For Feminist Artists, Recognition Often Comes Too Late

Year beginnings beg for our attention. How do we account? Given the threat of Corona, these routine re-evaluations take on a darker pall. If I died, how would I be remembered, and by whom? I consider this from the perspective of one who has worked the feminist homage.

For the last 30 or so years, I have interviewed or conversed with members of my own art and art activist communities. Three years ago, I published an interview with Carolee Schneemann concerning her major career retrospectives. We talked about gender, ecology, and militarism, about her coming into attention at that (late) moment of her life: “I’ve had wonderful assistance and amazing teams at the museums. The confidence, the devotion of the institution — it is just amazing. But part of me isn’t there. Part of me is like, ‘What happened? I can do anything and they like it now? This matters?’ I’m very divided.”

At that time, I also spoke with Agnès Varda and Barbara Hammer. These three great artists were all around 80 when we spoke; I was in my mid-50s. Each died shortly thereafter. They were enjoying the recognition of their careers, but each was “divided” in her own way given how late-in-coming this attention was. In previous conversations in the 1990s, Schneemann and Hammer, then about the age I am now, had focused upon a related preoccupation: a definitive lack of support, how they were not seen (enough), and how this had stalled and affected their careers.

Feminist aging: three self-portraits of Agnès Varda at the Blum and Poe exhibition Agnès Varda (2017) (photo by the author)

It was gratifying to learn that this painful condition had changed in subsequent decades. But why, we wondered, does deserved recognition come too late for feminist artists? Powerful, productive (cis) men at a height of their mastery are recognized as such in mid-life (and, for the savants, often earlier). This brings accolades and attention, but also funding, support, and a sense of self-assurance and stability. From all this, much more is made.

Women are awarded this same attention … in old age. In middle age we, too, are powerful, capable, and ready — our craft mastered, our voices clear. But this is not received as a mark of readiness for more. Rather our power is a sign of already too much and somehow too little: no longer fertile (for those of us who ovulated), no longer raising kids (for those of us who did), professionally astute and agile, we are admired from a distance, and with disdain. Only in old age — weakened by ill health, treated with kid gloves, a kind of fawning, demeaning, patronizing attention — are we seen as we warrant.

I understand that this can be true for men; race, disability, sexuality, and other differences, as well as chosen genre and field, will modulate consideration; the good work of many deserving people will never get attended to or remembered. But here, I am keen to understand and forefront the role of gender in the workings of legacy. I want to think self-critically about the role of (inter)generational reflection and community between feminists. I wrestle with three anecdotes, and some more clear thinking from previous interactions with important artists, to get closer to a feminist framework for homage that I can live with for now.

Just before Corona hit New York City I was invited to brunch by mutual friends to meet Abigail Child, a well-regarded feminist experimental filmmaker a generation older than I. The repast was as one would expect and hope. Our conversation focused on: her new film, Origin of the Species; famous and infamous figures in our shared worlds of art, writing, and film; retiring and working; and legacy. In her 70s, Abigail wanted to understand why feminist scholars weren’t writing about her now. Acknowledging as we both did the value of her work, this felt unfair and confusing. Why was her influence insufficient to her achievements over a storied and ongoing career? I told her some of what I had learned working to remember and make feminist media (history). Her films would matter when it and she were older. She had to be patient. This was the lot of the feminist artist.

Intergenerational conversation: Abby at brunch, February (2020) (photo by Michael Walsh)
Almost real conversation: still from Origin of the Species, directed by Abigail Child (2020) 73 min. B/W & color (image courtesy Abigail Child)

During Corona, another talented feminist filmmaker I know, Cynthia Madansky, my age, asked me to lunch. She had recently returned to New York City having completed an notable film, Esfir, that extends the ideas and approaches of one of world cinema’s most important filmmakers and thinkers, Esfir Shub. Cynthia was having a tough time getting this breathtaking film — as well as her larger oeuvre of masterful, idiosyncratic work — seen. I suggested some connections in the field, said I would send an email or two. Then, I told her what I had learned from Carolee and Barbara, as well as from my recent brunch with Abigail. She had to be patient and continue make her great work knowing praise would come … later.

