The recent publication of Lip magazine’s fifth number* represents the continuing contribution of feminism to Australian art and criticism. Lip‘s aims remain, according to its latest editorial, the support and promotion of women as ‘art workers’ and the provision of ‘constructive, critical discussion’ with special emphasis on the ‘relationship of feminism and art practice’.
Lip‘s initial appearance in 1976 was generated among considerable commitment and excitement and perhaps also a naïve optimism. Its funds were donated and raised in a grass-roots fashion (stalls, sales &c.) and contributions were solicited from members of the Women’s Film Festival, Women’s Art Register, the Women’s Theatre Group, individual media workers, sociologists and others. From the outset, Lip was an alternative publication, non- or low-profit-making and aimed directly at a counter-culture of feminists, artists, students and liberal practitioners in the social sciences. This granted Lip its initial cutting edge and it was not until 1978 — after its second number — that it received assistance from the Australia Council.
While being an arts journal, the practice of art criticism was not its initial concern, and in this area Lip proved reactionary. It held twin conceptions of art criticism, each of which made sense only in the cultural milieu of five years ago. Feminist criticism was a means of inserting women as a type of sexual proletariat into the class struggle of advanced capitalism. It was also a measure against the, by then, poorly regarded international art mainstream which had neglected women and, more importantly, established pervasive criteria which, if unchecked, would continually exclude feminist art. What follows here, then, is not a review of Lip itself, but an outline of the development of its art criticism arguing, as docs one of its essays, that there ‘is indeed a crisis of definitions and methods where women are concerned’.¹
Five years ago Lip‘s art criticism denounced the ‘formalist’ practice of probing an isolated and supposedly autonomous artistic fragment which had offered, as Richard Ohmann shrewdly suggested of New Critical theory,² a convenient means of coping with rapidly growing tertiary enrolments and art audiences alike. Lip’s alternative practice was more general. It drew on women’s role in society, their arts and crafts, social composition and even erected, after the example of American feminist critic Lucy Lippard who visited in 1975, an archive of feminist art concerns, women’s imagery and history.
Noel Sheridan’s statement that ‘art should be essentially radical and incidentally aesthetic’ summarised the prevalent feminist approaches whose proponents were politically diverse, sharing only a self-conscious plan of deposing formalism in favour of feminism (‘feminism’, however, ranged from marxist to careerist). The self-consciousness of this substitution of models is quite evident:
Beginning as a cut-and-dried formalist … I was deadly serious about certain kinds of art which had prescribed responses, certain histories and certain directions … Eventually I became disenchanted with the predictable nature of the art I wrote about and identified with … Perhaps the most exciting feature of this gradual change was by becoming involved with women’s art I discovered that a range of art I had once dismissed as low-brow and trivial I could now respond to, enjoy and admire. There emerged for me a general level of identification that abrogated a narrower and more consciously defined attitude to artmaking and made accessible to me a variety of different styles and media.³
Perhaps the most insidious effect of the formalist work is that it purports to be ideologically neutral — concerned with formal art problems — but this, in fact, endorses bourgeois culture which maintains the distinction between art and politics … In a fundamental way the readily identifiable [women’s] images provided access to more than just an art audience familiar with formal ‘art problems’, for in the images women could recognise and identify similar patterns in their own history.⁴
The criticism sought to re-evaluate the position of women in art in a threefold manner. Firstly, attention was laboured on representations of women as objects and stereotypes in the more or less representational media. Secondly, specifically female characteristics were distilled from the newly ordained women’s archive. This included an anti-historical isolation of such formal devices as central imagery, grids, patterns, layers and such subjects as animals and flowers! Thirdly, histories of women in the arts which could function as corrective alternatives to existing histories were undertaken.
This threefold plan of counter-discrimination has, in critical terms, been an easy task as far as it has evaded theorising. The models that have up to now propelled feminist criticism, especially in Melbourne where feminists have been slow to encounter semiotic theory, have been the theories and practices of sociology which set out a definite method of approaching, categorising and eventually disposing of artworks as part of an ongoing sociological-feminist research programme. To its credit, Lip is now turning its attention to other critiques which utilise and contribute, albeit unevenly, to post-structuralist theory, throwing the earlier assumptions of feminist criticism into crisis.
The major problem for feminist art criticism results from the sociological rationale that spawned it. Feminist criticism took from sociology its fundamental project of counter-discrimination from which the programmes of female representation, female specificity and feminist history (‘herstory’) were derived. These programmes operate as social research which, by virtue of their findings, aims to establish women as producers in a culture that has for the most part denied them this option. Dangerously, however, the research uncritically assumes that the artwork is a type of vehicle for the social meanings that are neatly inscribed within it. This critical activity is grounded on the search and is, one of the essays argues, a reproduction of the idealist paradigm of artistic meaning.⁵ Examples pervade the magazine unselfconsciously, always assuming themselves to be correct beyond doubt. Traversing the minefield of photographic meaning, one statement in an interview with photographer Alexis Hunter exemplifies this sociological approach:
Interviewer: I’m thinking in particular of your work in the ‘Images’ show titled ‘The Marxist’s Wife (Still Does The Housework)’ which consists of a series of 20 colored Xeroxes from slides of a woman’s hand cleaning the glass in front of a portrait of Karl Marx. It’s such a simple format but to me the message is potent. Women always seem to be allocated the subservient roles. No matter what progressive religion or revolutionary thought men promote, women are always in the background …⁶
The ease with which the interviewer moves from the format and potency of the images to her actual interpretation of the message suggests that the photograph itself is a transparent container of a social observation. Such an artistic model is, of course, of great value to sociologists but here both overrides the discourse of the images and denies the materiality of the work as art, regardless of whether the artist herself agrees with the interviewer’s interpretation.
