or Disin­gen­u­ously Ped­dling a Soft-Porn Aes­thetic?

The Washington Post Sunday - - Arts -

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.

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