Category Archives: Feminism

“Boobie Wednesday” and the State of Women’s Health

Some time ago I wrote a piece on the Twitter phenomenon of “Boobie Wednesday” (#BoobieWed). When I first wrote the piece my intentions were to share my personal experience with breast cancer and to provide my opinion of women using shots of their bare or barely covered breasts as their avatar. In the time since that original post, almost a year now, I have written openly in other posts about my life, my sex life, and my body since my procedures. This was done in part to speak about cancer tangibly as opposed to many on Twitter who speak intangibly about the disease. Part of the choice to write so openly was assuage the fears and concerns of women facing reproductive cancers, women often racked with fear of losing their sexual appeal or the aspects of their person that define their femininity. It is the latter half of my impetus that has been and continues to be missing from the “Boobie Wednesday” movement and programs like this.

 

What should be central to programs aimed at educating women about cancer and reproductive health should be just that: education. Pink ribbon campaigns, the Komen Foundation, Save the Tatas, etc do more to shill products than to provide education and support. The primary goals of these and similar organization should be:

 

  • Providing templates and conversation points to aid women in constructing a family health history
  • Providing conversation points and important topics for women to speak with their primary care provider and gynocologist on a regular basis about
  • Frank and proper education about women’s bodies that dispels myths and encourages a woman to accurately know her body and how to care for it

 

Lastly, organizations MUST finally break their silence about life during and after treatment. When have you ever seen the Komen foundation talk about maintaining sexuality and sexual confidence post-cancer? Never. It’s never happened. Breasts can be reconstructed. Ever hear that message while you’re being sold lipstick? Clothes? Pink shoes? No, of course not. When do pink ribbon campaigns talk about sex during and after treatment? How medications and treatments can affect a woman’s libido? They don’t. The sad thing is organizations often run by women, for women behave as if women can’t handle the truth. The constant call for mammograms and participation in “Race for the Cure” never seems to include frank discussion of other reproductive cancers and health concerns. So how many American women are under educated or falsely educated about their bodies as a result of this? In fact about 60% of American women are unable to accurately answer basic questions about their reproductive organs.

 

Sure, we can start the finger pointing. We could blame our “Puritan” heritage, the lack of sexual health instruction in schools. We could say mothers should talk to their daughters about this. But finger pointing doesn’t accomplish anything. At the end of the day, organizations devoted to the health and well being of women have consistently dropped the ball. In fact this country has consistently dropped the ball about women’s health in the name of religion and morality.

 

This brings me to the heart of why I felt compelled to revisit this topic. Since the 2010 midterm elections, there has been a deluge of legislative action taken to greatly limit women’s access to contraception and abortion. In addition to making abortion nearly impossible to many women in this country, efforts to make hormonal contraception illegal has taken root across the country as well. Never since the passage of Roe v. Wade has there been such and organized and concerted effort to remove reproductive rights from women, to dictate and mandate the care a doctor will tell a woman she can have as opposed to discussing options with a patient and allowing the patient to make their own medical choices. It is as if second wave feminism never happened, as if Our Bodies, Ourselves never happened.

 

What Our Bodies, Ourselves accomplished, what Roe v. Wade accomplished was to make it legally possibly for women to be active participants in their health care. Woman could know their bodies, enjoy their bodies, decide if and when to have sex, if and when to have a child, what kind of birth they’d like to have, etc. The book arose out of a 35-cent, 136-page booklet called Women and Their Bodies, published in 1970 by the New England Free Press, and written by twelve Boston feminist activists. The booklet was originally intended as the basis for a women’s health course, the first to be written for women by women. Nancy Miriam Hawley at Boston’s Emmanuel College organized the health seminar that inspired the booklet in 1969. “We weren’t encouraged to ask questions, but to depend on the so-called experts,” Hawley told Women’s eNews. “Not having a say in our own health care frustrated and angered us. We didn’t have the information we needed, so we decided to find it on our own.”

 

Now, sadly, this country is returning to an age where doctors dictate care, tell a woman what she can and can’t do or have done to her body. The rights of a woman to be her own advocate, to speak for her own body should be essential to any and all awareness campaigns. As women’s access to health care are being diminished, let “Boobie Wednesday” serve as a weekly reminder that women have a voice and should be in charge of ALL health care decisions. This isn’t a liberal issue or some anti-church issue. This isn’t about politics. This is about human rights. It’s about not allowing women to become voiceless members of our society again.

 

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Curse of Being a Modern Woman

Ever had a day where you just had shit inside of you that you want, no, need to let out but it makes you sound pathetic and sad and silly? You want someone to hear you, acknowledge you, and support you, but you’re afraid to call on them? Yeah. I’m having one of those days, for sure. So I wrote this. Go ahead. Roll your eyes. Email it to your friends and have a giggle. But I just had to purge.

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I’ve been single for ages.

It’s been so long since a man took me on a proper date I don’t even know what I “proper date” is anymore. In fact, I think I was in my teens the last time a man took me out.

Was that the last time I had sex? Of course not. And here in lies my conflict, the curse of being a woman in this day in age.

I have not been on a date in my twenties and they’re more than half over. I have slept with men, many men, in that time. None of these men took me on a date. None of them even so much as brought flowers over or made breakfast after fucking me (of course most of them didn’t even stay the night…).

I could give you a million and one reasons for why I slept with men who didn’t show me the respect of even thanking me for my body. I could tell you that I’m a sexually liberated woman. That I’m a modern woman who loves sex and doesn’t need the traditional structure of a formal relationship to have it. I could tell you that I just fucking wanted sex and didn’t care about the extraneous relationship “stuff.” But the truth of the matter is that I slept with those men because I was lonely. I slept with them because I had no self-worth, no self-appreciation. I didn’t like what I saw in the mirror. I didn’t like my body or how I looked. I thought if a man fucked me he must like me. He must find me attractive and sexy. For those hours, those temporary, fleeting moments in bed together, I felt pretty. I felt appreciated and cared for. Of course that faded the minute the man got up out of bed and left. And when I never heard from them again or when I was just a late-night booty text I felt worse about myself. I hated myself and valued myself even less.

But in these years of meaningless, emotionless sex with men who couldn’t have cared less about me, there was never even a hint of a man who wanted more. Who showed even a modicum of interest in me. My loneliness continued, often growing to almost unbearable heights. I wanted to be touched. To be held. To be desired. I wanted a man who didn’t just get his rocks off and then forget all about me.

None of the men I’ve slept with have called me beautiful. None of them have called me sexy. In fact, I’ve never heard that from any man in my life. My father never said I was beautiful. When I asked him if he thought I was pretty he said I could be pretty if I lost weight. My mother defended him. Saying that men are visual creatures and if I wanted a partner I should lose some weight. So it really wasn’t surprising to sleep with men who didn’t think of me as attractive. Who were just in it for sex. In fact I find it very hard to believe any man could find me attractive, could want more from me than sex.

So where do I go from here?

