On Discourse as Monument: Institutional Spaces and Feminist Problematics

“On Discourse as Monument” provides an in-depth psychoanalytic analysis of The New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York, established by Marcia Tucker in 1977. Embracing the contradictions of feminist cultural politics in the 1970s and ‘80s, the museum’s exhibition program willfully intervened in conventional museological practice.

Most recently published in Museums After Modernism: Strategies of Engagement, ed. Griselda Pollock, (New York: Blackwell Press, 2005).
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The New Museum, 583 Broadway, New York City, 1983

By Juli Carson

Prequel: The Discursive Site

The building site is the site for a story, a story that acts as if the site preceded it. But there is No site without project. The project actually produces the site it appears to be aimed at…In a sense, the project is never more than an image, an image that, like all images, can be occupied…The project is the story that produces the image of the site’s reality.

— Mark Wigley, On Site.

Here is a story about an emblematic building that many feminists are discussing today. In 1971 Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro initiated the Feminist Art Program at the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts). Their curriculum, as former student Faith Wilding recalls, addressed:

…the myths of (male) genius and mastery deemed as necessary to the making of art; the lack of social expectation of achievement and ambition for women; and the traditional hierarchies of materials and methods taught in art schools which devalued many of the skills and experiences women have been trained in.[1]

From this program came Womanhouse, a group of collaborative installations mounted in a condemned Hollywood house for just one month in 1972. As Arlene Raven recalls, the house was “eventually destroyed by the city as planned, but not before Womanhouse made a widespread difference in art-making and in all subsequent art.”[2]

Twenty-three years after Womanhouse was torn down, the Bronx Museum of Art recreated parts as a museum installation for a show entitled Division of Labor: “Women’s Work” in Contemporary Art.[3] This was a chance for the original participants of Womanhouse to defend the project, which they believed had been wrongfully maligned by feminists in the 1980s for its empirical emphasis on women’s known experience. The exhibition’s curator restaged this debate by including Womenhouse’s psychoanalytic Other, Mary Kelly’s Post-Partum Document, which had been made in Britain at roughly the same time. Unlike Chicago’s model, Kelly’s work interrogated models of intentionality by taking up the unconscious drives that made men and women complicit with patriarchal structures of representation. The only problem with evoking this debate in a show historicizing the 1970s was that the debate never actually took place at the time either project was made. Rather, it is one that retroactively came to define both that moment’s spirit as well as each project’s original intention.

Although it is both interesting and fruitful to restage feminist debates implicit within feminism’s nascent moments (I plan to do just that in this chapter), to naturalize them as explicit positions is problematic because doing so concretizes a modernist notion of site — that is, a perceived one-to-one relation between a given idea and the physical work representing it. This historical dilemma is not just one of Womanhouse’s reception, for this notion of site characterized Chicago’s project from the start. In the original press release, participants of Womanhouse asserted that their installations represented a pre-existing condition of women’s experience, without acknowledging that the project itself came to form and define an image of such “experience,” an image which women could later identify or debate. In this way, as Mark Wigley argues, such sites are always already discursive. To ignore that sites are at once physical and discursive leaves unacknowledged the fact that such projects as Womanhouse and Post-Partum Document, for instance, only came to debate each other explicitly through discourse at a much later date.

To think of Womanhouse this way, as a work constituting a “discursive” site, rather than reflecting a physical one, is useful beyond problematics concerning “site-specific” feminist art.[4] It tells us something about historical context, which is traditionally viewed as the stable “ground” upon which an analysis of a given event or object is situated. But it is imperative that critics and historians listen to what Womanhouse (against its makers’ will) teaches us about history — that meaning is not only discursive, but, in fact, metaleptic. Jonathan Culler has theorized just that: “Context is not given but produced; what belongs to a context is determined by interpretive strategies; contexts are just as much in need of elucidation as events; and the meaning of context is determined by events.”[5] Thus, Culler concludes, context is just more text, and the manner in which it is produced in the present needs to be understood from the beginning of any analysis.

The inability to locate an “authentic” context for a given project is not to say that we throw our hands up out of frustration. Rather, it acknowledges the futility of such unexamined context-driven hermeneutic strategies, for they will only lead us into a fruitless infinite regress. As Norman Bryson argues:

The context-idea invites us to step back from uncertainties of text to ‘context’ posited as platform or foundation. But once this step is taken it is by no means clear why it may not be taken again; that is, ‘context’ entails from its first moment a regression without breaks.[6]

Better, then, to make the very framing of one’s analysis actively part of said analysis. This involves accounting for how debates surrounding contemporary feminist polemics, through which we study various 1970s art projects, come retroactively to define them. This is precisely the manner in which a return to the subject of 1970s and 1980s feminist theory and art practice should be made, and it’s the means by which we can assess the formative role played specifically by such institutions as The New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York, in sustaining that discursive site. At this moment, however, those artists and intellectuals who return to the topic of 1970s and 1980s feminist art production, without acknowledgement the text/context dilemma, teleologically restage current feminist polemics as part and parcel of a revisionist historicism.

Most notable on this account are recent writings by Mira Schor, an artist who attended CalArt’s Feminist Program under Chicago’s direction. Schor’s writings are driven by a self-proclaimed “sadness” that people today resist “reconciliation and synthesis [of the] split between theoretical positions of the essentialism/social construction debate.”[7] What gets lost in this sadness, however, is the recognition that a debate over representations of gender that engages theories of essentialism (Chicago’s model) versus constructivism (Kelly’s model) belong to a second generation of feminists working the 1980s who were heirs to those models devised (separately) by such artists and theoreticians in the 1970s. Moreover, while it is true that debates over constructivism versus essentialism are being waged again today, as they were in the 1980s, their discursive formation — which is to say, the terms of their debate, their very pulse — are radically different now. What really drives such historical models (Schor’s in particular) is the dissatisfaction that one type of feminist art practice (psychoanalytically informed semiotic work) seemingly trumped another (expressive, oppositional model) in New York City during the 1980s. It is exactly this moment — or rather, this discursive site — to which I will now return. Or perhaps, better put, this is the site that has recently returned to us.

Two Theoretical Trajectories

In the early 1980s, within a year of each other, two feminist exhibitions were mounted by The New Museum in New York. One was Events: En Foco/Heresies (June 1983), the other was Difference: On Representation and Sexuality (December 1984). The first exhibition, as the name implies, was associated with Heresies, a New York-based feminist collective/magazine, founded in 1976 as a consciousness-raising platform for women artists primarily concerned with cultural issues surrounding gender. The second exhibition was associated with Screen magazine, founded in 1969 as “the British journal of the Society for Education in Film and Television.” Initially, Screen had a pedagogical function: to provide filmmakers with lists of books-in-print, available 16-millimeter films, relevant courses, exhibitions, and so forth. During the 1970s, however, Screen underwent several theoretical evolutions, whereby Marxist and feminist considerations of ideology, semiotics, and psychoanalysis were discussed through the lens of film practicve and later art practice.[8]

Within these two exhibitions, Difference and En Foco/Heresies, lies what appears to be the hypostatization of a regional divide in feminist theory and art practice in the 1980s. When looked at more closely, however, it is actually the culmination of a discursive divide characteristic of feminist theory during the previous decade. In the 1970s, American feminists (largely New York-based artists) associated with magazines such as Heresies, took as their theoretical model the combined writings of feminists Simone de Beauvoir (The Second Sex), Kate Millett (Sexual Politics), and Shulamith Firestone (The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution) in a fight for gender parity on the job and at home.[9] At the same time, the Screen model (attracting artists and filmmakers in Britain) took up psychoanalytic writings by feminists Juliet Mitchell (Psychoanalysis and Feminism), Laura Mulvey (“Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”), and Julia Kristeva (“The System and the Speaking Subject”) in an analysis of women’s representation in the visual field.[10]

Like many other critics and art historians subsequently, Schor misrecognizes the heterogeneity of 1970s feminist art practice when she periodizes “academic,” “text-based,” and “text-driven” feminism following the works of Jacques Lacan, Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes, and Jean Baudrillard (again associated with Screen in the 1970s) as a 1980s backlash against the American model.[11] Her confusion arises from the fact that American feminist artists and writers working in New York were first introduced to the British model in the early 1980s, in large part through the New Museum’s publications. I am speaking not only of the Difference exhibition catalogue, but also of the New Museum’s 1984 anthology Art After Modernism: Rethinking Representation, which translated and introduced relevant historical texts by Barthes, and others, including the republication of such feminist texts as Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure” essay, first published in Screen in 1975.[12] We can now see how The New Museum’s discursive site has retroactively come to define its “original” physical site founded in the 1970s, a metalepsis we can and must expect. However, if we do not recognize the operations of this metalepsis, we naturalize the manner in which the reception of 1970s art and theory has been conflated with its production. From there, we get Schor’s dialectic: first the American cultural feminism, followed by the British text-driven model. But there is a more interesting story at hand, one that begs us to consider the following questions: How did two art practices associated with two theoretical models indirectly define themselves in relation to questions of sexuality and representation in the 1970s? And what were the conditions that their legacies finally met and directly engaged during the 1980s? Moreover, what role did the New Museum play in facilitating this rendezvous?

