Sept. 25, 2011
Women’s Work in Feminist Thinking, Art, and Domesticity
Three points of Betty Chmaj’s article Visions and Revisions: Women’s Studies and the Challenge to See Anew, spoke to me on a personal level: Lucy Lippard’s list of typically “female” artistic forms, the discussion of modern urban spaces and gender roles, and the use or lack of technology in the home by women.
Lucy Lippard’s assertion of certain characteristic forms common in women’s art, such as “the preponderance of circular forms, central focus, inner space” and “sexual imagery… circles, domes, eggs, spheres, boxes, biomorphic shapes” and finally “a ubiquitous ‘bag’ or parabolic form that turns in itself; layers, or strata, or veils, an indefinable looseness or flexibility of handling; windows; autobiographical content; animals; flowers…”(Chmaj, 16) intrigued me because I recognized much of her litany in my own work. In the combination of these quotes Lippard covers quite a bit of ground, perhaps so much that it is like going to a psychic or reading a horoscope that says so much and so vaguely that one inevitably sees one’s own experience. Still, I can’t help recognizing my interests and my work in these descriptions. Most recently I’ve been “haunted” by a certain image of a spherical or rounded form, transparent, and flexible, a kind of seedpod. In fact, my first attempt at sculpting such a form out of wire and wax paper, was criticized by my studio mentor, Jenny Kanzler for its resemblance to a “freshman art project”, and its rehashing of a certain clichéd femininity. Having just read Lippard’s ideas in “Visions and Revisions”, I was forced to concede that perhaps my mentor had a point.
An examination of my past works finds many other links to Lippard’s list: a series of wax paper wedding dresses and veils (layers, veils, flexibility), a human-sized box (the box form) again with walls made of wax paper, and multiple other projects featuring repeated bowl, dome, and egg-like shapes, circular forms, and an interest in “inner space”.
Amy Brand, Wedding Veil, Waxed paper and white thread, 2003.
Amy Brand, Wedding Dress, Waxed paper and white thread, 2003.
Amy Brand, Birth of the Universe, Pen and ink and sharpie on drawing paper, 9”x12”, 2005.
Amy Brand, Cells, Pen and ink and chalk pastel on drawing paper, 9”x12”, 2005.
Of course, a feminist might also take the opposite point of view to Lippard’s, as Lydia Yee points out in the title essay “Division of Labor: Women’s Work in Contemporary Art” to the Bronx Museum catalog for their show of the same name. Yee points out several feminist art historians and critics (Silvia Bovenschen, Roszika Parker, and Griselda Pollock) who argue that to categorize, generalize, and compare women’s artwork is just another way of stereotyping, belittling, and relegating it to the status of “other” or a foil for men’s artwork, i.e. “real” artwork. In the past, I’d been more familiar with this line of thinking, and thus felt uncomfortable with my artwork being labeled as “feminine” and contrasted to work by male artists. However, after reading and identifying with Lippard’s descriptions, I’ve become more open to and interested in the idea of a female point of view. While one can’t make generalizations about women that are 100% true, it is possible to make statements about the sexes or gender roles that apply in the majority of cases. Recent trends in psychology have made vocalizing gender differences more acceptable by studying, and finding, significant differences between the way men and women, boys and girls, learn, communicate, and think. Why shouldn’t we find differences of gender in art as well?
Many of these differences, at least in artwork, may be more societally constructed than biologically mandated. Lydia Yee also points out examples of artists of both genders who purposefully utilize materials, techniques, and subject matter more associated with the opposite sex, in order to make a political statement (Mike Kelley and Jenny Holzer). I also wonder whether they might do this simply to get attention in an art market that prizes difference, an unusual “angle”, or story, as much or more than “pure talent”. This query was sparked after I posted a comment on Facebook about a quilter I recently ran across on the Extreme Craft Blog, Shawn Quinlan. What first appealed to me about this quilter was how different his quilts are from others I’ve seen, but a female quilter I went to college with immediately complained that it’s male quilters who get all the recognition over equally talented women. How much of her complaint is true in this case, and how much of the recognition Quinlan receives comes from the fact that the style of his quilts varies so much from more traditional quilters, many of whom happen to be female rather than male? I should also point out that part of my friend’s disdain comes from the fact that his images are lifted from preexisting commercial cloth that he essentially collages together. While I too felt a certain amount of disappointment when I first realized this, rationally I can’t fault this technique when collage is such an accepted manner of working in other media. Perhaps the difference in how I respond, and my friend responds to this use of material comes from our different approaches to quilting – mine from a fine arts viewpoint where collage has been an accepted media for a century, and hers from an interest in the craft of quilting.
Shawn Quinlan, Gay Clowns, contemporary quilt.