People say I need “standards.” That I should value myself more and not sleep with a man who’s not going to give me more than a one-night-stand. But then I’d have nothing. I’d be alone. No contact. No nothing.

Is that really better?

I look at dating sites and tumblr and craigslist and all this other shit out there and all I see is: “Hi, I’m looking for a petite, height-weight-proportionate woman who is slim and fit and not taller than me! Thanks!” I see people post pictures of curvy and voluptuous women only to be met with comments of “she’s obviously overweight and unhealthy.” How does a woman who’s tall and thick and curvy face that? How does a woman who gets nothing but blank stares when she tells men about her degrees and professional development date in this world?

I don’t want to continue to dim my light, to smile and nod to the well-meaning “you’re time will come, just wait.” I want someone in my life who fucking gives a damn about me. I want human touch, I want passion and desire. I want someone who loves my body – lumps and curves and scars and all – without caveats.

My dating criteria is now: employed and not a jackass. That’s it. That’s the best I can hope for, because it seems that a woman like me can’t and shouldn’t aspire for more.

Yeah, I’d love to follow my therapist’s advice and work on building my self-esteem, but it’s hard to do when there’s no reinforcement. I’m independent. I can care for myself. But having a partner isn’t about being unable to care for oneself, it’s about wanting to share your life with someone and grow from and with their support. I need that. I crave that. But it’s no where in sight. So the meaningless, emotionless sex continues. The “standards” remain non-existent. But at least if I sleep with a man I have a decent shot at a hug or a cuddle afterwards. However fleeting it may be.

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It’s the Little Things

Since news broke of pedophilia allegations against a Penn State University assistant football coach earlier this fall, I have resisted commenting on the situation on Twitter or elsewhere. I was appalled that such behavior had occurred in the first place and deeply disgusted that, as facts unfolded, members of the Penn State athletic community knew of or witnessed illegal actions and said nothing, did nothing to protect the victims. The national media has focused on the nature of collegiate athletics, programs often so valuable to institutions that employees and athletes are given free reign to behave as badly as they’d like, and who knew what, when. The national sports media, divided over the Kobe Bryant rape case, is now unified in its disgust for Sandusky and the coverup, lack of action within the Penn State football association.

But the bigger issue here, I think, is the way in which sex crimes are approached in this country in general. Or rather, I should say, how men, in particular, approach what is and isn’t a crime and what is and isn’t worth mentioning to the authorities.

I’ve blogged a few recent items on tumblr. (You can follow my tumblr here.) The issue of rape “jokes” and the lack of humor women find in them was discussed here by Lipstick Feminists. Is it possible to make a rape “joke”? Well, comics are divided on the issue, but the prevalence of mentions of rape by Donald Glover should raise people’s eyebrows and open a discussion of why men think it’s okay to joke about sexual assault. What kind of message does it send for such a prominent actor/comic to so openly and frequently joke about rape? To use rape as a go-to insult or threat? Or how about this fellow who repeatedly refers to women as “cunts” as he rails against feminism and blisters on and on about why feminists shouldn’t be taken seriously. What does it mean for our society to have such prevalent thoughts and sentiments at the forefront? Even with the widespread abuse epidemic within the Catholic Church in the US, the discussion and acceptance of sexual assault victims, especially men, is still so hushed and peripheral in the US. Just looking at the staggering lack of reports of sexual assault shows how many victims are afraid, ashamed, or unable to speak up in their defense and alert authorities.

To start, some statistics on sex crimes in the US:

  • 44% percent of sexual assault victims are under the age of 18, and 80% are under the age of 30
  • A person is sexually assaulted every 2 minutes in the US
  • It is estimated that only 40% of sexual assaults are ever reported to law enforcement
  • 15 out of 16 rapists/sexual abusers will never spend even one day in jail for their crimes
  • 60-70% of sexual assaults and crimes are committed by person(s) known to the victim
  • 30% of sexual assaults are committed by a intimate partner
The statistics are startling, scary, and make the blood boil of any person with a conscious. Even with about 40% of sexual assaults reported to authorities, there is only a 50% chance of an arrest. If an arrest is actually made, there is only an 80% chance of prosecution. If, by chance, a felony conviction occurs, there is only a 69% chance the convicted with serve jail time. That means that in the 40% of assaults reported, there is only a 16.3% chance that the assailant will serve a jail sentence. Therefore, factoring in unreported cases, only 6% of sexual abusers and rapists will spend time in jail. Sexual assault doesn’t just happen by men against women, men are victims of rape, sexual abuse/assault, and incest as well. In the US, as of a national report published in 2003, just over 10% of sexual assault victims in the US were men or boys.
But the statistics of crimes and reporting of assaults is not nearly as troubling as the statistics of how Americans think about sexual assault:
  • About 50% of college women who were sexually assaulted did not consider the attack a crime
  • In a survey of high school students, 56& of girls and 76% of boys (some were incoming college freshmen) believed that forced sex was acceptable in some situations
At least one factor on how and why the genders have such a skewed view on sexual based crimes may be the pervasive availability and use of pornography, strip club environments, internet and phone sex services, and escort and prostitution services. In a study published in July of this year, Boston-based researcher Melissa Farley, director of Prostitution Research and Education, commented on how difficult it was to find a control group for her study of men who pay for sexual services.
“We had big, big trouble finding nonusers. We finally had to settle on a definition of non-sex-buyers as men who have not been to a strip club more than two times in the past year, have not purchased a lap dance, have not used pornography more than one time in the last month, and have not purchased phone sex or the services of a sex worker, escort, erotic masseuse, or prostitute.” (Newsweek, July 25, 2011, page 61)
The prevalence of and ease of acquiring sexual services in the digital age has flooded the marketplace, so to speak, with so many easily attainable options that many men and women don’t see most sex industry activities as prostitution. “The more the commercial sex industry normalizes this behavior, the more of this behavior you get,” says Norma Ramos, executive director of the Coalition Against Traffiking in Women, in the same article. Paying for sex has become ordinary, as have feelings that not all forced sexual situations constituent assault or rape or that violence against sex workers is acceptable.
“Overall, the attitudes and habits of sex buyers reveal them to be men who dehumanize and commodify women, view them with anger and contempt, lack empathy for their suffering, and relish their own ability to inflict pain and degradation. Sex buyers are more likely to view sex as divorced from personal relationships than nonbuyers, and they enjoyed the absence of emotional involvement with prostitutes, whom they saw as commodities… In their interviews, the sex buyers often voiced aggression toward women, and were nearly eight times as likely as nonbuyers to say they would rape a woman if they could get away with it. Asked why he bought sex, one man said he liked to “beat women up.” Sex buyers in the study committed more crimes of every kind than nonbuyers, and all crimes associated with violence against women were committed by buy purchasers of sex.” (Newsweek, July 25, 2011, page 61)
The bottom line is this: Why should the lack of action at Penn State bother us now given the historical lack of action to aid and defend victims of sexual assault in this country and bring their accusers to justice? I wonder how many sexual assaults go unreported on Penn State’s campus annually. Why are there no national press conferences shining a light on the fact that 1 in 4 women will be raped or assaulted in college? We’ve let some many “little things” slip past us, become commonplace, that it takes something as shockingly disturbing as serial pedophilia to shock us awake and force us to ask ourselves the hard questions.

