On the shelf
Monsters of art: rebellious bodies in feminist art
By Lauren Elkin
FSG: 368 pages, $35
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There came a time when Laura Elkin He realized that his book in progress was becoming a mass. like the writer Chris Kraus defines it: “the book like Blob, swallowing and disgorging… Reckless and unstoppable.” Elkin presents “Monsters of art”, a book about “rebellious bodies in feminist art” with an epigraph by Virginia Woolf, reflecting that the adventure of “telling the truth about my own experiences as a body” is, for her, not yet realized. That’s the driving force of this book, what unites all the monsters in it.
As I approached my conversation with Elkin, which took place via video chat from his home in London, I wondered what to ask him about. Kara Walker’s Sugar Sphinx? The controversy surrounding Dana Schutz’s painting of Emmet Till, “Open casket”? That Carolee Schneemann removing a scroll from her vagina had to do with “three guineas”, the accusation that Woolf made in 1938 of the connection between patriarchy and fascism?
Elkin’s own experience as a body is also at stake. “I’m sure that if this book had been written before the pandemic, before motherhood, it would be a completely different book,” Elkin said. “But then I thought, why am I trying to turn a book about monstrous art into a traditional, obedient little book?” Elkin spoke to The Times in a conversation edited for length and clarity.
Can you tell us a little about how you came to write this book?
I started writing it in earnest in 2017. My PhD advisor, Jane Marcus, died. She is responsible for changing the way we read Woolf, at least in America: from this crazy, upper-class snob to this pacifist and radical socialist. I wanted my next book to play with this legacy.
I’m not a carpenter; I see my writing and my teaching as my activism. The whole book was going to be about Woolf’s “Three Guineas.” He had it in mind that he wanted to write a war book about Woolf. But I felt like she wasn’t done writing about women in the public space yet. I was writing about that.
I was surprised to learn that Woolf’s close friends and family did not like “Three Guineas.” They didn’t think she should write such an “angry” book about the war.
Yeah, E. M. Forster she infamously said after Woolf’s death that feminism was a blight on her work. That her writing was so beautiful, that her prose was a great achievement, and that her writings on feminism, pacifism, and politics in general were “points” of her greatest contribution to literature.
Many of the artists he covers are grappling with war, from Woolf to Schneemann, who created work about Vietnam, and Marta Rosler, who made magazine collages of war photographs. He made me think of Sylvia Plathwho was accused of antisemitism for appropriating Jewish identity and the Holocaust in his poem “Dad.”
As a Jewish woman, I have never read that poem as anti-Semitic. If anything, I am grateful to Plath for bringing attention to the horrors of the Holocaust. It’s an appropriation, but she uses it as a metaphor. It is certainly embarrassing to see her compare herself to a Jew. But that was part of what she was trying to do with this book; by the way, it’s called “Monsters of Art”, not “rah rah, incredible heroines of art!” Some of these artists are monstrous; Certainly art is monstrous because it forces us to go to places that are outside our comfort zone.
In his discussion of a recent controversy in the art world, Dana Schutz’s painting of Emmett Till, “open coffin”, you say you agree that it should have been destroyed. This surprised me. Why do you think that?
It’s not that Dana Schutz is painting herself like Till, but she is making a portrait of him in his casket. without awareness of his whiteness or of his gaze. I think it is problematic for an artist to be lazy to look. Till’s coffin had a sheet of glass on top, so in all the photographs taken you can see the reflection of the people looking at her body. Without that look, or interest in looking, that’s a problem. As a white woman, maybe it’s her place to think about whiteness. When there are people who say that this work of art traumatizes me, hurts me and does not generate conversation, then one wonders: What is its purpose?
You write with joy about the artists you love, but many of those featured in your book suffered horrible, tragic deaths. Eva Hesse of a brain tumor at the age of 34, Hannah Wilke of lymphoma at age 52, Helen Chadwick of a heart attack at age 42. Ana Mendieta she was murdered when she was 36 years old; Teresa Hak Kyung Cha She was raped and murdered at the age of 31. How is this possible?
I asked myself this question many times while writing this book. I wasn’t trying to find women who have had bad endings. I think, obviously, that racism and misogyny kill women. They still do it. Even though this is a group of women from different backgrounds, racism and misogyny, even in medicine… these things kill women.
Do you think the recent “cancellations” of iconic male artists have opened up a space for the public to engage more with the work of women artists and artists of color?
I’m not a fan of cancel culture. Take down interesting people without describing what you mean by calling something or someone.”problematic.” These should be teaching moments rather than simply dismissing the art and the artist. For example, because Am I embarrassed when Plath calls herself Jewish in “Daddy”?
It may have opened more space for artists who are underrepresented, but cancel culture is destructive to art. It really depends on the consumer of the art. You have to ask yourself, what do I get out of this? Yeah Kathy Acker‘s”Damn, king of the pirates“It gives you more support than Jonathan Franzen”The corrections”, then go to “Pussy”.
This may be an annoying question, but do you think you would have written this book if you hadn’t been a mother?
I don’t think this is an annoying question at all. I don’t see why we can’t talk about this. Although we should also ask men this. It would be a totally different book. The connection with the body that many of these artists work on… if I hadn’t gotten pregnant when I was working on this proposal, or had not gone through childbirth or early motherhood, it would have been completely intellectualized. Now I know what the monstrosity of the body is.
Can you be an art monster if you are a parent?
I think you can certainly create monster art, and art in general, if you’re a parent, with the right support and under the right conditions. You may not be able to be an art monster, but you can create monster art. Anyway, I hope so.
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