In a Pig’s Eye: THE OFFENCE OF SOME LIVING AMERICAN WOMEN ARTISTS
Linda S. Aleci
One of the best-known documents of the women artists‘ movement is Some Living American Women Artists. A work of great power and iconographic richness, the work infuses the multiple histories of art and spirituality with the politics of contemporary feminism, simultaneously revealing their interconnection. The poster emerged from a collaborative project that Edelson titled 22 Others and was generated by a Jungian seminar in which she participated. Edelson invited 22 people to suggest an art piece that they would like to see her produce. Fellow artist Ed McGowin requested that Edelson use “organized religion as a point of departure, [and] expose whatever negative aspects might occur to you–making the political, social and philosophical implications clear.” As Edelson recounts, “The most negative aspect of organized religion, for me, was the positioning of power and authority in the hands of a male hierarchy that intentionally excluded women from access to these positions.” Using a reproduction of Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper, she superimposed photographs of the heads of women artists over those of Christ and his disciples, reserving the position of honor for Georgia O’Keeffe whom she regarded as symbolically important as one who had, during her lifetime, attained singular professional success. Her appropriation of a “masterpiece” of Western art became a typical strategy of feminist artists, who wished to expose the ways that the traditions of art have used the image of Woman, without granting real women their place within the profession. Here, however, Edelson explores a somewhat different issue. Her choice of a reproduction of Leonardo's Last Supper recalls the notorious Dada gesture by Marcel Duchamp who, in 1919, bought a postcard of the Mona Lisa on which he penciled a mustache and the letters L.H.O.O.Q. In his usual irreverent way, Duchamp was questioning the construction of the idea of the “masterpiece” as a function of artistic creativity and genius. This was an issue of radical significance for woman artists. Since the Renaissance, the discourse of western art and art history has crucially depended on the idea of the (male) artist who, infused with the spirit of the Divine, creates in emulation of Divine creation. Because it was believed women were made of base matter and without access to the active, generative principle identified with male potency, they could only procreate: they were incapable of independent agency as creators, hence, innately disqualified from being artists. This centuries-old idea is alive and well in the twentieth century. About ten years before Edelson made her work, one of the lecturers at an internationally prominent school of art stated: I am quite sure that the vitality of many female students derives from frustrated maternity, and most of these, on finding the opportunity to settle down and produce children, will no longer experience the passionate discontent sufficient to drive them constantly towards the labours of creation in other ways. Can a woman become a vital creative artist without ceasing to be a woman except for the purposes of a census? Many feminist artists believed this idea was at the root of their historical and current disenfranchisement, and sought to expose it. Edelson's work in particular is strongly informed by her connection to the spiritual. Speaking of her early performances in which she transformed her body into mythical or goddess-like beings and her posters, she says, “The Catholic Church's argument... for not allowing women to be priests rests on the idea that, because Christ was a man, priests should also be men, so that people can relate to their priests as literal stand-ins for Christ. In using my own body as a sacred being, I broke the stereotype that the male gender is the only gender that can identify in a firsthand way with the body and, by extension, the mind and spirit of a primary sacred being.” For Some Living American Women Artists she chose a work of religious iconography, hoping to defy “organized religion's penchant for cutting women out of positions of authority and power, and their widespread assumption that because of their gender, women do not have direct access to the sacred.”
challenge to patriarchal authority and, implicitly, Author-ity, Some Living American Women Artists/Last Supper honors the ecumenical ideals of communion and community as a tribute to female creativity and an inspiration to women of future generations. The poster, which was distributed to feminist organizations, women's centers, bookstores and widely reproduced in feminist publications, rapidly became one of the most stirring and best-known images of the women's movement. It has continued to be reproduced internationally in publications of women's studies, art history, psychology and theology. The conservative climate of late-20th-and early-21st-century America has created a new political context for Edelson's work. In 1995 it again became an ideological flashpoint when eight faculty members at Franklin and Marshall college (including a Russian Orthodox Priest and an observant Jew) complained that the print, a copy of which hung in the college Women's Center, was an affront to Christian sensitivities. Describing the work–oddly identified as a painting–as sacrilegious, they called for the censure of the Women's Center and its executive board, who had declined to remove the image and eventually took their grievance to the national press to expose the perceived intolerance and liberal secularism of the feminist community. The presence of the original paste-up for the poster in an exhibition of Edelson‘s works at the college art museum reopened the debate at F&M in the autumn of 2000 in an impassioned exchange between the artist, students and faculty at a forum sponsored by the Women‘s Center. In this latest controversy, Edelson‘s critics have attempted to reframe the work‘s scrutiny of institutional discourses of patriarchy. Their attack trivialized feminism as “people in the sensitivity and tolerance business” not a movement spearheading social justice for women and so focuses on feminists‘ alleged intolerance for the sensibilities of believing Christians. The print is “a work of art that makes a point about women artists at the expense of Christianity's most sacred symbols“–an interpretation that coyly sidesteps the theologically problematic inference that a reproduction of Leonardo's fresco constitutes the ontological manifestation of the Last Supper. And one critic asserted that whereas the college art gallery was a ”legitimate sponsor“ for the display of the print, the Women‘s Center was not.
From this, one understands the truth of Some Living American Women Artists: it is indeed the entity Woman–embodied in the faces of actual women–that continues to be regarded with horror. And it is a timely reminder indeed. One month after the controversy first erupted at F&M, the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a statement upholding the ban against the ordination of women as priests as infallible doctrine.
