Introduction by FFG: I met WhiteFeather in Fredericton many years ago, admiring both her innovative art work and fearless personality. We had a lot in common, including a fierce commitment to feminist politics, borne out as we volunteered together to walk women and their families into the Morgentaler Clinic. Most importantly, we were and remain similarly enthralled by all things corporeal, things that others often find disgusting. WhiteFeather is now pursuing an MFA degree and she recently wrote me to describe a crit—when students present work for an audience of teachers and peers—during which she was condemned for using her naked, decorated body in a performance piece. Some viewers argued that her body was too attractive and could only be sexualized when placed on display. I invited WhiteFeather to address this issue in a guest post and what follows is her thoughtful reply. *********************************************************************
As a feminist in a woman’s body, my relationship to my gendered physical space has been sometimes ambivalent but rarely without some kind of agency. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines agency as “the capacity, condition, or state of acting or of exerting power” as well as “a person or thing through which power is exerted or an end is achieved.” My body is a form of agency. What kinds of choices does this give me, creatively? My feminist (perhaps post-feminist) self declares, “Any fucking choice I want, thanks!” even if it means exploring the contradictory act of attempting to objectify myself.
Yet the agency of my body was recently challenged, via intellectual discourse around my artistic practice. Let me explain.
As an artist, I’m all about the “hands-on” principle. My work has always been concerned with the parameters of the body as well as the social handling of such an unpredictable item. The physical medium, my own instrument, is the intellectual concept around which to create new works. As part of my recent work, I engaged in embodied research as an entry point into my subject matter, as a way of working through the nuances of the concept I’m exploring. I covered my body in gold leaf and captured a series of still images of myself performing gestures that referenced my ideas. I wanted to embody and “feel out” the idea of the Russian witch, Baba Yaga, for a sculpture of an izbushka (her hut) that I intend to build. This specific figure and her habitat are merely starting points for a more expansive investigation into what they represent to me: domestic crisis/failure, an unruly state of being.
Baba Yaga, a close relative to the more ancient Scythian sun goddess, Tibiti, sometimes has a gold leg. I started with own leg, and kept going until my entire skin surface was covered. I was taken in by the rich texture and shining, otherworldly seduction of the GOLD, as well as by the mild madness of doing such an action. I applied the gold leaf to my body as one would to a piece of furniture: red undercoat, liquid adhesive, layered sheets of impossibly light metal. I felt hot, my own body heat reflected back to me and my sexuality made more explicit through my gilded nudity.
These embodied research studies were presented as animated .gifs showing obsessively repetitive gestures, to an informal critique panel comprised of fellow grad students and faculty. The response was hypercritical and included somewhat ironic body shaming, such as the suggestion that my body was too close to the “ideal” body to be a useful art subject. Therefore, the work was not working, I was told. I was contributing nothing new to humanity. The fact that my body somehow fits within the spectrum of “ideal” by pop culture standards and was therefore not marginal enough to be considered artistically interesting within contemporary critical practice, was a punch in the six-pack. One prof said it was suggestive of pornography, which somewhat flabbergasted me, but even so, I was more than OK with that. I had been interested in the seduction of my gold skin and bodily gestures, as a reference to the seductive powers of the witch.
The message, though, was that my desirability is undesirable, my aesthetic merit inversely banal. Even where banality is now an art content commodity, female beauty is toooo banal to be cool-banal. It’s apparently far too status quo, and status quo is über-unsexy to the perpetually self-separating art crowd (e.g. if you criticize culture, you certainly can’t be part of what you’re criticizing, therefore you must be the alternative to it). I’ve got news: “alternative” is dead. It’s been appropriated by mass culture a decade ago and regurgitated as a trend, and parodied, even (Portlandia, anyone?), so let’s get over it already.
Now enter gender considerations: I’m a woman in a woman’s body since birth. I’ve tried on many different body manifestations, including the au natural hairy body, the dyke body, the abused body, the mothering body, the aborting body, the vegetarian body, the drag body, the hormonally imbalanced body, the beauty pageant body, the pierced and tattooed neo-pagan body. I’m currently experiencing signs of the impending middle-aged body.
Beauty has always been a vibrant force, intricately connected to my experience of femaleness, whether I have rejected it, subverted it or strived for it. Growing up, I was simultaneously encouraged to flaunt a creampuff version of my female sexuality, and to then punch back like a tomboy at anyone who tried to step on my foothold in the world. The constant push and pull with ideas about beauty and my sexualized body was something I worked hard to reconcile for myself throughout my teens, twenties and thirties.
