Since the re-emergence of feminism in the ’70s, women artists have made periodic strides in the area of sculpture, photography and installation art. Painting however is still problematic in relationship to women and the reasons are complex in a society where systemized oppression is necessary for the purpose of profit rather than human need. Painting cannot simply be oppositional in the malestream for inclusion, nor transgressive in just shocking conventional bourgeois audiences. The painter/writer Mira Schor addresses feminist issues, articulating the question of identity. To this end, she engages the issues of formalism, representation, and modernist history from a feminist perspective. We talked about the struggle for women in relationship to a practice defined largely by masculine terms.
Shirley Kaneda Mira, do you think that painting can play a role in feminist discourse?
Mira Schor I hope that it can play a role. Painting has been a bit the stepchild within the history of feminist art.
SK Do you think feminism instigated an opening in the language of sculpture, for example?
MS I think it participated in it. It was particularly useful for women that art should open up so that new content and new forms would be allowed. Many artists felt oppressed by debased Greenbergian Modernism and painting was the focus of that oppression. Much of the interesting feminist discourse was a critique of how the grand tradition of painting had been used as a weapon against women. This lead to work by women artists that deliberately denied visual pleasure. If there is logic in terms of how art develops and how the pendulum swings in all and feminist discourse, painting would be the arena of a search to see what a feminist understanding of visual pleasure would be. I find it particularly annoying that instead there’s this debasing of any kind of aesthetic in the latest trend in painting. And somehow a lot of the valuable intellectual achievements in feminist theory in the last 15 years is ignored.
SK Are you referring to the group of women painters who are touted as being feminist painters?
MS Yes. There’s a lot of “bad teenage girl” art. I don’t see it as a mature statement either individually or as a historical movement. Sue Williams’ work, for example, is about the victimization of women and it’s not accidental that this work is popular. Her work is compelling, so I hate to focus on it in a negative way. But I’m interested in studying why certain women are allowed into the mainstream at least temporarily. Usually it’s because their work doesn’t challenge patriarchy, even when there are subversive elements within it, there’s also something that could be acceptable. The focus on victimization, or the glamorization of victimization, well what challenge is that? There’s none.
SK Basically gives license for patriarchy to oppress women, and those in power can continue to enjoy that work for their own insidious pleasure.
MS This is not what I brought into feminism, what inspires me to think of myself as a feminist. What I find so moving is the struggle of women to be subjects. I’m not interested in wallowing in victimization, but transforming pain into action.
SK So you’re more interested in exploring female subjectivity as opposed to a pre-supposed essential identity of the female gender?
MS That touches on the essentialism vs. social construction of gender debate, which I feel is a red herring because it’s been used against women who are doing anything that’s creative as opposed to appropriative, for instance.
SK Are you talking about fidelity to the feminine sex? Do you believe that we can create a sexual identity of our own? And do you see some of the female painters negating their femininity?
MS They’re limiting how femininity exists in our society. They’re not exploring masculinity and they’re not engaging in a thorough critique of the society but just one version of society. Ida Applebroog is somebody who speaks out about victimization in her work, from a very personal point of view but also from a more ironic and distanced one. There’s been some translation, some transformation of the raw source emotions. She depicts men as victimizers but also victims, or she places guilt on many heads. Hers is a much broader canvas, figuratively and formally.
SK Do you feel representation is necessary in painting when dealing with a feminine discourse?
MS I think that there is certainly a place for abstraction. Eva Hesse and Elizabeth Murray work with forms of feminist content. I think originally feminism was about empowering women to do whatever work they damn well pleased. And a painting with the word abortion written on it and lots of red paint doesn’t necessarily make it a good painting, or a feminist painting. I do perceive a split between women who are doing some form of pure abstraction who either claim that they are beyond gender issues or who want to somehow insert the concept of femininity into their work. I’ve always felt that femininity is a more troublesome word than feminism.
SK To me, the feminine is an abstract non-existent reality, it’s all that is non-masculine, and it’s a construct. We can’t reduce the feminine to a singularity.
MS But the feminine is so easily coopted by men.
SK That’s because men are able to interject femininity into their work (our culture) and women cannot because women are defined by men.
MS It’s not particularly inspiring to talk about issues of gender representation in work that has no trust in metaphor or the materiality of paint. Some work is clearly more polemic than others and whether it’s perceived as feminist is also, partly, in the mind of the viewer. It’s actually in how the work is done, not in what it’s of. I’ve always been very interested in narrative. But at the same time, I’m also thinking about what each part is as a painting. The standards that I’m applying to the work emerge out of art history, including the history of Modernism, and what makes a “good” painting. If I use language in my work, how it’s painted, compositionally, texturally, and so on, must be as important as what it says. I feel that there are very few people who try to keep the intellectual, the political, and the painterly quotients equal. Why does it have to be one or the other? There are just not enough people working with synthesis or complexity within painting.
SK How do you think modernism and formalism failed the feminists or how has it failed for you?
