The Power of Visual Metaphor- Reconceptualizing Women Through Feminist Art

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The Power of Visual Metaphor- Reconceptualizing Women Through Feminist Art by Melissa Rourke

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<ul><li><p>The Power of Visual Metaphor: Reconceptualizing Women Through Feminist Art </p><p>Melissa Rourke Fig of Soc Though/Action </p><p>Final Paper J. Fernandez </p><p>6/8/07 </p></li><li><p> One doesnt always have to put a label on it as, for example, the problem of the inchoate. An image is generated by pictoralizing the problem. This image can be satisfying in and of itself. For a picture solves a problem for an essentially visual animal like Homo sapiens to whom seeing is believing. Or a picture can lead out by association to other contexts and other pictures. Or an image can be acted out. We do it all the time (Fernandez 216) </p><p>Visual metaphors are Symbolic productions speak[ing] to that inchoate </p><p>condition1, at once providing us with images which we can perform so as to act our way </p><p>through those intense moments in life (the sacred onesin which dilemmas, ambiguities, </p><p>and problems ultimately unresolvable threaten to overwhelm us) (Fernandez 223). </p><p>Often in these cases social and moral issues seem inextricably intertwined with </p><p>questions of aesthetic value (Gombrich 19). Feminist art is one type of symbolic </p><p>production which attempts to provide women with new images and ways to perform, in </p><p>order to elude and change structures of male domination. Feminist artists attempt to </p><p>change the current negative conceptualizations and metaphors of women, specifically </p><p>with regards to gendered language and the gender classification system itself, as well as </p><p>notions of female labor and female bodies. </p><p> Breaking Down Gendered Language </p><p>In her article Woman as Metaphor, Kittay addresses how women are </p><p>metaphorically conceptualized by men, presenting the fact that women are in a situation </p><p>of inequality and powerlessness. Men use women as a metaphor to understand their </p><p>experience and self (the inchoate), thus pointedly differentiating themselves from women, </p><p>and often negatively framing women in the process. Thus women are often used by men </p><p>as metaphors with negative connotations, including metaphors of woman as evil, </p></li><li><p>irrational witch (Kittay 277), metaphors of conquest and submission (Kittay 217), and </p><p>metaphors treating women as a possession (Kittay 274). Women however, do not </p><p>reciprocally use men as a metaphor2. Thus women are subsumed as mans Other3 and </p><p>the dearth of metaphors where man serves as the vehicle for the topic, woman, attests to </p><p>this lack of reciprocity (Kittay 268). Instead of being able to conceptualize herself as </p><p>equal to and independent from man for the adult woman, her place in the world, even </p><p>her identity is literally mediated by her relationship to a man (Kittay 277). </p><p>Many people have claimed that part of the gender problem is the gendered nature </p><p>of language itself. If language was not so strictly gendered, perhaps women and men </p><p>could be viewed equally (and thus women would be less exploited and dominated by </p><p>men). Many feminist artists agree with this idea and have attempted to change not only </p><p>metaphors, but the gendered nature of language itself. Of particular note are the feminist </p><p>artists Jenny Holzer and Martha Rosler. </p><p>Jenny Holzer is a feminist artist working against the gendered nature of language. </p><p>In her Truisms series (1977-82) Holzer works to change the highly gendered nature of </p><p>language into a genderless system. </p><p>Adapting the language-based practice of her male Conceptual art predecessors for an interventionalist, more directly politicized use, Holzer extensively researched social statements such as truisms from a wide range of sources. She adapted this material to construct texts that mimic the authoritative voices of capitalism and mass culture. By making the statements of gender neutral, and presenting them as if they were familiar and accepted, Holzer highlighted the subliminal influences of social conditioning on the unconscious (Reckitt 122). </p><p>Although many people dont realize it, certain parts of language (gendered pronouns for </p><p>example) play a significant role in the larger, confining social system of gender. If the </p><p>construct of gender were ever to be completely removed from or changed in society, </p></li><li><p>many parts of language would also have to be removed or changed. Holzer is in a small, </p><p>but profound way attempting to begin this process. Originally printed in black type on </p><p>white paper and pasted, anonymously onto walls around Manhattan, the Truisms, and </p><p>other related series, werepresented in a range of media which included printed T-shirts, </p><p>billboards and electronic signs (Reckitt 122). </p><p>In addition to Holzer, Martha Rosler is another feminist artist concerned with </p><p>gendered language. Rosler is specifically interested in attacking and changing the </p><p>gendered language and semiotics of the domestic sphere. In her video piece Semiotics of </p><p>the Kitchen (1975)4, </p><p>Rosler