The Power of Visual Metaphor- Reconceptualizing Women Through Feminist Art

Download The Power of Visual Metaphor- Reconceptualizing Women Through Feminist Art

Post on 24-Mar-2016




0 download


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


  • The Power of Visual Metaphor: Reconceptualizing Women Through Feminist Art

    Melissa Rourke Fig of Soc Though/Action

    Final Paper J. Fernandez


  • 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)

    Visual metaphors are Symbolic productions speak[ing] to that inchoate

    condition1, at once providing us with images which we can perform so as to act our way

    through those intense moments in life (the sacred onesin which dilemmas, ambiguities,

    and problems ultimately unresolvable threaten to overwhelm us) (Fernandez 223).

    Often in these cases social and moral issues seem inextricably intertwined with

    questions of aesthetic value (Gombrich 19). Feminist art is one type of symbolic

    production which attempts to provide women with new images and ways to perform, in

    order to elude and change structures of male domination. Feminist artists attempt to

    change the current negative conceptualizations and metaphors of women, specifically

    with regards to gendered language and the gender classification system itself, as well as

    notions of female labor and female bodies.

    Breaking Down Gendered Language

    In her article Woman as Metaphor, Kittay addresses how women are

    metaphorically conceptualized by men, presenting the fact that women are in a situation

    of inequality and powerlessness. Men use women as a metaphor to understand their

    experience and self (the inchoate), thus pointedly differentiating themselves from women,

    and often negatively framing women in the process. Thus women are often used by men

    as metaphors with negative connotations, including metaphors of woman as evil,

  • irrational witch (Kittay 277), metaphors of conquest and submission (Kittay 217), and

    metaphors treating women as a possession (Kittay 274). Women however, do not

    reciprocally use men as a metaphor2. Thus women are subsumed as mans Other3 and

    the dearth of metaphors where man serves as the vehicle for the topic, woman, attests to

    this lack of reciprocity (Kittay 268). Instead of being able to conceptualize herself as

    equal to and independent from man for the adult woman, her place in the world, even

    her identity is literally mediated by her relationship to a man (Kittay 277).

    Many people have claimed that part of the gender problem is the gendered nature

    of language itself. If language was not so strictly gendered, perhaps women and men

    could be viewed equally (and thus women would be less exploited and dominated by

    men). Many feminist artists agree with this idea and have attempted to change not only

    metaphors, but the gendered nature of language itself. Of particular note are the feminist

    artists Jenny Holzer and Martha Rosler.

    Jenny Holzer is a feminist artist working against the gendered nature of language.

    In her Truisms series (1977-82) Holzer works to change the highly gendered nature of

    language into a genderless system.

    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).

    Although many people dont realize it, certain parts of language (gendered pronouns for

    example) play a significant role in the larger, confining social system of gender. If the

    construct of gender were ever to be completely removed from or changed in society,

  • many parts of language would also have to be removed or changed. Holzer is in a small,

    but profound way attempting to begin this process. Originally printed in black type on

    white paper and pasted, anonymously onto walls around Manhattan, the Truisms, and

    other related series, werepresented in a range of media which included printed T-shirts,

    billboards and electronic signs (Reckitt 122).

    In addition to Holzer, Martha Rosler is another feminist artist concerned with

    gendered language. Rosler is specifically interested in attacking and changing the

    gendered language and semiotics of the domestic sphere. In her video piece Semiotics of

    the Kitchen (1975)4,

    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).

    By visually and verbally rejecting the typical associations between women and the

    kitchen, Rosler evidences her commitment to transform the inequality of social and

    political conditions (Reckitt 87).

    Shape Shifters-Revealing the Problematic Binary Structure of Gender Classification

    In his work, Fernandez develops the notion of a shape shifter: as someone

    constantly shifting back and forth between identities in order to better understand the

    inchoate of existence. Life is inchoateand requires of us all that we be shape-shifters.

    And a great deal of symbolic material is generated out of that incessant requirement and

  • addressed to it, presenting to our imagination our condition in some graspable form so

    that we might somehow better deal with it, understand our moral responsibilities in the

    face of it (Fernandez 220). Many feminist artists take on this shape-shifter existence,

    thus creating a visual manifestation of Fernandezs idea, as they try to make sense of the

    inchoateness of being women. Two such artists include Eleanor Antin and Catherine

    Opie, both of whom specifically work in a shape-shifting way to reveal the problems with

    a binary system of gender classification.

