the power of visual metaphor- reconceptualizing women through feminist art
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DESCRIPTIONThe 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