Masculine Imperative: High Modern, Postmodern
Postwar feminism has consistently placed equal, if often uneasy, emphasis on both the symbolic and the material. In the United States, it was an "image protest" that carried the second wave to national prominence. During subsequent decades, activists and academics have waged a continuing (though far from unilateral) critique on the representation of women as constructed according to the conventions of literature, film, psychoanalysis, pornography, advertising, television, and all other forms of cultural production. Coextensive with these investigations of ideological constructions, feminists have been working against the immediate and experiential obstacles that restrict women's autonomy, such as those contained in discriminatory employment, unequal pay, inadequate healthcare, marriage laws and conventions, rape and other forms of sexualized abuse, and the systemic exclusion of women from positions of social and govemmental influence. The question of ascertaining a causality between the ideological and the material constrictions of women's experience has inspired some of recent feminism's most significant ruptures, including the segue toward psychoanalysis that occurred in England and France in the '70s, and the arguments around pornography that emerged in the United States during the early '80s.
How the iconographic affects and constructs lived experience is still an open debate: the material effects of recent activism are a bit less intangible. Social changes wrought by the Women's Liberation, Black Power, and Gay Rights movents have affected all areas of American life, including the production and reception of art. Since the late '60s, political activist demands for inclusion have inspired and often been concurrent with an emergence of related (fine) art practices and art practitioners: feminist art and female artist, antiracist art and nonwhite artists, gay art and "out" gay artists. Postmodernism, the slippery term currently in usage to describe the present moment, could be defined as exactly this politically engendered disruption of the (hegemonic) discourse of traditional European aesthetics.
The calls for an adjustment to the Eurocentric paradigm have met resistance in the art world, just as they have within other sectors of American society. One overt form of this resistance has been a resurgence, beginning in the early '80s, of "masculine" assertion from a significant number of heterosexual white male American artists. Before addressing the new (old) exclusionary character of the work, and how, despite its self-avowed "postmodernity," their work moves back to traditional and tradition-upholding male supremacy, it is necessary to uncover some aspects of the political bias of American High Modernism. (2) In the new "masculinity" of the postmodernity of the '80s and '90s, the masculine imperative of High Modernism continues unabated. In fact, it is almost as if the controlling codes of American social daminance that contained the '50s but 'were ' sublimated in the most successful art of the period reemerge, this time aggressively and overtly, in the celebrations of capitalism, male hegemony, and Eurocentrality that arrived within the so-called postmodernity of the early '80s.
Implicit messages about the male as normative are complicit with High Modernisim's conterminous insistance on form over content, on white male artists over anybody else; although the exclusionary ramifications of High Modernism are not expressively articulated within the doctrine because they are so neatly assumed and subsumed by it. During its hey day in the '50s, American Modernist art and criticism seemed, in many respects, to overthrow convention. Its retention of some of the Western tradition's central assumptions - i.e., the superiority of the male - has been difficult to see, and feminist art criticism has usually been looking elsewhere. The revisionist efforts of feminist art history and criticism since the seventies has largely focused on the necessary tasks of reclaiming thc "lost" contributions of female practitioners and theoretically exploring the consistent and different devaluations of the female image within the West's fine art continuum. Less attention has been paid to the cultural production of femininity's supposed "opposite": masculinity. Yet the construction and maintenance of a nude identity, according to an essentialized male-supremacist understanding of the male as normative and dominant, has been a central symbolic component of twentieth-century American art and of the European tradition from within which it finds meaning.
