or Disingenuously Peddling a Soft-Porn Aesthetic?
Amelia Jones is Pilkington Chair professor of art history and visual studies at the University of Manchester. Her books include “Self/Image: Technology, Representation, and the Contemporary Subject” (2006) and, as editor, “Feminism and Visual Culture Reader” (2003). She organized the exhibition “Sexual Politics: Judy Chicago’s ‘Dinner Party’ in Feminist Art History” (1996). Might Lisa Yuskavage’s rise from “bad girl” to art star represent the realization of feminist ambition for women artists? Or is it feminist art’s worst nightmare?
Neither. I don’t know if it’s useful to come up with an either/or scenario. The important thing is to step back and realize how crucial 1970s feminism was in order for something like this to even occur, to acknowledge the historical precedents. I think of Yuskavage as being linked to what I call the Madonna complex, the kind of 1980s, “Desperately Seeking Susan” sense of “isn’t this great that women can be sexual and powerful!” It’s not that interesting to me. I don’t think it goes anywhere except intoMTV and capitalism. Is it different when images of women such as these are painted by a woman?
We interpret the work differently depending on who we think made it; it’s not that it’s inherently different. I hate to say it, but if these paintings were marketed as “Bob Smith’s” work, they would be interpreted differently. Although it was a crucial political position at the time, I don’t agree with the argument that Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro made in the early 1970s, that women inherently made different kinds of work because of our biological anatomy.
We make culture on the basis of our cultural experience, not on the basis of our anatomy. And beliefs about what the artist is determine what the work means for individual viewers. If you think the artist is a heterosexual man, you’ll read the image as a heterosexual man objectifying a woman’s body. If you think the artist is a woman, you’ll read the work probably in terms of whatever your access point is, your conception of this kind of Madonna or Britney Spears or whatever idea of women being sexual and thereby empowering themselves. Whether or not you explicitly know about the whole trajectory of feminist imagemaking, that trajectory is going to condition your understanding, because it’s become influential on levels of culture. So is there a “feminist” critique of Yuskavage’s body of work?
I read a comment that Yuskavage’s paintings have “roiled the waters of orthodox feminism,” and that irritated me, because I think it’s one of these old knee-jerk tendencies to fall back on something called orthodox feminism. I’m not sure we know what that is. Who is it that would hate these paintings? I refuse to react in a way that could be interpreted as orthodox feminism. I refuse to say, “Oh, these are horrible and they’re sexist.”
I personally don’t particularly like them, but I’m interested in the fact that I find them obnoxious.
I suppose they’re slightly intriguing, but in some ways I read them as disingenuous.
They’re disingenuous in the way they are presented. I’ve read a few quotes by Yuskavage to the effect that “these are the things I most hate about myself” and “I’m exploring my own sexuality.” But the fact is, they’re also 100 percent marketable. I think it’s somewhat disingenuous to use that language of early 1970s feminism if you make images that are soft porn. Everybody knows they’re soft porn, because that’s the first thing everyone says about them. Why is Yuskavage’s work so hot in the market now?
Because it both gives you a kind of kitschy soft-core image, but it’s art, it’s hip. People with disposable income, for whom that kind of hipness is at a premium, will pay money for it. It’s not hip to put a clipping from Hustler on your wall. Also, there’s an element of fetishization and connoisseurship that goes along with Yuskavage’s paintings. They are incredibly well painted. Some of the stuff that’s written about her work, the catalogues, are just drooling over her method, comparing her painting to Michelangelo and Vermeer. They use all the tropes that get trotted out for high-art imagery. Do you agree?
They’re interesting paintings as paintings. There’s no question that Yuskavage knows her art history. If those are the tropes that are still active in the art world, which apparently they still are, then that matters. Should we distinguish between excellent execution and subject matter that may be viewed as possibly pornographic, or otherwise troubling?
There are hundreds of artists who have traded on that tension between high-art form and style and low-art or mass-cultural content. Mapplethorpe used pristine modernist photographic tropes and forms and style to depict pornographic imagery in some cases. It’s not a new idea. But many reviews mention the disturbing quality of her work.
In 2007, I don’t find the images in her work threatening at all. To the contrary, it’s like half of what you will see in any glossy magazine. Can a painting appear to be feminist and sexist at the same time? Where does this work fit in relation to feminist and contemporary art?
It’s not useful to ask “Is this feminist or not?” I don’t think those are interesting arguments. A painting might appear feminist if you think feminism means empowering certain women viewers. But it also might appear sexist at the same time, depending on context.