The Feminist Institute
I met Kathleen Landy (then Finley) many years ago when she was an undergraduate student and I was a visiting assistant professor at Villanova University. Kathy took a couple of classes with me, and I directed her honors senior thesis. I don't remember much about the specific content of that thesis, but I do remember vividly that the public presentation and defense involved Kathy reading from a prepared text illustrated with slides projected on a screen to her right while music played on what we then called a “boombox,” and images of the audience captured live with a video camera were projected on a screen to her left. The presentation was conceived as an artwork, and it aimed to show, in part, that the audience response was a part of that artwork, a theoretical point about artworks that was performed by the video imagery. It is fair to say, and true, that I have not since supervised as creative a senior thesis project.
At that time I was writing about questions of appropriation in the art of Sherrie Levine, Barbara Kruger, and Cindy Sherman using what I was learning from the writings of Linda Nochlin, Rosalind Krauss, and Michel Foucault. I defended the practices of these female artists as a challenge to the “myth” of originality and to the authority of male artists credited with making the originals appropriated and repeated by those women. I was most taken by Levine's practice of copying copies of photographs by Walker Evans and Edward Weston and presenting them as her own “originals.” This practice called into question the status of a photographic original and—in the case of Levine's copying copies of Weston's photographs of his own naked son—the valence of sexual desire captured in these artworks. What did it mean for an avowed lesbian to present photographs of a naked boy as her own artworks?
More recently, I published a study on Italian Renaissance representations of the Annunciation inspired by the beautiful women I found on canvases and frescos in collections at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence and the Papal Galleries in Rome. I wrote about the way Mary is figured as the ideally devout Christian woman capable of both a spiritual and a carnal relation to a divine Father who was to become the father of her Son. While virtually every rendering of the Annunciation to Mary pictures the angel on the left and the Virgin on the right with some marker of the differences separating their worlds—a bouquet of lilies, the raised platform of a porch—I am interested in what was different in the renderings of this theme. And I call attention to the look on Mary's face. In 14th century representations, Mary appears to resist the suggestion that she was about to become big with God. By the 16th century, Mary is made to appear quite nearly delighted by the angel's news. What could have precipitated this change? I recommend that a shift from identifying a woman's devotion with a man's, which included celibacy, to the recognition of a distinctly female form of devotion, anticipated by Heloise and the Christian mystic tradition, allowed Italian Renaissance artists to move from representations of Mary rejecting God's advances, and protecting her virginity, to representations of Mary accepting God's invitation and assurances that this would leave her virginity intact. This transition to acceptance is captured beautifully, I say, in the Annunciation (1472 – 75) of Leonardo da Vinci.
Most recently, I wrote “On the 'Post' in 'Post-feminism,' or For Nice Little Girls with a Crotch that Talks,” where I draw on music from Riot Grrrl to Pussy Riot and beyond to argue that “post-feminism” does not denote that feminism has passed but that feminism is alive and kicking up a storm. Drawing on Hal Foster's reading of the “post” in post-modernism, I argue that where feminism identified the problems with patriarchy and attempted to solve them, post-feminism begins with those problems and—in the face of resistance to solving them—attempts to exacerbate those problems. The title puts together a lyric from the grrrl punk band Babes in Toyland with the thesis from Luce Irigaray's essay “When Our Lips Speak Together.” Irigaray's point is that when what women say expresses their sexual difference it can disrupt patriarchy and build relations among women leading to meaningful changes in the lives of those women. When I wrote this piece I had Lady Gaga's “You and I” in mind. These days, I might point to the work of Sia or St. Vincent. As I did so many years ago, I turn to my students for the most productively transgressive music made by women. The digital archive being assembled by The Feminist Institute will preserve for future students the sources of that transgressive “post-feminist” art.