Let’s digress here, and look at the intellectual development of the American feminist position (the story) leading up to the founding of the New Museum in 1977 and later the Difference and Heresies exhibitions in 1984-5.

On March 19, 1970, the Village Voice published an article by Muriel Castanis entitled “Behind Every Artist There’s a Penis,” addressing the historic question Linda Nochlin would ask a year later in Art News: “Why are There No Great Women Artists?” Nochlin noted that women artists in the nineteenth century had no access to such pedagogical norms as nude models, outside encouragement, educational facilities, and intellectual circles. Extending the premise of Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique (1963) to an analysis of art production, Nochlin concluded that women artists were trained to excel in the artifice of femininity, not professional art careers. How then did artists like Mary Cassatt or Berthe Morisot get around this in the nineteenth century? They had male mentors. In the same vein, Castanis’s article considered the masculinization of women once they gained access to art education in post-war American universities. Moreover, male work, she argued, became more phallic as it reacted to female presence:

Their reaction is reaching desperate proportions, what about sculpture, where they can step away from the wall and really grab hold of a lot more space? The controlling aspect of plaster-casting life in a frieze or of massive cubes balanced effortlessly on their corner, huge steel pipes positioned like tinker toys or sewn with steel thread, the hardness of steels, the lightness of lead, the largeness of Brillo Boxes, the softness of a telephone — veritable giants in mother’s kitchen. And let’s not leave out the wrapping up of a whole skyscraper or even a mountain. Recently we are being led into the backyard to appreciate the mile-long hole big junior has dug in the earth.[13]

As to whether there is a female counter-voice, Castanis dialectically affirms: “When we see sexism (like racism) take over, we know there must be a female voice by negation.” In an art market dominated by masculine “brutal confrontation,” the solution was therefore an expressionist, humanist one: “Art must be the expression of the total human world, and only an art fed by male and female views interacting can be vital.” As a revolutionary coda, she adds the following imperative: “The time is now and is overdue.”[14]

This was the discursive background against which Lynda Benglis would assert: “I don’t have penis envy,” an anti-Freudian utterance that paradoxically informed her infamous 1974 advertisement in Artforum: A nude photograph of the artist sporting sunglasses and an enormous dildo held at her crotch.[15] Yet the same year that Benglis took out her advertisement, Juliet Mitchell published Psychoanalysis and Feminism, a book that mounted a critique of American feminists’ rejection of Freud. Mitchell’s contention dealt with their overall denial of the unconscious. She argued that such denial serves to over-determine social realism at the expense of the subject’s desire and fantasies — the latter of which is the cause for the subject’s “knowable” social existence or gender identification. As Mitchell’s text was absolutely central to subsequent psychoanalytic developments within British feminism (standing as a counterpoint to the American model), it is necessary to go over her approach at length.

It should be underscored that Mitchell’s psychoanalytic reading of the subject was devised as a political model, though importantly it was not separatist, drawing as it did on her earlier socialist reading of women’s oppression. In her essay, “Women: The Longest Revolution” (1966),[16] Mitchell tried to understand women’s sexuality through Engel’s claim that women’s condition derived from the economy and Marx’s symbolic equation of it to society. Without the concepts and terminology afforded by Freud’s reading of women’s condition, however, Mitchell’s Marxist reading hit an impasse. Just what was Marx naturalizing when talking about “women’s experience?,” Mitchell would subsequently ask through Freud. If we know that our conscious gender identification is not innate, but constructed, how then, psychoanalytically speaking, does the subject come to build it, and on behalf of what hegemonic structure are such constructions built? Through Freud’s analysis of the subject’s unconscious motivations (“What does the woman want?”), we could thus come to understand, and possibly get to, the conscious, oppressive motivations that construct a patriarchal society.

From this standpoint, a turn to the unconscious was not a bourgeois flight of fancy into the unknown. For, as Mitchell stressed, Freud’s notion of the unconscious is not a “deep, mysterious place, whose presence, in mystical fashion, accounts for all the unknown.” On the contrary, the thoughts contained by the unconscious are “knowable and normal,” though the (patriarchal) laws of repression transform them. The purpose of psychoanalysis (extended by Mitchell as a political, feminist imperative) is to decipher the operation of these laws, which are recognizable and readable. The importance of the unconscious for Mitchell’s feminist practice, then, was the manner in which it exposed sexuality — femininity specifically — as that which is “lived in the mind.”[17]

American feminist writers, such as Friedan, Millett, and Firestone, were also addressing a women’s sexuality at the time, but their investigations were polemically waged against psychoanalysis in general and Freud’s presumed sexism in particular. After which, Freudian tropes, such as “anatomy is destiny” and “penis envy,” were widely circulated and attacked in a populist context. Mitchell argued that this was a debased form of psychoanalysis, one that merely recapitulates the very hegemonic structure of patriarchal ideologies that feminism seeks to undo.

Contrary to such feminist critiques, Mitchell found just the opposite sexism in Freud’s texts. What compelled her most was his assertion that an individual’s acquisition of human culture was less voluntary and more internally duplicitous. Mitchell explains this internal dynamic via the bisexuality of the drives:

Each little baby can’t repeat the whole meaning of human history, it has to be acquired very, very rapidly. That infant has to find its place within the human order. And while that place is a feminine or masculine one, it’s never absolutely so. That’s the psychological concept of bisexuality, which I do think is true. Bisexuality, not in the popular sense of object-choice, loving either a man or a woman, but in the sense that one has the possibility of the other sex within one’s self, always. One’s social orientation is always the repression of the psychnological characteristics of the sex that one, anatomically, is not.[18]

The popular American notion of bisexuality, one based upon the subject’s conscious dual object choice and concomitant counter-cultural polymorphous perversity, was of little interest to Mitchell on its own. Indeed, Psychoanalysis and Feminism interrogated the revolutionary potential of such nonconformity or “libertine” practices, popularized by the radical psychology of Wilhelm Reich and R. D. Laing, both of whom were popular among Americans in the 1960s and 1970s for their repudiation of Freud.[19] Because those models advocated a kind of separatism, Mitchell argued, they offered little analysis of the existing ideological structures unconsciously taken up by the subject. A psychoanalytically informed feminist practice, on the other hand, looked for the material base of these internalized attitudes.

That said, according to Mitchell, the material base of such attitudes is not exclusively located within a knowable, empirically defined “masculinist” structure. Rather, a psychoanalytically informed feminist practice would engage in a textual analysis of the site(s) through which these attitudes are unconsciously reiterated. Directly related to our topic at hand, therefore, is Mitchell’s interrogation of the conventional feminist response to Freud’s passage on penis envy. She begins by citing Freud’s most “offensive” statement:

So far there has been no question of the Oedipus complex, nor has it up to this point played any part. But now the girl’s libido slips into a new position along the line — there is no other way of putting it — of the equation “penis-child.” She gives up her wish for a penis and puts in place of it a wish for a child: and with that purpose in view she takes her father as a love-object. Her mother becomes the object of her jealousy. The girl has turned into a little woman.[20]

Mitchell proceeds with an explication of the unconscious in this passage.

The unconscious, of course, revolves around the fact that the little girl wants a penis. Since her desire is incompatible with convention, she represses it into the unconscious. On occasion the desire will resurface, transformed in the guise of a symptom, ultimately sublimated into the desire for a child, which is perfectly compatible with convention. The woman’s wish — bifurcated into unconscious (penis) and conscious (baby) — thus establishes her subjectivity as a divided one. The obstacle for most feminists in this passage, however, is the original “wish” for a penis. Yet, reifying the wish in this way — as something the woman denies “thinking” about — can only be posited at the expense of the unconscious operation that underlies Freud’s notion of penis envy. That is to say, should we (counter to Freud) reify the unconscious notion of penis envy as a conscious desire (or disdain) for a penis, we merely re-enact (rather than analyse) the subject’s unconscious repression of fantasy and desire in favor of the subject’s knownable experience, thereby relegating the unconscious into the mysterious realm of the “unknowable.” Such a move, she argues, only naturalizes conventional femininity because it leaves the original repression mechanism that defines normative sexuality un-interrogated.

Should we privilege that conventional social-realist model of knowledge, Mitchell further argues, then the subject is only re-sutured into an indivisible, discrete unit — the “woman,” as it were under patriarchal law. To substantiate this claim, Mitchell cites Millett’s response in Sexual Politics to the same passage by Freud:

What forces in her experience, her society and socialization have let [a woman] to see herself as an inferior being? The answer would seem to lie in the conditions of patriarchal society and the inferior position of the woman within this society. But Freud did not choose to pursue such a line of reasoning, preferring instead an etiology of childhood experience based upon the biological fact of anatomical difference…it is supremely unfortunate that Freud should prefer to bypass the more likely social hypothesis to concentrate upon the distortions of infantile sexuality.[21]

Not only was any consideration of the unconscious anathema to Millett’s understanding of a woman’s “real” experience, she later asserts Freud’s invention was meant to deny a woman’s life experience outright.

