Friday, February 26, 2010

feminism and fence posts

There has been a certain amount of discussion around the recent Manchester exhibition of surrealist artists "Angels of anarchy". Kenneth Cox of the Leeds Surrealist Group has written a good and interesting piece of criticism posted here. I must note that most of Kenneth's observations and several of the points he makes are ones that I'd have liked to make myself; the old mill of internal discussion went slowly as it often does and it seemed somehow reasonable that I'd fail to write a huge criticism of an exhibition I had not been able to go and see myself. But there are also some points I'd like to raise in the context, which are not criticisms of things expressed in or necessarily implied by Kenneth's text, but clarifications and modified emphasises I'd like to make to the surrounding, implicit and issuing discussion of these issues.

Kenneth takes this as a pretext to restate surrealism's case against those academics that live off it. This is not new and not very exciting but it is perfectly legitimate and potentially informative to pull it when getting access to a particular new forum, as it seems to be in this case (and sure, uninspired polemics, even on this site, often takes the shape of repeating long available metacritique that remains valid against all kinds of new attacks as long as they are unimaginative and predictable). But the superordination of that particular aspect seems to imply an assessment which I'd like to point out could turn out differently. I mean, what actual power does the academic or artlife frame has to actually disarm and neutralise the subversive content of surrealist painting? Can't the remarkable artworks just as well falsify the ideological framing in the presentation rather than the opposite? Here, Kenneth remains open to this possibility but still emphasises the negative view.

But connected with this, what power does the actual discourse of curators and academics have to neutralise the actual questions they're adressing by presenting ideological answers? Don't they continue to itch, spur and challenge people's own thoughts and potentially provoke individual radical conclusions, regardless of how ingeniously they are raised in the service of an irrelevant, domesticating or parasitizing rhetoric?

I also cannot let go this occasion to readdress the relationship between surrealism and feminism. In this, I am not specifically addressing standpoints made in the text: Kenneth does not put the two in any necessary opposition nor denounces the latter as such. But as this is an old discussion between ourselves and the Leeds group, as well as between others in the surrealist movement, I will repeat some arguments. I certainly agree with the actual specific critical points Kenneth makes, but I'd like to emphasise that this critique of particular strategies among feminists does not imply a dismissal of feminism but could be equally valid from within a feminist framework. There is also the possibility that misunderstandings arise due to semantic questions not just as products of different political experiences but of actual historical differences between the women's movements, and the labels its different branches utilise, in different countries. I am here employing a very broad sense of feminism (further explicated in the following).

If we immediately consider a real opposition to the struggles and aims of the women's movement as obviously absurd and antisurrealist ("there is no such thing as partiarchal subordination or injustice between the sexes anymore" or "there is nothing wrong with a little patriarchal subordination or injustice between the sexes"), there are still a few not uncommon ways of expressing strong reservations against feminism among some surrealists.

One is the ultrasituationism of considering "feminism" as necessarily an ideology and as such necessary diametrically opposed to the struggle of women and to any emancipatory struggle. Such paranoid apriori-assessments is not what we need in surrealism. If we consider what feminism is, it is a very broad international cluster of different groups struggling in different arenas, with different methods and with different political perspectives but largely united against structural injustices, against wage differences for men and women, against violence towards women, against confinement to family-raising and household chores, against everyday depreciation of women's desires, opinions and interests, against sexual coercion and manipulation, against patriarchal ideology, against prostitution and pornography industries, etc etc. Some of these questions are even more straightforward than others, and they will all be given different emphasis in different foci of struggle depending on the historical particulars, the class base of the activists, the local experiences, the general level of democracy, the social structure, and the intensity of other specific confontations and general class struggle. Indeed some people will toss up an ideology based on it, and indeed some people will make a career out of it. But does that make the actual questions, and the actual confrontations brought about by addressing them, less meaningful? Does that mean that the entire field is contaminated and must be abandoned and never spoken about again? I do not think so. For example, we didn't abandon surrealism in the face of an overwhelming international opinion knowing it to be an inconsequential direction in art, as it has repeatedly been transformed into by individuals making ideology and carreer out of it...

The second line of reasoning that would make it meaningful to dismiss feminism is the generalising argument; since we are in favor of the emancipation of all humanity it does not make sense to support the emancipation of a partial set of humanity. This is indeed principled ultraradicalism to the point where it becomes entirely abstract and apolitical. First of all, excuse me a simple analogy; because we are in favor of the emancipation of all humanity, we couldn't give a damn about the struggles of immigrants, of blacks, of children against their families, of the sentenced, mad and troubled against the institutions confining them, of the insistently imaginative against forces censoring and disciplining them, and we would have no interest whatsoever in the action of the working class? That does not seem to go well along with surrealism as hitherto manifested. Any political reasoning will want to identify questions and fronts of struggles which have a potential of organising people and help them to take action against the current order in any way which seems temporarily or generally effective to radicalise people and deepen conflicts and eventually claim actual progresses and victories. Even if we refrain from the sectarian left's beloved game of betting on for example various states and national liberation struggles as potential strongholds against imperialism, it seems obviously meaningful to somehow support (rather than speak against) the most obvious broad currents of resistance, reevaluation and challenge of the current order in our immediate environment, based on an spontaneous solidarity as well as an assessment of their general direction and particular potential rather than necessarily on a complete agreement with their temporary forms of organisation and positions.

