The subject is constituted by his scene. The object constituted by who she has slept with in this scene. When the subject speaks he is speaking of his scene, that is, the social. If he is speaking about women as objects, then his words become objects too. The art critic and the artist, dealers in text and image, are well situated to perform this dual operation. The muse is well situated to critique it.
Where you sleep, you also work. The internet can be a space for women to escape the terror of both private and public space. Woman does not only need ‘a room of one’s own,’ following Virginia Woolf, she needs a room of her own with high-speed internet. Or has the internet become the room? Woolf’s description of being in ‘Oxbridge’, her neologism made from joining Oxford with Cambridge, of being a woman in a space built for men echoes, or thunders, today. Recently a student at Oregon State was arrested after filming herself touching herself in the university library. As another woman whose social position has allowed her to enter the university, I get it. When I was younger, writing essays, I used to put on lipstick or touch myself, now I watch video clips. The woman in the office next to mine plays the Beyoncé album every day to write her thesis to. Traditionally, this problem of the (sexual) body is solved by the muse, who inhabits a body so that the (male) artist or writer can use his mind, uninterrupted. The problem becomes, after this model, to conceive of the muse beyond a body-as-object, to conceive of her thinking, writing or making art. The naked girl on the internet, however, can be both artist and her own muse.
Men often miss this dialectic and only see this girl as a muse for themselves. Richard Prince, for example, collected images from women’s Instagram accounts and reprinted them as artworks to sell as part of his New Portraits exhibition which opened at Gagosian Gallery, New York, on 19 September 2014. What does it mean if the images were both from fashion model’s accounts and artist’s accounts? The blurring of these categories is important of course, but then, there were more models than artists at the opening. So, which bodies are profiting off whose images and why? Karlie Kloss, a model, posted a selfie of herself at the exhibition with the caption, ‘Prince is King’. Three artists, Rachel Libeskind, Nightcoregirl and Alexandra Marzella posed in front of Nitecoregirl’s reprinted selfie showing their breasts (blurred for Instagram) and the caption ‘Anything for @richardprince4’. Their critique is mimetic, repeating the order of the patriarchy to expose it; the sexual, aesthetic object only speaks by saying ‘I am an object, therefore I will do anything for you.’ The artist is not prince or king; however, the beheading of the king is the beginning of aesthetics, what we now call ‘Art’. And if you are a woman, you ‘can’ be model as king or artist as modern day peasant: a girl on the internet.
Jerry Saltz says: ‘For these works, Prince has been called a dirty old man, creepy, twisted, a pervert. All of which may be true—but true in a great way, if that’s possible.’2 Many ‘great’ ‘men’ have told the ‘truth’ but I will say right now… ‘No, it is not possible!’ Audrey Wollen, who was not in the exhibition, but had her work reposted by Prince on Instagram, describes a different kind of truth of this (non) event, the truth of who she calls the sad girl. She says: ‘Selecting specific bodies from a sea of images, amputating them from their context, and then naming yourself the owner of those bodies: that isn’t just boring art, that verges on predatory and violent behaviour.’3 The bodies of these girls are considered images ready to be used by an artist in the way that all images and text are used by those in power: to be truth or untruth when it suits them. In the art world, this manifests when museums, galleries and publications are considered real and Instagram photos and writing on social media are considered not real. Young girl artists on Instagram are playing with the symbolic, they are playing with their own objectification, their body as a sign. Situating them in a gallery on canvas separates the image from the hand taking the selfie, separates their symbolic intervention into the material, or their material intervention into the symbolic. Thus the female body becomes again one more sign to add to all the human signs created and owned by men. I was talking with a friend about how we unfollow guys who we’ve dated that have hurt us, but they don’t do the same because they don’t see the connection between our image and our bodies (sex). A couple of years ago I briefly dated this guy who had a Victoria’s Secret model as an ex-girlfriend, and I’m still obsessed with looking at (but not following) her Instagram. I’ve dated guys who have dated local models, even though the brands are ‘anti-fashion’, it feels the same to me.
