Art and the Women’s Movement

FRAMING FEMINISM Art and the Women’s Movement 1970-1985 The Book: edited and introduced by Rozsika Parker and Griselda Pollock (Pandora, 1987, 9.95 [pounds sterling]) The Discussion: London ICA, 21 January

THE DISCUSSION Framing Feminism was advertised by the ICA: ‘Artists Sutapa Biswas and Lubaina Himid discuss the past and future of feminist art in postmodernity with Griselda Pollock, co-editor of Framing Feminism’. It was a badly organised event. Sutapa Biswas did not attend, no explanation was given for her absence, and there was no chairwoman to help develop the discussion beyond the criticism and defence of this particular book.

Griselda Pollock said at the outset that her aim was to publicise her book, which is a collection of women’s writing on art, linked by a commentary. She described the long delays that she and co-editor Rozsika Parker had experienced with the publisher, and the resulting need to bring the book up to date in a hurry. She defended the book against its critics by saying it was a history of how things seemed at the time, and that it was motivated by a desire to make women artists visible. She commented on the importance of developing strategies as women artists, and described her own experience as someone working within the tradition of Modernism.

Pollock emphasised the need to develop an ideological framework which would place women’s art practice in a secure context, centre stage. She quoted Mary Kelly as saying she never intended to be a marginal artist but wanted to be ‘in there battling’ among the men. Pollock criticised the current tendency to reject deconstructive practice in favour of painting as retrogressive. She said it was problematic for women to paint in the traditional way, given its associations with western culture and consumerism, its imperialist and sexist implications.

Responding to Pollock’s apologia for ‘Framing Feminism’ and her attempt to place its aims and methods in historical context, Lubaina Himid gave the Black women’s point of view. She started by saying that she wanted to make her criticisms and then move on to more constructive comments by describing developments in her own art and considering strategies for the future. It is regrettable that she did not state the initial criticisms more fully, because it only emerged later in a comment from the audience that Pandora Press apparently shelved a project for a book on Black women’s art in order to publish ‘Framing Feminism’. An example of the criticisms of the book, again from the audience, was that the description of The Thin Black Line exhibition (p.67) listed only 10 of the 11 artists involved.

Lubaina Himid commented on the cultural piracy of white artists like Nancy Spero, and made a case that white women use the energy and insights of Black women without acknowledging their sources. It was noticeable that Himid presented her opinions about the position of Black women artists by making shapes with her hands. This was not simply a characteristic reaction by an artist to an art historian. It was a visible sign of the inability to articulate what has never in fact been published and publicly acknowledged. As a member of the audience remarked, the ICA event was simply tokenism: only when a book is printed on Black women’s art will it be possible to talk on equal terms and create a discussion.

The most important issue raised at the ICA was racism, and I hope it will be taken up in future issues of the Journal. At this stage, it is worth echoing a comment from the audience that Black women have contributed an important activist element to art, which among other things vitally connects with political and social issues of everyday life. Even when books about Black women’s art appear, followed by more broadly written books about the generality of women’s art, not all these qualities will be captured by the written word.

The issue of racism gave uncomfortable reverberations to this meeting between the ‘ordering impulse’ of a white art historian and the ‘raw material’ that was on this occasion a Black woman artist. The presence of a second artist, as advertised, would have improved the situation. But the problem lies deeper. It lies in the notion of contemporary art history itself.

History may be described as the activity of organising evidence about life in the past according to the theories current at the time of writing and the interests of the particular historian. The idea of writing a history of living artists seems a very dubious enterprise when you consider that artists have the power to resist the ordering impulse of the art historian. As conditions change and as their own experiences and interests develop, artists will contradict the meanings imposed upon their work. Only after their death can artists no longer escape the transforming energies of history.

So despite my admiration for Pollock and Parker’s wide-ranging and rigorous arguments in earlier publications, I feel that ‘Framing Feminism’ offers documentation not history. Pollock’s determination to create a rigid ideological context for women’s art practice is not appropriate when the subject is living artists. To say, for example, that it is retrogressive for women to paint rather than to adopt other artistic strategies is to show a lack of respect for the concerns of art and a lack of imagination about what artists actually do. The notion of change cannot be so lightly dismissed in a book that documents events of the recent past.

