As part of this year’s College Art Association conference in New York, the Museum of Arts and Design hosted the Feminist Art Project (Rutgers University) on February 14 for a series of panels entitled Collective Creativity: Collaboration and Collectives in Feminist Art Practice.
The event helped me get out of a funk I’d been in since I read Ashton Cooper’s “The Problem of the Overlooked Female Artist: An Argument for Enlivening a Stale Model of Discussion” the previous month. He critiques the art world—namely the publishing industry and the gallery system—for perpetuating the safe, tired, and harmful notion of the female artist who is “‘overlooked,’ ‘forgotten,’ and/or ‘rediscovered’” (¶2). I grappled with advice like his encouragement to consider a woman’s productivity in “the period where she was toiling away in obscurity” (¶26) because that would necessarily mean labeling her as obscure. Every time I risked reinforcing these tropes in the modern art class I teach, I felt like a deer in headlights. Although I touch on systemic art world biases in lectures, these tangents can’t take over the class, and to make these tangents, I need to be able to address the problem before addressing the source of the problem.
Cooper’s overall advice was echoed by one of the panelists, but in a way that felt more like a challenge than a reprimand, which helped me to reconcile this situation. In one of my personal highlights from the TFAP panels, poet Dawn Lundy Martin opted to share her presentation in an unconventional format, by playing a recording from her phone into the microphone of her ruminations while commuting on the Long Island Expressway. In this “elliptical utterance,” which she described as being “like standing alongside myself,” she asked, “How do you tell stories that need to be told that don’t deepen the groove of the already told?” One of her closing thoughts, after putting her phone aside and confirming that she was “no longer split,” was, “The desire for narrative is a false narrative.” Admittedly, I want to provide a neat and tidy story that is easy for students to digest, contemplate, remember, and challenge. Maybe, though, I should take the advice of panelist Sheila Pepe, an artist who observed (in reference to communities of otherness) that chaos and messiness are “very tolerable.”
There are many ways of expressing “resistance to a singularity,” as Lundy put it: counternarrative (A.L. Steiner, Ridykelous), monologue versus polylogue (Dr. Maura Reilly, University of Sydney), and monologue versus dialogue (Sydette Harry, Body Ecology Performance Ensemble) come to mind. Tactics range from avoiding censorship (as in the reader surveys for M/E/A/N/I/N/G, published from 1986 to 1996) to collaborating. Musician Salome Chasnoff describes collaboration as the “purposeful projection of the self into the other” and an “attempt to absorb each other…we’re trying to merge and it’s impossible.” There’s possibility in the impossible.
Jorge Daniel Veneciano, (El Museo del Barrio) believes that feminism “is not even an optional concept” and Lauren Denitzio notes, “It’s not enough to merely call oneself a feminist.” But what, asked artist Kara Rooney, does it mean to be a 4th Wave feminist (or a progressive 2nd or 3rd Wave feminist, as the case may be)? If feminism is a “critique of power,” as defined by both Mira Schor (Parsons, The New School) and artist A.K. Burns, then it must consider multiple power dynamics. Based on the discussions throughout the day, being a feminist in the arts means embracing a pluralistic definition of feminism that accounts for cultural producers in diverse places, of multiple races and cultural backgrounds, of all genders, and with various sexual orientations. This definition lacks the panache of Martin’s poetry, hardly rolling off the tongue, but maybe that’s a sign of getting out of the groove.