stands as in a TV cookery lesson, in front of a kitchen table piled with various cooking utensils. She recites the alphabet holding up an item to the camera to illustrate each letter, so that A stands for apron, B for bowl, C for chopper and so on. However, Roslers gastronomic lexicon becomes muffled as she aggressively brandishes each object. She swishes and stabs the air with a kitchen knife, or stirs and then suddenly aims a throw at an imaginary victim with the soup ladle. Repressed rage at domestic servitude simmers and overflows the containing signifiers of language (Reckitt 87). </p><p>By visually and verbally rejecting the typical associations between women and the </p><p>kitchen, Rosler evidences her commitment to transform the inequality of social and </p><p>political conditions (Reckitt 87). </p><p>Shape Shifters-Revealing the Problematic Binary Structure of Gender Classification </p><p>In his work, Fernandez develops the notion of a shape shifter: as someone </p><p>constantly shifting back and forth between identities in order to better understand the </p><p>inchoate of existence. Life is inchoateand requires of us all that we be shape-shifters. </p><p>And a great deal of symbolic material is generated out of that incessant requirement and </p></li><li><p>addressed to it, presenting to our imagination our condition in some graspable form so </p><p>that we might somehow better deal with it, understand our moral responsibilities in the </p><p>face of it (Fernandez 220). Many feminist artists take on this shape-shifter existence, </p><p>thus creating a visual manifestation of Fernandezs idea, as they try to make sense of the </p><p>inchoateness of being women. Two such artists include Eleanor Antin and Catherine </p><p>Opie, both of whom specifically work in a shape-shifting way to reveal the problems with </p><p>a binary system of gender classification. </p><p>Eleanor Antin is a feminist artist who seeks to liberate women from their </p><p>gendered identities. To do so, Antin, instead of adhering to the gendered identity of </p><p>woman and expressing her femininity throughout her life, explores and performs </p><p>various personas and selves. For more than fourteen years, Antin has been creating </p><p>performance art, moving back and forth from one persona, or self, to another. Through </p><p>this time Antins personas have ranged from a king, to a nurse, to a black ballerina named </p><p>Eleanora Antinova. Her performance of the King is probably the most cited and </p><p>acclaimed work, especially in feminist art literature. For this piece she crossed the </p><p>gender boundary, exploring her male self. If she were to become a man, she reasoned, </p><p>he should be her perfect male selfthe archetypal male, the King (Fox 59). In her </p><p>series of King performances, beginning in 1972, Antin puts on a long beard, dresses in a </p><p>velvet cape, a scraggly old hat, and leather boots and wanders through the streets of </p><p>Solana Beach, California5. The King would stroll through the streets of the kingdom, </p><p>stopping occasionally to speak to his (often puzzled) subjects and extend his best wishes </p><p>or proffer sage advice about kingship and the state of the realm (Fox 60). For two </p></li><li><p>weeks Antin thumbed for rides, greeted people, wandered through the bank and </p><p>supermarket, all in the character of the King6. </p><p>Through her performances, Antin seeks to reveal the contingency of gender. </p><p>Flowing through different personas, she proves that an individual is never tied down to </p><p>one specific identity or gender. Instead, she values and purports the exploration of many </p><p>different selves to understand ones true nature and possibility. This perpetual </p><p>displacement constitutes a fluidity of identities that suggests an openness to </p><p>resignification and recontextualization; parodic proliferation deprives hegemonic culture </p><p>and its critics the claim to naturalized or essentialist gender identities (Butler 138). By </p><p>continuously remaking and reinventing herself through her various performances, Antin </p><p>liberates herself from the category of gender and, in doing so, proves that gender is </p><p>merely an illusion/construct. Antin, explaining the reasoning behind her performance art, </p><p>states: </p><p>I am interested in defining the limits of myself, meaning moving out to, in to, up to, and down to the frontier of myself. The usual aids to self-definitionsex, talent, time and spaceare merely tyrannical limitations upon my freedom of choiceAny of us might be more than a single minded, unified, and consistent self: we may experience and understand life in more than one way; and we can develop inner, deeper, other selves than those real life has conferred upon us, thus attaining a better understanding of our own humanity. In essence we can make more of our lives than life makes of us (Fox 59). </p><p> Catherin Opie is another feminist artist whose art is similar to Antins, but works </p><p>in the medium of photography instead of performance. Opie photographs people, often </p><p>transsexuals, whose images defy strict adherence to either male or female </p><p>characterizations. Her portraits therefore move back and forth between maleness and </p><p>femaleness, existing somewhere in between the two poles of