 

 

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Pink All Over

I started writing this post at the beginning of the month. I thought about what I wanted to say and how I wanted to say it for a long time. October is a trying month for me in a couple of ways. Both my mother and I are breast cancer survivors and her birthday is at the beginning of the month. A month that should be a celebration of my mother’s life brings with it a month slathered in pink bullshit in the guise of cancer awareness. Each October when I celebrate my mother’s life, I am reminded of how close I came to losing her. How long and trying and excruciating her battle was. I wouldn’t have been able to go through what I went through had I not seen how brave and strong my mother was throughout her surgical process. She was there with me, everyday in the hospital, everyday at home, helping me dress and change, helping me care for my wounds and scars and drains. To have to contend with that personal connection to my mother and the unshakable bond we will always have because we went through this process at the same time that our culture becomes swaddled in pink products, perky-breasted celebrity PSAs showing how much they care about women who face this diagnosis, frankly, it’s a real bitch. 

So here is my take on all those “awareness” and “pink power” products and all the talking heads trying to put some sort of fluffy, pearly, sexy spin on a disease that, let’s face it, still kills more than 40,000 women a year and will affect 1 in 8.

It’s that time of year again, when America bathes itself in coat of Pepto Bismal in the name of Breast Cancer Awareness.

It’s well-meaning. It’s meant to raise awareness and money for research and programs that seemingly assist patients. But the truth of the matter is it’s a month of product pushing under the guise of charity. You can buy a $23 designer lipstick from Esteé Lauder and feel good about the $2 (not even 10%) that go towards their in-house foundation. The list of products – exclusively pitched to women – proudly pink and proudly declaring their support for breast cancer is longer than I am tall, but many donate only a small fraction of the cost and most donate nothing at all to research organizations or foundations.

But is it really about awareness or raising money that actually does something for patients?

A dominant voice in “Pink October” is the Komen Foundation, the breast cancer charity founded by Nancy Brinker in the wake of her sister’s death from breast cancer. If you instantly know what a pink ribbon symbolizes, you can thank Komen. If you know that mammography is the best screening measure for breast cancer (particularly in women 50 and older), you can thank Komen. If you’ve ever participated in Race for the Cure, thank Komen. The list of the national effects of Brinker and her foundation are seemingly unending, but do they make a significant enough impact on women, men, and survivability from cancer?

Let’s some things straight about breast cancer:

  • 40,000 women and 450 men will die this year from breast cancer.
  • 1 in 8 women in the United States will be diagnosed during their lifetime.
  • More than a quarter of a million (about 258,000) new cases of breast cancer (in women alone) occur each year.
  • Breast cancer is the most common cancer among women (apart from skin cancers).
  • Breast cancer is the second deadliest (edged out by lung cancer).
  • The survival rate rate is still only 1 in 35.
  • Presently the American Cancer Society estimates there are 2.5 million breast cancer survivors in the US.
  • The survival rate has increased by 60% since mammography became a widespread screening measure.
  • African American women are 5 to 8 times more likely to die from breast cancer than white women.
These statistics aren’t affected by NFL players wearing pink shoes or cheerleaders using pink pompoms. These statistics aren’t affected by scarves or t-shirts, scented candles or cosmetics. What would make anyone think that buying a CFDA t-shirt from Saks would make a difference? Is it good for your “image”? Sure. People see you in your pink ribbon products and think you care or that someone in your life had/has been through the disease. It’s certainly a bonding agent amongst women: the uniting of survivors who find comfort in the understanding and reassuring presence of others who know what they’ve been through and the unifying effect of the fear of being diagnosed and having to face the harsh realities of the disease. But the purchase of products emblazoned with pink ribbons and messages about breast cancer help the company producing them a whole hell of a lot more than the women and men who face a diagnosis and have to deal with the repercussions.
Take a recent article in the New York Times:

In marketing circles, “to pink” means to link a brand or a product or even the entire National Football League to one of the most successful charity campaigns of all time. Like it or not — and some people don’t like it at all — the pinking of America has become a multibillion-dollar business, a marketing, merchandising and fund-raising opportunity that is almost unrivaled in scope. There are pink-ribbon car tires, pink-ribbon clogs, pink eyelash curlers — the list goes on.

Down on the 50-yard line on this early October day isNancy G. Brinker, the chief executive who has done more than any other to create what might be called Pink Inc. With a C.E.O.’s eye, Ms. Brinker has turned her foundation, Susan G. Komen for the Cure, into a juggernaut. She has tied this nonprofit to hundreds of for-profit brands and spread its message far and wide with“Race for the Cure” foot races. She has, in effect, invested to maximize returns. Over the years, Komen has raised many billions of dollars to urge women to get mammograms, as well as for treatment and research.

“It’s a democratization of a disease,” Ms. Brinker, who is the Cowboys’ honorary captain for the day, says just before the coin toss. “It’s drilling down into the deepest pockets of America.”

The story of Komen is, as much as anything, a story of savvy marketing. Ms. Brinker has rebranded an entire disease by putting an upbeat spin on fighting it. Her foundation generated about $420 million in the 2010 fiscal year alone. Perhaps more than any other nonprofit organization, Komen shapes the national conversation about breast cancer.

If you’re feeling hopeful about the strides being made against this disease, rather than frustrated by the lack of progress, that may well reflect Komen’s handiwork. If you think women should be concerned about developing breast cancer, that’s often Komen’s message, too. And if you think mammography is the best answer at the moment, that, again, is the Komen mantra.

Like Big Oil, Big Food and Big Pharma, Big Pink has its share of critics. Some patient advocates complain that Komen and other pink-ribbon charities sugarcoat breast cancer, which kills about 40,000 American women and 450 men annually. Others complain that pink marketing, despite the many millions it raises for charities, is just another way to move merchandise and that it exploits cancer by turning it into an excuse to go shopping. And some pink-theme products have no relationship with any charities at all. (Consumers should check before buying.)

In any case, these critics say, all of those pink ribbons and pink products create more good will for charities and corporations than game-changing medical advances for patients.

The downside to Komen’s slick packaging and upbeat pink image is that it focuses on mammograms and screening as the answer to breast cancer’s long and often deadly reach. But breast cancer awareness isn’t just about mammograms, a screening measure that is not effective on the fatty breast tissue of younger women. Prevention measures need to include campaigns that encourage women to talk openly about family history, especially in minority cultures or religions where open discussion of women’s health and reproductive care is not the norm. It needs to include campaigns aimed at imploring women to speak to their doctors about their health care and risks not just cancer but other illnesses and risks factors that can raise the risk of cancer (smoking, obesity, etc). It needs to include ad campaigns that educate low-income, under-insured or uninsured women on the resources available for wellness care, screening, and access to doctors and resources if they are diagnosed.  The New York Times continues:

This kind of mammography marketing by a variety of nonprofits frustrates patient advocates like Frances Visco, who says it lulls the public into thinking that breast cancer is a manageable chronic disease, while tens of thousands of women are dying from it. Routine screening does identify many breast cancers at early stages, when they are most treatable. It also ends up increasing the numbers of people with precancers and slow-growing tumors who may get unneeded invasive treatment, she says, while doctors still don’t know how to prevent many of the most aggressive breast cancers from spreading.

