I hesitate to post this because it is so personal and because of the potential responses, but, I have been thinking about it for a while now. Between Trump’s popularity and history of aggressively misogynistic and sexual comments towards women, because it’s almost summer and the catcallers will soon reclaim their positions on Brooklyn’s stoops, because of conversations with friends, and because of articles I’ve been reading, I thought it was time. Lately, there has been a welcome noise on the front of women’s rights and sexual consent and we all must raise our voices to make change. More than half of my friends have been raped or sexually assaulted and that is not only disturbing, but it is also unacceptable. I did not know this about many of my friends until I chose to share my own story; it was only then that so many shared theirs is an act of solidarity, understanding, and empathy. Women across the country and the world are sexually harassed daily and it does not stop there. For six years – from the year I hit puberty to the year I graduated high school – I was sexually harassed by a boy I thought was my friend and it culminated into a moment of sexual assault where he took advantage of an emotionally vulnerable state to push me to do something that I did not want to do. Six years where “no” meant nothing and I didn’t know how to handle it or make how to make it stop. The first time anything happened was in class and I told the teacher, asked to move, and was told to stop tattling. Being the teacher’s pet, overachiever type that I was, I immediately was ashamed of myself and never spoke of it for the next six years, except to one very close friend towards the very end. It wasn’t until my senior year of high school that a teacher even noticed and he immediately separated us and kept him away from me. I tried saying no, I tried hitting him, I tried laughing it off, I tried ignoring him, but in a small town and a smaller high school where we shared a close-knit friend group, avoidance was impossible, especially since I didn’t fully grasp what was happening. It was never extreme enough to be clear to me that it was harassment and assault and not just me being a prude or awkward. It was slow, but it was steady, and it left its mark. It took me three more years after I graduated and cut off all communication with him to even call it sexual harassment and assault. It took three years to admit how much it had affected me, and how it continues to affect me today in my reactions and relationships. For years I hated myself, for years I believed that no one else would want me, but I finally learned to love myself and I even learned to forgive, though never to condone. Someday, I want to run a non-profit art space where I can exhibit art as the social and political discourse that I believe it to be. To not only teach about art, but also about society, academics, history, and all of the subjects and grey areas that art touches upon. I most definitely want to put on a show about the battles of sexuality and consent and how they continue to rage, all too often silently. Consider this a small, online, curated show to someday be brought to an art space near you.
I want to start this “exhibition” with a quote: “A woman must continually watch herself. She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself. Whilst she is walking across a room or whilst she is weeping at the death of her father, she can scarcely avoid envisaging herself walking or weeping. From earliest childhood she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually. And so she comes to consider the surveyor and the surveyed within her as the two constituent yet always distinct elements of her identity as a woman. She has to survey everything she is and everything she does because how she appears to men is of crucial importance for what is normally thought of as the success of her life. Her own sense of being in herself is supplanted by a sense of being appreciated as herself by another…. One might simplify this by saying: men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object — and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.” (John Berger, Ways of Seeing)
John Berger is a well-known art historian and his texts, though often dating to the mid-20th Century, remain relevant today. This passage speaks of woman as spectacle, as an object to be seen which, in the history of art and society in general has been woman’s condition for the past several hundred years. Walk through any museum and you will see the walls peppered with portraits, history paintings, and studies of women. They are nude, they are pursued, and they are watched. This is not to say that these works are not beautiful and important, because they are. In fact, my current favorite work of art is a nude woman, Rembrandt’s Bathsheba at her Bath. But one of the reasons I love it so much is because of how thoughtful and sad she looks. Many painters who had portrayed this subject depicted Bathsheba as a fickle and vain woman, primping for a romantic meeting with King David. What they leave out about the story, though, is that she was blackmailed by David and met with him to save her husband’s life. Why should she be happy? The issue that I have with the prominent display of these works is the lack of context and the lack of conversation. They are set on the wall and they are sanctified because they are old and were painted by the masters. That can no longer be enough. We must use these works to talk about the history of women in both art and society and the frightening lack of change women have received within the male gaze. This issue cannot be left off the white wall of the museum and ignored as if it no longer exists. There has been great improvement but most definitely not enough. So, below, I have compiled a list of women who have thrown off Berger’s history of watching and being watched. Women who no longer accept the adage that “Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.” Erica Jong once wrote: “Women are the only exploited group in history to have been idealized into powerlessness.” These artists have not stopped at watching but are speaking out and creating their own images that resonate with defiance.
Hannah Price – City of Brotherly Love
Philadelphia-based photographer Hannah Price has recently received media attention for her series City of Brotherly Love. In particular, I recommend reading NPR’s and Buzzfeed’s articles. Price began the series when she moved to Philadelphia and experienced the barrage of catcalling that occurs in most major cities across both the US and the world. Struck by the overly familiar and aggressively suggestive comments made at her by strangers, she stopped and engaged by taking a photograph. She spoke with some of her subjects and discussed the situation and reason for the pictures, but with others she only took passing snap shots. Adding a touch of humanity and permanence to a dehumanizing and transient ritual that most city-dwelling women are all too familiar with, this portrait series identifies the street harassers and calls them out by calling attention to the humanity of both the harassers and the victims. This is a creative reaction to a complicated situation that most often can only be ignored and dealt with by the victims for reasons of personal safety.
