Book review—Gendered: Art and Feminist Theory
Gendered: Art and Feminist Theory, Tal Dekel, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2013, 205 p., ill., ISBN 9781443842198
Gendered: Art and Feminist Theory (http://www.c-s-p.org/flyers/Gendered–Art-and-Feminist-Theory1-4438-4219-2.htm) by Tal Dekel could be considered three books in one with its focus divided between 1970s American feminist art; contemporary Israeli feminist art; and Post-Partum Document (http://www.marykellyartist.com/post_partum_document.html) (1973-1979), an installation by then London-based US artist, Mary Kelly. The structure could be chocked up to the fact that the book is an outgrowth of the author’s dissertation (at Tel Aviv University, where she currently lectures).
Feminist art was one Wave behind the women’s liberation movement, which is to say that it only emerged during the Second Wave. As art critic Lucy Lippard observed, no self-aware woman wanted to be reduced to her body parts, and this attitude formed the basis of early feminist art in the US. Dekel feels this era needs more scholarly attention, because the 1970s feminist artists were thrown under the proverbial bus by artists and critics in the next two decades. Its detractors found the art of American feminists woefully narcissistic and unsophisticated for its exclusion of queer, racial, postcolonial, etc. politics. Dekel argues that many aspects of the first generation of American feminist art were postmodern and only became appreciated once they were articulated in literature.
She distills a complex and prolific period into nine categories, which would be a valuable excerpt for a course on gender and art. None of the following are meant to be mutually exclusive: performance art; representations of the female body; cunt art; video art; great goddess art; pattern and decoration art; collaborative community art; lesbian art; and protest art, which is subcategorized into resistance against pornography, racism, military/violence, and class oppression.
Dekel then delves into a detailed analysis of Mary Kelly’s Post-Partum Document. From verbal development to weight gain, what today’s mother would capture in an ‘app.’ Kelly painstakingly tracked in charts, alongside rhetorical questions like, “Why don’t I understand?” and reflections on Dr. Spock and psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. Kelly also explored the fetishistic side of mothering by displaying relics from the first six years of her son’s life—ranging from diaper liners to biological specimens he collected—but not, as Dekel notes, the more obvious choices like his first pair of shoes. Dekel sees Kelly as having challenged society’s perception of child development by exposing the mother’s experience, a point of view that was ignored by the (male) Establishment. She argues that between the Establishment and anti-family radical feminism, Kelly was caught between a rock and a hard place as an artist-mother, an identity hidden by many. Dekel briefly outlines the reasons for mothering being an uncommon subject in art, but readers wishing to know more may want to check out Reconciling Art and Mothering, a collection of essays published last fall by Ashgate.
Mary Kelly is presented as a unique case, as an American who addressed bodily issues like breastfeeding without using—and arguably exploiting—her own body in her work. To Dekel, this captures the dichotomy between early feminist art in the US and Europe (where Kelly was based when she produced the series). However, unless I missed any examples, the only European contemporaries of Kelly she describes hardly shied away from using their bodies: Catherine Elwes bled in a white box during her period as a performance, Cosey Fanni Tutti posed pseudo-pornographically in photos, and Marina Abramović so frequently performs without clothing that when critic Jerry Saltz saw her take off her belt and shoes during Jay-Z’s musical performance at Pace Gallery (New York) on July 10, he thought, “Oh God! She’s going to get naked again.” (1)
Kelly’s lasting influence is seen in works like Israeli artist Sheffy Bleier’s What Remains (http://www.sheffybleier.com/whatremain.aspx) (1997), featuring parental notations and personal objects from her young son. The afterword focuses on contemporary Israeli art produced by feminists, which didn’t emerge until the 1990s and when it did, it constituted a ‘quantum leap.’ While some themes from 1970s American feminism are less apparent (goddesses, for instance), others like lesbianism and militarism continue to be relevant in the Israeli art scene.
This book will appeal to the average Joe and the interdisciplinary academic, given that social change and comprehensible critical theory frame artistic developments. An index, bibliography, and endnotes are included. Images are all in black and white, which is a shame: it would be preferable to see the fleshy hues of Judy Chicago’s vulvic ceramics in The Dinner Party (http://www.judychicago.com/gallery.php?name=The+Dinner+Party+Gallery) (1974-1979); the unmuted sexual rawness of Ariela Shavid’s post-mastectomy self-portrait as a swimsuit model (Calendar series, 1996); and in Betye Saar’s The Liberation of Aunt Jemima (http://www.brooklynmuseum.org/eascfa/feminist_art_base/gallery/BetyeSaar.php) (1972), to read the black fist as symbolically black rather than appearing as merely high contrast.
(1) Source: Saltz, Jerry. “‘Picasso Baby’ Live: Jerry Saltz Goes Face-to-Face With Jay-Z.” Vulture, 11 July, 2013, http://www.vulture.com/2013/07/jerry-saltz-face-to-face-with-jay-z.html