Gendering the mass-culture-versus-high-art debate, or What’s for feminist dinner?
In Thursday’s meeting, we’ll flesh out the bodily themes we began to touch in Tuesday’s class on ‘ass-thetics,’ when we ogled the grotesque femininity of gay male camp. Our readings go right to the issue of gender by thinking through the female body, its representations, and its ‘qualified’ representers in the context of art. (I use the latter qualifier with a nod to Siebers and the aesthetics of human disqualification.) The old terms of high art v. kitsch dog us again, as women and the work of women artists is relegated to the inferior category of cultural production in what reveals itself to be a very gendered binary.
Taken together, these questions will hopefully lead us to interrogate the more encompassing and tenacious abjection of the body as gross in itself, the conflation of femininity with the abject, permeable body in the phallocentric system of representation Bersani describes (e.g. the visual ban on lactating breasts), and in which the active hetero male self is the symbolic center or powerful master of a domain that contains us all. Because his others–women, gay men, people with disabilities, people marked by ‘inferior’ class or race, and so on–are over-identified with the body, he alone enjoys the possibility of pure subjectivity required by the Kantian kind of rational aesthetic judgment.
Andrea Huyssen’s article (quoted below and up on Moodle for reference but not required reading) gives us a good, bullet-pointed list of (masculinist) modernist art’s defining features, which I propose we use as a jumping off point when we pose this larger question.
· The work is autonomous and totally separate from the realms of mass culture and
· It is self-referential, self-conscious, frequently ironic, ambiguous, and rigorously
· It is the expression of a purely individual consciousness rather than of a Zeitgeist or a
collective state of mind.
· Its experimental nature makes it analogous to science, and like science it produces and
· Modernist literature since Flaubert is a persistent exploration of and encounter with
language. Modernist painting since Manet is an equally persistent elaboration of the
medium itself: the flatness of the canvas, the structuring of notation, paint and brushwork,
the problem of the frame.
· The major premise of the modernist art work is the rejection of all classical systems of
representation, the effacement of “content,” the erasure of subjectivity and authorial
voice, the repudiation of likeness and verisimilitude, the exorcism of any demand for
realism of whatever kind.
· Only by fortifying its boundaries, by maintaining its purity and autonomy, and by
avoiding any contamination with mass culture and with the signifying systems of
everyday life can the art work maintain its adversary stance: adversary to the bourgeois
culture of everyday life as well as adversary to mass culture and entertainment which are
seen as the primary forms of bourgeois cultural articulation.
We are fortunate to have Katherine, our own artist-in-residence, host our bad taste class on Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party and the masculinist criticism of her work as kitsch. Please be sure to check out the installation in question (here) in addition to the (verbal) texts on the menu for this meeting, which include: Judy Chicago and Amelia Jones (both in the same PDF, ~5 pp.); Milton’s Kramer’s NYT review (2 pp.); and Tania Modleski’s “Femininity as Mas(s)querade” (~5 pp.). Our reading is light in pages but heavy in theme. You will want to bring your Bersani and Flinn, so we can figure out how their arguments fit with these new ones, too.
Throughout the semester, we have established a definition for kitsch that has consistently brought up the topic of gender, and specifically femininity. For tomorrow’s class, I will focus on Judy Chicago’s installation piece, The Dinner Party, and how its feminist dispatch comes off as kitschy mass culture.
The Dinner Party is a controversial landmark that exhibits thirty-nine place settings to commemorate goddesses and important women throughout Western history. The piece is intended to convey the long struggle for freedom and justice that women have endured throughout male-dominated societies. The installation intends to formulate an end to the ongoing cycle of omitting the female accomplishments that have been written out of historical records.
Judy Chicago honors the achievements of these idealistic female figures through ceramics, china-painting, and needlework; all methods of art from the domestic realm, even including the actual template of a dinner table. The domesticity of this piece represents the relationship between aesthetics and domestic kitsch, public vs. private domains. Each place setting is adorned with needlework that is stylistic of the time, and a vulvic-style plate, also representative of the female role at that point in history. I’d say this dinner table certainly gives a whole new meaning to “eating out” as the representation of sexual imagery alludes to that “grotesque” factor that Flinn discusses. A sense of popularity is also established by the outright visual depiction of external female genitalia that implies “it can’t be good art because it’s too popular” (146, Chicago & Jones).
Chicago’s personal experience as a female artist is reflected in this work, along with that of the women, primarily housewives, that helped her create some of the visual components of this installation. It is this exploitation of femininity that allows this work to be interpreted as kitschy. As Greenberg comments on the notion of visual experience, a piece of art must “confine itself to what is given in visual experience and make no reference to any other orders of experience” (148, Chicago & Jones). Because of the intentional lack of privacy that Judy Chicago creates in this work, it has been deemed vulgar, not as a piece of high art (Chicago’s intention), but as a proposal to an advertising campaign. As the New York Times declares, “taste is not Judy Chicago’s forte” (Kramer).
I will further discuss in class how femininity is deemed kitschy, as we dive into this piece of art, and further explore other examples like, Little Eva from Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and the ‘escapist’ power of a homosexual/feminine character from Manuel Puig’s Kiss of the Spider Woman.
As for now, I leave you all with some questions:
Why is mass culture feminized? What is this “silence of the majority” Modleski speaks of, if kitsch is created on the basis of exploiting the private as public (53)?
Does vulgarity refute “high art”? Why is aesthetic value policed by modernist criticism?