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Jul 03 2010

Art week brings you a spot of art

Sue Williams, 1992It’s the last day of Art Week, so I thought I’d better actually squeeze in some actual art. Here’s a painting by Sue Williams.* A Funny Thing Happened, 1992. It comes with a trigger alert.

This painting, about 4′ square, sold for $61,000 in 2008.

The picture depicts three rape scenarios: the first begins with the protagonist wearing “pretty new shoes” and ends with the victim’s beheading and inner uncertainty about what just happened (“now what is it I’m feeling?” asks her disembodied head). In the second (“Funnier”) the victim fights back, but it is unclear whether she is successful. In the third (“Funniest”) a nail-polished hand fires a gun at a set of disembodied dude-organs (“Oh geez, is it really all that bad?” asks the hand. “Don’t shoot” says the dude-organ).

On the edge of the picture, a headless angel flap flap flaps, captioned “too late” and “couldn’t decide.”

What you can’t make out from my bootlegged JPEG are the tiny scribbled inscriptions that reveal, comic book-style, the woman’s inner monologue, some Greek chorus stuff, and the male figures’ (rapist, doctor) out-loud utterances.

“– and don’t forget to dress for success! the Dali Lama”

“Shut up! Can you find anything to cram in her mouth?”

“Bad panties to be caught raped in. Plan ahead.”

“– We don’t know if she enjoyed it or not. This case remains a mystery…”

“Out of my way– I’m a shit doctor. Slut.”

“Evidence too embarrassing”

Here is the Artist’s statement, 1993:

Do victims feel the kick as pain or pleasure? ‘Fuck off.’ When the object of my love and affection gives me the boot as hard as he can it hurts quite a bit. Also, a deep feeling of humiliation and rejection (harder please). Yet there is something horny about the feeling: dear old Dad. Of course I go back for more (home). This is a riot for everyone with their shit together. Well no alternatives came to mind at the time. What can I say? And all these bruises about the face and misshapen lip touching the nose (a turn-off) so everyone knows what you’ve been up to. Oh, the embarrassment, the shameful feeling of worminess. ‘Look, an untogether woman’ Even from Dad! ‘How could she let that happen?’ No gun. ‘How could she do that to herself?’ How did I kick myself in the head? I am a worm, hear me whimper mumble mumble. Fuck you all. Fifteen years of therapy, groups, twelve-step-programmes. I’ll never do it again. Then I am attacked and raped by a total stranger (I swear! O can’t he see that I am centered and working on boundary issues? That I have my shit together: Hell — I OWN my OWN SHIT. What gives? Why wasn’t I training in combat? Should I go outside again? Well, no alternatives came to mind at the time.**

Back in the 70s one of my art history professors, the curmudgeonly conservative Norris Kelly Smith (d. 1998), used to do this for the final exam: He’d project a slide of some ghastly masterpiece from the Uffizi and say “Would you hang this on your living room wall? Why or why not?”

Just so you know, if you wrote in your bluebook “I wouldn’t hang this on my wall because I don’t like it,” you’d get an F.

Because Norris K was so enamored of his Caravaggios and Parmagianinos and Cavatelli Conbroccolis, I never thought to piss him off and squander my grade point average by writing anything negative about the paintings. So I’d puke out all the crap he wanted to hear about vanishing points and contrapposto enbiggening the Glory of Man.

I get a big charge outta imagining what Norris K would have said about Sue Williams. He probably wouldn’t even have considered it art.

I wouldn’t hang A Funny Thing Happened on my wall because I wouldn’t want to have to look at the graphic though sardonic representation of rape every day over my pitcher of margs. I would certainly hang it on your wall, though, if you lived nearby, along with a printout of Williams’ artist statement, because I would like to come and see it sometimes, and enjoy the heartwarming validation of the creepy sensation of the self-doubtiness of the sex class experience, and because it is funny and horrible at the same time, a pairing I find appealing when “horrible” is unavoidable.

_________________________
* Sorry, I don’t own this painting, so the best I can do is this is crappy scan from my coffee table book. Another online image is available here, it’s smaller but sharper.