    Eleanor Antin is a feminist artist who seeks to liberate women from their

    gendered identities. To do so, Antin, instead of adhering to the gendered identity of

    woman and expressing her femininity throughout her life, explores and performs

    various personas and selves. For more than fourteen years, Antin has been creating

    performance art, moving back and forth from one persona, or self, to another. Through

    this time Antins personas have ranged from a king, to a nurse, to a black ballerina named

    Eleanora Antinova. Her performance of the King is probably the most cited and

    acclaimed work, especially in feminist art literature. For this piece she crossed the

    gender boundary, exploring her male self. If she were to become a man, she reasoned,

    he should be her perfect male selfthe archetypal male, the King (Fox 59). In her

    series of King performances, beginning in 1972, Antin puts on a long beard, dresses in a

    velvet cape, a scraggly old hat, and leather boots and wanders through the streets of

    Solana Beach, California5. The King would stroll through the streets of the kingdom,

    stopping occasionally to speak to his (often puzzled) subjects and extend his best wishes

    or proffer sage advice about kingship and the state of the realm (Fox 60). For two

  • weeks Antin thumbed for rides, greeted people, wandered through the bank and

    supermarket, all in the character of the King6.

    Through her performances, Antin seeks to reveal the contingency of gender.

    Flowing through different personas, she proves that an individual is never tied down to

    one specific identity or gender. Instead, she values and purports the exploration of many

    different selves to understand ones true nature and possibility. This perpetual

    displacement constitutes a fluidity of identities that suggests an openness to

    resignification and recontextualization; parodic proliferation deprives hegemonic culture

    and its critics the claim to naturalized or essentialist gender identities (Butler 138). By

    continuously remaking and reinventing herself through her various performances, Antin

    liberates herself from the category of gender and, in doing so, proves that gender is

    merely an illusion/construct. Antin, explaining the reasoning behind her performance art,


    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).

    Catherin Opie is another feminist artist whose art is similar to Antins, but works

    in the medium of photography instead of performance. Opie photographs people, often

    transsexuals, whose images defy strict adherence to either male or female

    characterizations. Her portraits therefore move back and forth between maleness and

    femaleness, existing somewhere in between the two poles of gender. In her series Being

    and Having (1991),

  • 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).

    Through her work, Opie (like Antin) reveals the mutability of gender and the problems

    with binary structures of gender classification (into which many people do not easily fit).

    Liberating Female Work

    Men and women are often conceived of in terms of hierarchical relations: with

    men dominating and women being subordinate; this is especially true with respect to

    labor where often men have the powerful, superior jobs and women are confined to the

    inferior ones (like domestic work). This hierarchy can even be seen in scientific

    descriptions (and metaphors) of biological processes, specifically those involving activity

    on an interior, cellular level. In the tiny world of these cells, we see stereotypically

    male penetrating killer cells and stereotypically female devouring and cleaning cells,

    male heroes and females in symbiotic service, to use Jean Elshtains phrase (1987:198).

    Male activity is valued as heroic and life-giving, and female activity is devalued as

    ordinary and mortal (Martin 1990:417). Martin claims that this negative

    conceptualization of womens work exists everywhere, not only in the biological

    sciences, but in the social sciences as well. Even when anthropologists, armed with

    concepts of production and labor that they associate with work done primarily by men in

    factories and enterprises outside the home, try to describe preindustrial societies, they

    often completely overlook the labor that women do (Martin 1987:66).

  • Many feminist artists work to liberate womens labor and existence from this

    pervasive conceptualization: that women are simply little drudges keeping things tidy

    at home (Martin 1990:417). One such artist is Mierle Laderman Ukeles. Ukeles is a

    feminist artist who, frustrated with her inferior, subservient social status to man, uses her

    artwork to express and reconceptualize her plight as a woman. In 1969, angered in

    particular by the low status, lack of recognition and appreciation, and the gendered nature

    of domestic work, Ukeles wrote a piece entitled Manifesto for Maintenance Art.7 In

    this work she metaphorically renames domestic labor, calling it maintenance work. She

    explains the ideology of her project saying:

    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

    maintenance metaphor in Manifesto on Maintenance Art, Ukeles proceeds to translate

    the metaphor into the visual medium of performance art. Ukeles put her ideas it into

    action by partaking in a series of seventeen maintenance art performances where she

    embodies the role of a maintenance worker. Through these performances, Ukeles brings

    her role as a woman and domestic laborer, the normally invisible, unrecognized,

    undebated realm of maintenance work, into the public sphere. She thus visually (and

    metaphorically) connects her identity and plight as a woman with the plight of the

    maintenance worker (who she is heavily sympathetic to due to their similar work

    experience and low social status).