It just doesn't seem to make much sense to us for a surrealist not to be a feminist. As we pointed out in a recent addressal of the question of surrealism politics issuing from Leeds, we do consider feminism one of the most immediately relevant fields of current political application of surrealism.

And, a flawed, poorly informed and ideologically pointed presentation of female surrealist artists' works, and a flawed, poorly informed and ideologically pointed addressal of questions of the conditions and conflicts surrounding women's voices, creativity and participation in emancipatory movements, have a great potential of sparking fruitful real experiences and real thoughts and is therefore not just better than silence but actually very welcome from a strategical perspective too.

M Forshage


M said...

Ok, I have argued and will keep arguing that selection and presentation is not a big problem in itself when it involves exposing great art which triggers imaginational and critical dynamism of its own.

Of course I too think it is frustrating and boring to see old myths repeated, old flaws passed on and reinforced. I do however think that this is partly a problem within academia only, and therefore one which is not necessarily of importance to real-life activities. But I am not sure. And there is clearly a problem when the back of the catalog of the Angels of Anarchy boldly states: "Angels of Anarchy is the most comprehensive and up-to-date survey yet of the women who contributed so much to the surrealist movement". No. Not so. This might be the case regarding the exhibition, as an exhibition. But it is definitely not the case regarding the catalog of the exhibition, as a book. As it stands on the book cover, apparently relating to the book itself, this is effectively a BLATANT LIE that tries to deny Penelope Rosemont's groundbreaking Surrealist women anthology. Throughout the catalog, there are very few reference to that true standard work. The critical question is then that if this book receives major circulation as the standard work on female surrealists instead of Surrealist women, a major chance of enlightening the public is lost (in fact, it's not entirely wrong to paranoically see the Angels of Anarchy catalog as THE academic backlash against the major advance of Penelope's book). This is not necessarily a big issue in itself, and if academics continue in wilful ignorance is certainly not our problem, but it certainly is a problem IF poetic spirits searching comrades come across this kind of "standard works" too early and find them too discouraging so that they do not proceed to search for other, contemporary and/or better-informed sources on/from surrealism.

And then, as a "standard work", the selection itself will become slightly more significant as it will represent the official-academic-historical canon of what constitutes female surrealism. This makes the "creative choices" of the curators ambiguous, those judgments that diverge from factual historic importance within surrealism; the selections that focus on artists that are more the critic's darlings than important people in surrealism, as well as inclusion of artists who are peripheral or ignorant to the surrealist activities, surrealist attitudes and surrealist ideas. Within the context of the exhibition only, this is just a matter of their being weighed in practice against the others to see if their content live up to the company. But in terms of establishing canon, they are clearly ideological. Consider that:

M said...

1) It seems like a never-failing lithmus test to make a distinction between people who are knowledgeable about and sympathetic to the cause of surrealism and those who are not, to choose between Toyen and Frida Kahlo. To most surrealists, Toyen is clearly one of the 20th century's greatest painters while Kahlo is an interesting tangential dreamer, while to most academics, Kahlo is the emblematic female surrealist and who was Toyen now again?
2) of the artists in the Angels of Anarchy show that were not surrealists themselves, it seems to me that Lola Alvarez Bravo serves a merely documentary interest, Penny Slinger is clearly inferior to real surrealists, Marion Adnams well defends her place among old-school pictorial surrealism but does not offer anything new, while Francesca Woodman clearly has a dynamic vision to offer (but may obviously not deserve this central place at others' expense, if it is about establishing canon here)
3) a certain overexposure of artists like Claude Cahun and Lee Miller (currently popular among critics) is not at all a problem since they are always great, which goes even for a more peripheral surrealist like Leonor Fini, and, if it wasn't so symptomatic, Frida Kahlo. But it is a bit frustrating that not more effort has been made to find and show works by several female surrealists, most strikingly Toyen, but also very importantly Pailthorpe within England, and all the danish female surrealist artists, etc.
5) it is on one hand interesting to see that postwar surrealists are actually included in the exhibition, implying an acceptance that surrealism did not die with the second world war (and possibly holding the door open for it actually even not to have died in the 60s), notably czech Medkova and Svankmajerova, belgian Baes and Graverol, and Exandier and Parent (plus Elisa Breton) in France, but then why not dozens of others? This small selection is not just small but looks to some extent completely arbitrary. Still, very few of these (Svankmajerova & Exandier) were born after the 20s, and, more significantly, they are all DEAD now anyway. We can't allow surrealism that close to being alive and contemporary, can we?
Ok, most of this has more or less been said already about the show, I just didn't want to make an impression of being too friendly just because I think there is always a point in showing art by female surrealists and raising questions of sexual politics.