Many influences impinge on an artist when creating a work of art. When I was younger and an art student, literature was often a source of inspiration; more recently, well-recognized works of art provide a source of departure, particularly in a series of oil paintings on large canvas boards entitled, “Picture Yourself Here” that I call FVPs: Feminist Visual Parodies. In an essay entitled, “Feminist Art Epistemologies: Understanding Feminist Art,” I defined a feminist parody as (1) a feminist satire, and (2) a complex imitation of an original work of art by a male artist, whereby a feminist satire is a work that expresses and values a woman’s point of view as it makes fun of prevailing artistic conventions and societal norms established by men. Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party is a satire that critiques the male-only inner circle of Christ’s final meal along with descendent Christian denominations that rarely allow a woman to serve in a position of authority, relegating her to cooking but not dining and to the inferior role of serving.
A simple imitation is an imitation in which an artist copies the same style as an original work of art, without implicitly providing some sort of commentary on the original. A complex imitation is an imitation in which an artist copies the style of an original work of art, resulting in either an implicit or explicit commentary on the original. Chicago’s immense three-dimensional triangular version of the typically painted horizontal table setting of the original dinner party deviates significantly in size, shape, and medium – thirty-nine hand-painted ceramic plates rest on place mats crafted with a variety of embroidery techniques, traditionally known as ‘women’s work’ – but still serves as an example of a complex imitation, implicitly rearranging the furniture to allow for the nonhierarchical ‘seating’ of female diners from myth and history. Finally, The Dinner Party is an FVP because it commemorates/celebrates the accomplishments of over one thousand women (999 additional names are inscribed on the tiles of the floor of the work), thereby projecting a feminist point of view, in an effort to educate women about their suppressed past and to empower women into greater accomplishments in the future.
The differences between types of imitations, along with the identification of a visual work of art as satire or parody, naturally rest on the recognition of artistic intent and a reliable knowledge of the art historical context of the works in question, both original and imitated. I argue that without an informative FAE – Feminist Art Epistemology – a viewer will fail to recognize, understand, and fully appreciate a Feminist Visual Parody. This epistemology includes two things, i.e., art viewers must recognize that (1) original works of art are being used as intentional targets of parody, and (2) the target is ridiculed by the parodist for the dual purposes of subverting the current power structure and advancing positive change for women.
If a viewer fails with (1), she lacks a mental image of the original work of art and cannot compare it to the parody. If she fails with (2), she risks misinterpreting the artist’s meaning and judging the work erroneously. For instance, one common mode of misinterpretation is to assume that the female artist’s imitation of an original work of art created by a male artist is actually a positive tribute or homage to the original. Given that visual images can lead to a variety of readings, parodies can be read mistakenly as acts of adulation – imitation as the sincerest form of flattery. To foreclose on this misreading, condition (1) of the definition of Feminist Visual Parody requires that it be a subspecies of satire. Satires are typically critical and sarcastic, leaving little room for ambiguity or misinterpretation.
Consider then, my series of FVPs, complete with interactive participation by some philosophers of the American Society of Aesthetics, following the installation of an exhibit of the works at the 2008 annual meeting of the ASA in Massachusetts.
Each of the nine paintings in the series consists of oil paint on foam board (with a thickness of one inch and a half) that measure 3 by 4 feet, 4 by 5 feet, and in some cases, 5 by 8 feet. Each board is free-standing; it does not hang on the wall but rather rests in a wrought iron stand that allows the painting to function as a sculpture around which viewers can walk. In addition, the work offers a participatory experience; a hole is cut where the face would appear and provides an opportunity for the viewer to place his or her face within the hole and to strike a pose. It’s as if the poser is physically present for the artist of the original work of art, whether he is Botticelli or de Kooning, Manet or Munch. The painting’s original head hangs on the wall behind the painting, offering a full view of the original artwork if one is positioned in the appropriate location in front of the painting. Most people – particularly at an art opening and with the help of a glass of wine – enjoy posing in the paintings, even more than once, in their attempts to replicate the unique expressions of the original faces, or to comically subvert them.
It is particularly amusing when a man, e.g., David Goldblatt, co-editor of our ASA Newsletter, poses as a woman – in this case, the famous Olympia of Manet’s ‘masterpiece’ of 1867 which is renamed for the occasion as “Picture Yourself Here: Edie Manet’s Olympia, the Artist” (oil on foam board, 60.5 x 96.5 x 1.5 inches, 2007). By renaming each original painting, agency is given to the woman’s point of view, as if an imaginary female artist was given the opportunity to produce her own version of the nude depiction of the model, in this case, Victorine Meurant. Art history has taught us that very few women grew up under such conditions; the realm of history painting and fine art was denied to most women, and in some cases, wrought unhappy stories of struggling artists, like Meurant herself, who died penniless.
