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Emma Bee Bernstein
March 30, 2008
panel presentation (with slides) at
“Beyond the Waves: Feminist Artists Talk Across the Generations” at the Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum,

About a year ago, Ellen Willis, the mother of my childhood friend Nona Willis-Aronowitz, died. Ellen Willis was an important second wave feminist, cultural critic, and journalist, who inspired many feminists, of her own and younger generations to be radical and critical, but also to keep pleasure as part of the mix. Talking with Nona at the time of her mother’s death, we realized that as the literal daughters of the second wave --my mother being Susan Bee,---we had a responsibility for the legacy we inherited: to keep the memory of our mothers, and feminism, alive. Having gone through various stages of feminist denial and rediscovery ourselves, we wondered how other young women of our generation relate (or do not) to feminism. At the same time, having both just graduated from college, we felt the desire for self-discovery, for change, for travel and adventure. Putting all these elements together, “GirlDrive” was born. After nearly a year of planning and saving, and 50 years exactly since Jack Kerouac’s male-themed “On the Road” we packed up our ’98 Chevy Cavalier and hit the road. We were on the road for two months, went to twenty nine cities, interviewing and photographing nearly two hundred women (selected portraits of which you see on the screen, all of which I took en route), and chronicling our journey daily on a blog, titled girldrive.blogspot.com. We talked to mostly women between the ages of 18-30 with diverse interests, professions and backgrounds, asking them about their lives, ambitions, struggles, and if feminism fit into any of that. Internet feminist buzz grew about our blog grew, and at the end of the trip we were interviewing and staying on the couches of women who had found us online. Our readers gave us the courage to drive ahead. The seemingly invisible cyber feminism network was translated into real women, new friendships, bonds and hospitality. Community. We stopped only when the money ran out and our car slowed down. It was a life-altering experience. Now we are back in the “real world,” living in Chicago, working as waitress and hostess, of course (the real women’s work), and putting our myriad results into book for Seal Press.

I come to feminism via the arts, my mother and grandmother being feminist painters, and am focusing a section of our book on artworld issues. We did not, by any means, just interview artists, but these issues naturally sparked my interest. We also did not just focus on young women. We are specifically interested in the intergenerational dialogues, in making communication accessible among women of all ages. Since our project was in the shadow of Ellen’s death, the theme of mothers and daughters transformed from a sentimental to a political subtext for the trip. Most young women said that their first strong role model was their mother, whether she was feminist or not. If not their mother, it was a teacher, an artist, a musician, but always a tangible woman who made strength and creativity seem possible. In that vein, we interviewed established figures of the second and third wave that we admired, including Carolee, Mira, and my Mom, and issuing fan girl like requests to Kathleen Hanna, Alix Kates Schulman, Lyn Hejinian, Joan Jonas, Joan Snyder, Katha Pollitt, Anne Waldman, Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards, Michelle Wallace and Faith Ringgold, Bailey Doogan, Joanna Frueh, Maria Ellen Buzik, the list goes on… “Mentorship” emerged as the key word of hope among the intergenerational activists. Both Erica Jong and Linda Nochlin cited mentoring and teaching as the most important step for the feminist future. Nochlin reminded me of the tradition of old master apprenticeship, of men helping boys become skilled and connected throughout the history of art. Jong talked of the importance of having older confidants who were not your mother, because at a certain age no girl will tell her mom about the things she most needs advice for. Deborah Siegal talked about getting beyond sisterhood infighting. Laura Kipnis talked of women being their own worst enemies. Andi Zeisler, head of Bitch magazine, is just plain sick of family metaphors, of older women acting like her mother. And Griselda Pollock’s call, at the MOMA feminist future symposium, for non-oedipal modes of art transmission was most powerful.

But, in the case of art, what can the substance of “feminist” mentoring be for an unreceptive audience? There is many an “ungrateful daughter” who doesn’t care to hear about her predecessors. It itches the ears like your mother telling you should eat your greens. Many older artists, who teach, such as Carolee, find their students stubbornly resistant to the “f-word.” But won’t we find ourselves caught in a downpour, wishing we had heeded that nagging voice to take an umbrella? Among the many younger women artists I talked to, most do not desire to be defined exclusively as feminist artists. They “skirt” the issue in the interview, but do not refute the way their art may deal with gender. It is no fun to be labeled, these young artists say. They may be artists who are also feminists. But they are not feminist artists. But don’t hiss so soon!

