This article appeared in the “Rebonds” section of Libération on April 10, 2006. I wrote it with the generous collaboration of a number of friends, notably Annette Messager, Anne Ferrer, Virginie Despentes, Beatriz Preciado, Celia Houdart and Nelly Blumenthal, and the precious theoretical contribution of Anne Simon and Christine Detrez, whose book A leur corps défendant on women and art, appeared in June 2006 at Seuil Publishing house in Paris.
Translated from the French by Rachel Lomonaco
As someone coming from literature, I uncovered the world of art, and I learned a lot of things from it. For example, that women could not really construct a work of art. This was written in the catalogue devoted to painter Jean-Marc Bustamante (collection la création contemporaine, éditions Flammarion, 2005).
Christine Macel, who interviewed Xavier Veilhan, asked him why women “do not go the distance”, why so few “make it past ten years.” “You (Bustamante, Veilhan, or Thomas Hirschhorn) you produce so much, you experiment in different dimensions, there is a sort of flow. I asked myself recently why this is not the case with women.” And I thought of Louise Bourgeois, Annette Messager, Gina Pane (this word flow - flux), Rebecca Horn or Jenny Holzer, who still have to prove themselves.
We owe to Christine Macel the decisive exposition “Dyonisiac”, that I saw open in 2005 at the Centre Pompidou. An exposition devoted to promising artists, and very instructive: in front of a list of names, 14 masculine first names, I concluded that there was not one promising female artist in the world today…
Bustamante goes one better (it is necessary to cite everything from his inspired text, where we find the grandiose and 19th-century breath of a Michelot or a Renan: “Yes, man needs to conquer territories; woman finds her territory and she stays there…Women search for one man; a man wants all women. The woman, once she has found her territory, she stays there… Men are always searching for virgin territories.”
According to a prejudice that goes back to the first outlines of anthropology, woman was made for private space (the home, the “staff” that Veilhan will cite further on): in brief, the vagina and uterus. As if the shape of the sexual organs were able to form a thought. A prehistorian like Claudine Cohen shows that it is a complete fiction of science to think that Mr. Cromagnon was hunting the mammoth while Mrs. Cromagnon was waiting for him in the cave… Both were, at the least and on a regular basis, big hunters of ferocious weasels.
It is true that once a woman penetrates the self-named playing field of men, she is called a “phallic woman”: that is the term Macel uses to describe Louise Bourgeois. By a jump in historical thought, she attempts then to excuse these poor lingering females: “Women were not able to express themselves as artists until very recently, since the 70’s; before that few existed.” Sonia Delaunay, Maya Deren, Lili Brick, Germaine Richier, Barbara Hepworth… the list of these who were artists before the 70’s could be longer.
Certainly a woman who creates must take on the tools or language already formatted by a man’s world, which could add to the confusion of those whose thoughts are already confused. In effect, the dominated must pass by the field of the dominant in order to get out of it. A historical alternative was to reinvent the tools and symbols traditionally feminine, which explains why the 70’s were effectively seen as full of knits, sheets and houses, of blood cycles and feminine moods, portrayed in art. Without taking away their great rereading of the body and stereotypes, Orlan, Bourgeois, Messager… all evolved further in their explorations.
Yet Bustamante challenges their capacity ofr mobility. I continue to read, more and more astonished, learning for example that Nan Golding no “longer really moved” once she had found her line. But it is in the generalizations that Bustamante reaches his truly epic dimension: “Men take larger risks, such as being hated, being controversial, spending a long time in difficult fields.”
But maybe Bustamante is right. In the idiotic fashion of Mr. Homais: an insulting discourse but convenient, immemorially conventional. It is so reassuring, may the woman stays at home! With the additional cheap feeling (women work today) to give the impression of saying forbidden things… To men, then, the difficult things! If woman was made for the close and the easy, it is without a doubt because her baby sucks at her breast. And this must be because they are sensitive to the cold the women artists “knit” so often, and because they are so confined that they do not try to conquer the “virgin territories”. It is true that we still find people to exclude Orlan from the field of art, or Pipilotti Rist, or Sarah Lucas… or to say that they do not take any risks, certainly not any to be hated… But this notion of artistic risk that Bustamante uses, I know it well: it is also a bit dated, at least since the 70’s, since the masculine “bull’s horn” of Leiris.
Women artists will be then a bit “stay-at-home.” They “take refuge in the social hut where we want to see them (Veilhan)”. But if we include them in the artistic notions of music and letters, then in effect, a Duras or a Jelinek was always scared of the controversial, a Björk always dug the same furrow, and Simone Weil was always known for her quiet side. It would then be in art and strictly in art that women are good only for producing works in crochet? It is true that there are market laws… The galleries, who display them too little… And certain women themselves who, once they have a little bit of power, like Christine Macel, magnificently integrate the prejudices on their sex.
That men and women produce different works seems to me an idea rich, interesting, more than the pretended “neutered” often used for the word “masculine”. But as if by chance, this difference is generally used to minimize the works of women. Happily I write, I am not an “artist”, if not I would not dare to think that I have a brain, whose shape is not inevitably that of a uterus.