Apologists of High Modernism unabashedly proclaimed their purpose to maintain, through formalism and the eschewing of content, what Clement Greenberg called "the historical essence of civilisation." Maintenance of any kind is, by definition, conservative: the aims of High Modernism the conservation and uncritical valuation of European, especially "Parisian," civilisation. The "triumph" of American Modernism during the 50s was not an attack of the colony on the colonizer: New York Abstract Expressionism hoped to pick up the mantle of European civilisation, not discard it. The recent revisionism of this period by art historians such as Serge Guilbaut and T. J. Clark, while astute concerning many of the defining forces that characterized postwar America, still collaborate with the sexism of the pre-feminist period. (3)
Reconstructing Modernism (1990), for instance, a collection of essays edited by Guilbaut, features on its cover a Cecil Beaton photograph from a 1951 issue of American Vogue. The well-known image presents a thin white woman in a black satin strapless gown trimmed with a hot-pink bow, standing, gaze averted, in front of a huge, black and pink Jackson Pollock, Autumn Rhythm (1951). For both Guilbaut and Clark, the Vogue photo represents a crisis of intention, situation, and use for Pollock and Abstract Expressionism. In his extensive envy on Pollock included in the same anthology, Clark considers the Vogue photos at Iength: he is compelled to explain them, to understand them, to interrogate them, to position them, to deconstruct them. His chief concern is how these "fashion photographs" represent a "misuse" of Pollock and whether this misuse of "art" is inevitable. "The Vogue photographs matter," he writes, "because they bring to mind - or stir up in us - the most depressing of all auspicious we might have about modern art: the bad dream of modernity I shall call it." Yet how different are my nightmares from those of T. J. Clark! His concerns are that Pollock is reduced to "the fashionable," or to "the decorative." For him, the photographs are "nightmarish" because "they speak to the hold of capitalist culture, the way it outflanks any work against the figurative and makes it an aspect of its own figuration." Amazingly, Clark, while flxated on the woman/figure positioned in the foreground of Pollock's canvas, cannot see her. He accepts a priority it seems, that Pollock has been "trivialized" by the Vogue photograps without bothering to consider what allows him so easily to define what it is that for him constitutes "the trivial." Clark takes for granted that Vogue, the magazine and the context within which Beaton's photographs first appeared, is trivial. And he assumes, by extension, that blonde women in strapless gowns are, likewise, the very sign of the trivial. This is not at all what I see when I look at that by-now infamous series of Vogue photographs: I don't see the Pollock rendered decorative by the woman, I see the woman, already decorative by her position within male supremacy, further reinscribed as decorative, as object by the painting. I don't moan the loss of abstractions meaning, I cry that a modernist painting is imbued by Clark and others, with more acrious intentionality and purpose than they ascribe a woman-perhaps espcially a blonde woman in a black strapeless.(4) The "crisis" the Vogue photographs represent for some contemporary art historians is the same crisis they must have represented for Pollock and Greenberg: that the "art" was rendered trivial in being rendered "feminine". Pollock's work appeared in other magazines during the '50s and '60s, but it's the woman's fashion magazine Vogue that inspires/inspired alarm. Somehow, if Pollock is standing in front of his own canvas, as he appears in numerous other images of the period, the "art" isn't lost the way it is, for Clark, if a "fashion model" takes the artist's place. What is it that determines why Life magazine and a male body are synonymous with art but Vogue magazine and a female body put art in a "crisis" that calls forth "the bad dream of modernism"?
In one of his most famous essays, Greenberg equates practioners of formalist Modernism, who conform to an elite and exclusionary tradition with defenders of democratic ideals - and he designates those who criticize culture from a subordinated position as "plebeian" and "reactionary": "Then the plebian finds courage for the first time to voice his opinions openly. Most often this resentment toward culture is to be found where the dissatisfaction with with society is reactionary dissatisfaction which expresses itself in revivalism and puritanism and latest of all, in fascism." (5)
Greenberg, an educated white heterosexual male at the propellant center of (American) High Modernisms aims and audience, could not anticipate how those marginalized by this discourse-the "plebeian." the non-white, the non-male-might arrive at an emancipatory, rather than a reactionary, criticism of the avant-garde. (6) Greenberg's "avant-garde" carried the United States and its white male practitioners into new heights of cultural imperialism and individuated economic and professional success and it faithfully adhered to its program of essentialized civilization. lt neither sought nor effected any disruption of Euro-derived cultural hegemony, exepted that it tilted the center toward the American side of the Atlantic. During the '50s and '60s, those who attempted to enter art production on from outside its heterosexual-male, Euro-American, urban center-women, non-whites, gay men - were either prohibited from participating or were forced to deny difference and assimilate. In his attempt to explain how a few gay male artists identified with Pop came to eclipse the hetero-new Abstract Expressionists and dominate fine art during the repressive late '50s and early '60s, Jonathan Katz suggests that Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, because of their "closet" tradition as gay men, were best placed to conform to the politics of containment that defined the height of the Cold War period, that they were already positioned as "organizational men" who could "work, as they had all their lives, within the terms of the national consensus." And if gay codes and personal homosexual experience both influenced and were even then obvious in pop, as Katz observes, "to identify that queer voice is of course to self-identify as well, especially in the context of the '50s. So it's equally not surprisingly that the gay content of this artwork rarely made it into print.