Feminist homage: Title image from opening sequence in ESFIR (2020) a 70 min, 16mm feature film by Cynthia Madansky
where street artists in St. Petersburg draw portraits of Esfir Shub (image courtesy Cynthia Madansky)

Last week a younger scholar/artist in our shared field of queer media studies, Margaret Rhee, interviewed me for a “Spotlight” in the Journal of Cinema and Media Studies. The tables were turning; they must. She wanted my advice so that younger females and queers in the field, as she put it, can “learn from you as a model, as an intervention, if you will, to their own trajectories as media scholars.” Thinking more about Margaret’s sister project of recognition, friendship, and mentorship led me to wonder: What do I know and want as someone who is being remembered and who wants to understand feminist remembrances in media? Our conversation is what got me here.

Feminist homage: “The E-Chart” (2021) a visual poem by Margaret Rhee (From the Dickinson series) (the author’s mother, Dr. Suzanne Juhasz, is honored!) (image courtesy Margaret Rhee)

I want to remember in community, in conversation, and in media. Here’s me, engaging in an interview with the lesbian activist collective, fierce pussy (queer activist artists about my age), in light of their 2018 commemorative show, AND SO ARE YOU:

Alex: But there’s something about calling out to the spectator that’s of this moment. The internet pretends to make room but actually forecloses the possibility of room, and so reaching out into the street and making room seems really critical right now.

Fierce pussy: And this is coming from a joyful place, even though the posters were first made during dire times. When we were working together, it was a way to be with one another.

Lesbian aging: fierce pussy, “And So Are You” (1991-2018), site-specific QUEERPOWER exhibition facade installation (courtesy Leslie-Lohman Museum of Art, photo by (c) Kristine Eudey)

Listening again to fierce pussy, I recognize how our current media moment isn’t good for artists’ recognition in ways that working and talking together can be. I identify the internet’s patriarchal (and capitalistic) logics of growth and scale, hits and likes, and how this usually links to violence rather than joy. How can we live with, use, and account for media formats that put attention itself over all other values, modes, or methods? When I spoke with Agnès Varda, she reveled in a new-found intimacy that had come to her in 2018, as it had always done for this master filmmaker, by way of a camera:

Agnès: I want to show you something [she hands me her phone]. I did a Skype with my kids. My son lives in California and he has kids. I couldn’t believe we could do something [so] beautiful; we did the Skype, and attend— I can see them. Let me show you. This is my little family, in California, on Skype, yesterday. This is the world of today. We spoke. We laughed. I took a picture of the Skype. And here it is, now.

Listening again to Agnès, remembering the picture of her family that she shared with me, I recognize something about memorial that is especially moving given today’s imbrications of digital technology and Corona: Memory is a matter of life. It is hard to see past, and live outside, any moment’s common-sense ways of being, seeing, remembering, and honoring. Men do this under one set of conditions, women and female-identified humans another. But today, this year, we all do this under a false promise of visibility, reach, and influence running counter to the logics of joy, and that “something so beautiful” that Agnès found, caught on camera, and shared with me.

Feminist homages in a time of loss must push against patriarchal obfuscations just as feminist artists do in their life and work. It seems that some strategies for staying visible, for seeing more, for pushing past what we have been told we can be, we will need to learn again and again from those who can teach us, from those who did it really well, already. Thus, I conclude as I did with my conversation with Carolee, three years ago:

Alex: Your work always did, and always will, return to your female body and your experience as a thinking, passionate, political person who sees through that body.

Carolee: It’s funny, this request to go back to the body. It’s kind of like I did that, I’ve been there. I no longer need to depict the daily physicality, but I still need to make something that I’ve never seen before.

Feminist aging: Carollee in “Meat Joy” (1964) in the exhibition Kinetic Painting, at MoMA PS1 (2018) (photo by the author)

I learn newly that feminist legacy in a time of loss is a matter of dreaming, daring, and living beyond the confines we have inherited so as to express, and better so embody, how to live.

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