Valerie Solanas’ shooting of Andy Warhol is an example of how symbolic violence, men’s control of women’s art and the use of their images, is always also material violence. He films her, so she shoots him. The artists I have mentioned so far who critique Richard Prince can be seen as a contemporary version of this. Yet the former was acting with/in a culture of Marxist negative critique in the sixties, and the latter are dealing with the residue of the post-Soviet, affirmative eighties and nineties. In terms of feminism, though, it might indicate the difference between second wave feminism and what Jacqueline Rose is calling the fourth wave—but what could also just be the end of the world; not in the sense of a time of crisis to serve capital, but the very real triumph of the symbolic over the material, a steadily decreasing amount of air and water in our environment and ‘good’ bacteria in our guts. The outmodedness of Solanas’ technological transhumanism in The Scum Manifesto is perhaps an indicator of a move away from a feminism that calls for the destruction of man and men, towards a more anti-humanist self-sacrifice of women. The latter could be located in a genealogy of the former, however if we position them against feminism based on identity. The rise of ‘strong’ women ‘leaning in’, like Sheryl Sandberg shows how the identity politics of second-wave feminism lead it to fail, and the identity ‘woman’ was quickly co-opted from communism by capital. A feminism that recognises this mistake, moves away from the idea of rights and representation in the state, and towards the deconstruction of the representation of woman. The art object as embodied woman does this by intervening in the politics of aesthetics.
Art resides, in the contemporary era, according to Jacques Rancière in ‘the space left by the weakening of political conflict’.4 One manifestation of this is exhibitions that profit, commercially or culturally, on the aestheticisation or fetishisation of past political action. Richard Prince’s show is an example of this, but so are many other curators, auction houses and exhibitions. There is almost always at least one on at state and national galleries, for example Art Gallery of New South Wales’ current exhibition is called Pop to Popism; which as the title suggests, stylises a postmodern legacy of pop art, instead of a contemporary reflection of its failure. The institution or the market as such cannot be isolated, however. We see the same operation in our artist run spaces, such as TCB, whose recent exhibition Re-Raising Consciousness, again simply in its title alone propagates a nostalgia for political action. In exhibition catalogues, philosophical words like ‘deconstruction’, ‘uncanny’ and ‘radical’ become transhistorical objects, empty signifiers. Andy Warhol’s Turquoise Marilyn sold for approximately eighty million dollars in a private sale in May 2007. We can look back at the time when Andy Warhol was making art, not to say look how radical things were then and how commercial everything is now, but to recognise how fucked things were then and now. His commercial success now is a sign of his failure, as modes of critique in pop art and postmodernism have become recuperated by the market (and its foundations: patriarchy and colonisation). So we will always need people like Valerie Solanas and today, girl artists on instagram, who like Marilyn Monroe are radical embodied mirrors of the patriarchy. These artists do not occupy ‘the space left by the weakening of political conflict’5 but ‘reshape it, at the risk of testing the limits of its own politics’.6
These artists are testing the limits of both art and feminism, and are all (necessarily for their practices) attractive white women; images that reach very far. Art today, beginning with Kantian aesthetics in the eighteenth century, is undermined from the beginning if we recognise it as negation of the feminine and anything other to the European technological ontology. As Luce Irigaray says of Immanuel Kant’s The Critique of Pure Reason: ‘the “I” had to relate to “things” before it could be conscious of itself. But this initial period of cooperative creation is forgotten in an arrogant claim to sovereign discretion over everything.’7 This critique of Enlightenment thinking is part of deeper thesis of second wave feminism in both the work of Irigaray and Simone De Beauvoir that the original oppression, the foundation of the ‘man’ and the ‘human,’ was the oppression of women. It is too complicated for me to address this claim in this article, however we do know that the foundation of the human, and its subsequent historical developments do not only objectify women, of course, but many other people and groups. When second-wave feminism was developing, so were critiques of race and colonialism. Franz Fanon published Black Skin White Masks soon after Simone De Beauvoir published The Second Sex—and her husband Jean-Paul Sartre wrote the forward to Fanon’s later work The Wretched of the Earth. In the contemporary era, it is not only white women, but anyone at non-normative intersections of gender, sexuality, race, class and ability, who use spaces made for people not like them: white men. Hannah Black writes of the Harvard Poetry Library: ‘Buildings like this are why the great European philosophers and every rich white boy had to discover in astonishment that the world might be neither self-evident nor for them.’8