Similarily, women artists, whose political status was not as easily rendered opaque, still attempted to be men "artists": like their literary precedents in the previous century, many tried to alter the public's awareness of their gender by creating or changing their female-coded first names. For instance, in the '50s and early '60s, Lee Krasner and Elaine De Kooning both chose to sign their work with initials only, Grace Hartigan briefly adopted "George" as her professional first name, and Sturtevant began and continues to work under the name "Sturtevant" only. American women artists active during the decades between World War II and the feminist movement of the '70s utilized a variety of strategies in their attempts to be adopted as artists, not women-because to be a woman was by definition not to be an artist. The masculinist bias that informs the critical and historical interpretation of the Pop Movement still prevails in two recent museum exhibitions devoted to the movement, "Pop Art:. An International Perspective" (mounted in 1991 by The Royal of Arts, London) and "Hand Painted Pop: American Art in Transition 1955-1962" (presented in 1993 by The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles). In her catalogue essay for the Los Angeles show, co-curator Donna de Salvo admits that artists not included in either of the two recent major exhibitions "like Martha Edelheit, Lettie Eisenhower, Roslyn Drexler, Niki de Saint-Phalle, and Marjorie Strider have been omitted from most studies of the period." (8) other active (female) participants simgularly excluded include Lee Bontecou, Carallce Schneemann, and Sturtevant. Women artists not anly face different, and more emphatic, career obstacles than their male counterparts, they are also much mare likely to be written out of history, even when they have (supposedly) succeseeded. But this continued erasure cannot be considered surprising given the blatant sexism which informs art's reception. Writing about the '70s, Lucy Lippard noted: "When somebody said 'You paint like a man,' you were supposed to be happy, and you were happy, because you knew you were at least making neutral art instead of feminine art - god forbid." (9)
The phrase "neutral art" expresses the requisites, and the myth, of High Modernism, which calls for an art that is hermeticaly sealed, an art separated from social and political circumstance and devoted only to itself, its "neutrality." of course, the "neutral" art first championed by Greenberg, New York Abstract Expressionism, was not and is not "neutral." Like the conceptualized "objectivity" in Continental philosophy and science upon which it is based, High Modemism is not' neutral": it is nationalized, racialized, and gendered. Whatever the importance of abstract art to shattering fine art's preoccupation with ism, whatever its "beauty," whatever its other intentions or affects, formalism's genesis and the continuation of its tradition cannot be separated from its celebration of nationalism and its sociopolitical formation as a white male American "triumph." (10)
The "value" that has been attributed to and continues to be accrued to American abstraction cannot be considered as in any way distinct from those cultural values most cherished during the historical period that permitted the movement's "triumph." Even to consider the art objects, the paintings, as distinct, isolatable cultural phenomena is entirely specious: the cultural evaluation of art is always too overdetemined by the categorical directives imposed by the site of its production and the social position of its producer. Jackson Pollock's paintings, for instance, cannot be considered distinct from those attributes Pollock, the straight white man, possessed that allowed for Greenberg to proclaim him "the greatest American painter of the 20th century," and for others to concur and (continue to) sustain that assessment. As Pollock's friend Bill Hopkins remarks in a biography of the artist, "He was the great American painter. lf you conceive of such a person, first of all, he has to be a real American, not a transplanted European. And he should have the American virtues-he should be rough-and-humble American tacitum - if he is a cowboy, so much the better." (11)
Not that it has changed in the profile of the American artist: with few exceptions. In contemporary New York art, a revenge against the "political disruption of straight white male centrality is visible in the work of numerous man-boy artists. A visible, or iconographic, as written of masculinity was not a necessary feature of it because the prerogatives of straight white maleness were contained within High Modernism's "objectivity," and the legal, educational, and social apparatus of the United States effetively discourged the entrance, and prohibited the success, of anyone else.
Beginning in the seventies and into the eighties, art that visibly critiqued High Modernism and asserted social difference began to emerge from practitioners outside the historically valuated class. Although this was of course not the first time women, nonwhites, or homosexuals "made art," it was during this decade that a widespread embrace of value contained in critiques of Eurocentrism, male supremacy, and compulsory heterosexuality began to take hold within art criticism and some museum institutions.
By the early 1980s, for the first time in Euro-American history, heterosexual white men could not expect to have complete control of all resources. Coming after a few thousand years of nearly absolute rights to property, education, money, jobs, prestige, government control, and cultural production as defined within and institutions by the laws and customs of the European tradition, the material effects of the black power, women's liberation, and gay rights movements caused psychic anxiety among those who had previously enjoyed nearly absolute privilege: straight white men. The art community in the United States was not just tangentially affected by the activist movements that slowly emerged out of the '50s and to become dominant forces from the mid-'60s into the late '70s. Although the civil rights and Black Power movements, the anti-Vietnam War campaigns, and the emergence of Gay Rights efforts have continued to influence American art since the '70s, the Women's Liberation Movement had the most immediate impact because, the other political mobilizations, it spawned an immediate visual arts movement. As an eruption against the prevailing aesthetics of Late Mode as contained in Modernism, the Feminist Art Movement introduced radical anti-Modernist concepts such as the refusal of formalism, championing of content, embracement of autobiography, denial of the fine art hierarchy, and, perhaps the most radical of all, the acknowledgment of female experience as a viable subject for art. The pervasive impact of the Feminist Art Movement in the United States, which included thousands of participants, hundreds of organizations, dozens of publications, and at Ieast two now-defunct educational institutions, has yet to be formally acknowledged by either the academic or museum apparatus (both a written history and a survey exhibition are awaited). But the Movement's effect is apparent in artists as Barbara Kruger, Jenny Holzer and Cindy Sherman, who are indebted to both the ideological and the structural changes forged by the Feminist Art Movement during the '70s. The legacy of the Movement continues on in the work of younger (women) artists, such as Janine Antoni, Kiki Smith, and Sue Williams. But it also informs the production of numerous other contemperary artists, not because they are working within an appreciation of the insights of form, but because they are working against them.