If Millett thus saw Freud as the quintessential misogynist, incapable of acknowledging the real-life experience of women (rape not castration constituting such experience), Mitchell, in turn, points out the inability of Millett’s social realism to account for the primacy of the subject’s unconscious “experience.” For Millett, desire exists in the conscious world alone, arguing, as she does, that a girl envies not the penis but what the penis can give her in a world dominated by “the male superior status.” But what is completely denied in Millett’s formulation, Mitchell argues, is the psychic origin of such structures of “male superiority.” From Mitchell’s perspective, then, Millett’s child is born “directly into the reality principle,” bypassing the moment of infantile sexuality, Oedipal development, and subsequent gender identification. For feminists like Millett, Mitchell would argue, Freud’s starting point — the subject’s “reality” — is the end point.

British feminists following Freud thus saw the development of the subject’s sexuality as originating with the repression of unacceptable impulses within the Oedipal complex, while American feminists saw the “reality” of incest (a repressed fantasy for Freud) as formative of the subject’s known sexuality. Put simply, Millett wanted to recognize the reality principle as formative of a woman’s sexuality, whereas Mitchell wanted to put the reality principle itself under analysis in order to locate the material, ideological basis of the structures that (unconsciously) form sexuality, feminine and masculine alike. The effects of these two opposed theoretical positions would be far-reaching in feminist art production throughout the 1970s, coming directly together as a polemic in the mid-1980s, as I have noted. I will return to the British model via The New Museum’s Difference exhibition shortly. First we should look at the effects of the American model, one that in part contributed to Marcia Tucker’s founding The New Museum.[22]

Gender Parity and the Institution

Even though American feminists may have over-determined the subject’s “reality” factor at the expense of analyzing the unconscious roots of such reality, their demand for parity of representation was instrumental in challenging the administrative hierarchies of such major museums as the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and the Whitney Museum of American Art. In fact, one could argue that the proliferation of alternative spaces and galleries in the 1980s, centered on the politics of difference (in terms of class, race, and gender), was in part a result of this early feminist demand for parity. Of note are New York spaces developed in the late 1970s and early 1980s — spaces such as the Clocktower, PS.1, Artist’s Space, Fashion Moda, Longwood Art Gallery, ABC No Rio, and the Alternative Museum — where women and artists of color were provided a forum to develop their practice at the margins of the mainstream gallery system.[23] These alternative spaces exhibited art related to a hybrid of concerns surrounding parity and representation, reminding us that feminist challenges to the museum were initially conceived within broader coalitions centered on general socialist challenges to cultural institutions.

In 1970, the same year that Castanis sarcastically argued that “behind every artist is a penis,” a collective called Women Artists in Revolution (WAR) demanded accountability for the discrepancy that while 65 percent of art students were women only 3 percent of them were represented by New York galleries.[24] WAR was founded in 1969 as an offshoot of the Art Workers’ Coalition (AWC), both of which argued for the democratization of art production and exhibition.[25] In June 1969 WAR and AWC jointly made the following demands of MoMA: free admission, racial and gender parity in exhibition schedule, decentralization of the institution to include outreach to “black, Spanish, and all other communities,” a public registry of all artists, an emphasis upon supporting non-represented artists, as well as the artists’ disposition over the destiny of their work, including rental and resale charges. On September 28, 1970, Brenda Miller and Poppy Johnson added to the AWC’s agenda the demand that, in the future, 50 percent of the artists in the Whitney Annuals should be women. The demand for gender parity exposed an internal contradiction within the group — the desire for open Whitney shows (regardless of gender) being more preferable to some of the men. John Hendricks, of Guerilla Art Action Group, ultimately saved the motion from foundering.[26]

That fall, an Ad Hoc Committee was formed to wage a letter-writing campaign, spearheaded by Johnson, Miller, Lucy Lippartd, and Faith Ringgold. A central issue was how to afford museum access to women artists denied by the canon:

How many one-man exhibitions of men’s work have been held at the Whitney since the new building opened, and what is the percentage of those to the four full-fledged and two one-room women’s exhibitions of which you are so proud? With all respect to Louise Nevelson’s achievements, the fact that two of the four large shows have been hers indicates the Whitney’s narrow outlook on women’s work in general…we consider this a “lousy” record. As you say, the curatorial staff is new and can’t be blamed for anything but the last few years. Unfortunately, your Director has been at the Whitney for some 20 years.[27]

Recalling Castanis’s complaints, initially there was an attempt to connect gender parity with a gendered aesthetics. In a previous letter to MoMA, the committee had emphasized that those women achieving access to the institution (artists such as Nevelson, Frankenthaler, O’Keeffe, whom the Whitney touted) had been corrupted or masculinized, by the structure in which they’d been assimilated:

The central point of the WAR committee was that discrimination versus women — including women artists — is so general, so profound, and lonstanding that it can be reversed only by a positive and conscious reconstruction program, which will seek in frankly experimental ways to discover and establish truer feminine values, and thus a genuinely feminine aesthetic. Women artists should not be judged solely on presently available criteria (intellectual or intuitive), since these criteria are the product of the dominant male culture.[28]

The feminist art movement in New York City in the early 1970s was predicated on the axiom that total gender parity in the musems’ economy of exhibitions, coupled with a feminized aesthetic criterion, should be achieved by means of an oppositional women’s practice. Its founders contended that this would revolutionize the existing “masculinist” hegemonic museum structures.

This was the spirit in which the Ad Hoc Committee founded the Women’s Art Registry in 1970, which at the time contained slides of more than 600 women artists. Developed by Lucy Lippard, the registry served as a network in which women artists — under-represented by the gallery/museum system — could encounter each other’s work and strategize alternative practices and exhibitions. Though New York-based, the registry bridged the east/west coastal divide, such that artists in New York would have access to projects like Womanhouse in addition to related projects associated with the Women’s Building in Los Angeles, which was described by its founders as “a new community built from the lives, feelings, and needs of women.”[29] In this same oppositionalist spirit, a collective of women artists, including Howardina Pindell, Nancy Spero, Mary Beth Edelson, and Ana Mendieta, founded the New York Artists in Residence Gallery (AIR) in 1972, an alternative space run by the collective in order to show the work of its members. The collective’s first press release defined its intended (professional) demographic: women artists in their early 30s who “have been working for a number of years, some in total isolation, others exhibiting extensively.” According to Corrine Robins, the dominant aesthetic of AIR’s opening exhibition (September 17, 1972) drew upon the “eccentric, non-fine-art materials” of Eva Hesse and Louise Bourgeois, with an added emphasis on “domestic materials and erotic and autobiographical content, something perceived by the group as missing in mainstream work of the time.[30]

Although a common aesthetic was indeed apparent, AIR’s collective focus rapidly shifted to the professionalization of women artists, at the expense of promoting a particular theoretical, political, or aesthetic investigation. Barbara Zucker, one of the group’s founders, makes this clear in her account of AIR’s evolution:

The thing that differentiated AIR from other women’s collectives at that moment is that it was never intended to be a support group. It was a professional organization…Though not all of us would acknowledge standing behind the work of each of the twenty original members…there was enough respect and commitment to enable us to work together. We wanted to demonstrate that there were at least twenty women artists producing innovative, professional work in 1971.[31]

Nevertheless, the artwork produced and exhibited by the collective had in common a general look of “non-traditional” artwork (decorative, auto-biographic, intimate scale), as the collective believed such an aesthetic would “change attitudes about art by women…[showing that women’s work] is as innovative, transitory, or unsaleable as the artists’ conceptions demand.”[32] Autonomy of the artists’ aesthetic and professional intentions was thus the group’s emphasis, as was the intervention of such intentions into the mainstream art world, a sensibility that AIR shared with WAR.

Referring to the Women’s Art Registry, Lippard had similarly asserted that its contribution to the movement empowered women’s sense of being gendered, working artists. In 1974, defending the registry against challenges that “quality” was overlooked in the selections, Lippard sarcastically argued back: “Men have always shown bad art. Until recently, most of the bad art has been made by men. We should have less privilege?” Parity was parity, good and bad alike. The fight here was clearly on the side of the woman-as-practitioner. At the same time, Lippard along with others emphasized the aesthetic discourse of “cultural” feminism, a sensibility Lippard took to even though she had been drawn to socialist feminism during her stay in London in 1977-8. In 1993 she reflected upon this time, recalling that although British socialist feminists developed theories on women and class “far in advance of theory and praxis in the American art world,” she had nevertheless become “obsessed” with cultural feminism’s interest in “great prehistoric stone and earth monuments on Dartmoor, at Avebury and elsewhere” that allegorically spoke to women’s roots in both nature and culture. Many cultural feminists viewed socialist feminists as “male-identified, unfeeling intellectuals bound to an impersonal and finally anti-female, economic overview,” while socialist feminists saw cultural feminists as “a woozy crowd of women in sheets taking refuge in matriarchal ‘herstory,’…reactionary, escapist and possibly fascist in its suggestions of biological superiority.” Lippards position amongst and between these two camps speaks to the contentious diversity of early feminist rhetoric.[33] And yet, even with their contrasting, yet entangled, emphasis on the aesthetic and economic factors that distinguished their respective approaches, both camps sought a type of materialist parity.