“If we continue to pretend that it is making a huge difference, we are not going to do the real work and figure out how we can save tens of thousands of lives every year,” says Ms. Visco, president of the National Breast Cancer Coalition, a network of hundreds of patient and professional organizations.

Regardless of efforts of Nancy Brinker and her supporters and detractors, the truth of the matter is that breast cancer is still deadly and a diagnosis of breast cancer still greatly increases a woman’s risk of uterine or ovarian cancer. These facts don’t change with any of the cute merchandise available around every corner, every October.

 

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Reading the Visual World

Thoughts and comments on this course syllabus would be much appreciated. 🙂

Reading the Visual World

Office Hours By Appointment

Picturing things, taking a view, is what makes us human; art is making sense and giving shape to that sense.
Gerhard Richter, The Daily Practice of Painting (1995)

As subjects, we are literally called into the picture, and represented here as caught.
Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis (1978)

What is “visual culture”? What do we mean when we speak of “the visual world,” “images,” “symbols,” or “signs”? What kinds of “things” are conjured in our minds by these words? Furthermore, if these words lead to visual “things,” to “images,” in our minds, must then “images” lead to words? This course will explore the myriad of shapes, forms and contexts that art, “image(s),” takes within cultures.

From art to architecture, advertising to film, visual culture takes many forms throughout history and especially within today’s marketing-charged, internet-driven culture of constant images and streaming video. How we see and how we interpret what we see is essential to how we comprehend the world around us. Yet few disciplines, outside of the Fine Arts, examines the relationship between image and text in order to develop a critical vocabulary for discussing it, dissecting it, and theorizing it in new and exciting ways. Therefore many are left intrigued yet perplexed by visual culture, lacking the means to express what they see and how feel about it.

This course will serve as a wide-ranging introduction to visual culture and critical approaches to the study of art in all its assorted forms. An emphasis will be placed on exploring elements of the visual world to better understand types of images, ways of interpretation and understanding, and methods of speaking and writing of and about images. The seminar will serve as a workshop in which students will help set the agenda for weekly discussions by bringing their own interests, impetuses for seminar participation, and modes of interpretation to the material.

Formal interest in art, art history, architecture, aesthetic studies, advertising, film, anthropology, or museum studies is not required, in fact the more diverse and wide-ranging the backgrounds, interests, and disciplinary fields of the students involved the better.

Course Requirements:

Because this is a once a week seminar, a premium will be placed on attendance and active participation, the life-blood of any seminar. In addition to being prepared to discuss weekly assigned readings and visual materials presented in class, students will be expected to write weekly responses based on questions or prompts given in class or in the syllabus. Responses are to be brought to class in hard copy with the student and should serve as a tool for discussion and investigation of the class material. They will be turned in at the end of the class for which they were assigned. Late or digital formats will not be accepted unless prior arrangements have been made with the professor.

Each student will also be responsible for two presentations: a museum presentation midway through the semester and a presentation in class at the end of the semester. For the museum presentation, students will select a piece on display in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.  They will prepare a short object analysis/discussion to present to the class, who will meet for that week at the museum. Final presentations will be an in-class presentation (with necessary images) of students’ final semester paper. The paper, the topic of which shall be decided in conjunction with the professor, should be a discussion of a single “image” utilizing all the tools and analytical skills acquired over the course of the semester.

These components will comprise the student’s semester grade and will be weighted as follows:

Class Participation 10%

Weekly Responses 50%

Museum Presentation 20%

Seminar Presentation 20%

Just as there is no expectation of previous course work in related field(s), there are no required textbooks for the course. Instead, the professor will distribute PDFs of all assigned readings at the start of the semester, or make them available for download through a web client such as Blackboard. A bibliography of materials is provided at the end of the syllabus for reference and future use of the student. With that said, a considerable number of readings will come from Donald Preziosi’s seminal edited volume “The Art of Art History: A Critical Anthology” (we will, in fact, read almost the whole volume over the course of the semester). Some students may find that they would like to purchase the book so that they have the readings gathered in one handy volume. This is entirely up to the student.

The syllabus may change at the discretion of the professor. All changes to assigned readings and/or due dates will be made in advance and new material provided by the professor.

Week 1:

Introduction

Introduction to the course, explanation of the syllabus and student requirements, and a “getting to know one another” discussion.

In-Class Activity: What interested you in the course? How do you define “visual culture”? What do you think is your relationship to the visual arts?

Readings:

Gardner (Kleiner and Mamiya), “Introduction.” (skim)

Gombrich, “Introduction.”

Hartt, “Introduction.” (skim)

Maquet, Chapter 1 (“The Reality Anthropologists Build”)

Chapter 2 (“Art in Everyday Reality”)

Week 2:

Art History: Making the Visible Legible

Having laid a general foundation to the concept of “art” in the previous week, this week will concentrate on the history of Art History; how it developed as a field of inquiry, and most importantly how it has and continues to produce a vocabulary and methods of discussion and analysis of visual culture.

Readings:

Preziosi: “Introduction”

“Art History: Making the Visible Legible” (and page 21)

Michael Baxandall’s “Patterns of Intention”

Heinrich Wöfflin’s “Principles of Art History”

“History as Art: Introduction.”

Response:

Compare and contrast your thoughts on “visual culture” and your relationship to it prior to the first class meeting and the readings and after. Have your opinions/thoughts changed?  If so, how?

Week 3:

Style, Iconography, and Semiology: Mechanisms of Meaning in Visual Culture

The previous two weeks have been devoted to establishing a foundation for the course at hand but also for the study of the visual arts at large. This week will be devoted to the means by which Art History, and thus visual culture, is legitimized as an autonomous field of study. Readings and discussion will be based on the “visualness” of the visual arts, the key issue that sets such inquiries as ours apart from other fields of historical or cultural pursuit.

Readings:

Preziosi, “Style: Introduction”

Meyer Shapiro, “Style”

Ernst Gombrich, “Style”

Chapter 5

Response:

Take three pictures with your cell phone camera or digital camera. One image should capture a “style.” One should represent “iconography.” And one should represent “semiology.” Write a brief paragraph describing how your photos represent/articulate the concept. Be prepared to share your images in class and discuss them.

Week 4:

Off the Wall: Sculpture, Architecture, Land Art and Landscape

So far the course has focused on the concept of images and art in a two-dimensional sense (paintings, drawings, etc). This week will focus on the means by which we interact with and speak of that which we move through and around.

