Sometimes I wonder why we revived you. Why do we turn to you in times of acute hesitation? As if you could beam forward the future of your own future by reassembling the past. You are a funny totem, you know, so full of sacred error…you were too busy going after humanism’s suspects you had no time for a new inflection of being.
— Avital Ronell, Crack Wars (1992)
In Crack Wars, Avital Ronell revives Flaubert’s Madame Bovary in order to recast this literary archetype as a study in modern disassociation—as a terminal apoplectic addicted to a self-induced state of perpetual dissatisfaction. And while Ronell successfully creates a parceled reality in which the death drive—not gender—is key, the phantasmagoric creature she conceives is undeniably feminine and irrevocably pathetic. She is damaged, weak, an exile from reality and the antithesis of the feminist ideal. Strangely, however, when taken out of context, the words above could easily be read as an indictment of the feminist movement itself…you were too busy going after humanism’s suspects you had no time for a new inflection of being. Hmmmm.
For several months now, feminism has been le mot juste in the art world. But feminism is today what it has always been: women of privilege rallying for the rights of the unempowered. Thus, any discussion of feminism is ultimately a discussion of failure—of the as-of-yet unrealized goals of a social movement. A debate about the relevance and underrepresentation of feminist art is something altogether different. Art is social theory once removed: it is the manifestation, not the means. As such, it should not be subject to rigid paradigms. Further, while people are still making work that reflects—even furthers—a feminist agenda, feminist art is neither a movement nor a genre. I firmly believe that art should be confronted subjectively but aesthetically, not biologically. This does not discount the importance of a work’s intent, subject or subtext, be it gender or otherwise identity-based; it simply insists that the quality of any given work be considered first. Relegation, after all, can quite easily lead to ghettoization.
Sitting in the park one afternoon, a small child approached me. Pulling up her dress and pointing at her panties she said, “I have a vagina.” After congratulating her, I turned to her parents and suggested that their next sit-down might include a discussion of not talking to strangers. The worst of what we call feminist art carries as base a sentiment as that three-year-old child’s understanding of her own anatomy. It’s counterintuitive and counterproductive. I’m with Ronell. It is high time for a new inflection of being: one that is celebratory without resorting to revisionist conceits and, most importantly, is inclusive. That’s how we messed up the first time around…and the second. The jury is still out on the third, but don’t expect a verdict anytime soon. I think they got distracted by a non-specific object.