gender. In her series Being </p><p>and Having (1991), </p></li><li><p>Opie created a set of framed portraits of mustachioed or bearded facesIn each shot, the camera moves up close to the models faceVery often the camera comes close enough to the models face to reveal the theatricality of the facial hair; in other portraits the facial hear appears to be real, and this sets up a visual trap in which the viewer might attempt to determine whether she or he is looking at a male or female face. This is a trap because Opies images are often quite beyond the boundaries of gender (Reckitt 168). </p><p>Through her work, Opie (like Antin) reveals the mutability of gender and the problems </p><p>with binary structures of gender classification (into which many people do not easily fit). </p><p> Liberating Female Work </p><p>Men and women are often conceived of in terms of hierarchical relations: with </p><p>men dominating and women being subordinate; this is especially true with respect to </p><p>labor where often men have the powerful, superior jobs and women are confined to the </p><p>inferior ones (like domestic work). This hierarchy can even be seen in scientific </p><p>descriptions (and metaphors) of biological processes, specifically those involving activity </p><p>on an interior, cellular level. In the tiny world of these cells, we see stereotypically </p><p>male penetrating killer cells and stereotypically female devouring and cleaning cells, </p><p>male heroes and females in symbiotic service, to use Jean Elshtains phrase (1987:198). </p><p>Male activity is valued as heroic and life-giving, and female activity is devalued as </p><p>ordinary and mortal (Martin 1990:417). Martin claims that this negative </p><p>conceptualization of womens work exists everywhere, not only in the biological </p><p>sciences, but in the social sciences as well. Even when anthropologists, armed with </p><p>concepts of production and labor that they associate with work done primarily by men in </p><p>factories and enterprises outside the home, try to describe preindustrial societies, they </p><p>often completely overlook the labor that women do (Martin 1987:66). </p></li><li><p>Many feminist artists work to liberate womens labor and existence from this </p><p>pervasive conceptualization: that women are simply little drudges keeping things tidy </p><p>at home (Martin 1990:417). One such artist is Mierle Laderman Ukeles. Ukeles is a </p><p>feminist artist who, frustrated with her inferior, subservient social status to man, uses her </p><p>artwork to express and reconceptualize her plight as a woman. In 1969, angered in </p><p>particular by the low status, lack of recognition and appreciation, and the gendered nature </p><p>of domestic work, Ukeles wrote a piece entitled Manifesto for Maintenance Art.7 In </p><p>this work she metaphorically renames domestic labor, calling it maintenance work. She </p><p>explains the ideology of her project saying: </p><p>When I wrote this Manifesto, I had come to understand that, as a woman, as a mother, I was connected to most people in the worldthe entire world of maintenance workers. Woman were never invited to become a maintenance class, we were just told: You are like this. We know what you think. We know what you are. You take care of us. Women have been defined like that within the domestic sphere, while service workers, of either gender, do this stuff outside to make a living (Finkelpearl 13). Continuing to boycott her inferior status as a woman, after writing down her </p><p>maintenance metaphor in Manifesto on Maintenance Art, Ukeles proceeds to translate </p><p>the metaphor into the visual medium of performance art. Ukeles put her ideas it into </p><p>action by partaking in a series of seventeen maintenance art performances where she </p><p>embodies the role of a maintenance worker. Through these performances, Ukeles brings </p><p>her role as a woman and domestic laborer, the normally invisible, unrecognized, </p><p>undebated realm of maintenance work, into the public sphere. She thus visually (and </p><p>metaphorically) connects her identity and plight as a woman with the plight of the </p><p>maintenance worker (who she is heavily sympathetic to due to their similar work </p><p>experience and low social status). </p></li><li><p>For one work entitled In Hartford Wash: Washing Tracks, Maintenance Inside </p><p>(1973) she scrubbed and mopped the floor of the Wadsword Athenaeum (a museum in </p><p>Connecticut) for four hours. At the same location she also performed In Hartford Wash: </p><p>Washing Tracks, Maintenance Outside (1973) in which she scrubbed and mopped the </p><p>exterior plaza and steps of the museum and Transfer: The Maintenance of the Art </p><p>Object (1973) where she continuously cleaned the display cases protecting the </p><p>museums artwork. In The Keeping of the Keys (1973) she performed as a museum </p><p>guard, using the museum keys to continuously lock and unlock galleries and offices </p><p>within the museum; when the doors were locked she deemed them to be works of </p><p>maintenance art. In Touch Sanitation (1978-80), Ukeles shook hands with every </p><p>maintenance worker at every single facility throughout the New York City Department of </p><p>Sanitation, saying to each of them: Thank you for keeping New York City alive. </p><p>Ukele...</p></li></ul>