‘What We See’: The Necessity of Feminist Art

Beginning in mid-June, Esquire magazine will begin publishing its new series of e-books entitled “Fiction for Men” – the first volume of which will include new short stories by Aaron Gwyn, Luis Alberto Urrea, and Jess Walter (all of which are either Pulitzer Prize or National Book Award finalists).  There’s no disagreeing with Esquire’s editor in chief David Granger’s assessment of the declining place of fiction in the magazine world – “It’s a struggle, because especially during the recession, we lost so many pages.  Fiction begins to feel a little bit of a luxury.”  Rather, the bafflement on the part of many of us female readers (especially those of us who are writers ourselves) comes from the very idea that “men’s fiction” could ever be a genre separate from a mainstream literary world that has produced and promoted (a) the male-dominated literary canon shoved down our throats in English classes, and (b) contemporary literary ‘stars’ like Jonathan Franzen and Phillip Roth.

The definition of “men’s fiction” given by Granger – “plot-driven and exciting, where one thing happens after another . . . and also at the same time, dealing with passages in a man’s life that seem common” – is itself a statement riddled with sexist assumptions about the way in which men and women live their lives.  The bitterness these kinds of “men’s culture” proponents harbor towards female artistic expression is not only troubling in the sense that it bespeaks a desire on their part for women’s voices to be silenced, but because it is rooted so deeply in complete ignorance about the challenges female and minority artists face.

The post-WWII surge in feminist literary criticism (arguably culminating in the 1979 publication of Gilbert and Gubar’s famous The Madwoman in the Attic) allowed socially-conscious readers to begin asking the kinds of questions that this “fiction for men” oddity likewise induces: how does the patriarchy assign second-class status to works produced by women artists?  How are both female and male artists’ work affected by the inherent sexism in their society?

At a cultural moment that is producing ‘Dick-lit’ (thanks to Erin Gloria Ryan at Jezebel for the hilarious moniker) in response to an imaginary sidelining of men’s perspectives in artistic expression, we more than ever need to commit to producing and consuming the feminist, intersectional art that gives voice to groups that are actually marginalized.

In the photography world, we have Elizabeth D. Herman’s new “Women Warriors” project, which “examines the role that women have played in recent conflicts and the lasting effects that war has had on these women and their loved ones.”

On canvas, we have last year’s Lee Price series on food consumption, which challenges the societal concept of a woman’s ‘appropriate’ relationship to food by depicting women gloriously, and at times, compulsively, engaging with eating.  We have Kirsten McCrea’s “Hot Topic” Feminist Memory Project, which uses the Le Tigre song, “Hot Topic” to highlight feminist heroes and heroines, many of which are “relatively unknown outside of certain subcultures” in an active protest against a “world that celebrates manufactured pop stars but forgets the names of suffragists.”

On the stage, the Occupy Broadway movement – in partnership with the famous Guerrilla Girls’ ‘on tour’ department – launches this Fall in protest to a male-dominated theater world where, for example, no play written by a woman was produced on Broadway during the 2010/2011 season.

Finally, perhaps the most established feminist artistic community exists within the literary world.  There are specific publishing houses, awards, and conventions designed to celebrate the best in women-centered and queer writing, such as The Publishing Triangle – an association of lesbians and gay men in publishing that recently awarded its Audre Lorde Award for Lesbian Poetry to Minnie Bruce Pratt, a poet active in the lesbian-feminist community since the 1970s.

The mistake that blatant and latent misogynists make – among many – is to assume, upon hearing of these kinds of projects, that the problem of women’s voices being systematically silenced has already been fixed . . . the artistic glass ceiling shattered.

What they fail to understand is that the period in which women (let alone minority, queer women) have been allowed to share their life experiences through their art is relatively microscopic when compared to the long history of male artistic expression.  More importantly, they willfully deny that, while the conversations taking place in the art world may be including more diverse voices, they are still undeniably dominated by the heterosexual white male participants.

So, while a (hopefully small) percentage of art consumers will be downloading and reading Esquire’s “Dick-lit” this summer, the rest of us will seek out the works of more dissident voices.  As famous feminist poet, Adrienne Rich, who left us this past March, reminds her readers:

“What we see, we see/and seeing is changing”


2 responses to “‘What We See’: The Necessity of Feminist Art

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