While the emphasis on professional empowerment indicative of American cultural feminism was undeniably momentous (witness the subsequent alternative spaces engendered by the collaborative efforts of WAR and AWC), we would, however, be remiss to overlook the manner in which this discourse’s tone has encoded other like-minded, revolutionary movements long before Lippard’s own conflicted identification. Specifically, the tone of cultural feminism’s rhetoric recalled some key traits of what early twentieth-century Marxist theoreticians called Zhdanovism, the theoretical backbone for socialist realist art in the Soviet Union from 1922-1953. Based on an economic determinist understanding of the relations of the material base to cultural superstructure, Zhdanovism proposed the following axiom: given that there is always a direct superstructural reflection of a given society’s base, the art of a capitalist bourgeois world would only ever reflect, hegemonically, the bourgeoisie’s economic decadence. The art of a true socialist society, on the other hand, would mirror revolution in the form of a proletarian art. As a post-Leninist position, Zhdanovism was accordingly driven by three main principles: (1) the return to a prior glory oppressed by the dominant power structure; (2) the rejection of theoretical complexity in favor of populist narrativity and realism; and (3) a rejection of dissenting models challenging the first two principles. In 1934 Andre Zhdanov characterized the crisis of representation under capitalism this way: “The decadence and disintegration of bourgeois literature results from the collapse and decay of the capitalist system. Now everything is degenerating — themes, talents, authors, and heroes.”[34]

The tone and logic of Zhdanov’s statement parallel the feminist rhetoric associated with both AIR and Heresies in the mid-1970s, should we substitute the word “bourgeois” with “patriarchal,” “capitalist” with “masculinist,” and “heroes” with “goddess.” Certainly it recalls the motivation behind Womanhouse, in which “women took on power, metaphorically confronting the symbolic penis with the symbolic vagina.”[35] The desire for a mythic, oppositional return also mirrored a dominant faction (though certainly not all) of the Heresies collective. In particular, issues such as “The Great Goddess” (Spring 1978) were best-sellers on this account, described by Carrie Rickey as “a veritable multi-cultural textbook in its discussion of the many paths of female spirituality.” Temples from Anatolia to Chartres were framed in terms of the Goddess debate, as were Navajo rug-making, ancient Anasazi structures in Chaco Canyon, not to mention earthworks by Mary Miss, Nancy Holt, and Alice Aycock.[36]

Implicitly, this attitude also recalled Georg Lukács’s position on revolutionary aesthetics. Lukacs believed that “modernist theories of popular art, strongly influenced by avant-garde ideas,” had “pushed the sturdy realism of folk art very much into the background.”[37] Lukács ultimately desired a space of production outside capitalism and concomitant modernist theories, as a means of returning to a pure pre-capitalist moment. In much the same manner, feminists such as those in the “Great Goddess” Heresies collective seemed to desire a space outside patriarchy and its concomitant avant-garde strategies of minimalism and conceptualism, as well as burgeoning theories of postmodern psychoanalysis. This was seen as a means of returning to a homogeneous, utopic female space, outside 1970s masculinist practice and antecedent to a theoretical 1980s model.

It is important to note, however, that American feminists in the 1970s were not unanimously engaged in the promotion of a utopic female space or practice. At the same moment, a different model maintaining an interventionist relation to the museum (rather than an oppositionalist one) was initiated by Mierle Laderman Ukeles’ performances “Maintenance Art Activity” and “Transfer: The Maintenance of the Art Object,” both from 1973. Informed by her maintenance “manifesto” from 1969, the performances utilized the aesthetic strategies and rhetoric of the avant-garde in order to wage a feminist problematic within it. Contemporaneous with Marcel Broodthaer’s mock Museum of Modern Art (which exposed the falsely “naturalized” curatorial hand of museum exhibitions) or Mel Bochner, Michael Asher, and Daniel Buren’s respective projects (which exposed the falsely conceived “neutral’ physical framework of the museum exhibition), Ladder Ukeles’ performances exposed the purposefully hidden labor force that maintained the cleanliness of any and all museum exhibitions. Here, gendered labor (which metonymically signifies domesticity) entered the exhibition space, not as a separatist representation, but as a performative signifier of what is excised from our perception of any given space, be it at home or the public institution.[38]

Such strategies would later come to fruition with the work of Andrea Fraser, whose performance art in the mid- to late 1980s similarly took up gender in the space of institutional critique, though her mock docent performances, specifically Museum Highlights (1989), extended this critique to include psychoanalytic considerations. A central contribution of this project was Fraser’s interrogation of the public’s psychic identification with cultural institutions, something she came to consider through exposure to Mary Kelly’s Post-Partum Document.[39] The issue of gender in the public space of the museum, initiated by Laderman Ukeles and continued by Fraser, may have been one that incorporated the strategies of the avant-garde in a deconstructive move. Nevertheless, the motivating politic was congruent with the initial activities of AWC and WAR.

As for the outcome of WAR’s activism, the committee’s demands were never met in the case of either MoMA or the Whitney (the letter campaigns eventually turned to guerilla actions). Notable, however, in the correspondence that circulated between WAR and the Whitney was the inclusion of Marcia Tucker’s name — one of four curators targeted by the group. After being fired from the Whitney in 1976, Tucker founded The New Museum, an institution informed by the agendas of the women’s movement, the history of civil rights, and the anti-Vietnam War movement.[40] It was also the site in which the aforementioned femnist models — British and American — with their concomitant semiotic, oppositionist, and interventionist theories, would enter directly into debate, as was the New Museum’s founding intention.

Aesthetic Models and Institutional Spaces: The New Museum

To me, a museum of contemporary art should be a place where dialogue and controversy are synonymous. There is a posture of inquiry that certain artists have that can be shared by museums.

(Marcia Tucker)[41]

Starting out in 1977 as two small rooms in the Fine Arts Building at 105 Hudson Street, The New Museum was intended to fill the gap between “challenging contemporary” and “non-commercial” forums. What made it a museum, rather than an alternative space such as AIR, was not only its structure — it had a 501-3C (not-for-profit status), a Director (Tucker), a staff, and a board of trustees — but its commitment to scholarship around contemporary art. On the other hand, what made it different from mainstream museums was its commitment to being an “exhibition, information, and documentation center for contemporary art made within a period of ten years prior to the present.” It was also unique at the time for focusing on living, practicing artists “which until [then] could not readily be seen outside the studio.”[42]

The effect of AWC’s activism is obvious here. Omitted, however, was the group’s imperative for gender parity in museum staff and exhibitions. Rather than the advocacy of a unified feminist art, space, or exhibition thematic, The New Museum took up the problematic waged by feminism. This is an important distinction, because it allowed for different theoretical models of social change to debate each other. Tucker had been involved in feminist activity when she had been targeted by WAR’s campaign. In 1968 she was already a member of Redstockings, one of the early groups associated with the Women’s Liberation Movement that waged public demonstrations of the kind associated with the New Left. Nevertheless, the feminist persepective that informed her museum project was more deconstructive and theoretical, employing as it did a feminist problematic rather than a feminist model. A “feminist problematic” intervenes into hegemonic structures, be they institutions or discourses, but without propagating a stable solution. If feminism is a problematic, rather than a style or politic, then any notion of a “feminist art” is something that should be problematized itself. Mary Kelly, who in 1977 articulated the difference between feminism as a problematic and feminism as a style, put it this way: “Perhaps we should not maintain this formulation ‘feminist art,’ because an ideology does not constitute a style. Rather, I would say ‘art informed by feminism.’”[43] We can extend this question of a “feminist art” to consider the notion of a “feminist space” in terms of our discussion of The New Museum’s founding project and Tucker’s role in structuring it differently from such separatist feminist exhibition spaces as AIR.

Although The New Museum was in fact conceived in terms of feminist demands to restructure the museum, the challenge for Tucker was to take this up as an insider practice of dismantling museological authority. Tucker recalls that this distinguished The New Museum from other alternative spaces. In the early 1970s people had focused “more on the way things [were] done on the outside,” such as the number of women included in exhibitions. “In museum culture,” she asserted, “feminism never penetrated the actual structure of the organization.”[44]This would be The New Museum’s project, to the extent that the exhibitions were conceived both as a theoretical challenge to the normative art culture as well as administratively enacted as a “team” effort among the staff. As such, administratively and theoretically, the museum attempted to exist as a “social space” rather than a private one.[45] The initial result was a series of contradicting temporary exhibitions, each of which was accompanied by a catalogue of essays on the show’s topic, written by curators and invited contributors. As an “investigative” rather than a “didactic” space (the latter of which Tucker saw as promoting an authoritative attitude of expertise), the idea was to “have enough variety [of] perspectives to be able to deal with different audiences at different times in different ways.”[46] At the start, then, the space was devised to formulate different discursive practices, rather than being ideologically fixed to a given aesthetic or permanently monumental as an institution itself.