Readings:

Courbusier, Towards An Architecture, pp 93-130.

Hays, Michel Foucault, “Space, Knowledge, and Power,” interview with Paul Rabinow

Michell, Landscape and Power, Read: Preface and Introduction. Skim: “Imperial Landscape,” “The Effects of Landscape,” and “Invention, Memory, and Place.”

Michell, What Do Pictures Want? “What Sculpture Wants: Placing Antony Gormley.”

Preziosi, Rosalind Krauss, “Sculpture in the Expanded Field.”

Rasmussen, Chapter 1, (“Basic Observations”)

Response:

Beyond the obvious technical differences, how do the processes of thinking about and speaking of architecture, sculpture, and landscape differ or are similar to paintings? Can we speak of architecture and landscape in the same iconographical or semiotic terms as paintings and other visual images? Why or why not?

Week 5:

The Viewer and the Viewed: Gaze, Gender and the Object

Up to this point we have discussed the visual world in historical and methodological terms, but these have been passive discussions. This week the readings and class discussion will take our “looking” from passive to active, “seeing.” Not only are we, the viewer, “seeing” the work of art, but the object is being “viewed.” Does our gaze change the meaning of the object? Furthermore, when we take into account the role of gender and the nature of our gaze on the object, in most cases a woman, does this affect our understanding? When reading this week’s readings, pay attention to the role and concept of gender and how the use of gaze and viewership alters perception and meaning.

Readings:

Butler, “Art and Feminism: An Ideology of Shifting Criteria.”

Frascina and Harris, “Introduction to Part II,” T. J. Clark’s “Preliminaries to a Possible Treatment of ‘Olympia’ in 1865,” and Griselda Pollock’s “Modernity and the Spaces of Feminity.”

McDaniel and Robertson, “Sexual Bodies: The Gaze and Sex and Violence”

Nochlin, “The Imaginary Orient.”

Preziosi, Chapter 7.

Response:

Select an image of your choice. First, analyze the image without taking into consideration the concepts of gaze and gender discussed in this week’s readings, and then analyze the image with those considerations. Be prepared to discuss your image in class.

Week 6:

The Black Sheep: Orientalism, the “Other,” and the Non-Western World

Last week we started to examine visual culture through active means of “seeing,” engaging in images on more than a purely stylistic level. By engaging in a discussion of the “gaze” and the question of gender and how these affect the viewer’s understanding of an image, we have transitioned into more critical and theoretical discussion of what visual culture consists of and how we can use multiple tools of analysis to examine them. We continue this theme this week with a discussion of “the Other” and Orientalism.

Readings:

Frascina and Harris, Edward Said’s “Orientalism.”

Michell, What Do Pictures Want? “Living Color: Race, Stereotype, and Animation in Spike Lee’s Bamboozled.”

Preziosi: Chapter 9: Introduction

Timothy Mitchell, “Orientalism and the Exhibitionary Order”

Annie E. Coombes, “Inventing the ‘Postcolonial’: Hybridity and Constituency in Contemporary Curating”

Saad, Empire and Its Discontents

Response:

What is Orientalism according to our authors? Do you agree with them? Edward Said first wrote about Orientalism in the 1970s, do you think it’s still prevalent now? Why or why not? Cite examples.

Week 7:

Museum Presentations

Class will be held at the Museum of Fine Arts. Students are to gather inside the main entrance of the museum by the start of class time. There are no assigned readings or response paper for this week. The presentation will serve as your response (a hard copy of which will need to be provided to the professor at the museum), and your attentiveness and participation in discussing your colleagues’ presentations will serve as your participation.

Up to this point we have discussed “traditional” media, now we will turn to discuss media that are included under the umbrella of “visual culture” but are not traditionally considered part of Fine Arts. For this second half of the semester I’d like to focus less on discrete methodological or historiographical questions and more on technological developments that lead not only to the inclusion of new media within the larger discourse of visual culture but also to new theoretical paradigms. This half of the seminar will open with two weeks of introduction lectures on new media and modernism/post-modernism and student discussions of texts. The final two weeks of seminar discussion prior to presentations will serve as student led workshops centered in new media and theoretical models in the readings.

Readings:

Barthes, Camera Lucida. (skim)

Coles, Design and Art, pp 10-22, 29-57, 74-88, 154-71

Groys, “Iconoclasm as an Artistic Device: Iconoclastic Strategies in Film,” and “From Image to Image-File and Back: Art in the Age of Digitalization.” (skim)

Gunning, “An Aesthetic of Astonishment: Early Film and the (In)credulous Spectator”

Frascina and Harris, Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.”

Harrison, Chapter 2

Joselit, Chapter 4 (“Avatar”)

Kracauer, “Basic Concepts” and “History and Fantasy”

Lavin, Clean New World

Michell, What Do Pictures Want? Read: “Addressing Media.” Skim: “The Ends of American Photography: Robert Frank as National Medium,” and “The Work of Art in the Age of Biocybernetic Reproduction.”

Panofsky, Style and Medium in the Motion Pictures

Perry and Wood, Chapters 1, 2, 4, and 5

Vogue, Extreme Beauty

Week 8:

The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction: Photography and Film

 

Week 9:

Video Changed the Museum Star: Conceptualism/Structuralism/Post-Modernism

Week 10:

The Mad (Wo)Men of Madison Avenue: Fashion, Advertising, Performance, and Design

Week 11:

High Techne: Technology, the Internet, and Cyberculture

 

Week 12:

Final Presentations

 

Week 13:

Final Presentations

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The Perils of Public Emotion

With the recent tearful confession of Rep. Anthony Weiner regarding his oh-so-personal tweets to women other than his wife, I was reminded, yet again, that public displays of emotion remain a treacherous path to traverse.

How many tearful, choked up, or otherwise emotional confessions of infidelity or bathroom stall foot-tapping have we seen from politicians in recent years? All, of course, from men. The tearful mea culpa of the modern male politician has become so commonplace that we, the collective viewing public, have become nearly immune. The inevitable press conference, just the next piece of chum for the gnashing sharks of the 24-hour media outlets. It’s a sign of a man kicking himself for getting caught, eating a bit of crow publicly in order to retain a fundraising base and being accepted back into the fold of the establishment.

Our feelings about the crying politician confessing his cheating ways is now running parallel with the frequent tears of Majority Leader John Boehner, a man who wears his heart on his sleeve and isn’t bashful about sharing his emotions with his public. Many applaud Boehner for his passionate candor and willingness to share his most heartfelt feelings, and many find humor and an opportunity to mock Boehner’s crying.

The question that has been rolling around in my brain lately is this: If it were Nancy Pelosi tearing up over HCR or Hillary Clinton tearfully admitting to infidelity would we feel differently? How would we respond? Would our feelings about Pelosi or Clinton’s strength and feminism change? How? Why?