Epitheted by one London critic as "America's bad boy artist," Jeff Koons was one of the divergent group of "bad boys" who emerged onto the American art scene of the 1980s. "Bad Boys" no longer were abstract expressionists painters (Ross Bleckner and Caroll Dunham, for instance, are "good boys"), but always an intellectual and favor an "in your face" aesthetic similar to that employed by the boy in a Norman Rockwell painting who mischievously pushes a frog under a girl's nose. Hence the faux-dangerous term "bad boy". Probably the most commercially succesful of the New York artists of the '80s, Koons's first exhibited works included inflatable plastic flowers, vacuum cleaners sealed in plexiglass boxes, and appropriated advertisements. The most internally consistent and interesting aspect of his work has been its attempt to assault and subvert High Modernist "taste." Koons has routinely taken objects of mundane utility, such as vacuum cleaners and basketballs, and items of Greenbergian "kitsch," such as plastic bunnies and cheap roadside souvenirs, and successfully sold them into the fine art continuum - although the ostensible joke on capitalism, on commodity fetishism, is itself a joke: the art's experience as a stockbroker success - fully informed his marketing stratgies. Though packaged and sold as the product of a "rebel," Koons's work does nothing to disrupt the dominant aesthetics of straight white nude centrality. In fact, it reinscribes it.
In the Iate 1980s, Koons shifted his interest in hypercommodification away from exclusively inanimate objects. A 1988 sculpture of two Caucasian children, naked, marked a turn that would inspire the artist's production for the next five years. Koons has described Naked as follows: "The young boy and young girl are like Adam and Eve, overly standing on a heart that's flowered."(6) The piece was first exhibited with twenty kitsch-inspired sculptures, including others with Biblical references such as serpents and John the Baptist Naked calls forth the Judian determination for female subjugation made cohesive in the Adam and Eve myth. In Genesis, the male preexists the female, and, in fact, the female is a parasite, created from the male rib. Genesis is also the primary Western text to establish the female as evil: Eve is the original heretic, liar, and sinner, and because of her disobedience all of her female deserve and will receive punishment. After Eve eats a piece of (forbidden) fruit, "God said to the woman, 'You shall bear children in intense pain and suffering; yet even so, you shall welcome your husband's affections, and he shall be your master' " (Genesis 3:16). Genesis assigns womnn/women responsibility for her oppression, designates her as heterosexual, dictates reproductive intercourse as normative sex, and names man as woman's rightful master. Koons's Naked, as a "faithful" illustration of Judaism and Christianity, depicts two Caucasian children genitally naked as male and female, as inscriptions of whiteness and heterosexuality. Me "sentimentality," of which Koons is conscious, is a fantasy of innocence romanticized according to the mythic prerequisites of Europatriarchy.
Few narratives in Western history carry either the misogyny or the historical influence of the old Testament's first book. Koons evidently flirted with the story of Adam and Eve: much of his work since 1988, which frequently uses the nude body of his wife, Ilona Staller, maps that narrative. And perhaps the artist's desire to "return to the Garden of Eden" is a trip of less historical distance than the site of his intent at first glance suggests. Perhaps, for Koons and other straight white American men, "the Garden of Eden" is the 1950s, when, like the biblical Adam, they reigned supreme.
In 1988-89, Koons exhibited a series of self-advertisements in four art magazines. In the flrst, published in Flash Art, his head is between two pigs. The word "pig" holds a specific place in American slang: as a derogatory term for a member of the police force and/or for a bigoted person, as in "male Chauvinist pig." To all critiques Koons has explained: "I wanted to debase myself, and became myself a pig, before the viewer." (14) In the Arts ad Koons clad in a crested robe before and flanked by two women; unlike the pigs in the earlier image, the women are visual subordinates, not equals. Centrally positioned in a frame, Koons is constructed as the "master," perhaps the king, of a tropical paradise; there are stand-ins for (black) slaves. In the Artforum ad, Koons assumes another power position, that of a ruler. He appears before a class of white schoolchildren in front of a blackboard that shows a Greenberg-like mock aphorism: "Exploit the Masses/Banality as Saviour." (15) In a fourth Koons ad, paid for in Art, women are added to animals and children as another class subjuncted to Koons. Koons is dressed in artist black and two women are (un)dressed in black, one woman is seated, her legs open, on the ground, her left hand holding the open mouth of a miniature horse whose head is located in front of Koons's crotch. A blond woman is offering Koons a cake. This fantasy is set, like many of Koons's works, in an outdoor, "natural" setting, his "Garden of Eden," that my" site where God made man master over women. Koons further perpetuates Euro-Christian mythology in rendering -"the original human" white.