It took a while, however, for this discursive gesture to meet with a rigorous intellectual project, the first shows being unremarkable in their critical vision and scholarship. For instance, the inaugural exhibition, Memory, was generalist and pop-psychological in tone: “Memory…is common to us all and is our primary means of understanding ourselves and sharing our lives with others.”[47] The second, New Work/New York, an exhibition with no unifying theme, featured unknown artists, “highly individualistic and resistant to interpretation in terms of prevalent aesthetic or formal issues.”[48] A performative shift occurred with Bad Painting, which Tucker defined as “figurative works that defied the classic canons of good taste, draftsmanship, and acceptable source material.”[49] The exhibition’s anti-Greenbergian rhetoric was not its most engaging aspect. More interesting was the manner in which statements by contributing artists resisting the term “bad” actually demonstrated — via the contingencies of artistic desire and canonical identification — the residual problematics of Greenberg’s claims for the categories of kitsch and avant-garde. Specifically, it exposed the manner in which Greenberg’s dichotomy was still (unconsciously) operative: Tucker striving to herald “kitsch” against the “avant-garde,” the artists’ maintaining notions of “quality” in their work against such claims.[50] It was precisely this combination (a theoretical investigation, an historical aesthetic debate, and the active engagement of artists in the form of participation and/or critique) that would come to characterize The New Museum’s more mature exhibitions throughout the 1980s at its new space in the Astor Building at 583 Broadway.[51] I shall concentrate here on two such shows — Events: En Foco/Heresies Collective and Difference: On Representation and Sexuality — through which the two feminist approaches I have discussed in this chapter debated feminist art practice vis-a-vis what came to be known as “essentialist” vs. “constructionist” strategies.[52]

In June 1983, the Heresies collective mounted an exhibition, which they described as a “virtual version” of an upcoming issue of the magazine entitled “Mothers, Mags and Movie Stars: Feminism and Class.”[53] Lucy Lippard wrote a portion of the group’s statement of purpose:

Mothers, Mags and Movie Stars”…[was] a way of getting to know each other better and discussing politics and aesthetics more directly, outside our usual business-meeting format. For several months we discussed our own relationship to our mothers in terms of feminism and class. As we unraveled our histories and those of our families, trying to name and analyze our class backgrounds and foregrounds, we found that no one’s family had stayed in one class, that there were endless subtleties, that very little of sense and use has been written on the subject. Our meetings took on the double aspect of sewing circle and study group. Most of our anecdotes centered on images, clothes, objects, and spaces.[54]

While any notion of a bodily essentialism was not the project’s focus — as it had been with the vaginal artworks of Judy Chicago and others — something else was nevertheless essentialized: the conscious condition of social relations between men and women, an idea that in part echoed the writings of Guy Debord, translated to consider issues of femininity. This was clear in the rhetorical tone of the subsequent magazine version of the show. Lippard’s concern with a fragmented feminine along class lines was echoed by the magazine’s editorial statement:

There are bits and pieces of us all over the place. Cutting up is rebellion. We’re formed by an alienated society, parts of which are severed from mothers by a class system that is largely ignored or denied. The cutting edge, the political, is cut off from the personal. Racism cuts us off from other cultures. Cut it out. This is the cut off point. Operation, penetration, incision, intersection, a cutting remark, cut the cards, Reagan’s cut backs for our own good, cut a new pattern, not trimmed down to fashionable lines. Lights, action, cut.[55]

Both the exhibition and magazine focused upon images of women — in various roles, as mothers, daughters, sisters, etc. — reclaimed from “false” images women encountered in mass culture. Similarly, in Society of the Spectacle, it was Debord’s claim that “[t]he whole of life…in which modern conditions of production prevail presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles,” such that “all that was directly lived has become mere representation.”[56] In this vein, the Heresies collective asserted that a woman’s experience had fallen into the commodified condition of spectacle.

And yet, the parallels between Debord’s argument and that of the Heresies Collective run deeper. If Debord yearned for a space of “real-life experience” outside the hegemony of the spectacle, the latter being defined “not as a collection of images; rather…a social relationship between people that is mediated by images,”[57] so too, the Heresies collective sought a space outside patriarchy’s spectacle. In such a space, the social relation between men and women would no longer be mediated by demeaning images of women. This was conceived in the guise of an alternative visual culture — one initiating a counter social relation among women mediated by empowering images of women’s “true” lived experience. Hence the “Roomful of Mothers” installation by Sabre Moore: a group of images from 12 women, assembled by Moore, each of which provided a photo of the woman’s mother and a handwritten text of their history. The result was “shared stories, describing our families’ work histories, the crossings between classes through marriage, political refuge, or education.”[58] Other pieces attempted to “deconstruct” the meaning of mother, especially the 1950s stereotype in which women were taken “back into modernized jail cells,” that is, to the modernized domestic space in which the mother “ran” the family unit via commodities of efficiency (washing machines, refrigerators, etc.). The Situationists themselves had commented upon the parallel spaces in which personal experience was commodified — domestic and public — but stopped short at the recognition that each space was gendered as feminine or masculine, respectively.

Sally Stein’s article, entitled “The Graphic Ordering of Desire” (in the subsequent Heresies issue continuing the show’s thematic), directly took this up. Stein diagrammed and analyzed the manner in which middle-class women’s magazines, specifically the way in which graphic techniques of color, photography, and serial cartoons “were orchestrated in a more dynamic layout to sustain the reader’s interest and draw the reader closer to the marketplace.” At the heart of Stein’s essay was a quasi-Debordian argument, well documented and convincingly articulated, that women’s magazines had lulled the reader, through the combination of lengthy literary texts and advertising, into a visual experience that constituted women homemakers as “an audience of spectators and by extension consumers.”[59] Accompanying her essay was an elaborated graph system, devised by Stein, that charted the development of women’s magazines (such as Ladies’ Home Journal) to include advertisements for a wifely lifestyle that circulated around recipe catalogues, fashion design, and whatnot, literally demonstrating the graphic order of feminine desire. The theoretical support for Stein’s graphic analysis included such essays on reception theory as Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour’s Learning from Las Vegas, and Raymond Williams’s Television: Technology and Cultural Form.[60]

Stein’s article was indeed the most analytic and theoretically informed text in the Heresies “Mothers, Mags and Movie Stars” issue. It was also decidedly Situationist in tone, referring, as it did, to “the sense of fragmented leisure time that characterized women’s work in the home,” which, of course, readily lent itself to the commodification of her personal experience. It is important to note that the Heresies issue, unlike contemporaneous projects associated with CalArts’ Feminist Program, delineated a female subjectivity distinct from essentialist, bodity practice. Its intellectual investigation, however — best represented by Stein’s article — omitted two things: (1) psychoanalytic theories concerning the role of the unconscious in the development of a women’s subjectivity, and (2) theories of interventionist art practices, characteristic of debates over postmodern aesthetics. Consistent with Millett’s theories, the Heresies collective offered no psychoanalytic model of practice to explain or strategize the problematic spectacularization of women’s experience. But it was precisely these two elements that defined the model offered up by the organizers and participants of the Difference: On Representation and Sexuality exhibition. And it was there that the feminist debate bewtween Millett and Mitchell over the unconscious and subjectibvity, which I described above, found itself re-enacted in the field of visual art practice.

Guest curated by Kate Linker and Jane Weinstock, the Difference exhibition, which took place in 1984 at The New Museum (and in London at the Institute of Contemporary Art) was distinguished by the role it accorded theory. While its line-up of artists was impressive alone (they would soon after be coined the New York School of postmodernism: Judith Barry, Dara Birnhaum, Victor Burgin, Hans Haacke, Mary Kelly, Silivia Kolbowski, Barbara Kruger, Sherrie Levine, Martha Rosler, and Jeff Wall), equal focus was given to the accompanying catalogue texts. Linker’s curatorial statement in the publication made this clear:

As the title suggests, this exhibition pertains to recent interest in representation and, particularly, in the powers inherent in representation. However, it diverges — differs — in the role it accords theory. The essays collected here indicate the influence on this work of psychoanalytic theory and its account of the development of sexed subjectivity. Central to it are Jacques Lacan’s writings on the subject’s construction in language. Underlying Lacan’s theory is the conviction that the human subject is never a discrete self, that it cannot be known outside the terms of the society and, specifically, of the cultural formations of patriarchy. Implicit in his speculations is awareness of how gender informs, infuses, and complicates a range of social “texts,” permeating supposedly neutral fields.

Just as the show’s premise was that the sexed subject could not be considered outside his/her construction within language (i.e. patriarchy), neither could the work of art be considered outside theorizations of its own representation. Practice and theory were thus chiasmatically intertwined much the way women were constructed within patriarchy. Accordingly, Difference argued that just as there’s no separate space in which women could define their social relations merely among each other, there is no singular aesthetic particular to women or her experience. For the woman — just like aesthetics — is bound up in a larger signifying system, one which Lacan termed the “Symbolic” and which post-structuralists, since the 1960s, were intent on deconstructing.