  • For one work entitled In Hartford Wash: Washing Tracks, Maintenance Inside

    (1973) she scrubbed and mopped the floor of the Wadsword Athenaeum (a museum in

    Connecticut) for four hours. At the same location she also performed In Hartford Wash:

    Washing Tracks, Maintenance Outside (1973) in which she scrubbed and mopped the

    exterior plaza and steps of the museum and Transfer: The Maintenance of the Art

    Object (1973) where she continuously cleaned the display cases protecting the

    museums artwork. In The Keeping of the Keys (1973) she performed as a museum

    guard, using the museum keys to continuously lock and unlock galleries and offices

    within the museum; when the doors were locked she deemed them to be works of

    maintenance art. In Touch Sanitation (1978-80), Ukeles shook hands with every

    maintenance worker at every single facility throughout the New York City Department of

    Sanitation, saying to each of them: Thank you for keeping New York City alive.

    Ukeles describes these performance works saying:

    I ended up doing about 17 different maintenance performance art works. I dealt with maintenance of continuity, personal maintenance, institutional maintenance, maintenance of ethnic traditions. In these art institutions Id take over the persona of The Maintenance Worker, who is supposed to be unseen, and cleans behind the scenes, after hours. Or the guard who keeps the keys silently. I was trying to bring maintenance art out in public (Finkelpearl 13). Ukeless performance art seeks to mobilize the power of visual metaphor to spark

    revolutionary social change. Through her work Ukeles literally hoped to start a

    revolution toward better treatment, social status and recognition, and wages for all

    maintenance workers, but most importantly for women. In an interview Ukeles claims,

    If women could get together with service workers, as a political coalition, they could

    become a majority with great potential power. Society could get reorganizedI really

    believed that there could have been a revolution linking up feminism with service

  • workers, crossing gender with economic class (Finkelpearl 13). Although this

    revolution did not happen, through her performances she reveals that domestic work

    should not be gendered or invisible, but warrants recognition as an important, necessary

    form of labor which should be the shared task of men and women alike.

    Liberating Female Bodies:

    In her writings, Emily Martin discusses the proliferation of inept, male-biased

    metaphors in the language of medical science, especially with respect to understanding

    womens bodies. Menstruation for example, is understood through a negative metaphor

    of failured production. Through this metaphor, menstruating women are seen as not

    reproducing, not continuing the species, not preparing to stay home with the baby, not

    providing a safe, warm womb to nurture a mans sperm (Martin 1987:47). Not only are

    womens bodies often conceptualized as failing mechanisms of production, but in general

    they are conceived of as inferior to and less important than male bodies.

    Consider this extract from a text that describes male reproductive physiology: The mechanisms which guide the remarkable cellular transformation from spermatid to mature sperm remain uncertainPerhaps the most amazing characteristic of spermatogenesis is its sheer magnitude: the normal human male may manufacture several hundred million sperm per day (emphasis added).this text has no parallel appreciation of female processes such as menstruation or ovulation, and it is surely no accident that this remarkable process involves precisely what menstruation does not in the medical view: production of something deemed valuable (Martin 1987:48)

    Martin hopefully exclaims that conceiving of menstrual blood (and womens

    bodies in general) in positive terms seems to be a future possibility. I can see no reason

    why the menstrual blood itself could not be seen as the desired product of the female

    cycle (Martin 1987:53). But how? This is the task that the some feminist artists have

    taken on. Through creating new symbolic productions (art), they attempt to change

  • negative conceptions of womens bodies, reimagining them as positive. Two artists in

    particular, Catherine Elwes and Judy Chicago, have worked to reconceptualize

    menstruation, thus breaking it out of negative, male perspectives (like the failed

    production metaphor).

    Catherine Elwes is a feminist artist who is concerned with the physicality of the

    female body. In 1979 she performed a piece entitled Menstruation which was

    A three day performance to coincide with the duration of a menstrual periodDressed in white, against which the menstrual blood was visible, Elwes inhabited a glass-fronted white box-like room. She was asked questions by the audience to which she responded by writing on the walls and the glass. The work was intended to reconstitute menstruationby giving it the authority of cultural form and placing it within an art context (Reckitt 130).

    In presenting menstruation in a public context, people have a chance to reconceptualize it

    as a positive process of the female body. The piece also helps women, who see

    themselves as isolated subordinates to men, to feel united in their similarity and willing to

    reconceptualize themselves in their own terms. Elwes explains this sentiment, claiming

    that This work reflects the social and psychological position I share with many women

    of my generation (Reckitt 130).