The remorseful male politician “weathers” the media storm of his infidelity. Some give into to the pressures of his party and seeks “treatment” or makes a quick and immediate retirement to return to “family.” Others go on to serve for years, even decades in public service and are highly respected and lauded for their service. Take Barney Frank’s hiring of a male prostitute to work in his office and home in the late 80’s, as example. A storm weathered, a politician still serving with the respect of his constituents and his colleagues. Would this be the case for a woman?

Taking politics as just one paradigm, the larger issue here, of course, is the notion of public displays of emotion, distress or sadness and how these reactions vary between the genders, how each gender is perceived and treated because of such displays. Would a woman in power – politics, business or otherwise – be rewarded or applauded for publicly tearing up or crying? I assert the answer is staunchly, no.

It is easy to point the finger at the age-old binary of gender issues – “men vs. women” etc. Easy, but wrong. This is, in many cases, less about men pointing a mocking finger at women for being “emotional” and more about women pointing an accusatory finger at each other. In the wake of the women-in-business boom of the 1980s and the rise and prosperity of Third Wave Feminism from the late-1980s to now, many women are less accepting of displays of emotion from their own and more desiring of  a “male” character of aggressive assertiveness and tough exterior. A crying woman is a weak link. The tough, savvy, career-gal the new poster child.

Tears are a weakness, a sign of a lack of strength, a character flaw. A woman who discusses her emotions publicly, who bares herself in a moment of tumult or fear is seen as an embarrassment. Why? What’s the difference between a woman openly sharing her feelings about an issue or an event and a man? Is one reaction less “real”? Less merit worthy? Why do applaud a man for being open about how he feels but minimize and peripheralize a woman for the same behavior? More importantly, why has it become commonplace for women to be the leading the charge against each other?

This question is one I take personally, very personally in fact. I have long considered myself a feminist, a flag-waving, march-leading, loud-mouth for the modern feminist movement. As part of that I embrace every woman’s desire to select her own path – be that boardroom or homestead – to conceal or flaunt her body as she sees fit, to embrace or disavow her sexuality, etc. This is the pinnacle of feminism: the purest expression of self. It is through this that I have drawn much strength as I have aged and experienced the new, the frightening, the unfamiliar, etc. Much of my personal strength and perseverance stems from my ardent belief that my voice is meaningful, powerful, and worthy. Which is why an event at the end of April was so disturbing to me and has led me to ponder the question of emotion in public at length.

An afternoon “joke” made by a friend on Twitter hit me the wrong way. I saw it as a flippant jab, he, obviously, did not. He thought my bristling was about, of all things, cupcakes. Whereas I knew it wasn’t about cupcakes but rather his seemingly immediate dismissal of any opinion divergent from his own. The argument played out mostly off the public discussion environment of Twitter, though some of it did. Many wanted to offer advice, step in to mediate, referee and assist in any way possible. But the situation still deteriorated.

The context of the initial argument quickly became unimportant, and soon the issue between us – on Twitter and off – was about deeply hurtful and demeaning language that he used towards me. I didn’t share this with my followers. I never resorted to calling him names, to encouraging others to talk about the event publicly or privately with me on Skype as he had. I chose, after two days of thinking and reflection, to leave Twitter, to take a breath and evaluate how I had responded to the situation.

Over the course of those two days a series of conversations occurred on Twitter, among women, calling me “emotional,” “irrational,” “a dog and pony show,” “a terrible display of bad behavior,” and the final straw was when I was accused of “making everything up.” Did these women know that the man in this argument had called me (among other things): a cunt, a bitch, a pathetic worm, delusional, “one flew over the cuckoos nest,” in need of mental help?

No. Of course not.

Would it have changed their minds about me? I don’t think so. The damage had been done. I had bared a emotional side of me that was expression of myself in the heat of an argument, in the midst of a deeply upsetting few days. My emotions were out there, there was no taking them back. I had demonstrated what many had seen as “poor behavior” and I was now no longer “strong.” No longer could I wear the mantle of being a tough, strong woman. No longer was my character held in esteem. Now I was nothing more than the pathetic woman who displayed her emotions in public and needed to be unfollowed and rebuked for it.

So often women feel the need to pander to the male element in society. To deny an aspect of themselves, to minimize that which is “feminine” in order to be seen as an equal. In doing so we think this makes us tougher, better women. We think this is feminism. So much of the impetus for Third Wave Feminism was a denial of the militant women’s organizations of the Second Wave, of the 1960s. A desire to prove that women can be strong, assertive, and self-aware without hating men. So we deny our emotions, we blur the lines between “male” and “female” in order to disguise the aspects of our character and psychology that we perceive to be inferior to the men we seek not to alienate.

But are we really better for it? Can we as women say that swallowing our opinions, our emotions in order to “fit in” to be “liked” has helped us? Do I feel better because I didn’t confront the women who publicly rebuked me for talking about my emotions, um, publicly? No, I don’t. But for me at the time it wasn’t worth it to discuss it with them. To talk to them about what happened in order to change their opinion of me would be value their opinion more than my own. I couldn’t do that to myself.

Taking a risk and sharing about of your emotional side with others is hard. It often takes more courage to share than to swallow those feels and maintain calm waters. It’s time that we all, women and men, realize that the height, the greatest achievement of feminism is the equalization of the sexes. It is seeing each other, tears and all, as equals. If we can pat John Boehner on the back for tearing up when he talks about his life and passion for legislating, than we can pat a woman on the back for publicly talking about her feelings too.

 

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Art 101: What is Performance Art?

Fourth post in my ongoing series, “Art 101.” This post focuses on the rise and lifespan of Performance Art. The other posts in the series can be found under the Art tab at the top of the page.

Performance Art

Cut Piece - Yoko Ono. First performed in Japan (1964) then in New York (Carnegie Hall, 1965). Performed for the last time in Paris (September 2003).

Performance art is a performance presented to an audience; either scripted or unscripted, random or carefully orchestrated; spontaneous or otherwise carefully planned with or without audience participation. The performance can be live or via media; the performer can be present or absent. It can be any situation that involves four basic elements: time, space, the performer’s body, or presence in a medium, and a relationship between performer and audience. Performance art can happen anywhere, in any venue or setting and for any length of time. The actions of an individual or a group at a particular place and in a particular time constitute the work.

Performance art is an essentially contested concept: any single definition of it implies the recognition of rival uses. As concepts like “democracy” or “art”, it implies productive disagreement with itself.

The meaning of the term in the narrower sense is related to postmodernist traditions in Western culture. From about the mid-1960s into the 1970s, often derived from concepts of visual art, with respect to Antonin Artaud, Dada, the Situationists, Fluxus, Installation art, and Conceptual Art, performance art tended to be defined as an antithesis to theatre, challenging orthodox artforms and cultural norms. The ideal had been an ephemeral and authentic experience for performer and audience in an event that could not be repeated, captured or purchased. The in this time widely discussed difference, how concepts of visual arts and concepts of performing arts are utilized, can determine the meanings of a performance art presentation (comparePerformance: A Critical Introduction by Marvin Carlson, P. 103,2-105,1).