On this account, one of the most important essays in the Difference catalogue was Jacqueline Rose’s “Sexuality in the Field of Vision,” whose title alone came to define a type of American art discourse centered on a psychoanalytic definition of sexual difference (rather than a materialist one alone). A dominant figure in British circles studying psychoanalytic theory in the mid- to late 1970s, Rose was instrumental in the introduction of Lacan’s writings to British and American feminists, much the way Mitchell had made an earlier argument for Freud.[61]For Difference, Rose extended Lacan’s theory of the subject to the postmodern imperative of “disrupting visual form and questioning sexual certainties and stereotypes of our culture.” This connection — the relation between sexuality and the image — was substantiated by Rose’s return to Freud’s essay on Leonardo da Vinci.[62] Rose asserts: “There can be no work on the image, no challenge to its powers of illusion and address, which does not simultaneously challenge the fact of sexual difference.”[63] For Freud, Rose argued, voyeurism, fetishism, and castration are all related to sight. In such terms the little boy refuses to believe the anatomical difference that he sees, while the girl sees what she does not have and immediately knows she wants it. Rose continued, however, to argue that sexuality relies less on what is consciously seen than it does on the subjectivity of the viewer who sees it — that is to say, what it comes to signify (unconsciously) later, in a moment of deferred action. Therefore, seeing, just like subjectivity, is always caught in a state of fracture, its meaning always somewhere other, embodying the dialectics of recognition/misrecognition, pleasure/pain, identification/disgust. The manipulation of images can thus be either complicit, reinforcing sexual identity, or disruptive, exposing “the fixed nature of sexual identity as a fantasy.”

Rose further argued that this Freudian paradigm — one that “unsettled our certainties” — was consistent with a postmodern practice that resisted the certainty of the sign. For her, Roland Barthes’s reading of Balzac’s novella Sarrasine was the quintessential example of a psychoanalytically informed postmodern practice, based on Barthes argument that Sarassine — the book’s main character — had an indecipherable sexuality that constituted the source of the reader’s pleasure/pain (identification/disidentification). While Modernism (of the Greenbergian paradigm), emphasized the purity of a given visual signifier — a Gestalt akin to the phantasy underlying the “I” of Lacan’s Mirror Stage — a Postmodernism (of the Barthesian paradigm) emphasized the primordial misrecognition that is masked by the modernist belief in a pure, unified signifier. Again, the image — like the subject — is split, troubled, decentered, along the division between conscious and unconscious desire.

This connection, between visual production and the psychoanalytic means of theorizing sexuality in the field of the visual, was a major development in feminist art practice. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, The New Museum would continue mounting exhibitions that incorporated a psychoanalytic informed feminist problematic within postmodern logic. Two shows in particular come to mind. In 1986, Damaged Goods: Desire and the Economy of the Object, organized by Brian Wallis, afforded Andrea Fraser the opportunity to develop her performative docent tours in the context of work by Judith Barry, Gretchen Bender, Barbara Bloom, Jeff Koons, Justen Ladda, Louise Lawler, Ken Lum, Allan McCollum, and Haim Steinbach. In 1990, The New Museum hosted Mary Kelly’s Interim exhibition, a show that addressed a number of discourses relevant to the history of feminism — fiction, fashion, medicine, family, media, and social science — at the level of women’s psychic identification across generational lines.

Difference, Damaged Goods and Interim were each aligned with a 1980s art production informed by feminist theories that incorporated a psychoanalytic approach in order to question the politics of visual practice, rather than promoting a separate sociological or ideological imperative for a “gendered” art production. From this perspective, Rose and others advocated a deconstructive approach (akin to Barthes’), in place of a self-identified feminist “corrective,” such as gender parity (which the American 1970s model had seen as both a means and an end). Postmodern artists utilizing such deconstructive strategies, the argument went, would necessarily draw upon the same critical and artistic tendencies they sought to displace. In this way, a separatist strategy was purposefully averted by Rose et. al., in order to allow “reference” itself (i.e. “woman”) to re-enter the frame, in a form that problematized conventional significations of gender within visual culture.[64]

Conclusion: The Historical Left and Second Wave Feminism: Debates on the Unconscious

The debate invoked by the emblematic comparison of the Difference and Event: En Foco/Heresies exhibitions recalls an older debate among the Left concerning the role of the unconscious in revolutionary politics, specifically the debate between André Breton and Georg Lukács.[65] Breton wrote in accordance with the avant-garde feeling that unbridled imaginative freedom was the ultimate resistance against bourgeois conventionality and rationality — hence the most “liberated.” This move toward internalization, of course, was decidedly anti-realist, the latter of which he claimed was “inspired by positivism…hostile to any intellectual or moral advancement.”[66] Accordingly, Breton opposed any art group with state affiliation, such as Russia’s Prolekfult; the communists, in turn, deemed the Surrealists elitist. Influenced by Freud’s dream-work theories, Breton advocated the revolutionary potential not of consciousness-raising, but of consciousness lowering. This line of thinking would culminate in his book Communicating Vessels of 1932, which defended the revolutionary power of a Freudian approach against Maxist claims (post-Trotsky) that psychoanalysis was reactionary and bourgeois. Breton argued that there was a link between conscious and unconscious states, a link that held disruptive, revolutionary potential in terms of challenging deadened bourgeois and communist sensibilities alike. Put simply, Breton’s model posited a psychoanalytic concern with dialectics against a conventional materialist one.[67]

Breton’s “Second Manifesto” took this up directly, whereupon he responds to two Marxist questions that were asked of him in 1928:

Do you believe that literary and artistic output is a purely individual phenomenon? Don’t you think that it can or must be the reflection of the main currents which determine the economic and social evolution of humanity?

Do you believe in a literature and an art which express the aspirations of the working class? Who in your opinion are the principle representatives of this literature and this art?[68]

Breton answered that the first question, being too positivist, presumes a “sovereignty of thought.” The question we should instead take up is the relation between the nature of human thought (which is unconscious) and the reality of human thought (which is unconscious). Citing Engles, Breton argued, “in this sense human thought is [both] sovereign and is not; and its capacity to know is both limitless and limited.” It is the space in between these two states, or rather their inextricable, chiasmatic relation, that art should underscore. To the second question he answers “no” to a working-class art, as the pre-revolutionary bourgeois cannot accurately translate working-class aspirations.[69] Although Breton argues that Marx was right regarding the social phenomenon, the utopic proletariat as yet had no real kinship and hence no real aesthetic. Instead, the point of entry for a revolutionary art was the space provided by the divided subject — divided between conscious identification (in society) and unconscious drives (internalized, conflicting urges).

Herein lies the reference for a Lacanian approach, continued by the British School, that was skeptical of a realist, materialist practice — specifically in service of a separatist, feminist aesthetic. If an emphasis is placed upon establishing an innate aesthetic for a given social group, be it the proletariat historically or feminists recently, class then takes precedence over subjectivity, a move to which Breton, Lacan, and later certain British feminists (followed by a New York based branch of American feminists) were all opposed. In fact the founding editorial statement of m/f, a British feminist journal on art and culture, explicitly denied such privileging of a working-class aesthetics as it pertained to feminism:

A tendency in the application of classic Marxist ideas of class ot women can be seen in any political project which claims that it is working-class women alone who will form the vanguard of any feminist politics. Doubly exploited, at work and at home, it is these women who will become conscious of their exploitation and form the vanguard of a transition to socialism. While no one would want to dispute the double pressure on working-class women, it cannot be said either that they are necessarily politically progressive, or that they are the only women who are exploited. The operations of the law, education, and employment discriminate against women of all classes. To ignore these areas is to miscalculate the current situation.

The editors instead advocated a psychoanalytic evaluation of the social structures that place women in positions where they are exploited.[70]

We can and should consider the feminist debate further in these terms. For it would not reduce the complexity of the feminist debate (as it played out, in one instance, at The New Museum) to argue that two theoretical practices and/or aesthetic concerns were in part defined by their respective relation to the unconscious, in general, and to theories of penis envy in specific. For, as I have argued, in Freudian/Lacanian terms penis envy is not a conscious desire for an organ, but an unconscious desire for a symbolic (masculine) position of authority. While one model — 1970s American — consciously focused on women’s access to institutions of power via the strategy of gender parity, another model — 1970s British — sought to theorize how those institutions constituted a symbolic to which men consciously had access but from which women were psychologically barred because they were sexually marked within it. The Difference model thus begged a deconstructive approach, positing as it did that women could not disentangle themselves from the structures of patriarchy, much the way Breton had argued that one could not disentangle one’s “sovereignty of thought” from those registers of the unconscious that mark it. The Heresies model, on the other hand, focused on the establishment of a feminist practice as a counter-institution, initiated by consciousness-raising, and was thus Lukácsian in tone. Ironically, the American model established a precedent for institutions such as The New Museum, which would then consider such “opposing” feminist theorizations of the subject in art, such as those that were defined, in part, by the British model. If we were to search for a point of reconciliation between these models, as Mira Schor asks, perhaps one can be found in their historic participation in The New Museum’s debate-specific curatorial program.

