Critical Eye: Art in the Age of Sexual Disruption

Suzanne Lacy (with Melissa Hoffman and Phranc): Three Weeks in May, 1977, performance documentation. Photo Suzanne Lacy.


WHAT AN EXTRAORDINARY moment this is in the fraught history of gender relations. Galvanized by shared stories, women are breaking their silence and powerful men are losing their jobs and even their liberty. At the same time, a man credibly accused of sexual assault has been confirmed to the Supreme Court, and another man became president of the United States two years ago, despite having been caught on tape, in 2005, proudly touting the physical liberties made possible by his celebrity.

The clash between entrenched patriarchal attitudes and the newly awakened #MeToo consciousness found some striking counterparts in New York exhibitions last fall. Mounted with amazing timing, although it was several years in the making, Polish curator Monika Fabijanska’s “The Un-Heroic Act: Representations of Rape in Contemporary Women’s Art in the U.S.” addressed the issue head-on, just as the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation dispute was exploding. The show’s venue, the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, must have seemed tailor-made for a survey of women artists’ examinations of sexual violence. Ironically underscoring the pervasive nature of this problem, the college is itself currently embroiled in a controversy involving charges of drug abuse and sexual misconduct against several longtime professors.1

“The Un-Heroic Act” represented three generations of women artists whose works are variously reportorial, poetic, activist, and contemplative. The pieces draw on news accounts, literature, art history, fairy tales, myth, and court testimony. Two of the oldest works reveal contrasting approaches: shock and polemics. Ana Mendieta’s 1973 staged performance using her bound and bloodied half-naked body was inspired by a brutal rape and murder on the campus of the University of Iowa while she was a student there. This now iconic display, presented by invitation in the artist’s own apartment documented in photographs, gained much of its impact from the intimacy of the setting and Mendieta’s complete silence. Viewers reportedly felt as though they had stumbled upon the aftermath of a crime. Suzanne Lacy’s Three Weeks in May, from 1977, is equally famed but more public in focus. Touted as an early work of social practice art, it consists in part of maps and graphs documenting three weeks of reported rapes in Los Angeles. Grounded in statistics, with new police information added daily, the original version expanded into community outreach through workshops, performances, and educational events. Then and now, Three Weeks raised questions that still bedevil this approach: Is this art or a rape awareness project, and does that distinction matter?

More recent works exhibited a less confrontational sensibility. In a gallery walkthrough, Fabijanska noted that younger artists like Naima Ramos-Chapman focus on rape’s traumatic aftermath rather than the event itself. Others evoke the multiple types of sexual violence that take place in different contexts. These include rape as instrument of war (Jenny Holzer) or racial violence (Kara Walker); rape within the military (Jennifer Karady); campus rape (Mendieta, Guerrilla Girls BroadBand, and Andrea Bowers); border prostitution (Ada Trillo); and rape within the Native American community (Sonya Kelliher-Combs). Kathleen Gilje and Natalie Frank round out this approach by examining rape as a subject in, respectively, art history and popular literature. In the catalogue, Fabijanska lists other works that could have been included.2 She also notes she would have liked to address other aspects of the topic, including sexual violence against men and rape culture outside the US. Another lacuna: male artists’ empathetic explorations of rape and sexual violence.

“The Un-Heroic Act,” encompassing work by twenty artists, shed light on a dark subject and exposed the need for a more comprehensive show. Inadvertently, however, it also revealed some of the pitfalls of framing the issue of sexual violence solely in terms of assaults by male perpetrators against female victims. I was troubled by two works. The first is Carolee Thea’s 1991 Sabine Woman, a life-size tableau presenting multiple male rapists assaulting a female victim. The figures are fashioned from chicken wire, which serves to partially dematerialize them and thus minimize the more graphic aspects of the attack. Despite its universalizing classical title, the sculpture was inspired by news coverage of the Central Park Five—a group of black and Hispanic teenage boys who were tried and convicted of the brutal rape and near murder of the so-called Central Park Jogger. Fabijanska has said that her discovery of this never-before-shown work during a 2014 studio visit moved her to create this exhibition. We now know that these five boys were vilified and jailed for a crime they didn’t commit and that race figured in their conviction. Does it matter that the original scenario resulted in a miscarriage of justice against the accused? Here the work stands in for the issue of gang rape, but it could as easily be an illustration of the dangers of a rush to judgment.

