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Opening Remarks, "Life of the Mind, Life of the Market:" A Re-evaluation of the Contribution of Theory to Feminist Art from 1980 to 2006
by Mira Schor

(Originally presented at The Feminist Art Project's Women's Caucus for the Arts at the College Art Association, February 17, 2007, NYC. Panel participants: Mary Kelly and Johanna Burton.)

When I was asked to propose a panel for the Feminist Art Project it occurred to me that all the events and exhibitions on Feminist Art planned for this year either look back to the 70s or look to current work by women under 40 thus a very significant part of the history of feminist art is left out of this current revival of interest in feminist art: that is, the intellectualism of psychoanalytic and Marxist-inspired theories and art practice that marked the 1980s. Why? Too hard? Not sexy enough? Revisionism about essentialism? Since I often was seen as being on the wrong side of the essentialism debate in the 80s, if I say there have been some strangely essentialist subtexts in recent lectures by important constructivists of the 80s, then this is definitely the right time to recuperate the value of 1980s’ intellectual rigor and political analysis for art.

In my introductory comments I will mainly address the question of anti-intellectualism and market orientation in the present moment, with a brief look back to some aspects of the 80s in contrast.

Last year I scanned the covers of some of the many books, journals, and ephemera on feminist theory and art that have mattered to me in the past thirty years, most published in the 80s and early 90s, to create a visual timeline of feminist ideas and community for the exhibition “When Artists Say We,” at Artists Space.

As I opened each of the 100 or so books I selected, whether Lucy Lippard’s From the Center, Griselda Pollock’s Vision and Difference, Luce Irigaray’s Speculum of the Other Woman, Mary Kelly’s Imaging Desire, Jane Gallop’s The Daughter's Seduction, Laura Mulvey’s Visual and Other Pleasures, or my sister Naomi Schor’s Reading in Detail, I was once again overwhelmed by the brilliance of much of the theoretical investigations that had taken place within feminism, and with their continued relevance to contemporary life and art. And it can’t be safely assumed that this knowledge has been truly absorbed in the culture. On the contrary it has tended to be forgotten via the strategy of caricature.
My project tracked an erosion of intellectual and political activism from the mid-90s onward. The work of scholarship continues but cultural energy has moved to a focus on celebrity and the market, reflected in my collection by a group of articles in the Times from 1999 on the sexiness of the new women artists, of their physical appearance and dress, articles with titles such as “The Artist is a Glamour Puss,” starring Cecily Brown, as opposed, evidently, to the 70s woman artist who didn’t shave her legs and the 80s woman artist who was a badly dressed sour puss.

Another example of the altered condition of discourse is some of the discussion taking place on blogs, major sites for contemporary discourse where there is a tendency to lapse into, shall we say, more vernacular forms of address. It seems like each conversation online rapidly disintegrates into unflattering comments about other people’s dick size -- since we don’t know whether they’re women or men, I guess at least in this respect we are finally beyond binaries (or that indeed no one has the phallus which is very small anyway).
Even when the writing is smart, most often it’s fairly untheorized. And if anyone complains, you get exchanges like this one on painternyc.com (a site where the host blogger puts up one image of a current painting exhibition and people discuss):
“Painter ( [the] host blogger)” asks why the level of discourse isn’t higher,
“It seems that you're satisfied with a blog full of mostly lazy, immature, and uncritical comments -- the status quo being exemplified by such witty banter as "this sucks" or "i love it" or "this is lame."… Why not raise the level of dialogue here by somewhat directing the conversation to a higher critical plane?”
To which another blogger {Anonymous}responds,
jeezus christ, critics, it's not SCHOOL--
why does everything have to be an "improving" "higher" conversation? do we ALWAYS have to raise the fucking bar?
cant you conceive of something between a circle jerk and a seminar?...
i for one dont need an mfa discussion everytime i come on here."

Meanwhile recently I was chided by a colleague for using the word “Criticality” in a lecture title -- she said that was, “SO twenty years ago.” That’s because academia is under enormous pressure to succeed in the market. For students in my department, attending the Armory show is pretty much mandatory whereas attending the CAA is optional (and unfortunately much more expensive) – even though people who come to the CAA are probably living closer versions of the average daily professional life of the artist or art historian than what is suggested by the phantasmagoria of the art fair.
Thinking is out, branding is in, just like our government, anxious to leave all children behind so that they won’t have the tools to notice what power is doing to their lives, the kind of analysis that marked discourse and activism from the 60s through the 80s.
There’s a more recent series of articles in the Times , the New Yorker, etc, about the market, particularly on the MFA students phenomenon. In one such article the dealer Jack Tilton when “asked about the perils to young artists of showing so early,” says, “If you have a strong enough philosophical base you’re not going to get knocked off your feet by greed and capitalism.” … “You’re not forcing capitalism down their throats”… That’s true but this is not an atmosphere for a strong philosophical base, and maybe one should try to get them to spit capitalism out of their throats if it’s pushing ideas out of their heads.
But we’re reminded by contemporary critics that no matter how obscene the market is, it’s naïve to imagine one could avoid it. So in the guise of a rather fatalistic realism, we are always returned to the market’s axiomatic presence, its existence as essence.
Each market boom does look particularly ghastly to those caught up in it, but in the 80s’ market boom even many of the most commercially successful artists were supported by discourse on issues of representation, gender, institutional critique and analysis of commodity culture itself. There were all sorts of theoretical conflicts, the atmosphere was contentious, but the very existence of discourse was bracing. Something seemed to be at stake and if it was related to market, it nevertheless took the form of battles over ideas. There were a lot of panel discussions in NY in those days and small reading groups studying Lacan and so forth proliferated. For me this was a period of self-re-education, sink or swim, with many gaps and much struggle, but it was transformative: having to wrap my mind around new languages and ideas that I understood were a direct critique of previously cherished beliefs, proved to be as much of a life saver as any therapy, took me outside of myself in crucial ways, and changed my visual work and professional practice.
Against the backdrop of incipient global war over resources and religion, with a tremendous toll on not only the poor of the world, but also the educated middle classes and women, it would be nice to see this recent commercial discourse challenged by a new intellectualism that admits visual, performative, and material pleasures while sharply questioning the status quo of war and market.

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