This oppositional model of self and other, posed through a model based on the visibility of gender, sexual, racial and/or ethnic identity, deeply informed post- 1960s identity politics as they came to be formulated in European and North American culture, and it cannot be underestimated the degree to which these politics were profoundly, and structurally, binary in their logic. The complementary models developed by Berger and Mulvey of the gaze as empowered with that in its purview as passive, objectified, fetishized, are no exception. However, due to the explanatory force of Berger’s and Mulvey’s ideas, particularly Mulvey’s, these arguments became hegemonic in feminist art discourse by 1980, discourse that (via Mulvey’s theory) centered on a model of a unidirectional male gaze that feminists must aim to thwart or reverse in some way.

As Griselda Pollock argued in her influential 1988 essay “Screening the Seventies: Sexuality and Representation in Feminist Practice, a Brechtian Perspective”:

In place of the utopian claims for personal expression and universal understanding by means of the power of the material or medium of art forms typical of modernist theory, feminist materialism recognizes a textual politics–an interrogation of representation as a social site of ideological activity….. [Brechtian distanciation] is not a style or aesthetic gambit but an erosion of the dominant structures of cultural consumption which… are classically fetishistic.18

While these strategies pivoting around fetishism (the crux of Mulvey’s arguments) were not the only ones in play in feminist art and theory from the 1970s and 1980s, they were dominant, particularly in New York and London. And for Pollock and other feminists drawing on theories of fetishism to propose a feminist practice that thwarted its conventional structures of objectification, the work of Mary Kelly–an American working in London for most of the 1970s and 1980s–was exemplary. Deeply informed by Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis, as well as Marxist theory, Kelly’s work, as Pollock argues, exemplifies the mandate for feminist critical practice in the visual arts to “resist… specularity [i.e., the visual pleasure afforded to the male gaze] especially when the visible object par excellence is the image of woman.” As Pollock continues in a prescriptive vein, feminist art “has to create an entirely new kind of spectator as part and parcel of its representational strategies,” something Kelly’s 1979 Post-Partum Document and the 1991 project Interim fulfill in an exemplary way, according to Pollock.19By continuing to pivot around the model of fetishism and the feminist critique of the male gaze, Pollock’s model of feminist critical practice, as well as Kelly’s work, provided a crucial and influential theory of feminist art–but one that continues to work within a binary logic of gender difference established by Beauvoir around 1950.

Valie Export, Tapp und Tastkino, (Tap and Touch Cinema) 1968.

Valie Export, Tapp und Tastkino, (Tap and Touch Cinema) 1968. Gelatin silver print; 78 x 87 cm. Edition: 1/5. Courtesy of the artist and Charim Galerie.

However, other artists deployed the female body in live settings to pervert or refuse a simple binary even as early as the 1960s. Working with and in relation to the female body, artists such as Valie Export and Yoko Ono deliberately exaggerated the binary, effectively exploding its rigid logic–such as in Valie Export’s two major projects from the late 1960s, Tap and Touch Cinema (1968) and Genital Panic (1969). Tap and Touch Cinema actualized the physical “touch” implied as the desired goal of the male gaze, thereby collapsing the distance between the gazer and the gazed at. This collapse of distance became highly threatening, because fetishization takes its power as a structure of objectification from precisely this distance. Not only does Export gaze right back at the ogling and fondling male participant; he is also “looked at” by the crowd around him and thus himself becomes an object of the gaze, which is made public rather than (per the structures of fetishism) private and so erotically charged.

Export’s Genital Panic makes the effects on women of the violence of the male gaze even more explicit, with Export famously exposing the exact endpoint of an objectifying gaze, the cunt, while sporting a threatening gun and frighteningly excessive head of hair. This, of course, is another means of defeating the logic of the male gaze, which (again) relies on the invisibility of the supposed goal of its trajectory of power: the very cunt that (per Freud’s theory of fetishism) is argued to be a “lack” rather than a moist and fleshy “presence.” As a visible mound of flesh, the cunt as it were looks back at the gazer, completely perverting the logic of fetishism.20

Footnotes

  1. Griselda Pollock, “Screening the seventies; sexuality and representation in feminist practice–a Brechtian perspective,” Vision and Difference: Femininity, Feminism and the Histories of Art (New York and London: Routledge, 1988), pp. 160-61, 163; reprinted in Jones, ed. Feminism and Visual Culture Reader, pp. 76-93.
  2. Ibid., p. 181.
  3. Eve Fowler’s reworking of Export’s piece, documented in the 2005 photograph Untitled, signals some of the dangers of adopting strategies of performative body display from 35 years ago and placing them in today’s context of reality television and globalized information culture. Fowler co-organized the show Shared Women, at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions as a parallel event to WACK! See Helen Molesworth, “Worlds Apart,” Artforum (May 2007), p. 101.
Further Reading