In 1990, Koons began exhibiting photography-based paintings and various sculptural forms of himself and his wife engaged in sexual activities. lt has been suggested, albeit unconvincingly, that pornography is simply an addition to Koons's repertoire of hypertrophied kitsch. For instance, Carter Ratcliff states ihat Koons asserts "the dreariest generalities of banal taste and pomographic sexuality, including ihe cliche of the insatiable child with hairless pudenda." (16) This completely denies the function the conventions of pornography play to maintain a sexualized class system: the ideological components activated, for instance, by "the insatiable child-woman with hairless pudenda " normal sex violence: of children, by mystifying and misinterpreting their powerlessness as comdousness ("Lolita"), of women, by displacing male violence onto desire (she is "insatiable").
The pornographic paintings and sculptures Koons exhibited at the Venice Aperto in 1990 and at Sonnabend Gallery in 1991 are reinscribing the narrative of straight white male valuation, basrd as they are on the "original" text of female subordination. Koons has repeatedly stated that "IIona and I are the contemporary Adam and Eve." Interestingly, Koons situates himself as Adam when Adam was still in God's favor, while Staller is visually constructed as a "fallen" Eve.
Sometime in 1989, Koons announced his plan to make a film, Made in Heaven. that would feature himself fucking/raping/plugging/ploughing - whatever verbs are upheld by the contemporary use of the term "pornography" by a heterosexual male - his wife. The title of the film, and Koons's comments about it, like Naked, within a symbolic space of Adam and Eve. While declaring himself "Adam" and his wife "Eve", the film's title also suggests that we accept Koons as "God," just as advertisements suggest we accept him as "king" and "teacher" even if we know he is a "pig." one can also assume that Koons is speaking for himself, within his (dominant) position as a straight white: "There are no barriers at all in the world, and this is one of the things that the film is communicating." Whose world? is the question he chooses to skip. It is it not possibte to interpret Koons's need to aresponse to the threat posed by non-straight-white males to his historically previous centrality?
At 1990 Venice Bienale, where Koons was included in the Aperto, he was using Staller as his prop, in upstaging the (woman, chosen for the more prestigious American Pavilion. As Vogue noted, "At the Bienale where Jenny Holzer represented the United States and won the prize for 'best pavilion,' the work was all about Koons."l" who is doing all the talking? Koons could, and in many ways did, upstage the first woman to be chosen to represent the United States in Venice, is an instance of how art produced by a rnan is considered more valuable than that made by a woman, by virtue of the cultural assumption that men are more valuable than women. Of course, the valuation of art has been and continues to be detemined as much by who product it as by what that art might be. Even prestigious awards, such as the Venice prize, when bestowed upon them, but rather lower the "value" of the award (until another white male receives it).
lf Koons were the only artist involved in reactivating an art of white male domination, it might be possible to isolate his individuated psyche needs from those of a more general cultural apparatus. But he isn't. Since the mid-'80s, during the period when a number of American women artists began to adopt the institutional laurels of "superstar" status, there has been a backlash of visibly misogynist art produced in New York, and rewarded by the most prestigious collectors, galleries, and museums, a backlash against female and the women's art movement of the mid-'70s was already in place by the beginning of the eighties, when Neo-Expressionism dominatod New York's critical and financial markets with artists such as Eric Fischl and David Salle, who revived the 19th-century tradition of objectifying the female nude, and Julian Schnabel and Ross Bleckner, who reintroduced the gestural grandiosity of Expressionism. But the most consistent perpetrator during the Eighties was art produced by Richard Prince.
Like Koons, Prince began his New York career in the early -'80s with exhibitions of advertisements and other "rephotographed" images from magazines. In 1988 he began to exhibit paintings for the first time. The large monochrome canvases, as Gary Indiana noted then, "index the high spiritual ambitions of Abstract Expressionism - what might be called America's aesthetic establishment,"(18) and, what might be called America's late-great all-male art club. The first "Joke" paintings included text; later they would include cartoon imagery, mostly drawn from the '50s, the American male modernist's "Garden of Eden," when men were men and women were their subordinates and American Abstract Expressionism reigned supreme. The textual elements in the joke paintings, which Prince is still producing, include varied referents, such as talking animals, the Vietnam War, salesmen, and psychologists. But the most persistent theme running through the series is sexism: the completion of Prince's "jokes" depend on the viewer's agrement, and sympathy, with social/sexual order constructed in the text. Four typical paintings from Prince's "joke" series, exhibited at the "Metropolis" exhibition in Berlin in 1991, reproduce a narrative of white male domination and female subordination. The silkscreen canvas, series inrcludes a line drawing of a domestic interior juxtaposed with images of a white male boxer(s). The white male athlete, cropped variously, is gloved, in the ring, fighting. His struggle, to the visual and verbal syntax of these canvases, is with the home and "the female", although he could also be fighting to "get back in the ring," to be that white hope." American boxing, originally an all-white male sport, then a racially segregated all-male sport, has been successfully dominated by black men since 1959, when the U.S. Supreme Court declared the sport's racial ban unconstitutional.
