational subject at the very historical moment when women [were] beginning to have access to the use of discourse, power and pleasure.’ The decentered or anti-rational subject moreover corresponded to clichés of femininity that had long furnished excuses for stripping women of political agency.

This bad timing, which thus could be said to have beleaguered feminism even in its glory days, afflicted not only the feminist intelligentsia, but also the women’s workforce. As French artist Lili Reynaud-Dewar reflects in her video installation Structures de pouvoir, rituels et sexualité chez les sténodactylos européennes (amanuensis) [The power structures, rituals and sexuality of European typists (amanuensis)] (2010), gainful employment for women as skilled typists was institutionalized only a handful of years before the introduction of the personal computer would make them obsolete. Presented at the FRAC Champagne-Ardenne in early 2010, the installation comprises a ring of mirrored tables, two typewriters, two costumes, two projections, and two large hand-shaped wooden silhouettes. In the video projections, hands caked in cardinal colors play over the keyboards of late-model typewriters, foregrounded by the two wooden hand silhouettes appearing on the mirror top as if from under the desk. In certain frames, all four animate (but just as disembodied) hands appear on screen, consorting almost homosocially. The deliberate, ugly anachronism of the shots, with their suggestions of ‘80s mirror palaces and flashy fashion palettes, and the restive but senseless motion of the hands (there is, after all, no paper in the typewriters—and no bosses for which these hands could serve as disembodied amanuenses) speaks to the almost immediate obsolescence of diploma-ed typists. By extension, it also parallels a darker history to which feminist movements seem again and again condemned, doomed to seem passé only moments after they are inaugurated.

The capacity of these works, to quote Ngai, for ‘theorizing [the] social powerlessness’ of this doom, is a deeply feminist project insofar as it speaks an unspeakable from outside marked writing, from outside, even, the ‘myth of the feminist’. By inhabiting these regions, Davis, Skaer and Reynaud-Dewar wade not just in a contemporary feminist context, but in a perennial feminist dilemma that will not go away by turning away from it, any more than by adopting critical distance. Instead, there is reason to see in the ineffectual, badly timed, inarticulate or mute, the self-deprecating, idle, dismantled or incoherent, in short, in ugly feeling, not just a way in, but a way forward.

Joanna Fiduccia is an art critic and Kaleidoscope’s assistant editor.
She is based in New York City.

Schor cites in particular the exhibitions WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution, curated by Cornelia Butler, at the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA in Los Angeles, P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center in New York, the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington D.C., and the Vancouver Art Gallery, and Global Feminisms: New Directions in Contemporary Art, curated by Linda Nochlin and Maura Reilly at the Brooklyn Museum’s Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art. The latter focused on women artists born after 1960, the former on a ‘pioneer generation’ born roughly before 1945. Mira Schor, ‘Generation 2.5’ in A Decade of Negative Thinking (Durham: Duke University Press, 2009), 47–69.

Ibid., 60.

Jane Elliott, ‘The Currency of Feminist Theory’, PMLA 121, no. 5 (2006): 1700. Quoted in Schor, Ibid.

Wittig argues that sex, like race, is seen as an ‘immediate given […] belonging to a natural order’, however ‘what we believe to be a physical and direct perception is only a sophisticated and mythic construction, an ‘imaginary formation’, which reinterprets physical features (in themselves […] neutral […]) through the network of relationships in which they are perceived.’ The myth of woman thus obscures the reality of this exploitative, oppressive network. ‘ “Woman” is not each one of us, but the political and ideological formation which negates ‘women’ (the product of a relation of exploitation).’ (1910). A member of the women’s liberation movement must thus refuse to be a woman—namely through lesbianism, for its capacity to exist outside of the economic, political and ideological impositions of heterosexual society. Monique Wittig, ‘One Is Not Born a Woman’ in The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 2nd ed., eds. Vincent B. Leitch, William E. Cain, Laurie Finke, Barbara Johnson, John McGowan , T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting and Jeffrey J. Williams (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2010), 1908.

Virginia Woolf, ‘Professions for Women’, The Death of the Moth and Other Essays (New York: Penguin Books, 1965).

Theodor W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory (New York: Routledge, 1984), 225, quoted in Sianne Ngai, Ugly Feelings (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007), 2.

Ngai, Ibid.

Hélène Cixous, ‘The Laugh of the Medusa’ in The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 1942.

Ibid., 1945.

Ibid., 1947.

Ngai, 313.

Rosi Braidotti, Nomadic Subjects: Embodiment and Sexual Difference in Contemporary Feminist Theory (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), quoted in Ngai, 309–310. Meanwhile, as Braidotti notes, ‘becoming-woman’ had been taken up by such (male) figures as Deleuze as a way to understand human subjectivity—a fetishization of ‘becoming-woman’ that amounts to an anti-feminist position.

Cf. Ngai, ‘Bad Timing (A Sequel): Paranoia, Feminism, and Poetry’ in

differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies – Volume 12, Number 2, Summer 2001: 1–46; and Andrew T. I. Ross, ‘Viennese Waltzes’, enclitic 8 (Spring/Fall 1984): 71–83.