Pollock speaks from a carefully argued and purist viewpoint that should be respected. She is looking to the past, to how women first became aware of the professional and social inequalities that impeded their growth and recognition as artists, and she documents their early activities within this context. But when she criticises women for wanting to paint, she is applying values drawn from the past: she does not seem to accept that conditions can change and perspectives can alter. Pollock is speaking from within her own specific experience as an academic and her own route to appreciation of women’s art practice. But this point of view does not preclude all others. Pollock cannot prescribe and control the full range of attitudes and practices–even if, it must be said, they are less coherent than her own.

The motivation behind Pollock’s determination to create an inclusive ideological framework is to provide a launching pad for intervening in the ‘dominant discourse’. I accept that women must work to improve their influence on education and their access to major exhibition spaces and financial recognition. But I disagree that directing artists to intervene in the official cultural sites by sticking to ‘ideologically sound’ types of art is a worthwhile strategy. Pollock’s prescriptive attitudes reveal that such attempts to influence the mainstream merely structure the issues in a purpose-built and arid way. Why should we waste our energies trying to situate ourselves in relation to the ‘dominant discourse’? Would this strategy ever work? As the ICA event illustrates, Pollock is preaching to the converted: she has no effect on those who aren’t prepared to listen.

The unsavoury ‘dialectic’ between the margins and the mainstream (and cf. p. 75) was immediately detected by the audience. Pollock’s comment about Mary Kelly being unwilling to occupy a marginal position in art was taken up, and a case was made for the virtues of working within the margins. The problem is not what Mary Kelly has done, because her choice was personal and specific. The problem arises when Griselda Pollock tries to generalise from the tactics of particular artists in order to tell others to follow in the same footsteps. Art is about women pursuing their ideas, alone or together, unperturbed by the latest fashions of art history. Their work might receive greater attention through the wider focus of interest that these fashions sometimes attract. But this operates at the level of perception, not artistic creation.

I would like to widen the terms of this debate about the mainstream versus the margins by asking why women are so keen to gain ‘general recognition’. Have they stopped to think what general recognition actually means? It is a sad fact that gaining the esteem of other women is seen by some as only halfway ‘there’, as merely the first step to some more absolute plane of recognition. The efforts of women to situate themselves in relation to the ‘dominant discourse’ reveal a lack of understanding about what artists and their chroniclers have been doing all these years. For centuries, men have publicly acknowledged each other’s efforts. We must do the same. We must document women’s art and create arenas for debate. As more generations of women artists and students with an awareness of the issues open galleries, establish magazines, publish books and become involved in broadcasting, a momentum of interest will develop and women will be able to earn a living by their art. The media seems to be the key, because women have long occupied important posts in art administration. ‘General recognition’ will only take root when women’s art is consistently brought to public attention–in all its awkward diversity, not as obediently representative of one particular approach.

It is on the level of documentation, not prescriptive history, that the achievement of ‘Framing Feminism’ should be acknowledged. Apart from the patchy coverage of Black women artists, there are other inaccuracies, for example in the confusion of the activities of the Women Artists Slide Library with those of Battersea Arts Centre. The book has been sloppily edited: the worst example is the omission of the 52 notes to Lisa Tickner’s article, ‘The body politic: female sexuality and women artists since 1970’ (51 of these notes may be seen in ‘Looking On’ edited by Rosemary Betterton and also published by Pandora in 1987, which repeats some of the articles in ‘Framing Feminism’). Comparison between the two books makes me question Parker and Pollock’s decision to print the articles in facsimile form, in their original published or unpublished appearance. The decision may have been motivated by a need to produce the book cheaply. But the intended diversity of appearance has been spoilt by poor illustrations, for which their stated aims (p.xvi) do not compensate: ‘the fascimile [sic] form allows us to discern in residual form the living movement of history’.

Despite its inaccuracies and rigid ideology, ‘Framing Feminism’ is a great achievement. In all their work, Rozsika Parker and Griselda Pollock have applied the insights of many disciplines from history to psychoanalysis to examine the reasons why the realisation of women’s creativity has been impeded. The book has ranged through vast areas of women’s art and ideas. In order to build on this achievement, to correct the details, to broaden the descriptions, to shift the focus, many more books will need to be written.