In Good Revolution (1991), Prince's white male boxer heroically dominates the canvas: he is centrally positioned and takes up most of the space. The "home" interior, including two beds and a bit of kitchen, occupies a small area. lt is, in fact, "behind" the boxer, which has been on top of it. The text reads, "Do you know what it means to come home at night to a woman who give you a little love, a little affection, a little tendemess? lt means you're in the wrong house, that's what it means." The text, which Prince has used often before, the title, Good Revolution, and the boxer's visual domination of the "home," suggest a reassertion of male prerogative. lt inscribes the place of woman as "the home," and her occupation within it to "give," and asserts that women's labor should continue to be, as it has been throughout most of history, unpaid, for free, a (legally and socially enforced) "gift." The boxer's domination of the home is constructed as a response to the male anger articulated in the text: the "revolution" of the title is a hope, fantasized in the visual iconography, that men will "reclaim" their power over women. lt is also a hope whose reason rests on a sociological delusion: men still dominate women, in the home as elsewhere, just as white men still dominate black men, even if black men now dominate boxing.
In Sampling the Chocolate (1991), the visual construction is similar: three variously cropped white male boxer images are juxtaposed over line drawings of an interior and a cityscape. The text across the bottom reads: A man walked into a doctor's office to get a check-up. After the examination the doctor says to the man, I've got good news and I've got bad news. The bad news is you're going to die in a year and there's nothing you can do about it. The good news is I'm having an affair with my secretary." Here the "joke" may seem to be the disjunction between the doctor's news, that the "good" news is of no relevance to the "dying" man. Yet from a male supremacist position, the disjunctive element is rendered continuous: while one man is going to die ("bad" for the male power class), another, living, is maintaining male power through the economic and sexual subordination.
In Why Did the Nazi Cross the Road? (1991), the home sketches occupy most of the space and the boxer is positioned walking off the right of the canvas. The text reads, "A man was on safari with his native guide when they came upon a beautiful blonde bathing naked in the stream. 'My god, who's that?' the man asked. 'Daughter of missionary, bwana,' was the reply. 'l haven't seen a white woman in so long,' the man sighed, 'that I'd give anything to eat her.' So the guide raised his rifle to his shoulder and shot her." The racist implications here are obvious: the woman is shot because the "native" is a cannibal, and the cannibal assumes the white man means "to eat" literaly. And perhaps the woman must be killed because the white's man's desire "to eat her" doesn't conform to patriarchy's system of female sexual subordination, which requires the man to fuck/rape her, to subordinate through sexual violence and for the resultant childbearing.
Of course Prince probably claims he doesn't mean what he says: one consistent feature of post-1980 New York bad boy/white boy art is that it attempts to situate itself as irony and even "critique." one begins to wonder, though, why commercially and critically successful American art employs so much irony and so little critique." Koons and Prince, for instance, have usually been permitted to read as "mirrors" (rather than inscribers) of dominant and reactionary cultural vatues, especially that of male supremacy. But mirroring is, of course, a reproductive strategy. Though Prince's work, like Koons's, may assault standards of "gentility," neither artist ever assaults the basic power prerequisites that determine meaning in contemporary American society: money, class, masculinity, and a Euro-derived ethnicity. In fact, quite the opposite. Koons and Prince, while engaged with a mass culture visual play similar to that first offered in the Pop Art of the late '50s and early '60s, remain faithful adherents to conservative mass culture values-especially the "value" of maleness.
An assertion of male superiority is of limited use value unless it also establishes whom the male is superior to (i.e., the female): must visual inscriptions of maleness include, as Koons's and Prince's do, the denigration of the female. The works of Pruitt-Early also feature objectified female nudes and utilize the pornographic, as Koons does, to reinscribe the male prerogative of female sexual availability. In the scribbled narratives of Sean Landers, female sexual availability is often equated with art world success. His texts, on yellow legal paper and exhibited at eye level at PostMasters and Andrea Rosen in 1991 and 1992, put forth a male narrator whose self-pity derives from the injustices he perceives to be perpetrated on him by the refusal of galleries to show him, and the refusal of women to be fucked by him. In Landers's narratives his art and his Penis consistently meet the same fates, they collapse into/are the same thing.
Within the practice of artist Matthew Barney this construction of "the male" as a sign of value reaches dizzying heights. lt is no coincidence that Barney's first New York solo show, which was preestablished to proclaim him as an art star, appeared in the autumn of 1991, during the height of economic anxiety within the New York art community. The sense of despair and of impending catastrophe was so high that the summer months had been dominatod by a unquenchable rumor that the Mary Boone Gallery was going bankrupt.