These re-visions of revered ‘masterpieces’ empower women to paint (and pose in) their own self-portraits. Similarly empowered to Edie Manet is Sandra Botticelli (Venus Surfing (On a Seashell)), Alexandra Cabanel (Venus Birthing), Paula Gauguin (Spirit of the Nude Posing), Edna Munch (Puberty: Liberated), Goldie Klimt (Judith (with the Head of Holofernes) Beheaded), Eva Schiele (Standing Female Nude with Crossed Arms), Pamela Picasso (Les Demoiselles d’Appropriated), Wilma de Kooning (Woman Ia), and Thomasina Wesselman (Double Parody of Sunset Nude). In each case, the new artwork is both satiric and parodic, constituting a complex imitation of sarcasm of the men’s club of art history and feminist intent. But of course, one’s FAE – Feminist Art Epistemology – must be at a sufficiently high level of education and enlightenment to understand the imaginary ‘woman of taste’ who created the FVP.
Why create parodies? Why not just write about them – comparing necessary and sufficient conditions, devising counter-examples – with other aestheticians? Exhibiting these artworks over the past few years has served to both expand my writing in aesthetics as well as to re-engage me with the artworld in news ways, i.e., realizing that philosophy and feminist art theory inevitably affect my painting. First, the conceptualization of a parody that involves satire is complex and risky; there is no guarantee that the average viewer will ‘get the joke.’ So I have thought long and hard about strategies of success that will insure an interpretation that lies within a healthy range of options I hope viewers will take away after experiencing the work first hand. Watching people’s initial reactions, their actual posing, and hearing comments afterwards has been instructive and eye-opening. Most gallery-goers need to be enticed into a work of art; the large scale, multi-colored, headless panels do attract people and the humor of the situation holds them. But at times there is a growing discomfort when a poser imagines she is posing nude: feeling passive and rather anonymous. A certain hesitancy to laugh, a slight confusion over the joke (at whose expense?), a realization that it may not be all that funny to be the powerless sex object on display serves to inform my writing on feminist art; I try to bring a careful analysis to bear on a genre of art that is often deep but under-appreciated. As Keith Lehrer notes in Art, Self and Knowledge, “feminist art provides us with a paradigm of what art does…. Art reconfigures experience.”
Second, I have learned how difficult it is to (simply) copy a work of art and how difficult it can be to ‘paint what you see’ in a realistic replication. An idea that seems simplistic on the surface can involve more work and take more hours than initially imagined. Third, parodies have helped make aesthetics more fun than it would normally be. The late John Fisher once told me, decades ago when I first started attending ASA meetings, that I was the only feminist he had ever met who had a sense of humor. Of course, we then shared a few ‘How many feminists does it take to screw in a light bulb’ jokes. But I’ve never forgotten that comment or how humor can operate. Having read Freud and a numerous feminist theorists, I’ve learned that comedy can subvert even the most stable pillars of institutional learning and decorum. And finally, painting, even when laborious, can be a relief from writing or reading aesthetics!
The Guerilla Girls may have said it best when they asked in 1989, “Do women have to be naked to get into the Metropolitan Museum?” in accompaniment to a parodied image of Ingres’ La Grande Odalisque pictured with a gorilla head. Once aestheticians fine tune their FAEs and welcome the intent of creative FVPs, they can more clearly value the role that feminist artists have played in overturning the long-standing institutionalization of ignorance about their playful and subversive accomplishments within the artworld. Recognition is still hard won, but you’re invited to join in the rallying cry that can move acknowledgement forward: parody for parity. Or as the Guerilla Girls have asked more recently, “Who knows what power bitches, bimbos, and ballbreakers might eventually hold?”
2. Peg Brand, “Feminist Art Epistemologies: Understanding Feminist Art,” Hypatia: A Journal of Feminist Philosophy 21:3 (Summer 2006), 166-189.
3. See judychicago.com or the site of the permanent home of The Dinner Party at The Brooklyn Museum of Art: www.brooklynmuseum.org/exhibitions/dinner_party.
4. Ibid., 181.
5. My thanks to David Goldblatt and Cynthia Freeland for the use of the photos at www.pegbrand.com and to Monique Roelofs and the Hampshire College Main Gallery at Amherst, Massachusetts for the opportunity to exhibit in conjunction with the 2008 ASA conference.
6. For a fascinating semi-fictional narrative about the model, written by art historian Eunice Lipton, see Alias Olympia: A Woman’s Search for Manet’s Notorious Model and Her Own Desire (Meridian, 1994).
7. Keith Lehrer, Art, Self and Knowledge (Oxford University Press, 2012), 50-51. For a version of Chapter 3, see “Feminist Art, Content and Beauty,” in Beauty Unlimited, ed., Peg Brand (Indiana University, forthcoming).
9. See the disappointing statistics on women’s representation in the artworld in Brand, “Feminist Art Epistemologies…” as well as my forthcoming essay, “The Feminist Art Project (TFAP) and Its Significance for Aesthetics,” Feminist Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art: Critical Vision, Creative Engagements, ed. L. Ryan Musgrave (Kluwer Academic Publishing/Springer); part of a five-book series on Feminist Philosophy; series editor, Elizabeth Potter.
10. For a critique of the “stale, male, pale Yale” perspective on art history, see Bitches, Bimbos, and Ballbreakers: The Guerrilla Girls’ Illustrated Guide to Female Stereotypes (Penguin Books, 2003).
2011 © Peg Brand