** Rickett, Helena and Peggy Phelan. Art and Feminism. New York: Phaidon Press. 2006. p 160.

31 comments

2 pings

  1. yttik

    You’ve done an excellent job with art week, Jill, and named it for what it is. As always, I am in awe of your skills.

    Art really is about reinforcing oppression and reminding people of their place in the hierarchy. Art from a perspective of racism does the same thing. A sculpture portraying the wrath of alcoholism on the Rez is valued. The patriarchy gets off on your pain. Even when ancient crafts are featured in a museum in the name of cultural awareness, they are presented as evidence of a conquered and destroyed people. Gaze upon at the remnants of this once great civilization. Here is evidence that they have been beaten into submission.

    By contrast show me a painting of a powerful woman, a single mother not grieving the absence of a father, but joyfully actually choosing to raise children alone and basking in her role, which is going to create some happy well adjusted people in the end. Ba! That’s not art. If you were even able to find such a thing, the critics would laugh it out town. This woman would have to be tragically hit by a truck or something, to even earn a mention. Without her pain in which to frame this, there is nothing to get off on.

    My only disclaimer is that we live in a patriarchal society and what tools people use as therapy, as nourishment, as the simple joy of creating something, are not being shamed here. I’m not intending to tell people that art makes you a bad feminist or that you should burn you paintbrushes.

  2. Comrade PhysioProf

    Because Norris K was so enamored of his Caravaggios and Parmagianinos and Cavatelli Conbroccolis, I never thought to piss him off and squander my grade point average by writing anything negative about the paintings.

    Figures the d00d liked to eat fucking french food.

  3. Ma'Whis'Ki

    I especially adore the artist’s statement, and I am letting you know that I am copying it (with source attribution, of course) to my ‘ammo file’, for future use.

    Also, speaking of women making things that are wonderfully useful, here is a link to Dr. Sonnet Ehlers’ creative weapons-expertise efforts:

    http://www.nowpublic.com/world/rape-axe-dr-sonnet-ehlers-anti-rape-female-condom-2632317.html

    I am going to buy a bunch as soon as they are available in my locale, and I am trying to find out if she’s got anything set up where she takes monetary donations to help fund production. If she ever incorporates to produce the Rape-aXe full-time, I want to become a share-holder in her company.

  4. Orange

    There’s a Sue Williams painting at the Art Institute of Chicago: http://www.artic.edu/aic/collections/artwork/185561

    It’s about the freedom to choose…fat thighs. Among other topics. I greatly enjoyed reading and viewing the artwork. If you find yourself in Chicago, do stop by the Art Institute’s Modern Wing to see Williams’ “It’s a New Age.”

  5. Ma'Whis'Ki

    Here is the url for Dr. Ehlers’ website:

    http://www.antirape.co.za/

    In order to get development funds, she ‘did the usual’ of mortgaging her home, her car, etc. She does have a donation area on her website, and I have sent off an email asking about both availability for purchase and investment opportunities. I also saw on her website that she is looking for independent distributors, which could be a useful money-maker for women looking to supplement low incomes, and if people had the temerity to ask, ‘Well, why would a woman need such a thing in an industrialized nation?’ we could hand out reprints of Sue Williams’ “A Funny Thing Happened”, and see to it that Sue gets a cut of the monetary action for providing ideas and art for the advertising campaign.

  6. Andrea

    Having just dragged myself out of bed, I misread that A Funny Thing Happened was created in 1922. Much before its time! Therefore her artist’s statement was released 71 years later, which means she lived to a ripe old age.

    Ah, well. I like it with basic reading comprehension skills, too.

  7. Denise

    By contrast show me a painting of a powerful woman, a single mother not grieving the absence of a father, but joyfully actually choosing to raise children alone and basking in her role, which is going to create some happy well adjusted people in the end. Ba! That’s not art. If you were even able to find such a thing, the critics would laugh it out town. This woman would have to be tragically hit by a truck or something, to even earn a mention. Without her pain in which to frame this, there is nothing to get off on.

    That, or men would flock to describe the woman as totally gorgeous because she’s so strong and independent.