Matthew Barney was presented, and accepted, as the "great white hope." Under twenty-five, straight, white, male, and a fashion model with a Yale BFA, Barney was in the autumn of 1991 for Barbara Gladstone and conservative critics what Pollock was in the postwar period for Betty Parsons and Clement Greenberg- America's art opportunity. of course, the stakes were considerably different: whereas in the '50s the U.S.A. had to prove itself capable of leading fine art, in the early '90s the U.S.A. had to prove itself capable of holding en to the lead. What was most compelling about the Barney ascension was how predictable it was. (21) In desperation, the art community attempted to resurrect the past: the straight white man as savior. Straightness and whiteness were nocesug to the marketing, but the most crucial aspect to Barney, the foundation of his work, was and is its insistence en masculinity as the determinant of value.
Barney's 1991 show at Barbara Gladstone, his earlier works at Yale University at Stuart Regan in Los Angeles, and his subsequent installations in San Francisco, at Documenta 9, all revolve around a formulation of maleness constructed by (male) athletics.(22) Unlike other male purveyors of debased female iconography, Barney doesn't visually or verbally index women in his work. Like professional American football, Barney eliminates the female before the game even gets started-or perhaps Barney is Adam before God created Eve from his rib. Although within Barney's work man does, like Adam, create woman: The only female images are those of men in women's clothes, that is, men creating (themselves as) women. His work consistently shows various forms of male-coded biological- like materials, such as wax that looks like cum, and tapioca that resembles sperm. These oozy materials collaborate to form various sports-resemblant devices, such as bench presses and shoulder pads. It suggests that the body of man produces, biologically and therefore inevitably, athletic prowess, and this characteristic is, within an art context, the production of value itself.
Barney's videos, which document the artist's adventures with his objects and are considered by many to be his "real" work, are enactments of a male identity continually reconstructed aspects. Barney is not gay, and anybody can "see" he's not a woman. The sculptural assert a masculinity, and unlike the videos, they are fixed stable - and for sale! Whatever fluctuations of sexual identity occur in the video, in the locker-room maleness of the sculptures, sexual difference asserts itself as male domination. Based on biological understandings of maleness, Barney's sports objects, like Prince's Boxer, index and celebrate the only remaining a - male arena in U.S. amicty: Professional sport. in doing so, Barney's work goes back to the moment, still within memory, when fine art was as rnale exclusive as the Oakland Raiders, when women were cast as cheerleaders and only men were allowed to play the field.
The regressive fantasies of male exclusivity activated in the work of Koons, Prince, Barney, and their less famous fellow travelers on the road to that last big football game in the sky coexist with contemporaries who are actively pursuing an art that doesn't rely on the reification of traditionally historicized power one of the most potentially emancipatory features of some recent American art is its continued struggle to wrestle meaning out from under the formalist entrenchment proscribed under High Modernism. Not satistied by the possibilities of a merely descriptive or sociologically based practice, the most radical artistic investigations utilize a strategy that relies on the pretense of neutrality. Artists engaged with this type of production work with various visual strategies and according to different ethical and political priorities. That have produced such a wide range of activity, including the work of Adrian Piper, Hans Haacke, Louise Lawler, Barbara Krüger, Jenny Holzer. Renee Green, David Hammons, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Sue Willams, Fred Williams, Donald Mogett, Gary Simmons, Susan Silas, Sherrie Levine, Loma Simpson, as well as that of so many other critically engaged contemparary artists are as simple as they are complex. They stem from a basic premise of hope based in knowledge and the destruction of (false) myth; excepting Haacke, who is working from an Marxist perspective, this aesthetic criticality is embodied in contemporary American art drawn from the hopes and demands of the Black Power, Women's Liberation and Gay Rights movements. But art that legitimizes the power relations of Euro-derivative male domination has been a steady American cultural product during the 20th century. We must continue to interrogate who and what our society values - and why.
This essay was first published in New Feminist Criticism, ed. by J. Frueh, C. Langer and A. Raven (New York: Harper Collins, 1994), pp.133-151
1. To "protect the image of Miss America, an image that oppresses women in every area in which it purports to represent us, "demonstrators in Atlantic City in September 1968 threw bras, girdles and copies of "women magazines" into a trash can, according to the leaflet No More Miss America!, reprinted in Sisterhood is Powerful, ed. Robin morgan (New York: Random House, 1970), p.585.
2. I use "High Modernism" to refer to the undersanding of Modernism put forth by Greenberg.
3. Sexism is a central impasse in the development of contemperary Marxist theory. How completely traditional Marxism, with its assumption of a (male) working class is rendered inadequate when problematized by the "woman question" is manifest in the glaring instability of just one line from British Marxist Terry Eagleton's Ideology (London: Verso, 1991). Attempting to be "sensitive" to feminism, Eagleton introduces shifting pronouns (some "he," sometimes "she") So that during a on of Lukacs, Eagleton asks, "How does the worker constitute herself as a subject on the basis of her objectification?" (p. 103), With the use of shifting pronouns, Eagleton attempts to degender "the revolutionary subject"
but that is, of course, impossible, because the worker who seeks to constitute herself as a subject is to objectified in ways that the worker who seeks to constitiute himself as a subject is not. That women are historically determined as both "commodity and class", as materialist feminists such as Christine Delphy and Catharine MacKinnon have argued, must be made central to Marxism, if its critical theory is to hold any emancypatory value.