People with privilege confuse the material and the symbolic when it suits them to hide not only the oppressions of one group, but also the connection between different oppressions. They choose ‘causes’ only when they are made intelligible, and therefore not dangerous, to their own systems of understanding. If we return to Saltz for example, we can see in his commentary a similar operation occurring when he talks about gender and when he talks about race. After his article championing Richard Prince, he writes in ‘When Did the Art World Get So Conservative?’ that as a ‘good progressive’,9 he believes that ‘we have to address military and campus rape and…the relationship of the police to people of color (in Ferguson and everywhere else).’10 As if we can pick and choose political causes; as if institutional rape has nothing to do with images of women in our culture; as if police actually have a ‘relationship’ with people of colour; as if these two things are not related—the rape of women and the killing of people of colour. In fact these ‘issues’ of material violence both occur because of the symbolic violence of dominant discourse about the other. And Art is of course part of this discourse; another Warhol, Race Riot sold last year for $62,885,000 at Christie’s in New York. In the article Saltz uses the word ‘police’ nine times, to refer to a) people writing critical things online now, people trolling; b) the American police ‘targeted’ in the Ferguson protests; and c) people being critical, offline, in the 1990s.11 But…disenfranchised people cannot ‘police’ the cultural counterpart of the policeman—like an established art critic whose interest to preserve the status quo comes from their desire to protect their privilege. What does it mean to police police? I see a sea of blue, like an old battlefield, blue men on blue men, but in a city with turn-of-the-century buildings and people in them drinking flat whites. Everything is flat and white and blue.
A riot has different colours and is not always IRL, between buildings. It often begins when an effect of injustice starts the process of organisation via social media. Trolls are lonely people and they channel their desire into wanting to police—i.e. white men trolling feminist women of colour. On the other hand lonely people get called trolls when they are engaging in a mode of expression and organisation for those who feel outside and/or want to resist the order as it is. Or resist a local scene that is repeating this same order…I called someone out on Facebook I had recently dated for presenting different images of himself in private and public. This became a point of connection for me to others with experience of objectification, in all its significance.
Eva Birch is a writer and a PhD candidate at The University of Melbourne, examining the self-sacrifice of woman after Luce Irigaray
Or: ‘post-nothing-boy’. I would like to thank Aurelia Guo and everyone in Feminist Theory Group and New Group for the development of these ideas. ↩
Jerry Saltz, ‘Richard Prince’s Instagram Paintings Are Genius Trolling’, (previously titled ‘Richard Prince: Instagram pervert, troll, genius’), on Vulture, September 23, 2014. www.vulture.com/2014/09/richard-prince-instagram-pervert-troll-genius.html. ↩
Audrey Wollen interviewed by Benjamin Barron, ‘richard prince, audrey wollen, and the sad girl theory,’ on Vice i-D, 12 November, 2014, i-d.vice.com/en_gb/article/richard-prince-audrey-wollen-and-the-sad-girl-theory. ↩
Jacques Rancière, ‘Contemporary art and the politics of aesthetics’, in Beth Hinderliter et al. (eds), Communities of Sense, Duke University Press, Durham, 2009. pp. 49–50. ↩
Ibid., pp. 49–50. ↩
Ibid., pp. 50. ↩
Luce Irigaray, Speculum of the Other Woman, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, N.Y., 1985. p. 204. ↩
Hannah Black, ‘City Built At Night,’ on Blackout, 2015, www.blackout.lt/citybuiltatnight.html. ↩
Jerry Saltz, ‘When Did The Art World Get So Conservative,’ on Vulture, 17 November 2014, www.vulture.com/2014/11/when-did-the-art-world-get-so-conservative.html. ↩