Contradicting this model, Lip‘s latest number has also published at least three essays, those by Helen Grace, Lyndal Jones and Judith Barry with Sandy Flittermann, which individually engage theory without over-engaging unfamiliar post-structuralist terminology. Accordingly, these essays avoid relaxing in the ‘culture of the signified’, and instead emphasise how meanings are socially constructed and therefore ideologically permeated. They don’t believe themselves to be surpassing ‘formal [hence superficial] art problems’, and instead point to the surface of a work as being essential to the proliferation of ideology. They assert that a critique of patriarchy is also a critique of how ideology is manifest in the tools of artmaking and criticism and in the communication and aesthetic transaction between ‘text’ and ‘reader’.
‘Textual Strategies: The Politics of Artmaking’ is the essay at the centre of this debate in Lip. It is a revised version of an essay published in Screen, the important British journal of film theory, and its publication in Lip seems an attempt by the new and much smaller editorial collective to engage the magazine in more productive theory. The essay outlines four significant artistic/political plans-of- action (‘strategics’) adopted by women artists, and argues that theoretical research is essential to serious feminist art. Recognising ‘the value of certain forms of radical political art whose aim it is to highlight feminist issues that are generally submerged by dominant cultural discourse’, the authors state that much feminist art, ‘if untheorised, can only have limited results’. Instead, ‘more theoretically informed art can prove capable of producing enduring changes by addressing itself to the structural and deep-seated causes of women’s oppression rather than to its effects’.⁷
In the same vein, Lyndal Jones asserts that the ‘Women’s Movement in Australia would seem to have a deep-seated fear of theory’ which results in a ‘lack of critical analysis and therefore an art that, as often as not, unconsciously reinforces the political status quo’.⁸
‘Theory’ is not a unified body of work, and contemporary theoretical approaches vary from Foucaultian theories of power and knowledge to popular Derridean deconstruction to Deleuzean and Kristevan desire-mechanisms to Lacanian psychoanalytic anti-subjectivity. They are invariably complicated. Still, the writers must question the degree to which a theoretically-motivated art is theoretically oriented. What, for instance, will be the effects on art practice of more thorough translations of Baudrillard and Lyotard? The theorists must also identify precisely where they take their pleasure in art, and whether pleasure is even a worthwhile aesthetic category.
These critiques of patriarchy and ideology necessarily involve an analysis of the category of ‘woman’ as ideologically constructed. While the sociological concern for images of ‘woman’ has been a commonsensical investigation of this much exploited subject-matter, the image of ‘woman’ in the radical art proposed in ‘Textual Strategies …’ ‘is not accepted as an already produced given, but is constructed in and through the work itself’.⁹
If ‘feminist art results from a theoretical reflection on representation’ as these authors claim, where does the sociology and confused separatism of Lip now stand? In the interests of its integrity and even survival, Lip ought to now analyse men’s as well as women’s art, publish feminist contributions by men and discourage its now familiar analyses of women’s roles in the theatre, mass-media and so on. Similarly, it should reconsider the way it promotes individual artists (the latest issue’s six statements by artists-on-their-own-work are mostly made by a well-thrashed few). Yet there is resistance on the editorial collective of Lip to such changes. Jeannette Fenelon, who replies to ‘Textual Strategies …’ with an amazingly off-point discussion of the work of Isobel Davies, certainly obstructs the critique that other contributors are producing. The outcome of these seemingly insignificant internal contradictions is important: much of the future of feminist art criticism in Australia, and therefore our feminism and culture, is at issue. Feminism won’t go away, but Lip possibly will.
*Lip 1981/2: Women in the Visual and Performing Arts.
1 Judith Barry and Sandy Flittermann, ‘Textual Strategies: The Politics of Artmaking’, Lip, No. 5, 1981/2, p.29.
2 Richard Ohmann, English in America (New York, 1976).
3 Janine Burke, ‘Sense and Sensibility: Women’s Art and Feminist Criticism’, Lip, No. 3, 1978/9, p.5.
4 Ann Stephen, ‘A Process of De-neutralizing: A Review of Three Sydney Exhibitions’, Lip, No. 1, 1976, pp.27/8.
5 Helen Grace, ‘From the Margins: A Feminist Essay on Women Artists’, Lip, No. 5, p.14. See also William D. Routt, ‘Disco Hoodoo’, Art & Text, No. 3, Spring 1981, p.79.
6 ‘Approaches to Fear: An Interview with Alexis Hunter’ by Elizabeth Cower, Lip, No. 5, p.19.
7 Judith Barry and Sandy Flittermann, loc.cit., p.29.
8 Lyndal Jones, ‘Performance, Feminism and Women at Work’, Lip, No. 5, p.35.
9 Judith Barry and Sandy Flitterman, loc.cit., p.32.