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MOCA’s latest exhibition reveals the early years of the ‘Feminist Revolution’

by Tom Freudenheim

December 7, 2006 | 7:00 pm

That women corporate executives are now indicted for malfeasance reminds me of the old Zionist litany that: "We won't have a normal Jewish state until it includes gangsters and whores."

If the glass ceiling hasn't exactly been shattered, it does show a bit of leakage, although it's still difficult to determine comfort levels about a woman being third in line for the presidency -- or even a viable candidate.

Does this move toward egalitarianism now constitute a state of normalcy?

These are just some of the questions that make it worth contemplating the significance of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art's bold look back at a pivotal period for women in art in "WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution," an exhibition that opens March 4 at The Geffen Contemporary and runs through July 16, 2007.

Women now make up about 30 percent of the membership of the Association of Art Museum Directors; that's a huge difference from the early 1970s, when I first became a member and there were only a few women included.

Revisiting the once hot topic of feminism ought to be more than a nostalgic trip down memory lane, and the inclusiveness of MOCA's exhibition -- curated by former MOCA curator Connie Butler, currently at the Museum of Modern Art in New York -- suggests a new level of seriousness that ought to be of special interest to Jewish viewers.

We, too, have seen a shift in the way Jews are viewed in the society.

We're now a long way from the anti-Semitism of the 1930s and 1940s, when fears of "special pleading" kept many Jews from boldly protesting events in Europe that we subsequently came to call the Holocaust. But that doesn't mean we should shun the topic of anti-Semitism, how it shaped the role of Jews in American society, and how it once gave us a special sensitivity to the plight of other groups subject to prejudice and indignity.

The MOCA exhibition "will highlight the crucial 15-year period between 1965 and 1980 during which feminism became a cultural force, and the discourse of feminism intersected with the practices of artists around the world." This exhibition is not about a particular style, but about attitude and about artists positioning themselves in relation to the art world: As women, as feminists and, foremost, as artists. And that should make for an engaging experience of our perception of this art. And once again, Jewish analogies abound, since there has long been discussion about whether there is any such thing as Jewish art" or whether there are "Jewish artists."

Regarding either Jewish or feminist art, we may ultimately be stuck with Justice Potter Stewart's comment about pornography, "I know it when I see it." And perhaps that will be the most valuable contribution of this exhibition.

Just as I have known artists who didn't want to be seen in a Jewish context, fearing it might diminish some larger connotations of their work, I have known women artists who wouldn't want to be shown in Washington's Museum for Women in the Arts. Strange, since the artist never knows how she will be absorbed by the viewer.

Do we know what people are thinking when they look at Chagall's painting of a Jew wearing tefillin at the Art Institute of Chicago?

Do people looking at the abstract color-field paintings of Helen Frankenthaler or the sculptures of Louise Nevelson -- two women, artists, and Jews -- make associations to specific gender or ethnic issues?

Probably not, since they are among the handful of successful women artists who overcame typecasting to make it to the mainstream prior to the advent of feminism, which may suggest why they are not included in this exhibition.

Using scholar Peggy Phelan's definition, as stated in the show's advance materials, that "feminism is the conviction that gender has been, and continues to be, a fundamental category for the organization of culture" and that "the pattern of that organization favors men over women," the exhibition suggests an enormous diversity both in the range of work and in the range of attitudes about what feminism means to women artists (presumably men aren't capable of expressing ideas about feminism in their work).

Again, Jewish analogies abound, since there is surely no Jewish style, but various Jews have expressed themselves Jewishly in their art, while others have emphatically eschewed such an approach. And what about artists embracing issues that don't "belong" to them? For example, artists using the Holocaust or racism as a theme, even if they themselves have no personal relation to either issue.

As with any interesting and provocative exhibition, "WACK" promises to raise more questions than it likely will be able to answer. Which may well be all to the good, since we surely need thoughtful questions more than we need simplistic answers. Jewish viewers might approach this work by considering whether there's any connection between feminism and Jewishness in the work of the many Jewish women in this exhibition (indeed, so many they can't all be listed here).

Is it fair to suggest that in the 1970s Jews were still in the forefront of what might be thought liberal politics, and that this explains Jewish women embracing feminism? Or did Jewish women feel a special need for stridency, considering the long tradition of male domination in traditional Jewish religious practice. (Yes, I know, women have "special" obligations, such as lighting Shabbat candles; but let's admit that the Jewish tradition has relegated women to the back of the bus. Indeed, even today's gender-sensitive liturgies, citing the four so-called matriarchs, omit the two poor handmaidens who went through the pains of childbirth to help make that full dozen of Jacob's boys!)

There's no question that such issues inform the work of Chicago -- one of feminist art's most vocal and visible presences. But Jewish questions also enrich the work of Eleanor Antin, Mierle Laderman Ukeles and Hél?ne Aylon (the latter, strangely, missing from this show), and it will be worth pondering, in the presence of the work, in what way they do or don't feel evident in the work of Eva Hesse, Miriam Schapiro and others.

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