In contrast to the few artists who choose an “opposite” material or subject matter for their gender, there are of course the majority of quilters or other types of artists working in a manner more “typical” for their sex and who thus form the rule that the few and the bold set out to break. As a woman choosing to quilt, I of course fall into the traditional category. When Judy Chicago, Miriam Schapiro, and other female artists of the 1970s made similar choices they did so in a conscious effort to say something about women’s roles in society, in the home, and in the art world. I believe they were also validating traditionally female art forms which had previously been undervalued. Does a similar choice to work in traditional materials mean the same thing for me today? Does it carry as much power as it did in 1970? Is it a political choice, or am I simply drawn to fabrics and quilting out of familiarity and comfort? As a child I grew up watching my mother sew Halloween costumes, clothing, and craft projects skillfully. But I myself made only fitful attempts to learn, disliking the tedium of following commercial patterns, and finding the sewing machine an uncooperative and frustrating device. Yet over the years I was repeatedly drawn to the idea of sewing, often undertaking projects by hand (as in the case of my waxed paper dresses), and recently conquering the sewing machine with the help of my more mechanically-inclined husband, who was willing to patiently read the instruction manual and endlessly tinker with stuck machinery. It’s ironic to me that my very “feminine” aversion to machines kept me from sewing, just as it limits my carpentry and sculptural endeavors for fear and dislike of power tools. Did the “feminine” qualities of working with fabric call me back to sewing in the end because of culturally entrenched ideas, or because of an innate attraction to working with “flexible” materials as Lippard might assert? Or do I just like the textures of the fabric, the tactile quality of working with it, the somewhat repetitive and soothing steps involved in piecing it, the practical qualities of the medium (from its propensities toward recycling to its relative longevity, non-toxicity, and easy storage), the new perspective that it brings to my work, and the novelty of learning new skills? All of these are, incidentally, qualities that have drawn me to try various materials in sculpture, printmaking, and crafting in the past, and aren’t, in my opinion, necessarily linked to anything uniquely feminine about quilting. Still, appreciate the history of quilting, which is undeniably female.
Moving on to other subjects of Chmaj’s article, I was struck by her allusion to the modern, American single-family suburban home as a space of social isolation, particularly for women, i.e. housewives and mothers. I chose to stop working full-time outside of the home shortly before my husband and I started trying to conceive. The idea was that I would focus on my own art (I had previously worked full time and beyond as an art teacher at a boarding school for 4 years), at least until we had our first child. This time period turned out to be rather short, as my school year ended June of 2009 and our son was born April 16, 2010. My time of working at home quickly turned into time to deal with morning sickness, and then morphed into maternity leave and Stay-At-Home-Mom status. I don’t mean to sound like I’m complaining; in point of fact, one of the major accomplishments of this time period was discovering that I wasn’t all that fond of working as a full-time artist from home. I had also wanted and planned to stay at home for my first year of motherhood at least since before becoming pregnant. Finally, it turned out when Kurt was born that I loved being a full-time mom, and have often reflected that overall it is the best “job” I’ve ever had.
One of the things I enjoy about being a SAHM is the sense of connection I feel with generations of women before me. And, unlike many of those women, I have chosen this role whole-heartedly, not out of lack of options or in obedience to overwhelming social pressure. Just as I have chosen to stay home for now, I know that I have the choice at any time in the future to go back to work outside the home. Even now, I am getting my MFA, which employs my mind, my creativity, my chosen occupational skills and talents, and prepares me for a future return to the work-force. Working on my MFA saves me to some extent from the boredom and frustration that many of the post-WWII generation of middle and upper-middle class housewives felt, when they were pushed out of the workforce after the war, or in other cases attended college for their “MRS” degree, only to be relegated to domestic duties in the suburbs afterwards, “burdened” with far too much education for their proscribed lot in life. This sense of being trapped in traditional roles and physically trapped in the home largely spawned the modern women’s movement in the 60’s and 70’s, and is reflected both in early feminist artwork, such as Womanhouse (discussed and featured at length in Division of Labor) and writing, such as Betty Freidan’s, The Feminine Mystique. Even though I have chosen my path, rather than being forced into it, I can relate to some extent to the feeling of being “trapped” alone in the house with a very small child, particularly in the middle of winter, when illnesses and road conditions are most isolating.
Recently, trying to glean more time to work on my graduate studies, I found myself ruminating on the inefficiency of the nuclear-family household model, in which each mother cares for her own children and home in isolation, compared to more communal societies in which a group of women might care for all the children together, which would free them to a large extent to simultaneously attend to other work. When I found this idea echoed in Chmaj’s article, in which she reports on Dolores Hayden’s work documenting the work of the material feminists, between the Civil War and the Depression, I was excited at seeing my own thoughts reflected. Chmaj reports that these early feminists “…developed housewives’ cooperatives, kitchen-less houses, apartments with shared facilities, day care centers, public kitchens, community dining clubs, apartment houses, and other schemes,” and “proposed ideal feminist cities” (14). Limited to existing architectural and societal norms, I decided to forge social cooperatives in the form of “babysitting swaps”. So far, I am enormously pleased with this solution, both for the “free” time it provides me to engage in adult ideas and artwork, and for the extra socialization and active playtime it provides my 17 month-old son. I only wish that I could find more SAHMs interested in the idea.