Performance art is a term usually reserved to refer to a conceptual art which conveys a content-based meaning in a more drama-related sense, rather than being simple performance for its own sake for entertainment purposes. It largely refers to a performance which is presented to an audience, but which does not seek to present a conventional theatrical play or a formal linear narrative, or which alternately does not seek to depict a set of fictitious characters in formal scripted interactions. It therefore can include action or spoken word as a communication between the artist and audience, or even ignore expectations of an audience, rather than following a script written beforehand.

Trans-fixed - Chris Burden. Performance piece in which he is nailed to a Volkswagon. Performed in Venice, CA in 1974

Some kinds of performance art nevertheless can be close to performing arts. Such performance may utilize a script or create a fictitious dramatic setting, but still constitute performance art in that it does not seek to follow the usual dramatic norm of creating a fictitious setting with a linear script which follows conventional real-world dynamics; rather, it would intentionally seek to satirize or to transcend the usual real-world dynamics which are used in conventional theatrical plays.

Performance artists often challenge the audience to think in new and unconventional ways, break conventions of traditional arts, and break down conventional ideas about “what art is”. As long as the performer does not become a player who repeats a role, performance art can include satirical elements; utilize robots and machines as performers, as in pieces of the Survival Research Laboratories; or borrow elements of any performing arts such as dance, music, and circus.

Origins

Performance art activity is not confined to European or American art traditions; notable practitioners can be found in Asia and Latin America. Performance artists and theorists point to different traditions and histories, ranging from tribal to sporting and ritual or religious events.

There are accounts of Renaissance artists putting on public performances that could be said to be ancestors of performance art.

Western cultural theorists often trace performance art activity back to the beginning of the 20th century, to the Russian constructivists, Futurists and Dada. Dada provided a significant progenitor with the unconventional performances of poetry, often at the Cabaret Voltaire, by the likes of Richard Huelsenbeck and Tristan Tzara (see my discussion of Dada here). Russian Futurist artists could be identified as precursors of performance, such as David Burliuk, who painted his face for his actions (1910–20) and Alexander Rodchenko and his wife Varvara Stepanova.

According to the art critic Harold Rosenberg in the 1940s and 1950s Action Painting gave artists the freedom to perform – the canvas as “an arena in which to act,” thereby rendering the paintings as traces of the artist’s performance in his/her studio. Abstract Expressionism and Action Painting preceded the Fluxus movement, Happenings and the emergence of Performance Art.

Performance art was anticipated, if not explicitly formulated, by Japan’s Gutai group of the 1950s, especially in such works as Atsuko Tanaka’s “Electric Dress” (1956).

Conceptual work by Yves Klein at Rue Gentil-Bernard, Fontenay-Aux-Roses, October 1960. Photo by Harry Shunk.

Yves Klein had been a precursor of performance art with the conceptual pieces of Zone de Sensibilité Picturale Immatérielle (Zones of Immaterial Pictorial Sensibility) 1959–62, and works like the photomontage, Saut dans le vide (Leap into the Void). In the late 1960s Earth artists as diverse as Robert Smithson, Dennis Oppenheim, Michael Heizer and Carl Andre created environmental pieces that predict the performance art of the 1970s. Works of conceptual artists in the early 1980s, like Sol LeWitt, who converted mural-style drawing into an act of performance by others, were influenced by Yves Klein and the Earth artists as well.

1960s

In the 1960s a variety of new works, concepts and the increasing number of artists led to new kinds of performance art.

Prototypic for the later emerging artform “performance art” were works of artists like Yoko Ono with her “Wall piece for orchestra“ (1962); Carolee Schneemann with pieces like Meat Joy (1964); Joseph Beuys with How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare (1965); Yayoi Kusama, with actions such as a naked flag-burning on the Brooklyn Bridge (1968) and Allan Kaprow in his many Happenings.

Kaprow had coined the term Happening describing a new artform, at the beginning of the 1960s. A Happening allows the artist to experiment with body motion, recorded sounds, written and spoken texts, and even smells. One of Kaprow’s earliest was “Happenings in the New York Scene,” written in 1961 as the form was developing. Notably in the Happenings of Allan Kaprow, the audience members become performers. While the audiences in Happenings had been welcomed as the performers, it only sometimes and often unwittingly that they become an active part in a Performance. Other artists who created Happenings besides Kaprow include Jim Dine, Claes Oldenburg, Robert Whitman, and Wolf Vostell: Theater is in the Street (Paris, 1958).

Hermann Nitsch's Theatre of Orgies and Mysteries

Hermann Nitsch in 1962 presented his “Theatre of Orgies and Mysteries” (Orgien- und Mysterien Theater), a form close to the performing arts, and a precursor to performance art. Andy Warhol during the early 1960s began creating films and video. In the mid-60s Warhol sponsored the Velvet Underground and staged events and performances in New York, like the Exploding Plastic Inevitable (1966) that featured live Rock music, exploding lights, and film.

Indirectly influential for art-world performance, particularly in the United States, were new forms of theatre, embodied by the San Francisco Mime Troupe and the Living Theatre and showcased in Off-Off Broadway theaters in SoHo and at La MaMa in New York City. The Living Theatre chiefly toured in Europe between 1963 and 1968, and 1968 in the USA work of this period, Paradise Now was notorious for its audience participation and a scene in which actors recited a list of social taboos that included nudity, while disrobing.

The work of performance artists after 1968 often showed influences of the cultural and political events of that year. Barbara T. Smith with Ritual Meal (1969) was at the forefront of the feminist body art, and performance art of the 1970s; among others including: Carolee Schneemann, and Joan Jonas. Schneemann and Jonas along with Yoko Ono, Joseph Beuys, Vito Acconci, and Chris Burden pioneered the relationship between Body Art and Performance Art.

1970s

Artists whose work already before tended to be a performance art, as well as new artists, at the beginning of the 1970s began to present performance art in a stricter form.

New artists with radical performances were Chris Burden, with the 1971 performance piece Shoot, in which he was shot in his left arm by an assistant from a distance of about five meters, and Vito Acconci in the same year with Seedbed.

The book Expanded Cinema, by Gene Youngblood, marked a shift in the use of media by performance artists. The first book considering video art as an art form, mentions Jud Yalkut as a pioneering video artist. Since 1965 he had collaborated in dozens of intermedia performances throughout the United States, also with Nam June Paik, who beginning of the 1960s already had been a Fluxus performer on the way to become a media artist. As to the art of Paik, Youngblood refers to works of Carolee Schneemann and Robert Whitman from the 1960s, which had been pioneering for performance art, becoming an independent artform at the beginning of the 1970s.

The British-based pair Gilbert and George, already in 1970, had documented actions of themselves on video, and created their “living sculpture” performance, being painted in gold and singing “Underneath The Arches” for extended periods. Joan Jonas began to include video in her experimental performances in 1972.

Pages from Marina Abramović Rhythm 10

In 1973 Laurie Anderson performed Duets on Ice, on the streets of New York City. Marina Abramović, in the performance “Rhythm 10,” conceptually included the violation of her body.