Let me now re-contextualize this within my work as an artist: the conversation about beauty has always been and still is a heated one in the realm of art, and this conversation has heated up in recent years, polarizing camps on either side of the fence. Art has historically fluctuated between putting beauty on a pedestal and knocking it down. In contemporary art, beauty seems to wobble on a precarious ledge, somewhere between what looks like a leap down into the chivalrous arms of romanticism versus an unglamorous sweating and gripping on to the wall of post-modern cynicism. The artist who is neither romantic nor cynic faces an interesting dilemma: where else to go?
Revered artist Marina Abramović, in an interview on March 23, 2013 with Gilded Birds (gildedbirds.net) was asked about her 1975 performance piece, Art Must Be Beautiful, Artist Must Be Beautiful. She stated that, “It’s very sarcastic. I think art should be disturbing and not beautiful at all. The idea of just having beautiful things for a living room is the kind of art I hate. So I used a metal brush and destroyed my hair in that piece… The idea of that piece is to say that art is not about beauty at all, it’s about meaning and concept and layers of ideas.”
Conversely, Provocative Penguin (provocativepenguin.com) writes in February 2013, “I really think that most critics who denounce Western views of art and beauty for being patriarchal or imperialistic don’t understand it whatsoever… if the art offers nothing to the eye and it means nothing to the mind without an accompanying blurb, then the canvas is better off as an essay, or perhaps a Tweet… Art that tries to communicate something without being beautiful is the literary equivalent of a menu.”
Personally, I’m grossed out by the perception that I can’t be taken seriously as an artist or anything else if I choose beauty (my beauty) or my body as an art topic or as an avenue to my art topic. If I do not actively downplay, ignore or refuse to utilize the agency of my possible beauty in favour of the ugly side of life, I’m rendered a traitor. I risk being a cupcake. Newsflash: I’ve danced with the ugly, plenty. I like it fine. But, NEXT! Post-feminism is here.
I once had a sparkly pair of panties with a fortune cookie decal on them, the fortune saying,“Beauty and brains.” Hell, yes. Clichés printed on panties can still be relevant. I am not reducing my stance here. It’s what I wear, with red and purple sparkles. That adage is one thing that currently informs my art practice and related scholarly (embodied) research, in all its Powerpuff glory.
This was a fantastic article, I will be sharing it everywhere. However, I feel compelled to say that I don’t believe post-feminism is here, even if it should be. In any case, Thanks to WhiteFeather Hunter for sharing her thoughts; this was a great read.
Thanks for your comment Ilana. I have considered the terms post-feminism and third-wave feminism in a post published on 26 August 2010, called “Oh Shit, Am I a Third Wave Feminist?” I addressed this question at greater length in the third chapter of my FFG book, and would like to point out the “post” does not mean after feminism or that feminism should be over (God forbid!), but that another form of activism is developing, one related to contemporary economic and social concerns. I like the work of Stéphanie Genz and Benjamin Brabon, which examines the manifold ways in which the term post-feminism has been used, distinguishing between, among other things, its academic and popular understandings. I am drawn to the authors’ assertion that so-called post-feminism is not a political or social movement that either counteracts or extends feminism. It is better understood, according to the definition offered by Patricia Mann, as a ‘frontier discourse’ that brings us to the edge of what we know, seeking to capture the changing quality of our social, cultural and political experiences in the context of the more general process of women’s social enfranchisement. This idea of standing on the edge of what we know and challenging that knowledge describes my interrogation of feminist principles in the Feminist Figure Girl project. I am sure that WhiteFeather has her own arguments to make about the term post-feminism and what it means.
Wow; thank you for this extensive reply. I will go back and read your earlier post and look into Genz and Brabon’s work.
Love this. As an artist on the cusp (ONE MONTH) of graduating from an MFA program–and let me specify a that I brand myself a rather jaded MFA candidate at this point–this reaction doesn’t surprise me at all. I think I’ll stop myself from explaining why it doesn’t surprise me for fear of totally unleashing myself, which, given the amount of anger I know I hold regarding art school programs, isn’t something I imagine anyone wants to witness right now. I commend you for your efforts and the piece you describe, and I appreciate your stance on agency as it relates to beauty ideals. Bravo.