4. Timothy J. Clark, "Jackson Pollock's Abstraction," in Reconstructing Modernism, edited by Serge Guilbaut (Cambridge: MIT Press. 1990). In the afterword to his essay, Clark admits that he has neglected the "matter of Pollock's gender". For him this means omissiion of the discussion of Pollock's "drips" as a construction of "sexual difference".
5. Clement Greenberg, "Avant-Garde and Kitsch," first published in Partisan Review, Fall 1939; reprinted in Clement Greenberg: The Collected Essays and Criticism,vol.1, ed. John O'Brian (Chicago: University Press, 1986), pp. 5-22. Greenberg almost certainly is thinking here of Nietzsche's argument about the "politics of resentment", but he too willingly transposes the historical situation of Europe in the 1920s to the American scene of the late 1930s.
6. Cassandra Langer has suggested that Greenberg's positioning of himself as a critic "for exclusion" should be considered in relationship to the social prejudice and assimilation process American Jews endured during and after World war II.
7. Jonathan Katz, "Culture and Subculture", paper delivered at the College art Association Convention, Washington, D.C., 1991. For another discussion of the context of gayness that informs Johns, see Jonathan Weinberg, "It's in the Can: Jasper Johns and the Anal Society", Genders (Spring 1988) , University of Texas Press: 41-56.
8. Donna de Salvo, "Subjects of the artists': Towards a Painting without ideals," Handpainted Pop: American Art in Transition 1955-62, ed. Russell Ferguson (Los Angeles: Museum of Contemporary Art, 1993), p. 70.
9. Lucy R. Lippard, "What is female Imagery?" Ms., May 1975, reprinted in Lucy R. Lippard, From the Center (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1976), p.89.
10. The political use of High Modernism, specifically abstraction, as a symbol of antifacism and, after World war II, anticommunism, is documented by Serge Guilbaut in How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983).
11. Budd Hopkins, as quoted in Jackson Pollock, by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith (New York: Clarkson N. Potter, 1989), p. 595
12. Tavia M. Fortt and Terry R. Myers call into question how the white boy politics of the New York School continue to be played out, not only in the ongoing legacy of "white boy abstraction", but in the white boy basis/bias that continues to inform all and various kinds of masculine assertion and the essentialization of a male identity include Vito Acconci, Chris Burden and Mike Kelley. thanks to Adrian Piper for reminding me of these three "Bad litte Boys", as she calls them.
13. Jeff Koons, as quoted in "Super Star", by Andrew Renton, Blitz, January 1990, p. 55.
14. Jeff Koons, as quoted in "Jeff Koons and The Art of the Deal", by Andrew Renton, Performance (London), September 1990, p. 26.
15. The Artforum ad was included in Adrian piper's photo-text collage Ur-Mutter #8, 1989, next to an image of an impoverished black African woman holding a child. As a contrast to koons's smug, well-fed face and his suggestion to "exploit the mases", the words "fight or die" appear under Piper's image, suggesting that Piper does not interpret Koons's work with the "irony" his supporters insist upon.
16. Carter Ratcliff, "Not for Repro", Artforum, February 1992, pp. 82-85.
17. Dodie Kazanjian, "Koons Crazy", Vogue, August 1990, p.338.
18. Gary Indiana, "Tell me Everything", Village Voice, art supplement, May 3, 1988, pp. 8, 10-11.
19. One of the more interesting aspectsof the contemporary American visual art "world" - of artists, dealers, critics, collectors - is how many wish to be considered participants on the emancipatory side of history, and so few do the work necessary to be so.
20. For a discussion of the masculine construct in Pruitt-Early and Candy Ass, see my "Negotiating masculinity and representation", Contemporanea, December 1990, pp. 46-51.
21. Before his first solo show in new york, Barney exhibited in Los Angeles at the gallery of Barbara Gladstone's son, Stuart Regan. Before the nearly identical show opened in New York at Gladstone's gallery, Barney was featured in a full-page review in Flash Art, in a two page rave review in Arts and on the cover of Artforum - the first time any artist has ever been featured on the cover of Artforum without having had a show in New York. The Gladstone show was then featured in a longish review in the New York Times, written by the spouse of the reviewer who had given the rave in Arts, which significantly, appeared during the earlier part of the show's run (first-time solo shows, if ever covered in the Times, are more often run just before the show closes, and most often occupy under three column inches; the piece on Barney's show ran over twelve). Barbara Gladstone also represents Richard Prince.
22. The discussion of Mathew Barney is taken from my column "Art & Thought", NYQ, November 24, 1991, p. 41.