The other problematic work is Yoko Ono and John Lennon’s “RAPE,” a video from 1968 in which a cameraman follows an unsuspecting young woman through the streets of London and finally into her apartment. At first she seems flattered by the attention, but by the end her terror is palpable. The “performance” was orchestrated with the help of the sister of the victim, a vulnerable foreign visitor with limited English. There is a line in the work’s instructions saying that the cameraman “may chase boys and men as well.” But that doesn’t really get Ono off the hook. Shown in today’s context, Rape feels like a very tone-deaf exercise in which a woman victimizes another woman for artistic purposes.


“THE UN-HEROIC ACT” looked at rape and asked: what can art do? Julie Heffernan’s concurrent exhibition at P.P.O.W asked: what has art done? Titled “Hunter Gatherer,” it expanded on a concern raised in “The Un-Heroic Act,” namely the prevalence of images of rape and violence against women in Western art. Many of Heffernan’s paintings were self-portraits in which her nude figure is entwined in curling scrolls that pay homage to Carolee Schneemann’s 1975/77 performance Interior Scroll. In the second version of that piece, Schneemann extracted from her vagina a scroll that offered her defense against criticisms of her work’s female sensibility.3 Heffernan’s depicted scrolls feature, on one side, montages of images from canonical paintings that aestheticize violent acts against women and, on the other, representations of various real-life atrocities. Heffernan’s figure appears within an imagined painting salon hung with portraits of feminist heroines past and present (including George Sand and Malala Yousafzai) and reworkings of canonical paintings that transform scenes of victimization into scenes of female agency and solidarity. For instance, Heffernan’s version of Rubens’s Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus (1618) replaces the two marauding males with a woman who scoops up the intended female victims. The critique of manly arrogance in these works is softened by the sensuality of the presentation. Though highly critical of the oppressive power of the male gaze, Heffernan clearly loves the beauty of the lush paintings she appropriates and adapts.

It is bracing to see women harnessing their anger and pushing back against patriarchy. However, in the pitch of battle, important nuances may be lost. In her thoughtful study The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning (2011), writer Maggie Nelson bravely takes on art that plumbs the depths of human depravity. She contrasts this with art that “expressly aims to protest, ameliorate, make meaningful, cast blame or intervene in instances of brutality.” The work she focuses on “could be fairly charged with adding more cruelties—both real and represented—to an already contemptible heap.”4 Nelson weighs the aesthetic, ethical, and social qualities of creations that a more strident critic would dismiss without question as beyond the pale. Her clearly drawn separation of art and life echoes the debate that roiled the feminist world in the 1990s over the meaning and ethics of pornography. On one side were feminists like Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin (the latter oddly resurrected in journalist John Hockenberry’s recent controversial response to being accused of sexual harassment),5 who propounded the widely shared maxim “Porn is the theory, rape is the practice.” On the other side were figures like Angela Carter, Susan Sontag, and Ellen Willis, who argued against this reductionism and for artistic explorations of the darker corners of the human imagination.

In these highly charged times it’s important to reiterate that there is no excuse for assault. But it is also worth remembering that sex is messy, human desire doesn’t always follow a script, and art needs to be free to explore our transgressive as well as our salutary impulses. These thoughts came to mind when I visited the Sarah Lucas exhibition at the New Museum during the week of the Kavanaugh hearings. (Nelson reappears here, lamenting in a catalogue essay that the current gender debate “leaves vast plains of pervery and desire totally untouched.”6)

A veteran of the scrappy Young British Artists movement that emerged from working-class Britain during the height of the Thatcher era, Lucas creates witty works that playfully underscore and undermine established gender roles and identities. In the New York Times, Martha Schwendener charged Lucas with celebrating heteronormativity, today’s buzzword for insufficient acknowledgment of gender fluidity.7 But for this heteronormative white woman, it was refreshing to see a show about gender relations that doesn’t weaponize the penis. Lucas offers literal and figurative penises galore, representing them in photographs, sculptures, and videos. I was struck by the friendliness, for lack of a better word, of her presentation of the male organ. In one of my favorite video works, she impishly eats a banana, clearly savoring this phallic substitute. In another she slowly slathers raw eggs over her male partner’s nude body. There is something both affectionate and matter-of-fact about the way she works over his sex organs. It serves as a timely reminder that men and women can actually like each other and that sexual expressions don’t have to be power struggles.

Art can be a cry of rage, a healing balm, or a rectifier of social ills. Women artists are bringing all these approaches to bear on the persistent problem of sexual violence. But we lose something important if we define art’s ethical dimension too narrowly. Perhaps, after seeing what art can do and what art has done with this volatile subject, it is important to remember that there are also other things that art can be.