But it is the conceptual coherence of the work itself that most clearly reveals the deeply sexist ideology driving this debate. During the exchange in the Women’s Center, one critic illustrated the nature of Edelson’s “offence” by comparing Edelson’s work to acts of defacement like ”putting a pig’s head over the picture of Martin Luther King Jr.“ This analogy erupted in the heat of argument, its message all the more revealing for its lack of premeditation. To assert that the remaking of a figure in the image of a woman is comparable to remaking a figure in the image of a pig, an animal associated with filth, is to describe women as profane, unclean, degrading creatures. From this one understands the truth of Some Living American Women Artists: it is indeed the entity Woman–embodied in the faces of actual women–that continues to be regarded with horror. And it is a timely reminder. One month after the controversy first erupted at F&M, the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a statement upholding the ban against the ordination of women as priests as infallible doctrine.
Direct Access: EDELSON COMMENTS ON THE LAST SUPPER and other posters
My intentions in publishing this poster was to identify and commemorate women artists, who were getting little recognition at the time, by presenting them as the grand subject – while spoofing the patriarchy for cutting women out of positions of power and authority. Even though the Last Supper is a Christian image, the point was to challenge all organized religion to prove that they are no longer a major cultural force that subordinates women.
In the poster, Some Living American Women Artists/Last Supper by cutting out the male heads from Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper and replacing them with the heads of women artists, sacred male territory was invaded and a challenge was delivered to the established assumption that, because of their gender women do not have direct access to the sacred. The poster raises multiple issues and questions including the repercussive ways in which men and women are signified in patriarchal religions: the story of Eve, denying ordination to women as priests, rabbis, mullahs (in Islam) and general control of their bodies and sexuality, limitations that are not inflicted on men.
The interest in this poster that continues today arises, I believe, from the lack of real power and position for women in organized religion. While this position has not changed substantially, there is considerable pressure to make these changes and this tension is most likely the underlying cause of resurgent interest, a quarter of a century after the poster was created. In spite of resistance in some Christian denominations, Last Supper has been favorably featured in Witness, a publication of the Episcopal Church, and has been purchased to hang in other churches on their bulletin boards and in their offices.
Because I did not personally know these women in 1971, my selections for the central panel were fairly arbitrary. That is, they were not political choices based on personal associations, but were instead focused on diversity of race and artistic mediums. The border included every photograph of a woman artist that I could find, with most of the 82 photographs coming directly from the artists themselves. The composition of Some Living American Women Artists/Last Supper, with its central image surrounded by a strong border, and the subject matter a dinner party and role-reversal influenced art projects both in and out of the feminist art movement.
People have asked me how Georgia O'Keeffe reacted to being pictured as Christ, if she was flattered or appalled. The Last Supper poster became a favorite gift to her by visitors to her Abiquiu, NM studio and they tell me that she was amused and delighted with it.
Complimentary posters from the first edition were mailed to the artists who were pictured, distributed to various women's centers and conferences and reproduced in early feminist underground publications. As it gained in popularity it could be found in periodicals worldwide as well as women's studies, art history, psychology and theology texts.
In addition to the posters and collages themselves, documentation exists in the form of letters from artists, letters to the editor (including attempts at censorship), and articles from around the world about the posters.
Some Living American Women Artists/Last Supper is in its third printing, and was recently featured in the Tate London exhibition and catalogue, Century City: Art and Culture in the Modern Metropolis, 2001.
“Linking art with religion and picturing women in a male context, Edelson challenged the historical hierarchies of two powerful narratives.” John Ewing, on Edelson, Blue Star Art Space, review, Artlies. Summer 2001.
34 Three posters from this series celebrate the selfless revolutionary spirit of the 70s feminist movement by recognizing the collective nature of that movement. The three feminist groups celebrated on these posters are: The Women’s Building in LA (Happy Birthday America), Heresies Magazine Collective (Death of the Patriarchy /Heresies) and AIR Gallery (Death of the Patriarchy/AIR) both in NYC. These posters commemorate the powerful effect that such groups have simply by their existence. The individual women who participated in these groups are also documented in a visual historical record that broadens the written record. Through brazen visual declarations the posters assume certain privileges for women that we don’t actually have and women are defiantly projected into a set of circumstances that don’t actually exist. This raw exposure of women’s lack of agency is the source of the posters’ humor. It also reveals agendas that keep women in place especially manifested during attempts at censorship over the years. The posters place the shoe on the other foot by not begging for equality but asserting it. –Edelson
35 Bringing Home the Evolution, 20”x27”, offset poster. 1976 Louise Bourgeois, Michelle Stuart, Mary Beth Edelson, Pat Lasch, Nancy Spero, Ana Mendieta, Joan Snyder, Howardena Pindell, Elizabeth Hess, Miriam Schapiro, Martha Wilson, Pat Steir Dottie Attie, Faith Ringgold, Eleanor Antin, Hannah Wilke, May Stevens, Joyce Kozloff, Lucy Lippard, Harmony Hammond, Nancy Grossman
The last poster of this series, Bringing Home the Evolution, from the national Swedish painting, Bringing Home the Dead King Charles XII by Gustaf Cederström, continues the death of the patriarchy series, featuring a procession led by Louise Bourgeois in support of a plethora of activist issues including: ecology, peace, "take back the night" and racism.