To Cassandra Coblentz:
Thank you for your thoughtful letter engaging my work. I appreciate your arguments, your spirited defense of Cohen, clearly an artist whose work is worth thinking about seriously, and particularly your amplification of Cohen’s own “identifications.” These details about Cohen’s ethnic and class background, while not evident in the work (and not mentioned in any of the sources I read on it), certainly broaden one’s understanding of the BODYWORK project, although I don’t think they change the way it is functioning: whatever her “positionality,” as she claims or imagines it, she still looks like a thin young white female posing in a car ad.
Unfortunately, then, the way the work signifies for me is more superficial than the complexities your note would suggest—that’s exactly the problem I’m having with the project. As I note in my essay, BODYWORK is conceptually interesting, if one makes an effort to research what is going on with it. But the photographs are trying to have it both ways: as pin-ups, they “sell” a certain image; as proclaimed components of a larger “conceptual” project they want us to take their complexity and political and intellectual aspirations seriously. These two aims are, for me (and I note in the essay my particular generational positioning as conditioning my interpretation), at odds.
As the self-imaging photographs of artists such as Renée Cox, Laura Aguilar, and Cathie Opie make clear, and as I’m sure Cohen is well aware, if her body didn’t have the appearance of an “ideal” (thin, white, young) female body the project wouldn’t work in the way it claims to work—as a radical juxtaposition of the “bikini model/car customizer” (from the description of her work on her webpages at www.pushthebuttonplay.com). For me, for the work to have what I would call feminist critical power, it would need to function less disingenuously—and it would need to function on a first glance, and for non-specialists as well as art historians and art critics, as more than just a pin-up.
Professor and Pilkington Chair
Art History and Visual Studies
University of Manchester