Tatyana Fazlalizadeh – Stop Telling Women to Smile
Tatyana Fazlalizadeh is a Brooklyn-based artist who has also created a portrait series called Stop Telling Women to Smile, but instead of taking photographs of street harassers, she is documenting the reactions of the women being victimized. Using a medium that is ubiquitous to the urban landscape of New York City, Fazlalizadeh posts signage across city walls in graffiti-style murals that mimic the posting of bills, notices, and spam across the grey public/private boundaries of the city. The creation of these signs is a personalized process that not only speaks to the voice of the artist but also that of her subjects. She begins by interviewing the women of the city that she will be pasting and as they speak about their experiences she sketches a portrait. She then finalizes the portrait and chooses a quote from the interview, which she then combines with the image and blows up into larger than life murals that she, along with volunteers, posts across the city. Fazlalizadeh has pasted across New York as well as Mexico City and her works confront the street harassers, forcing them to view the women as individuals. The images linger in everyday life and transcend the momentary nature of a catcall. Instead of being something to be watched, these images of women demand to be heard and they force this demand in a very public way. The website encourages interaction, making this more than just an art series but also a social call to arms and awareness.
Betty Tompkins – WOMEN: Words, Phrases, and Stories
Following the vein of verbal harassment leveled against women, the FLAG Art Foundation held an exhibition of Betty Tompkins’ recent paintings from the series WOMEN: Words, Phrases, and Stories in early 2016. Hyperallergic wrote a great review of the exhibition that is worth reading. Tompkins is probably best known for her NSFW porn paintings that focus on the “money shot” of pornographic videos and stills. However, this now largely linguistic exhibition is also much more interactive than her previous work. She began the exhibition by sending out an email to interested parties through social media requesting submissions of words used against women (both derogative and affectionate). She then painted these words onto canvases that were displayed throughout the exhibition and which held a semi-permanent, and thus contemplative, status especially when paired with the performance on opening night where visitors were asked to read the words aloud, interpreting them through their own experiences and personalities. The images, like many of the words, are not pretty and this exhibition so thoroughly sums up the oxymoronic experience of many women where we are asked to be all or nothing: pure but sexy, beautiful but modest, dumb but interesting…a confounding combination of worship and hatred.
Theses three, above-listed, contemporary works speak not only to the day-to-day prevalence of verbal harassment by strangers at women, but also adamantly demand interaction and a performance by both the artist and the viewer. The following grouped works are a little bit older and speak to the history of art touching upon the subject of the sexual harassment and assault of women.
This portrait series features the artist standing in as the trope of the artist’s model: the historically Western place for the female body in art history, especially for minorities. By focusing on herself in this position, as opposed to an outside model, Weems questions the tradition of that place and what that position means for a contemporary, black, female artist. She brings up the names of four of the top masters of the last two centuries, all western, white men: Manet, Picasso, Duchamp, and De Kooning. Aiming the lens at her reflection in a bedroom mirror symbolically poses this series as reflective, personal, and indirect as this theme in art history is often murky and neglected.
George Grosz: Lustmord in der Ackerstrasse
In world war era Germany, there was a sudden and rampant slew of shocking sexual murders, called Lustmord in German. These murders coincided with social concerns about the growing number of prostitutes in major German cities. With the onslaught of war and the sudden industrialization and urbanization of the German landscape, many conservation groups took up arms against the “moral degradation” of these modern spaces. They wrote books, pamphlets, editorials, and campaigned for stricter government regulations. Their arguments were most often aimed at social deviants and they cited the need to protect the children of Germany from corruption. While it is still unclear exactly what spurred these horrific, sexualized murders, the artistic fascination with these crimes by artists such as George Grosz and Otto Dix is equally disturbing.
Carolee Schneemann has analyzed and combated social conventions, stigmas, and stereotypes surrounding women throughout her artistic career. Never one to shy away from taboos or be concerned with creating PC or “pretty” art she performed a piece of art that has reached notorious levels of fame. In 1975 she stood naked, painted in mud, and pulled a paper scroll from her vagina from which she read a truly beautiful piece of prose about her vagina, womanhood, and perception. The juxtaposition between this poetic speech and the shocking and blunt nature of the physical performance resonated so strongly that it is still talked about today. This recent Hyperallergic article about Schneemann and her concern (or annoyance) over the fame of this one work is a must read.
This article has gotten quite long, so I will leave you with some links that I highly encourage you to check out!
Kate Beaton (an AMAZING comic-series artist) on superheroes (for a lighter note):
Robert Mapplethorpe: in part because this post is unfortunately entirely hetero-normative (as I am speaking through the lens of my own personal experiences) and in part because his work is some of the most illuminating portraits of gay/bi-sexual bodily experience from the 1980s (the decade of AIDS)
And perhaps one of the most hotly debated acts of performance art in the past five years (based on her own personal experience):
Emma Sulkovitz: Carry that Weight
Further Required Reading:
Finally, to sum up, I am leaving you with a picture of Lynda Benglis that is so notorious in the artworld that I almost don’t want to explain it. To make a long (bamf and a half) story short, artists Lynda Benglis and Robert Morris were having a competition on who could create the more scandalous/awesome image. After a bout of so-so pictures, Robert Morris threw down the gauntlet by posting a lubed up, chain toting, S&M picture of himself. What was Benglis to do but one-up him, and obviously she did: oiled up, hair slicked back, and completely naked except for sunglasses on her face and a double dildo in her vagina. Her sunglasses do not hide her straightforward, self-aware, taunting gaze at the viewer and her nakedness does not objectify her. Instead, she took complete control and created an image that says “Fuck you all, I’ll do what I want and it will not lessen me but instead will make me stronger.” Of course, there was massive dissent and censorship and a few people even threatened to leave the magazine (Art Forum – where it was published as an ad since they wouldn’t run it with the article it was meant to go with) if they did not retract the image. Read the NYTimes and the ArtInfo articles about it.