MS It failed as a social system, it became a club. It was sexist and more importantly, extremely rigid in what was allowed and what wasn’t art. I think Modernism failed because it excluded many creative people.
SK Oh, definitely.
MS But I don’t feel, when I look at a Mondrian, that Modernism has failed me. Something about what it means to be a human being is most embodied in such an area of paint, and that belongs to me just as much as it belongs to anybody. It doesn’t only belong to…
SK The Formalists.
MS The Formalists! They ruined the way painting was taught in America. They degraded it to the point where it was just technical. But that doesn’t mean there is something wrong with painting. There was something wrong with them. Modernism is what you make it. It is our past. Recently I have been thinking a lot about Modernism. As a young artist, I had to look for so many other models in the past, often not very fashionable ones. That’s why I’m painting this painting which spells out, “It’s Modernism, stupid.” I took it from the Clinton campaign motto, “It’s the economy, stupid.” The point is that Modernism is the issue in painting and has always been. But what is the relationship of women to Modernism? Why are women pushed into appropriation and then criticized for it? Why are they pushed away from painting and who are they appropriating? I’d like to write about it somehow, but it’s a very big topic.
SK How did you decide to publish M/E/A/N/I/N/G, and how does writing criticism affect your painting or does it?
MS I started M/E/A/N/I/N/G in 1986 with Susan Bee, who’s also a painter. I did not want to be victimized by passivity. We felt that visual artists, especially painters, were being increasingly excluded from discourse. We wanted painters and artists in general to take back some of the discourse, we wanted to provide an alternative to the heavily theoretical, linguistically oriented and orienting language that had taken over art criticism and that was determining, in a sense, what work was going to be shown. Publishing M/E/A/N/I/N/G has affected my work a great deal, basically in a very good way.
SK You became an active participant.
MS I think people were looking for an alternative. I’m an artist and a feminist who can write, but I don’t take orthodox positions. When I started to write, I had to learn the language of the “’enemy,” whatever I perceived the enemy was. That moved me along. Now something has happened which is very strange. The work that I find problematic is much closer to me than when I started to write. Now, certain women are getting attention as feminists. There are people determining who is a feminist artist and who isn’t. And I don’t totally agree with their determinations or accept their credentials. I’m upset at the potential position it puts me, of writing against other women. I don’t want to do so unless I really ideologically and aesthetically have something constructively critical to say. I resent the fact that I’m being made to fight over that traditional slice of pie that women are allowed. Next year they may not be interested in feminism any more anyway and they’ll go on to something else. All through the eighties I thought, the day when integrity becomes commodified, that’s when it’s going to be the most unbearable or the most disgusting. When the personal becomes commodified or when victimization becomes commodified.
SK For hypothetical reasons let’s say this abstract enemy is the patriarchal order, the fact is that women artists in promoting their own agendas, permit the patriarchal order in succeeding to destroy any hope of gender freedom.
MS If feminism is in, then it’s infuriating that it’s not at its full intellectual capacity and complexity. I find it very odd that the anti-essentialist critique which was such a dominant discourse has suddenly fallen apart. It’s as if there was a siege and then you wake up and no siege. Where are the anti-essentialists now that we need them! Why aren’t those people writing about these new artists? I’d love to know what Mary Kelly thinks about Sue Williams. What does Barbara Kruger think about it? Why should one leave those women behind as being part of the past? There’s more likely to be a backlash if their ideas are erased. I say that with some irony because their ideas threatened to erase similar types of work in the eighties, including mine. It’s crucial that women are seen as having a history, that there be some critical mass of work and time and ideas, so it doesn’t seem as if feminism was born yesterday.
SK We have to think in terms of a genealogy that’s not periodic, or that women’s achievements are not just temporary insertions. What we have to fight for is long term.
MS Some women participate in this patrilineal system because they know it will give them more credibility to be compared to Joseph Beuys or Andy Warhol than to Eva Hesse. They won’t tell you that such and such a woman was their teacher in grad school and probably the biggest influence on them. They may know it personally but they won’t say that to the interviewer from the art magazine. So that influence is written out of history, and you don’t have the sense of any kind of continuity, in the way that mainstream universalist art history builds on patrilineal genealogies so you can trace David Salle to Jasper Johns to Duchamp and validate each other in the process. If women perpetuate that, then that’s terrible, negating the women who did it the day before yesterday, not to mention the one who did it fifty years ago. You’ll be negated next.
SK The idea of loyalty, especially in the art world, seems foreign.
MS It’s foreign because those who have power have a stake in not promoting that loyalty. Women are desperate to survive and therefore they go where they think the power is. Yet the more mass of a movement you show to people the more impressive it becomes. Younger women don’t want to be considered in relation to the seventies at the same time wearing seventies clothes. Don’t ask me why these things go together. Every decade gets rehashed, that means we’re going to recycle the eighties within a year or so. The ultimate nightmare.
—Shirley Kaneda is a painter who lives and works in New York.