The idea of the isolated single-family household and SAHM returns later in Chmaj’s article in her reading of Ellen Lampert’s painting Thousands of Girls Vie for the Title of America’s Junior Miss Tonight Over National Television. Chmaj writes, “To be isolated inside the house, surrounded by household artifacts and engaged in back-bending housework, and to learn through a Walkman and a television set about mass-media fantasies of women, when all the while America’s first space shuttle is being launched outside one’s window-this is indeed perceiving reality from a female point of view,” (17). In this painting I both recognize my own situation, and the way in which time and technology has changed the situation of the modern American housewife. Technology in the household no longer means just a TV and radio, but includes the computer and the internet, encompassing Facebook, email, chat-sites, and blogs. All of these forms of internet communication serve to help connect isolated households, so while the modern American SAHM may be stuck in her own nuclear home, she can communicate with other mom’s via the internet all day. My own experiences tell me that many moms do just that. At times I’ll check my Facebook page several times a day, and many of my most commented on friends are also moms of young children. We exchange advice, ask for help when we’re having a tough time with the kids, and share our joy in important milestones. There are many old or distant acquaintances I hadn’t talked to in years until we discovered we were both new moms on Facebook. Without Facebook I wouldn’t have nearly the network of “mom friends” that I do, nor would I be as close to other SAHMs I’ve met through a local mom’s club. By sharing on Facebook, I talk to my new friends several times a week instead of a couple of times a month at meetings or playgroups. They’re the first to offer aid now when I need help with babysitting, or am looking for second-hand baby-gear. Similarly, I know the mom blogging phenomenon is huge, and one can go on sites like MeetUp.com to find local mom’s groups, or to “baby” and “mom” themed chat communities to talk with moms who share interests or live in one’s own area. In short, I think the internet has largely changed the experience of being a young mom, especially of the stay at home variety, and especially for suburban moms who otherwise might be fairly isolated in small communities. While more women do continue to work these days, and it may be harder to find other SAHMs and build community just through “old-fashioned” face-to-face connections, the internet gives us another tool to find each other and build community, whether in person or long-distance from our own “isolated” homes. Whereas Lampert’s work characterizes technology as being largely “masculine” and outside the home – the space shuttle outside the window – the prevalence of the home computer and use of the internet as a communication tool has effectively “domesticated” technology.
A more recent combination of domesticity and technology in artwork (Chmaj was writing in 1986) appears in Division of Labor,published in 1995: Regina Frank’s Hermes Mistress (1994-95). The artist sits on the floor wearing a red dress, with its voluminous skirt spread around her, pinned down by a laptop on one side, and a secondary keyboard and mouse on the other, which seem to be hooked up to a large screen TV behind her, displaying the screen she sees on the laptop to her audience. While she sits, she communicates via the internet. Then she stops periodically, and sews certain phrases of her own online text onto her dress, using tiny beads. I can see this being a parallel to the modern housewife’s experience, somewhat pinned down and trapped by domesticity, ostensibly “alone”, but able to travel and communicate the globe via the web, while simultaneously working at a slow, painstaking, and traditionally female occupation.
Chmaj’s article provided an excellent overview and introduction to feminist thinking about art, and has gotten me to think about themes that I intend to pursue further in my research. Namely, those themes are the exploration of characteristics common to female artists and artwork (and the debate over whether commonalities exist or not), the idea of domesticity in terms of traditionally female roles and artistic practices, and technology as it relates to traditional women’s roles and traditional art/craft techniques.
Ellen Lampert, Thousands of Girls Vie for the Title of America’s Junior Miss, Tonight Over National Television, 1982.
Regina Frank, Hermes Mistress, performance piece, 1994-95.
Brand, Amy. Wedding Veil. Artist’s collection. Pennsburg, Pennsylvania.
—. Wedding Dress. Artist’s collection. Pennsburg, Pennsylvania.
—. Birth of the Universe. Artist’s collection. Pennsburg, Pennsylvania.
—. Cells. Artist’s collection. Pennsburg, Pennsylvania.
Bronx Museum of the Arts. Division of Labor: “Women’s Work” in Contemporary Art.
Bronx, New York: Bronx Museum of the Arts, 1995.
Chimaj, Betty. “Visions and Revisions: Women’s Studies and the Challenge to See
Anew.” Frontiers: A Journal of Women’s Studies Vol. 8, No. 3 (1986): 8-19.
Frank, Regina. Herme’s Mistress. Baumgartel, Tilman. “Die Daten Kommen Zu Ihr.”
Telepolis (28 Oct. 1999): Online Internet. 25 Sept. 2011. http://www.heise.de/tp/artikel/3/3451/1.html
Lampert, Ellen. Thousands of Girls Vie for the Title of America’s Junior Miss, Tonight
on National Television. Wolverton, Terry. The Woman’s Building, L.A., 1973-
1991. The Woman’s Building (April 2003): Online. Internet. 25 Sept. 2011.
Quinlan, Shawn. Gay Clowns. Extreme Craft. “Quilting Under Pressure.” Supernaturale:
Making Art Out of Everyday Life. (c. 2011): Online. Internet. 25 Sept. 2011.