  8. Ayla

    Shoot first, ask questions later. That’s my motto.

  9. Hattie

    Oh, wait. Art is about dudes doing awful things to naked ladies.

  10. Jezebella

    Yttik, how can you respond to this post – first! even – with this: “Art really is about reinforcing oppression and reminding people of their place in the hierarchy.”

    This entire post is about a piece of art that does not reinforce oppression. And yet, you continue to refuse to be confused by the facts, and hold onto your dogma, when clear evidence is placed before you that All art is NO SUCH THING. Some art is, yes, but not ALL art. See, above. See, an enormous tome by Broude and Garrard called “The Power of Feminist Art”. See, I don’t know, a million other f*cking things that are art and are ALSO not about reinforcing oppression. Why do you continue to refuse to acknowledge actual facts that contradict your definition of art, when they are placed before you? Do you have any idea how infuriating it is to deal with people who absolutely will not consider new information, since it clearly contradicts their assertions? It’s a lot like dealing with the fucking patriarchy, I tell you what. Dogma is good for no one.

  11. yttik

    “This entire post is about a piece of art that does not reinforce oppression.”

    Of course it reinforces oppression, it doesn’t have any other option! Her art is born of oppression, of rape and domestic violence.

    And yes indeed, her art is about reminding us of our place in the hierarchy, hers is sarcastic, it’s witty, but it is unmistakably evidence of where we stand.

    Dogma, my ass. Firestone’s arguments for why there would be no need for art are beginning to make a lot of sense.

  12. Ruby Lou

    God damn, that’s righteous. Oh, there’s nothing like the truth, no food, no sleep, no cool spring water, no innocent hesitation, there is nothing like the wee plain voice that belongs to no one. Because it’s true. Because it’s true. Because it’s true. It gets pretty hungry going those extra miles but every once in a while if you pay attention and keep it wavy there’s one fat dose of the real deal, flying and hanging in the sky like the interior fireworks lit from where you don’t have to have a reason to say it. Because it’s true. State your art, it’s the best full fat dinner I had in quite some time. God damn Twisty, that’s righteous.

  13. Jezebella

    Evidence of oppression is not the same thing as perpetuating oppression.

  14. Ashley

    Art week is getting on my frickin nerves. Undoubtedly there are feminist examples of art, and awesome examples of art, and it’s also historically a majorly patriarchal thing. Reclamation is a good thing.

    You’re all right! Now can we talk more about Firestone?

  15. nails

    And yes indeed, her art is about reminding us of our place in the hierarchy, hers is sarcastic, it’s witty, but it is unmistakably evidence of where we stand.

    So? everything on this blog is evidence of where we stand. Jill sure as shit isn’t enforcing oppression, she is exposing it. This art exposes it, too.

    I really don’t know where you are going with this, because the majority of getting any social progress going is to convince the people who are being oppressed that there is a problem. Most people accept their lot in life and repeat whatever the dominate culture dictates to them as the reason for their status as underlings. Systems are in place to make sure that people accept it, or never form the capacity for rational thought (such as “why do those people get to call the shots, when they are the least affected by the decisions?” or “How do I know what my leaders say is true??”, or “shouldn’t the people who work in the factories run ‘em?”, etc). Discussions, and art, that expose oppression end up undermining the unjust authorities. It is good shit. This art is unnerving and important. It does the same shit jill, and the blametariat, do all the time. The conclusions are not pleasant, but they are needed for women to unite and rise up against the patriarchy.

  16. Earnest O'Nest

    A pity you don’t live nearby me.

  17. Sylvie

    Kaboom! A Thousand Plateaus – Deleuze and Guattari

  18. yttik

    Everybody has to perpetuate patriarchy. It’s the framework we are trapped in. We fight against it, we expose it, we try to take it down, but like it or not we are forced to participate in it. Participating in it perpetuates it. It doesn’t mean we want it to continue or that it’s our fault or that we’re bad people. Do people not perpetuate capitalism, even while railing against it? Patriarchy is far more established and powerful then our economic system and far more difficult to not participate in, to not perpetuate.