Today, after many shows and articles have continued to argue the theories and practices initiated by the Difference and Heresies exhibitions, the two models have come to be hybridized. For instance, artists such as Barbara Kruger, whose work takes up Situationist tactics of direct address and public consciousness-raising, have also been theorized around psychoanalytic considerations of feminine sexuality, most prominently the role of the “male gaze” in fetishizing the women’s body as a commodity. Similarly, artists such as Mary Kelly have more recently been rehistoricized around 1970s art practices that address the subject of domesticity.[71] While the development of these hybrids — in discourse and in practice — are entirely the subject for another paper, I have sought here to underscore the manner in which institutions such as The New Museum were both product and producer of feminist discourses as they evolved over the mid-1970s and 80s. Moreover, it is important to note how earlier Marxist debates over social relations implicitly return to us, modified as they are in the guise of contemporary feminist debates over identity and sexuality. The manner in which The New Museum was designed to facilitate such debates distinguished it from other cultural institutions — promoting, as it did, discussions about theory and aesthetics rather than promoting any given position or practice per se. As such, in its earliest formation, The New Museum performatively demonstrated how all institutions constitute a discursive site, though some (i.e. The New Museum) encouraged contentious debate, while others (from MoMA to AIR) established themselves vis-a-vis a stable position within public debate. Should we thus return to the theorization of feminist practice in the arts over the course of the 1970s and 80s, one cannot eclipse the importance of museums, alternative spaces, and collectives as discursive monuments, through which related historical debates are recalled and contemporary narratives shaped.

  1. Faith Wilding, “The Feminist Art Programs at Fresno and CalArts, 1970-1975,” collected in Norma Broude and Mary D. Garrad, eds., The Power of Feminist Art: The American Movement of the 1970s, History and Impact (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1994), p. 39.

  2. Arlene Raven, “Womanhouse,” in Broude and Garrard, eds., The Power of Feminist Art, p. 48.

  3. See Lydia Yee et al., Division of Labor: “Women’s Work” in Contemporary Art (Bronx: The Bronx Museum of the Arts, 1995).

  4. I have chosen to discuss Womanhouse as a discursive site because the topic of this chapter is feminist art. However, it is important to note that the same argument could readily be made about any work or building. Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc is a perfect example of this phenomenon, as is Rachel Whiteread’s House. For a related consideration of Tilted Arc, see my essay: “Two Wall: 1989,” in Surface Tension: The Problematics of Site, eds. Ken Ehrlich and Brandon LaBelle, (Errant Bodies Press, 2003).

  5. Jonathan Culler, Framing the Sign: Criticism and Its Institutions (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1988).

  6. Norman Bryson, “Art in Context,” in Studies in Historical Change Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1992), p. 21.

  7. Mira Schor, in response to my piece “Why This Return Now,” in which I take issue with Schor’s account of my participation in “The F-Word: Contemporary Feminisms and the Legacy of the Los Angeles Feminist Movement,” at CalArts (October 1998). Both pieces are collected in Documents, no. 17 (Winter/Spring 2000). For other returns to Chicago’s project in the context of this debate, see Amelia Jones, Sexual Politics (Los Angeles: Armand Hammer Museum, 1996); and Laura Cottingham, “Interview with Laura Cottingham,” collected in Environ 27 ans, Les Cahiers de la Classe Des Beaux-Arts, Geneve (no. 113, February 1997). For a more critical engagement with the subject, see Emily Apter, “Essentialism’s Period,” October 71 (Winter, 1995); and Helen Molesworth, “Cleaning up the 1970s: The Work of Judy Chicago, Mary Kelly, and Mierle Laderman Ukeles,” in Michael Newman and John Bird, eds., Re-writing Conceptual Art (London: Reaktion Books, 1999).

  8. Anthony Easthope, “The Trajectory of Screen: 1971-79,” in Francis Barker et al., eds., The Politics of Theory (Colchester: University of Essex, 1983), pp. 121-33. The magazine’s publication of art practice/theory debates included essays by T.J. Clark on Manet (Screen 21/1 (1980)), Griselda Pollock on Van Gogh and Concepts of Genius (Screen 21/3 (1980)), Mary Kelly on Modernist Criticism (Screen 22/3 (1981)).

  9. Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex (London: Jonathan Cape, 1960); Kate Millett, Sexual Politics (New York: Doubleday, 1970); Shulamith Firestone, The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution (New York: Morrow, 1970).

  10. Juliet Mitchell, Psychoanalysis and Feminism (London: Penguin Books, 1974); Laura Mulvey “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Screen 16/3 (Autumn 1975); Julia Kristeva “The System and the Speaking Subject,” Times Literary Supplement (October 12, 1973).

  11. Mira Schor, “Backlash and Appropriation,” in Broude and Garrard, eds., The Power of Feminist Art, p. 255.

  12. Brian Wallis, ed., Art After Modernism: Rethinking Representation (New York: The New Museum of Contemporary Art, 1984).

  13. Muriel Castanis, “Behind Every Artist There’s a Penis,” The Village Voice (March 19, 1970).

  14. This would be the referent for more recent discourse by the American writers such as Anna Chave who also focus upon the masculine, industrial connotations of minimalist forms. See in particular Chave’s “Minimalism and the Rhetoric of Power,” Arts Magazine (January 1990). See Rosalind Krauss’s “Sense and Sensibility,” Artforum (November 1973) for the original post-structuralist account of minimalism. For more recent arguments counter to the Chave position, see Hal Foster’s “Crux of Minimalism,” in The Return of the Real (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1995).

  15. Artforum (November, 1974). Ironically, although Benglis’s intention was “to mock the idea of having to take sexual sides — to be either a male artist or a female,” the literalization of gender roles around the possession of a penis created a controversy among the editors of Artforum (who wrote letters of complaint to the magazine) as well as among feminists (who accused Beglis of having penis envy after all). See Susand Krane, Lynda Benglis: Dual Natures (Atlanta: High Museum of Art, 1990), p. 42.

  16. Juliet Mitchell, “Women: The Longest Revolution,” originally published in New Left Review 40 (1966), expanded and reprinted in Women’s Estate (New York: Pantheon, 1971) and collected in Feminism in Our Times, (New York: Vantage Books, 1994).

  17. Carol Morrell, “Interview with Juliet Mitchell,” Spare Rib 22 (April 1974).

  18. Ibid.

  19. Laing’s theories, in particular, were important to feminist writers such as Eunice Lipton, who cited his work in a liberationist attack on patriarchal ideology and violence. See Lipton’s “The Violence of Ideological Distortion: The Imaginary Laundresses in the 19th Century French Culture,” Heresies 6 (1978). The editors ran this essay side by side Suzanne Lacy’s “Evolution of Feminist Art,” a survey of feminist artwork based upon the “expanding self” — a “metaphor for the process of moving boundaries of one’s identity outward to encompass other women, groups of women and eventually all people.” At the base of these arguments was the assertion that a return of the repressed — the radical feminine voice — would have liberationist effects. Indeed, in the issue’s editorial statement is a diagram of the registers of the conscious, unconscious and preconscious, a screaming woman in the unconscious register, repressed by the “Eye” of (patriarchal) consciousness. This is fundamentally different from Freud’s reading of gender and repression, in that, for Freud, what is repressed differs among individuals as a result of their unique formative traumas and subsequent neuroses. Moreover, according to Mitchell’s reading of Freud, it is more likely that the other “masculine” aim of the drive would unconsciously be repressed by the conscious position of being a “woman.” Accordingly, the various Freudian blindspots that characterized aspects of liberationist, separatist, feminist communities — i.e. their populist gender normativity — are framed by Mitchell’s critical reading of the unconscious.

  20. Juliet Mitchell, Psychoanalysis and Feminism (New York: Vintage, 1974), p. 7.

  21. Ibid., pp. 352-3.

  22. For a more inclusive account of these events, one presented anecdotally by someone central to their making, see Lucy Lippard, The Pink Swan (New York: The New Press, 1995).

  23. A decade later, many of these spaces would be subsumed into the very system they initially interrogated — PS.1’s current affiliation with MoMA is most notable on this account.

  24. WAR solicitation flyer, February 1970. The year before, the Whitney Annual exhibited 8 women artists among 143 men. They included Sara Saporta, Dolores Homes, Jacqueline Skiles, Juliette Gordon, Silvia Goldsmith, and Jan McDevitt.

  25. Similar activist organizations were being formed at the time in the UK. The Artists’ Union (aligned with the Trades Union Congress) made similar demands to AWC in the US. The Women’s Workshop was also formed within it.

  26. Anon., “50% No Joke,” New York Element (November-December 1970).

  27. Letter to Stephen E. Weil, Whitney Administrator, from the Ad Hoc Committee of Women (November 9, 1970).

  28. Letter to Petsy Jones and John Szarkowski, MoMA staff, from the Ad Hoc Committee of Women (December 1969).

  29. Founding statement by Judy Chicago, Sheila de Bretteville, and Arlene Raven, quoted in Faith Wilding, By Our Own Hands: The Women’s Artists’ Movement, Southern California, 1970-1976, (Santa Monica: Double X, 1977), p. 83.

