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


  • 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