    “It is good shit. This art is unnerving and important.”

    Yes, but without the domestic violence, the rape, the oppression, it wouldn’t exist at all. Firestone proposes a world where there is no rape and violence, so art as we know it is going to either cease to exist or be transformed into something that isn’t even recognizable as “art” by today’s standards.

    If it were possible for Sue Williams to live in a world where she was not marinated in violence, I would gladly sacrifice her “good stuff.”

  19. Hedgepig

    “If it were possible for Sue Williams to live in a world where she was not marinated in violence, I would gladly sacrifice her ‘good stuff’.”

    Thankyou yttik, for prioritising women’s liberation over art. Some comments were starting to remind me of that dude during science week who declared that if science wasn’t going to be part of the post-twistolution world he’d prefer women’s oppression to continue indefinitely.

    Speaking of Hanging Chads, am I right in thinking that Art Week has attracted fewer of them than Science Week?

    And just one thought about Art: we have focussed on High Art, or, to use the formal Australian term “arty farty art” in this discussion. My impression is that the most damaging art around is the low art that permeates our culture. All the movies and novels and TV dramas that teach us from birth that the Cinderella complex is fab and suchlike. Odious as Yoko Ono’s rape with a camera is, I think lowly art for the masses like, say, the movie Pretty Woman, is more far-reaching in its damage. This stuff is the bread and butter of patriarchy.

  20. agasaya

    This was the best discussion yet in Art Week – thank you to yttik, Jezebella and nails for excellent points.
    Art celebrating life outside of patriarchy – and still mourning the problems which life will always present through challenges by nature alone – has not yet been invented so we don’t actually know what form it may take. Art will exist since it appears wired into us as a means of enjoying and expressing abstractions (and the urge to representing visuals like Ingres). Hopefully we’ll get to see it emerge but I won’t hold my breath for now.

    To combine Art with Science week:

    http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=artificial-reproductive-tech-kids&sc=WR_20100702&posted=1#comments

    Artificial birth as a means of freeing women from an onerous task has been raised. This may shed some light on another possibility: that women freely choosing to produce children themselves leads to reduced birth rates based upon basic physical realities of carrying children. The option of extrinsic management of reproduction might harm the population as a whole with more children born (the absence of physical stress) and with the potential for increased health risks involved in the process.

    Revolution doesn’t have to eradicate biology but ought to render it a conscious and non-punitive process.

  21. Jill

    Odious as Yoko Ono’s rape with a camera is, I think lowly art for the masses like, say, the movie Pretty Woman, is more far-reaching in its damage. This stuff is the bread and butter of patriarchy.

    I like to think that I address pop culture mass media art with some frequency, but maybe I don’t. Last night on TCM I watched 2/3 of “Bye Bye Birdie” which was part of the channel’s “Essentials Junior” series for “family viewing,” and couldn’t believe they were promoting it in any way shape or form. The heteronormative misogynist stereotypes in that movie are THIS THICK. And I shudder to think of the undergarments they stuffed poor Ann-Margret into to give her that wasp-waist. Ow!

  22. Hedgepig

    “I like to think that I address pop culture mass media art with some frequency”

    Every week is Pop Culture Mass Media Art Week!

  23. Saphire

    @Yttik

    ‘We fight against it, we expose it, we try to take it down, but like it or not we are forced to participate in it. Participating in it perpetuates it.’

    Surely it’s relative? I agree certain feminists help to perpetuate it by pointlessly creating rifts with things like prostitution – which, no two ways about it, is an obvious form of exploitation. Sometimes I feel the patriarchy most of all with feminist groups, and the P leaves me alone on occassion in the real world. Hell, I turn off the TV and the patriarchy almost ceases to exist. Then I’ll be on a feminist committee and feel like women actually grouping together against the patriarchy are the most deadset against us getting anywhere.

    But I refuse to believe I participate. Any radfem participation is as a result of following norms, but we don’t exactly punch people in the face for not putting make- up on. It’s all relative.

