Issue 34 May 1997 RSS

Carolee Schneemann

The New Museum, New York, USA

I suspect we may never know how significant Carolee Schneemann’s work really was. The passage of time, history’s accumulated dust, always dulls that kind of estimation ­ and in this case, even more than usual. Was her work marginalised because of its insolvent subject matter and undisguised style, or was it so viscerally of the moment, belligerently attempting the disassembly of art history’s discrimination and tinselled power that the embarrassment she caused had her simply hustled off stage? ‘Schneemann’s use of nudity has somehow acted to limit her career’, pondered Lawrence Alloway, ‘to seal her off in a Dionysian cul-de-sac. In fact her works are flexible and speculative, but the impact of her body has blocked the recognition of that’. Was Alloway being condescending, or merely witless, exercising the power Schneemann’s nakedness could never overcome ­ or were these the words of a man genuinely baffled by his own intractable discipline?

In the wake of Alloway’s puzzled evaluation, let’s juxtapose two simple sentences that may clear things up a bit. The artist’s nude. The artist nude. In her series of photographs from 1963 entitled ‘Eye Body’ Carolee Schneemann exploded the difference between the masculine-possessive sense of the first sentence, and the feminine-declarative sense of the second. This is self-evident. With the assurance of Victorine Meurent’s insolent gaze and physical confidence, the eyes and pose Manet could not choose to suppress, Schneemann ordained her own body’s representation, permitting her escape from the centrifugal pull of the rules that objectify women; the rules Meurent’s stare once wilted. It was that simple, and that transgressive. For this she was effectively manhandled off the stage of art history and into the backwaters of that ‘Dionysian cul-de-sac’. In the earliest moments of Schneemann’s career, history’s lens was focused too closely, without the proper distance to see her work for what it was. And of course, it was a lens nearly blinded by discrimination’s dirt. It was never the case that mere nudity blocked her reception; no, it was her own style of nudity, self-proscribed and self-proclaimed, that blocked her recognition.

Now Schneemann has her own retrospective, but let’s not be too quick to toast our culture’s changed heart. The observations of Linda Nochlin in her crisp and unbending 1988 essay ‘Women, Art and Power’, and Catherine MacKinnon six years before her, reveal the binary of masculine strength to feminine weakness which still glows at the sub-atomic core of a repugnant ideology to which our culture remains heavily mortgaged.

Did Schneemann begin to disentangle and reassemble the egalitarian ideology stirring just beneath the voices of Nochlin and MacKinnon? No, her work was never that complex, nor powerful. Nevertheless, she successfully estimated some of what would be necessary to deliver women from the alienation MacKinnon lamented. For example, in Cindy Sherman’s film stills which produced a deafening feedback reducing masculine fantasy and power to hollow stereotype, we find trace samples of Schneemann’s self-proclaimed prerogative to overthrow the traditional representation of women. Traces are to be found as well in the work of Janine Antoni, Cheryl Donegan, Matthew Barney and many, many others. 33 years later, her influence is transparent, and there is the problem ­ ours, not Schneemann’s. Have her once transgressive tactics been simmered down into tokens of radicalism, serving to vaccinate the culture’s prowess in objectifying and alienating women, and thus preventing any real reform? It seems so ­ Karen Finlay keeps coming to mind.

Now that this seems so patently obvious, what does it really mean? It is important to say, and without being pejorative, that the air of Schneemann’s exhibition was of something impoverished. It was beggarly, ragged. The works, were cared for, but by the artist, not the institution that is the art world (only two out of 43 are in the hands of collectors). In such an atmosphere, armed with every good intention to burst the balloon of historical discrimination, trying to see her work for what it could have been, a debate still exists as to how significant her contribution to our culture was. I believe one must take this exhibition as a whole to understand that it poignantly tells us how she made a meaningful contribution to our culture which has generally gone neglected, or frightfully misunderstood. The often touted liberal-minded art world has been horribly negligent and Schneemann’s exhibition gives us a fair estimate of to what degree ­ and in matters that go far beyond the work in this retrospective. In this sense, it is a devastating and memorable indictment.

Ronald Jones

About this article

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First published in
Issue 34, May 1997

by Ronald Jones

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