There is good news: young women artists are revolutionary. They are making works that deal fervently with gender and sexuality, that deconstruct beauty standards, that unveil the veiled. They revel in the grotesque, the cosmetic, celebrity culture. They poke fun at themselves. They show us their obsession with the “feminine”, but it is pop essentialism, deadpan gender. They do not care if you think they are vapid sluts, clad in designer trends. They look with a female gaze, they have autonomy, they are not marionettes. They are, indeed, artists who are feminists. Young women thinkers will say they are gender revolutionary before they are feminist-identified, and just as they seek to explode the binaries of sex, they mix-media and ideology, creating a patchwork of consciousness that is as thoroughly contemporary as it is politically feminist.

That being said, I would like to discuss my own artwork, which is entirely separate from the documentary portrait work I am doing for GirlDrive.

The photos you see on the screen are from the ongoing series Masquerade which was my undergraduate thesis last year, but is the articulation of a project that extends since I began taking photographs ten years ago. I have experimented with a changing set of fashions, backdrops, landscapes, postures, and facial expressions, all in order to explore the art historical relationship between femininity and artifice in representation, and the limitations and romance of such invocations. Taking off on the popular dialectical theme of “femininity and masquerade,” my approach to the subject vacillates between disgust and romance, irony and sincerity, comedy and pathos, never exactly settling comfortably into one ideological zone. The starting point is always the clothed woman, situated in tableaux and performing a persona. I am always searching for a specific moment, when the model seems somehow to belong in the scenery and fashions, and the picture begins to evoke something seemingly specific but ultimately unlocatable. I try to paste together fragments of remembered feminine representation. Using a historical imagination perhaps culled from Julia Margaret Cameron and John Singer Sargent but filtered through Antonioni and John Waters. My process is an updated version of the young girls game of “playing dress-up,” my photo shoots are collaborative processes usually involving me and my friends throwing ourselves into characters and moods we wish to become for the seconds the shutter is released. These performances are built on privacy and intimacy, but are necessarily predicated on the presence of the camera and the knowledge of a future audience. The camera acts as a vanity mirror, showing us how fantasies of representation are enacted through the cosmetic surface of fashion and design, and filtered through our self-conscious modes of presentation. In all of the photographs, a set of elusive and unknowable eyes peers out from the layers of artifice, trying to see and be seen. The woman underneath the clothes and behind the skin remains a mystery to us and to herself. The perfect projection of the internal imagined self, if it exists, only does so for the duration of the photographic performance. However, I have tended to explore the campy side of the “mysterious lady” trope, finding schlock the appropriate mode for these imagined selves. This has allowed me to distance myself from reiterating an ambiguously idealized vision of femininity and fashion, instead finding an avenue of control and inflected art historical awareness within that… which is what I see other young women artists doing as well.

Because of my recent experiences and projects and my upbringing, I would without hesitation or fear call myself a feminist artist. But after traveling the country, talking to artists and women of all varieties and ages, I wouldn’t say this was the most accessible identification. It is simultaneously the most “uncool” and “cool” proclamation; cool of course to those in the know. Our goal as feminist artists and art historians should be to get work by women seen, the critical context heard. But different generations of women artists need to choose open communications that commemorate without killing, but that recognize differences and the specificity of historical moments. An attitude adjustment is in order. Mentorship must come without passive aggression. Visible networks of friendly recognition must be initiated. There also needs to be a paradigm shift in our critical framework, so that younger women artists aren’t vilified by the hands that feed them. Objectification and glamour must be re-contextualized. The way we understand influence and imitation must be revised. This time the art world’s marketable revolution and glossy politics must be cracked open from the inside and out. Let feminism be an amorphous conceptual cloud that floats over women’s ideation and visual experience --and that brings us together instead of partitions us off from one another.