  24. kristinc

    “By contrast show me a painting of a powerful woman, a single mother not grieving the absence of a father, but joyfully actually choosing to raise children alone and basking in her role, which is going to create some happy well adjusted people in the end. Ba! That’s not art.”

    Rubbish, of course it is. The problem is that it’s not recognized as important art by the dudes in the bullshit hierarchy.

    I am seeing people claim that certain things are not art, so that they can then claim art sucks and is always dudely and hateful. It’s irritating.

  25. nails

    Hedgepig- where did a dude say that? Why bring it up in response to me/jill/jezebella/others unless it was to insult everyone who disagreed with you during science week? Do you really think that having the science debate in nearly every post since then isn’t enough times to discuss that issue?

  26. Jezebella

    Indeed, kristinc: irritating, and intellectually dishonest.

    It is creating one’s own definition of art so as to be able to make sweeping generalizations about how bad art is. Anything not-bad is, then, not-art, thereby creating a circular argument (or definition?) of art.

    I am sure there is a rhetorical term for this move, but I cannot remember it for the life of me.

  27. veganrampage

    I am not disagreeing with Jill. I am not endorsing that song. I don’t know what I think of it. I am asking you. Can I start another sentence with I?
    As usual,I was clear as mud. Too busy worrying about that WORD. Easily confused am I.

  28. Hedgepig

    nails, where did a dude say that? vinoveritas June 16 at 11:40pm: “If a post-revolution world doesn’t contain science, you can count me the fuck right out.”

    Why bring it up? I brought it up because on a radfem blog site I think it’s a legitimate concern worthy of comment when people appear to be expressing a preference for life under patriarchy + science, art, het sex, babies, whatever, over post-patriarchy minus any or all of the above.

    Do I really think that having the science debate in nearly every post since then isn’t enough times to discuss that issue? I don’t see this as “the science debate”. I see this as the ongoing debate over what we are prepeared to sacrifice for the sake of freedom from patriarchy. Just because you have tired of a particular subject does not render it off limits to discussion, or make it insulting to others to reference past post discussions, unless some big changes have been made to the guidelines since I last read them.

  29. kristinc

    “I am sure there is a rhetorical term for this move, but I cannot remember it for the life of me.”

    I believe it’s No True Scotsman. Or in this case, No True Art?

  30. Hermionemone

    Recently we seem to have been having difficulty establishing whether the type of art which rubs the viewers’ noses in the offesiveness of patriarchal rape culture, is effective, or feminist, or whether it further victimizes the women portrayed and plays into male voyeurism. Art should be more powerful than ‘sport’ as a medium for expressing outrage and spreading awareness of injustice, not least because art is the representation of ideas from particular cerebral points of view, while sport is conceptually about sweaty bodies expressing vulgar strength, power, competition, domination over one’s rivals (not the way I play, but in general, maybe).

    However, check out this link to a report on a South African women’s soccer team. There’s a lot of heartwarming symbolism in this team’s circumstances and determination to exist, and rub peoples’ noses in some cruel facts of recent and present south african society.

    http://www.cbc.ca/sports/soccer/fifaworldcup/blog/2010/07/women-who-love-women.html

    At one level, it’s a bunch of women who like to play and are determined to play soccer. At a symbolic level, by their choice of practice field and their team culture, they point out very effectively the hardships and trials that women have had and continue to have in their country, continent, and planet.

    Note how the dude bystander is intrigued by the idea of a women’s soccer team, until he finds out they’re lesbians, and consequently of no sexual interest to him.

    If sports can be feminist, it must be that art can be too.

    And I /knew/ there must be more depth to my compulsion to participate in women’s sports. We /do/ have something to prove! (Can we hope for a ‘sports week’ some day, O Jill? Issues of embodiment in the physical world, are uniquely manifested when one talks about sports)

    – Hermionemone

  31. ma'am

    While I cannot comment on whether this is feminist art, not art, or P-art, I will say (days later) that I cannot get it out of my mind. It is stunning.

    Thanks.

    TwistyJill: Would you consider turning your jaundiced eye to music? Is music art? Would music also be abolished in a post-P world? Like everything else, music is also saturated with dudes.

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