It is notable that, with a few exceptions, neither live art in which the body was exposed, nor representational cunt art (exemplified by Chicago’s Peeling Back), were taken up as strategies by women of color in the United States or Europe. Lorraine O’Grady, an African American artist and writer, has explored this issue in her important essay “Olympia’s Maid,” where she notes that the body of the Black woman is “always already colonized…raped, maimed, murdered” or erased from consciousness, while still, like the Black maid in Manet’s 1863 painting Olympia, functioning in the visual field to throw the white woman’s body in relief such that “only the white body remains as the object of a voyeuristic, fetishizing male gaze.”21
Exceptions to this tendency were the works of two Japanese artists in New York, Yoko Ono, with her groundbreaking mid-1960s Cut Piece, in which she encouraged the audience members to cut off her clothing and to expose her body to view, and Yayoi Kusama, who performed her body in urban space (particularly in New York City in the late 1960s) as a way of gaining visibility for herself as a woman artist but also flaunting herself as a body worth looking at, thereby gaining attention for her visual art work. Kusama produced a body that was ambiguous in terms of its feminism–a very early example of the kind of brazen, self-sexualized body that came to be identified in the 1990s with “post-feminism.”
This points once again to a troubling myopia within feminist art debates and practice in the 1970s through the 1990s: it was largely the white woman’s body that was at issue in critiques of fetishism in the 1970s. There were of course exceptions, such as O’Grady in both her writing and art practice, Adrian Piper, whose work was noted above, and Ana Mendieta, an artist born in Cuba and brought to the U.S.A. as a child. Mendieta’s practice deployed her own body, effectively exposing the confluence of racial and sexual fetishism–as in her important Siluetaworks from the 1970s, which either literally (through the presence of her body) or figuratively enact the female body as a mark or wound on and in the earth via rituals touching on the syncretic traditions of Santeria to which she was exposed as a child.
The live or otherwise performative body, I am suggesting, is the point around which gender-critique in the visual arts has been articulated since the 1960s. Hannah Wilke, Gina Pane, and Jo Spence, for example, performed their bodies in order to explore a wounded and ill femininity–enacting the seemingly inexorable link between the female body and suffering. Wilke and Pane confronted viewers with live acts that ruptured their flesh symbolically (Wilke) or literally (Pane) while Spence, as if anticipating Wilke’s later self-imaging while in the throes of cancer treatments, performed her scarred body after a mastectomy for a series of photographic images, pointing to a mode of performative photographic self-imaging that came to be well known in the 1980s through the work of Cindy Sherman in the U.S.A.
But others also took up the camera as a means of staging their bodies to exaggerate and/or confuse cultural codes of gender and sexuality–such as Urs Luethi and Manon in Switzerland. While Cindy Sherman always appears as a masquerade of femininity, in Luethi’s and Manon’s work there is no binary gender category one can deploy to make sense of these complex characters–they are transexualized characters, with no securely gendered body as referent to pin down where they fall in the binary male/female (Manon, who is a woman, for example, often seems in her recent work to be playing a man in drag). This mode of performative self-imaging became common in the 1980s and following. Thus, artists from Yasumasa Morimura (who has performed himself as queerly feminine in a number of works spoofing art history in the 1980s), to Del Lagrace Volcano, a self proclaimed “gender variant visual artist” who documents his own and others’ cross-gendered self performances, Mariko Mori, and Renee Cox articulate bodies that are not only gendered (or cross- or trans-gendered) but simultaneously aggressively raced, classed, and otherwise identified.
Paradoxically through its extraordinarily powerful impact on the artworld, feminism thus became increasingly contested and attenuated around 1990. By expanding, crucially, on what feminism could be politically–with the rise of debates about its myopia in terms of addressing class, race, and other identifications as well as broad issues of globalization–debates surrounding feminist art either diffused into more general discussions about identity, on the one hand, or, on the other, degenerated into dismissive or flippant journalistic claims that feminism had run its course, as signaled by the common use of the term post-feminism. Artists in the 1990s, such as Sue Williams and Tracey Emin, were labeled post-feminists; they took their cue from earlier feminists such as Kusama (though, sadly, much of Kusama’s work had been long lost to view) and from a rising celebrity culture of sexualized yet seemingly powerful women performers such as Madonna to produce angry, explicitly self-sexualized narratives–often conflating abjection and power as equally at issue in the complexities of women’s sexual identities and experiences. The way in which such strategies dovetailed with the inexorable forces of capital was made clear by the late 1990s and following with the rise of reality television and almost parodic versions of the Madonna-esque femininity among completely vacuous celebrities–from Posh Spice to Paris Hilton–with no talent or apparent cultural power other than the attraction they could hold by flaunting their bodies to the media.
- O’Grady,”Olympia’s Maid: Reclaiming Black Female Subjectivity,” Feminism and Visual Culture Reader, ed. Jones, pp. 176, 175.↵