  30. For a history of AIR’s beginnings, see Corinne Robins, “The AIR Gallery: 1972-1978,” Womanart (Winter 1977-8). Again, mainstream work at this time would be characterized by the minimalist industrial aesthetic of Donald Judd and Robert Morris, or the conceptual analytic aesthetic of Lawrence Weiner, Sol LeWitt, Mel Bochner, or Joseph Kosuth. AIR’s aesthetic, on the other hand, was most likely drawn from Lucy Lippard’s Eccentric Abstraction (New York: Fischbach Gallery): see Art International 10/9 (1966).

  31. Barbara Zucker, “Making AIR,” Heresies 7, 2/3 (Spring 1979).

  32. Robins, “The AIR Gallery”; my emphasis.

  33. Lippard, The Pink Glass Swan, pp. 9-10.

  34. Cited in Maynard Solomon, ed., Marxism and Art: Essays Classic and Contemporary (New York: Knopf, 1973), p. 237.

  35. Norma Broude and Mary D. Garrard, “Conversations with Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro,” Broude and Garrard, eds., The Power of Feminist Art, p. 78.

  36. Carrie Rickey, “Writing (and Righting) Wrongs: Feminist Art Publications,” in Broude and Garrard, eds., The Power of Feminist Art, p. 128.

  37. Georg Lukács, “Realism in the Balance,” in Aesthetics and Politics (New York: Verso, 1977), p. 55.

  38. For more on Mierle Laderman Ukeles’ work in this context, see Miwon Kwon, “in Appreciation of Invisible Work,” and Helen Molesworth “Work Stoppages,” both in Documents 10 (Fall 1997).

  39. For a script of the performance, see Andrea Fraser, “Museum Highlights: A Gallery Talk,” October 57 (Summer 1991).

  40. Unpublished interview by Julie Ault with Marcia Tucker (july 11, 1995).

  41. “A Museum in the Village: An Idea Whose Time has Come,” The Villager (October 20, 1977).

  42. Mission statement, ibid.

  43. Mary Kelly et. al., “A Conversation on Recent Feminist Art Practices,” October 71 (Winter, 1995), p. 50.

  44. Tucker, unpublished interview; my emphasis.

  45. While the approach was intended to be democratic and “self-critical,” it is important to note that the ultimate veto power still rested in the hands of the Director. Nonetheless, the tone of the museum — from the beginning and throughout the 1980s — was one of continual internal debate. See statement by Alice Yang, curator from 1988-1993 in Temporarily Possessed: The Semi-Permanent Collection (New York: The New Museum of Contemporary Art, 1995), p. 152. This administrative model was one that more greatly valued the theorizations of institutional critique by artists (such as Buren, Haacke, Asher, Smithson, and Laderman-Ukeles, etc.) than that of nineteenth-century museum practice (continued by MoMA, the Whitney and the Metropolitan).

  46. Ault/Tucker interview.

  47. Marcia Tucker, Memory, May 10-May 21, 1977 (New York: The New Museum of Contemporary Art, 1977).

  48. Marcia Tucker, New Work/New York, June 25-July 13, 1977 (New York: The New Museum of Contemporary Art, 1977).

  49. Marcia Tucker, Bad Painting, January14-February 28, 1978 (New York: The New Museum of Contemporary Art, 1977).

  50. See “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” collected in Clement Greenberg, The Collected Essays and Criticism, ed. John O’Brien, vol. 1 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988).

  51. I am thinking here of a series of exhibitions that were formative in defining a theoretical/aesthetic model of practice, known loosely as a New York School of critical postmodernism: Art & Ideology (February 4-March 18, 1984), curated by Benjamin Buchloh, Donald Kuspit, Lucy Lippard, Nilda Peraza, and Lowery Sims; Difference: On Representation and Sexuality (December 8, 1984-February 10 1985), curated by Kate Linker and Jane Weinstock, with essays by Craig Owens, Lisa Tucker, Jacqueline Rose, and Peter Weinstock; and Damaged Goods (June 21-August10 1986), curated by Brian Wallis, with essays by Hal Foster and Brian Wallis. The Art of Memory: The Loss of History (November 23, 1985-January 1986), curated by William Olander, significantly marked the Museum’s passage from a gestural engagement with discourse indicative of its first exhibition on memory, to a more analytical use of discourse engaged in contemporary debates on aesthetics, history and contemporary art.

  52. The Heresies Collective exhibition was one of the last shows to be mounted in the New Museum’s 65 Fifth Avenue space, while Difference was amongst the first at 538 Broadway. We should also note that the Heresies show was part of a series called Events, dedicated to showcasing projects by local alternative galleries and collectives.

  53. Heresies 18, 5/2 (1985).

  54. Lucy Lippard, “Classified: Big Pages from the Heresies Collective,” in Events: En Foco/Heresies Collective, June 11-July 20 (New York: The New Museum of Contemporary Art, 1983), p. 27.

  55. Heresies Collective, “Editorial Statement,” Heresies 18, 5/2 (1985): 3.

  56. Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (New York: Zone, 1994), p. 11.

  57. Ibid.

  58. Sabre Moore, “A Roomful of Mothers,” in Events, p. 30.

  59. Sally Stein, “The Graphic Ordering of Desire: Modernization of a Middle-Class Women’s Magazine, 1914-1939,” Heresies 18 5/2 (1985): 7-8.

  60. Robert Venturi et. al. Learning from Las Vegas: The Forgotten Symbolism of Architectural Form (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1977); Raymond Williams, Television: Technology and Cultural Form (New York: Schocken, 1975).

  61. In 1982, two years prior to the Difference exhibition, Rose and Mitchell co-edited Feminine Sexuality: Jacques Lacan and the École Freudienne, trans. Jacqueline Rose (New York: Norton & Company, 1982), an anthology of articles by Lacan and his school.

  62. Sigmund Freud, “Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of his Childhood” (1910), The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works, vol. 11 (London: Hogarth Press, 1953).

  63. Rose, “Sexuality in the Field of Vision,” in Difference, p. 31.

  64. In 1985, such arguments on deconstruction were familiar among New York intellectuals and artists, initiated in part by the work Craig Owens and Douglas Crimp. In particular, see Craig Owens, “The Allegorical Impulse: Towards a Theory of Postmodernism,” Parts 1 and 2, October 12 & 13 (Spring and Summer 1980): and Douglas Crimp, “On the Museum’s Ruins,” October 13 (Summer 1980). This was the moment that Hal Foster canonized the modern/postmodern debate within the field of art criticism in his Recodings: Art, Spectacle, Cultural Politics (Port Townsend: Bay Press, 1985). Rose was among the first critics to advance these debates on art production to more rigorously consider and include psychoanalytic theories of gender.

  65. Again, the ties between feminism and other historical discourses of change are important to note such that we can value feminism’s larger contribution to the history of critical thought.

  66. André Breton, “Second Manifesto of Surrealism,” in Manifestos of Surrealism, trans. Richard Seaver and Helen R. Lane (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1977), p. 6.

  67. To be fair, Breton attempted more than once to collaborate with the communists, faced as Europe was with a common foe: fascism. Their connection, alas, was always fleeting. In Community, Myth and Recognition in Twentieth-Century French Literature and Thought, (London: Continuum, 2009), Nikolaj Lübecker notes: “In ‘What is Surrealism?’ (1934), [Breton] specifically criticized his youthful idea of a literary activity freed from any moral concerns. Instead he insisted on the maturity the surrealist movement had gained through its engagement with the communist project. But that was 1934. One year later Breton has just been in conflict with the communists (he even came to blows with the communist intellectual Ilya Ehrenburg) and in August 1935 the break with the Communist Party becomes definitive: now Breton is no longer sure of how to realize surrealism as a political movement. At that point Bataille arrives with the project of Contre-Attaque,” a short-lived alliance, in 1935, between Breton and Bataille’s respective wings of the surrealist project and the communists, directed against the rise of Adolf Hitler. The alliance ended abruptly when a poorly worded declaration, by the surrealist faction, that was published in their magazine Contre-Attaque — the assertion that “an attack on the technocratic political system led to a legitimization of violence” — appeared to support Hitler. Lübecker, pp. 40-42.

  68. André Breton, “Second Manifesto of Surrealism,” in Manifestos of Surrealism, p 154.

  69. We should note that this formulation is consistent with Marx’s belief that (1) revolution is initiated , in part, within the intellectual circles of bourgeois society, and (2) that there is no one aesthetic for revolutionary advancement. The argument for a Marxist, revolutionary aesthetic would be left to Marx’s followers, of which Lukásc was prominent on this account.

  70. Parveen Adams, Rosalind Coward, Elizabeth Cowie, eds., m/f 1 (1978): 4.

  71. In the 1980s, Laura Mulvey’s essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Screen (Autumn 1975) came to define or canonize an American feminist practice concerned with the “male gaze.” In the 1990s, I am again referring to the Bronx Museum’s Division of Labor exhibition, a conflation was made between Kelly and Chicago’s work around the subjects of maternity and domesticity.