Saturday, 14 June 2014

Finding out about Judy Chicago could change my life

Of course I started with an internet search, and came up with the Judy Chicago website, lots of links to the Brooklyn Museum which is the home for 'The Dinner Party' and the Elizabeth Sackler feminist art archive. There is a lot there to explore.

I'm just going to write down some of the reactions I have had to looking through what is there on the internet about her and her work, starting with 'The Dinner Party' which is clearly her biggest and best-known work.

To start with, having read 'The Obstacle Race' by Germaine Greer some years ago, I had no trouble understanding (in my head at least) that there is an imbalance in the perception of and judgements about women's work in the fine art world. And, for that matter about women's achievements and contribution in English-speaking culture as a whole (which are the cultures I know). And that this is compounded by a minimising or ignoring of the talent and achievements of so many women who came before us, even, I'm sorry to say, by educated aware women like me. So trying to address this imbalance by going to the very core of the difficulty - making a huge celebration of genius influential women from the past - seems like an excellent idea. I am trying to get my head round to how I would celebrate this myself.

Illustrating each of these great women with a colourful painting of a vulva in a relevant style I see as odd. It has the advantage of pointing out that this is what all these women had in common. (Possibly the only thing other than that we still know their names). Is it gratuitous, just to market the idea as widely as possible? Get it talked about in US Congress? It seems not. There is a rationale, about celebrating the fundamental quality of womanhood, instead of denigrating or ignoring it. This makes sense in my head, but there's something that just doesn't ring true for me.

It has undoubted shock value. Which is surprising considering how many thousands of female nudes I have seen in my life. But never one with a visible vulva, I think, except in images created solely for sexual purposes. Even the famous Courbet painting of 'The origin of the world' hides away the actual organ of creation. Which could easily be interpreted as proof that our bodies in some way belong to the sexual observer rather than to women.

There is a video of a performance artist pointing this discrepancy out 'in the flesh' in front of the Courbet painting here (considered suitable for adults only)

Seeing this had a dislocating effect on me, because of the great chasm between what I know from my experiences and understanding of my own body as a woman, and what is allowed or expected in my culture. This perspective change, brought on by looking at 'The Dinner Party' have made me notice all the moments in my day when blanket assumptions about people are made on the basis of gender.  My consciousness is well and truly raised.

I have gone on to start reading a marvellous book called 'Old Mistresses: Women, Art and Ideology' by Rozsika Parker and Griselda Pollock (1981 Pandora Press) which puts into words those things I understood only at a pre-verbal level about institutional sexism, the heirarchy of arts and crafts, and some of the reasons women are stuffed before we start when it comes to being recognised as artists. I have these prejudices engraved into my self as well. I know it, I see it in myself, and I have some work to do to sort out what I really think. This is not about blaming men for it. We're in this mess together.

All this reminded me of a long series of moments in my past life when this discrimination was evident and material to decisions I made and judgements other people seemed to be making. For example, the discrepancy between what I knew of myself and the judgements other people made of me because of my gender was directly responsible for me deciding not to become a surgeon. Because my work life would be a constant struggle against cultural expectation, and I knew I did not have the confidence to take that challenge at that time.

I suspect that later generations than mine have less of this difficulty - I hope so. I am very happy to think that it would be difficult for my daughters to relate to the experience of popular culture being made as if there were no women in the audience (The example that comes to mind is Benny Hill).

I had a pushme-pullyou feeling about looking at all those brightly coloured images of vulvas. (vulvae? I don't even know the proper plural word, whereas I know for sure how to say two penises). I couldn't actually look at them at first - my eyes kept slipping off, embarrassed. And then seeing them in terms of their decorative style rather than what they represent. I have no problem looking at Judy Chicago's cartoon-like painting of an erect penis in her 'Bigamy' car hood. Found it quite friendly, even. Why is it that a psychedelic cartoon of a penis suggests a friendly tease about potency, while the same treatment of a vulva suggests something two-dimensional and pretty. There - that is the problem in a nutshell - my brain is prejudging before I have a chance to have a say.

Artistically, this simplified brightly coloured style doesn't really add to the viewers experience or understanding, and only really works for me when she has something to say. And some of her work doesn't affect me in the way it was apparently intended. The impact of her 'Menstruation' for example (mild disgust) compares poorly with the resonance of 'linen cupboard' - an image of a woman literally caged by the shelves of a domestic cupboard - by a student of hers at a Womenspace exhibition. Perhaps it would have been more effective at the time, when presumably the idea of menstrual blood was more taboo, and may have alerted some of the audience to the discrepancy between real women and the cultural image of 'woman'.

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