Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Girl Trouble

Feminist Anecdotes from Some Guy
a story about thinking about feminism one day a while ago
by Lonely Christopher

[Editor’s Note: This essay was unearthed from the blog’s unpublished archive, so is a little less than timely, but perhaps thematically pertinent…]

I couldn’t get any of my girlfriends to come with me to the feminism panel; I went alone to the feminism panel. Today I lost the sheet with all the info on it in my room. I looked but only found overdue electricity bills. The panel was moderated, I remember, by the curator of the feminist wing at the Brooklyn Museum. Her name is Catherine Morris and the full name of the feminist wing at the Brooklyn Museum is the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art. I have seen, I think, everything that has come through the center since it opened. I reacted impatiently to most of the material currently up in the video art exhibit [Reflections on the Electric Mirror: New Feminist Video ran from 1 May 09 to 10 January 10 --- Ed.] . I use being a disinterested male as an excuse to avoid intellectualizing the very idea of the feminist center, its implications and influences. My default opinion is, half-seriously, that the Brooklyn Museum is desperate to be relevant and opening a major feminist wing is a sort of cynical and trendy move. Also, I think it’s a positive idea. The space dedicated to the feminist wing would have otherwise been dedicated to a bunch of white guys, which is the group that makes most of our art. The taxonomical straightjacket implicit in the feminist wing designation must be problematic on some level, and all that “now now now” video art further argues the sardonic intentions of a feminist art ghetto --- but stop squinting, take off the snide white male glasses, and the project looks liberatory again.

There were, I remember, probably seven women on the feminism panel; the room, which was in a Chelsea gallery (P.P.O.W.), was packed. Some of the audience drank all the vodka in a few minutes and left presently. The crowd remained standing room. I feel very delicate around feminism because I am a privileged member of the patriarchy, sort of. Anyway, I’m not female. I don’t really care to list the names of the individual panelists, because it doesn’t suit my brief purposes here, but am scared you’ll think I’m trying to suppress the identity and/or agency of each by forcing upon them anonymity. Okay, the only superlative panelist was Dotty Attie, there. Her art was featured prominently. Two of the panelists were older (the other, Martha Wilson, there) and the rest were much younger. Most of the panelists were artists except for one art historian. Dotty Attie and Martha Wilson talked intelligently, for example, about the different groups of artists and political activists that identified as feminist in, I guess, the 70’s. I think, unless misremembering, Martha Wilson was the first to say post-feminism is a bullshit concept. I think she blamed it on the patriarchy in half-jest. There wasn’t too much talk about the canonized periods of feminism, the waves, even though this progression of eras (each with a broadly definable character) provides the logic for the invention of post-feminism as a historical marker. Neither older panelist cared to define feminism in a totalized way, but the ambiguity didn’t seem to bother them artistically or intellectually, and they knew for certain feminism, in its many shapes, was not today “post” itself. The younger panelists, who I finally decided to ignore, seemed less prepared to be there. One woman didn’t know the name of the panel and another had never heard the term post-feminism before she was invited to the panel. I can’t provide a comprehensive review of the panel because I walked away out of frustration and boredom. I wandered into the other room where the vodka used to be.

I read an article in the New Yorker about feminism on the subway on my way to this panel. I guess I lost that issue somewhere on the street later, it’s not in my bag, but it was one of those New Yorker articles that feels as if it could almost fit in Time magazine. Ariel Levy asks “Why is feminism still so divisive?” which feels at this point like a rhetorical question, or at least not answerable. I guess my answer would be “Because it’s feminism.” Fortunately nobody asks me. Anyway, Levy makes some points about how much feminism changed the paradigm that today won’t acknowledge it, glosses over a whole lot, and ends on lamenting how we never worked anything out about affordable child care. She establishes identity and ideology as opposing engines behind different feminisms. Her worst-case scenario is “feminism without feminists,” which is a “simple insistence on representation.” At the end of the panel, when I wandered back to the audience, the crowd was sort of taking over the Q & A session and mostly sounding like overexcited undergrads in a seminar. They were chiming in rather than querying the panel (never a good choice). One audience member stood up and claimed that feminism isn’t over until the media stops perpetuating unreasonable standards of beauty. I think she was a photographer and she spoke of resisting touching up her portraits because she wanted to represent the “reality” of her subject’s appearance, while feeling a simultaneous urge to alter the image in the interest of formal aesthetics. The commercial manipulation of social values cannot be scoffed away because it is indeed an invidious force working through images. However, the only unproblematic part of her statement was the implication that feminism will never be over. It’s not an endless war because it’s not a war and some endless concepts are good. Now, the politics of aesthetics is a monolithic subject. I thought this chimer-in sounded rather daft, though, as if she wanted to do what was correct more than she had a responsibility to create artwork. Now, morality and art is something I’ll also avoid out of largeness. Anyway, photography is as subjective as anything else: it doesn’t reveal empirical truths any more or less than painting. Truth is a foundation of sand; there I said it.

Earlier in the day I ran into a prof I briefly studied feminism under. I told her about the panel, which was titled “Post-Feminism: Do We Need to Go There?” She guffawed and said, “I thought we already went there and came back.” We talked about the remaining importance of a praxis-based feminist ideology. I know nothing about that side of it --- I keep on theory’s turf out of habit and timidity. Anyway, the male relationship to feminism is a prickly subject. There were about five males there for the panel. One of them had his hand raised to speak at the end and somebody called out from the back that we should hear from the man. He was more tactless and awkward than I feared when he opened his mouth. He said something along the lines of feminism is complicated and we shouldn’t start thinking about post-feminism because “feminism hasn’t fully blossomed yet.” He really said that. At least he didn’t stay quiet because he was nervous about being a jerk, but consequently he was a much larger jerk. Poor guy. After the panel let out I lingered in the other room, next to a male friend, and a random girl came up to us and asked what, as male feminists, we thought about the event. I said I don’t understand the following conflict: is a female implicitly a feminist? Definitional arguments seem to charge feminism more than any other comparable value system (even queer studies, which takes ambiguity in stride). I am not troubled by whether I really am or am not a postmodernist just because I live in late capitalism. Feminism should operate less as a club (I am a feminist, biracial performance artist) and more as a discourse (how do we negotiate as sociopolitical agents ideologically practicing feminism?). So saith the white male blog editor.

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