    In addition to Elwes, another feminist artist named Judy Chicago also works to

    reconceptualize menstruation. In her piece entitled Red Flag (1971) Chicago presents a

    photo lithograph of herself from the waist down pulling out a bloody tampon (Reckitt

    97). Like Elwess Menstruation, Red Flag also successfully takes a female bodily

    process out of obscurity (Reckitt 97). Instead of feeling uncomfortable about her body,

    Chicago presents it confidently in her artwork, inspiring other women to ignore male

    metaphors of menstruation and to reconceptualize it for themselves as empowering. It is

    interesting to note that some viewers, probably men, saw the tampon as an image of

  • castration, which shows how much the eye has been socially and culturally educated not

    to see the reality of womens bodies (Reckitt 97).

    The beauty of symbolic productions (like visual metaphors) is that they have the

    power to conceptualize and even reconceptualize the inchoate. Thus they can be

    powerful enough to spark social change. Most symbolic productions act more to excite

    the moral imagination than to alert it to its dutyarousing participants to a contemplation

    and greater tolerance of the centrality of ambiguity, paradox, and dilemma [the inchoate]

    in the human conditionthe situation is volatile and our moral imagination can be so

    stimulated as to seek for new, and often revolutionary, solidarities heretofore unrealized

    (Fernandez 222). Feminist artists have been doing a great job creating new ways of

    conceptualizing both gendered language and classification systems and female bodies and

    labor. If women continue to create visual metaphors in order to change their unequal

    social roles and status, it will undoubtedly be successful. As Fernandez writes, We

    sense that it [metaphor] risks turning the world upside down (Fernandez 233).

  • Works Cited

    Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: feminism and the subversion of identity. New York:

    Routledge, 1990. Fernandez, James W. The Dark at the Bottom of the Stairs: the inchoate in symbolic

    inquiry and some strategies for coping with it. Persuasions and Performance: the play of tropes in culture. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986.

    Finkelpearl, Tom. Interview: Mierle Laderman Ukeles on Maintenance and Sanitation

    Art. Dialogues in Public Art. Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2001.

    Fox, Howard N. Eleanor Antin. Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1999.

    Gombrich, E.H. Meditations on a Hobby Horse: and Other Essays on the Theory of Art.

    Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963.

    Kittay, Eva Feder. Woman as Metaphor. Feminist Social Thought: A Reader. New York: Routledge, 1997.

    Martin, Emily. The Woman and the Body: A Cultural Analysis of Reproduction.

    Boston: Beacon Press, 1987. Martin, Emily. Toward an Anthropology of Immunology: the Body as a Nation-State.

    Medical Antrhopology Quarterly. 4.4 (1990): 410-27. Reckitt, Helena & Phelan, Peggy. Art and Feminism. New York: Phaidon, 2001. Ukeles, Mierle Laderman. Manifesto For Maintenance Art: 1969! Proposal for an

    exhibition CARE. Ronald Feldman Fina Arts, Inc. 2006. <>

    Web Images Cited American Lesbian Photography. Feldman Gallery Galerie im Taxispalais.

  • Noemm. Paroles. Renaissance Society.

    Footnotes 1 Fernandez defines the inchoate as the underlying (psychophysiological) and overlying (sociocultural) sense of entity (entirely of being or wholeness) which we can reach for to express (by predication) and act out (by performance) but can never grasp. Hence frustration is constant and predication recurrent (Fernandez 235). 2 See Kittays Woman as Metaphor. 3 See Simone de Beauvoirs The Second Sex 4 Semiotics of the Kitchen (1974) is available for viewing at 5 See Foxs Eleanor Antin. 6 Ibid. 7 Here is an important except of Ukeles Manifesto for Maintenance Art characterizing Ukeless frustration:

    Maintenance is a drag; it takes all the fucking time (lit.) The mind boggles and chafes at the boredom. The culture confers lousy status on maintenance jobs = minimum wages, housewives = no pay. clean your desk, wash the dishes, clean the floor, wash your clothes, wash your toes, change the baby's diaper, finish the report, correct the typos, mend the fence, keep the customer happy, throw out the stinking garbage, watch out don't put things in your nose, what shall I wear, I have no sox, pay your bills, don't litter, save string, wash your hair, change the sheets, go to the store, I'm out of perfume, say it again he doesn't understand, seal it again it leaks, go to work, this art is dusty, clear the table, call him again, flush the toilet, stay young

    ~ Manifesto for Maintenance Art (Ukeles 3).

  • Opies Being and Having (1991) (Images from Renaissance Society & American Lesbian Photography)

  • Holzers Truisms (Images from Paroles & Noemm)

  • Ukeles performing In Hartford Wash: Washing Tracks, Maintenance Outside (1973) (Images from Galerie im Taxispalais)

  • Eleanor Antin as The King

    (Image from Feldman Gallery)