Since 1973 the Feminist Studio Workshop at the Woman’s Building in Los Angeles had a formative impact on the wave of performances with feminist background.

Carolee Schneemann work in 1963, Eye Body, already had been a prototype of performance art. Schneemann in 1975 drew on with innovative solo performances, like Interior Scroll, showing the female body as an artistic medium.

Performance art, because of its relative transience, by the 1970s, had a fairly robust presence in the avant-garde of East Bloc countries, especially Yugoslavia and Poland.

1980s

Until the 1980s, performance art had been demystifying virtuosity. Now it began to embrace technical brilliance. In reference to Presence and Resistance by Philip Auslander, a performance art critic, Sally Banes writes:

“… by the end of the 1980s, performance art had become so widely known that it no longer needed to be defined; mass culture, especially television, had come to supply both structure and subject matter for much performance art; and several performance artists, including Laurie Anderson, Spalding Gray, Eric Bogosian,Willem Dafoe, and Ann Magnuson, had indeed become crossover artists in mainstream entertainment.”

Despite the fact that many performances are held within the circle of a small art-world group, RoseLee Goldberg notes, in Performance Art: From Futurism to the Present that:

“…performance has been a way of appealing directly to a large public, as well as shocking audiences into reassessing their own notions of art and its relation to culture. Conversely, public interest in the medium, especially in the 1980s, stems from an apparent desire of that public to gain access to the art world, to be a spectator of its ritual and its distinct community, and to be surprised by the unexpected, always unorthodox presentations that the artists devise.”

Art/Life: One Year Performance (aka Rope Piece) - Linda Montano and Tehching Hsieh

Among the performance art most discussed in the art-world of this decade were a performance by Linda Montano and Tehching Hsieh between July 1983 and July 1984, Art/Life: One Year Performance (Rope Piece), and Karen Finlay’s I’m an Ass Man 1987.

Until the decline of the European Eastern Bloc during the late 1980s, performance art by most communist governments had actively been rejected. With the exception of Poland and Yugoslavia, performance art was more or less banned in countries where any independent public event was feared. In the GDR, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Latvia it happened in apartments, at seemingly spontaneous gatherings in artist studios, in church-controlled settings, or covered as another activity, like a photo-shooting. Isolated of the western conceptual context, in different settings it could be like a playful protest or like a bitter comment, using subversive metaphors to express dissent with the political situation.

Hedwig Gorski before 1982 came up with the term performance poetry, to distinguish her text-based vocal performances from performance art, especially the work of performance artists, such as Laurie Anderson, who worked with music at that time. Performance poets relied more on the rhetorical and philosophical expression in their poetics than performance artists, who arose from the visual art genres of painting and sculpture.

1990s

While the Soviet bloc disintegrated, formerly repressed activities of performance artists like György Galántai in Hungary, or the Collective Action Group in Russia, became better known. Young artists from all over the former Eastern bloc, including Russia, turned to performance. Performance art at about the same time appeared in Cuba, the Caribbean and China. Chinese performance artists like Zhang Huan had been performing underground since the late 1980s. Beginning of the 1990s chinese performance art already was acclaimed in the international artscene.

“In these contexts performance art became a critical new voice with a social force similar to that found in Western Europe, the United States and South America in the 1960s and early 1970s. It should be emphasized that the eruption of performance art in the 1990s in Eastern Europe, China, South Africa, Cuba, and elsewhere should never be considered either secondary to or imitative of the West.” (Linda Montano, Performance Artists Talking in the Eighties, 479)

In the western world in the 1990s, even sophisticated performance art became part of the cultural mainstream: performance art as a complete artform gained admittance into art museums and became a museal topic.

2000s

Abramović sitting with "The Artist is Present" curator Klaus Biesenbach

From March 14 to May 31, 2010, the Museum of Modern Art held a major retrospective and performance recreation of Marina Abramović’s work, the biggest exhibition of performance art in MoMA’s history. During the run of the exhibition, Abramović performed “The Artist is Present,” a 736-hour and 30-minute static, silent piece, in which she sat immobile in the museum’s atrium, while spectators were invited to take turns sitting opposite her. A support group for the “sitters,” “Sitting with Marina,” was established on Facebook. The performance attracted celebrities such as Björk and James Franco and received coverage on the internet including an essay by NYC-author Tao Lin.

The Role of the Body in Performance Art

Through history, the figure has provided artists with both form and content. Human figures are challenging, versatile forms that can strike many poses and provide a multitude of contrasting, complex shapes and visual relationships. As content, human figures have served to express deeply cherished cultural values, including beliefs about religion, politics, and personal and social identity. Sometimes but not always in art history, the figure has also been used to represent ideas about the body as a corporeal entity, for instance, ideas about sexuality and morality.

(Parasite) performed by Stellarc at the Ars Electronica Festival, 1997

Figurative art has had a tumultuous history in the West since WWII. The most critically acclaimed new art of the 1950s was nonobjective. At the same time, much attention was given to artists’ gestures and creative process; think of the well-known photographs of Jackson Pollock making his drip paintings. Artists’ self-consciousness about their own physical actions and creative process helped open the ay to the various live-art forms – the performance art that flourished in the 1960s and 1970s, such as Happenings, Fluxus, Actions, and Body Art. Body Art, a subset of performance art consisting of art made on or with the human body – where artist’s body literally serves as the medium – has an obvious connection to themes of the body. There have been forms of body art in many times and places, such as tattoos, body piercing, and scarification. Body art as a movement in contemporary art includes works ranging from self-mutilation (think of Yoko Ono’s now canonical Cut Piece, or Marina Abramović’s Rhythm 0) to feats of bodily endurance (Stellarc, for example) to more benign demonstrations of the artist’s body as a form in space.

Why have so many contemporary artists focused on the body? In some cases, this focus is a result of an activist stance toward art making, in which the personal becomes the political. In an essay analyzing the formation of the feminist art in movement in the US, artist Suzanne Lacy provides a list of key ideas that helped propel the work that feminist artists were making in the 1970s and into the 1980s. Among these ideas, she noted that the body became a primary site for works of art. Lacy explained:

“Not only was the body a site, it was an important source of information. Much of women’s social status was seen as based in the body, so issues like violence, birthing, sexuality and beauty were frequent subjects.”

Lateral Suspension - Stellarc, 1976

In other cases, artists using the body have made as aggressive decision to blur the boundaries between art and life. Linda Montano, discussing a work of performance art in which she was tied by rope to the artist Tehching Hsieh for one continuous year (1983-84), explained the consequences of viewing all their bodily actions as forms of art:

“… because I believe that everything we do is art – fighting, eating, sleeping – then even the negatives are raised to the dignity of art.”

But there is more about the body than the role of gender or politics. The sexualized body and sexuality, the gaze, sex and violence, mortal bodies, and posthuman bodies have all become central topics of Performance Art, of Body Art.

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