BY Helen Molesworth in Reviews | 06 JUN 98
Featured in
Issue 41

Not for Sale

BY Helen Molesworth in Reviews | 06 JUN 98

Not for Sale is a 90-minute 'video essay' by the New York-based art critic Laura Cottingham. Subtitled 'Feminism and Art in the USA during the 1970s', it marks yet another instance of renewed interest in the art of the 60s and 70s. The tape features the work of over 100 artists, a soundtrack by Yoko Ono and occasional voice-overs by Cottingham that attempt to explain the principles of feminist art. It includes still shots of artwork, as well as a treasure trove of archival footage of feminist performances, street demonstrations and consciousness raising sessions. The tape generated a low hum of energy in New York: people had heard about it and wanted to be sure they didn't miss it. True to Not for Sale's ambition of reclaiming an under-documented history, it turns out that 30-something women are hungry for exposure to the feminist art movement of the 70s.

Given this background interest, it is unfortunate that Not for Sale turned out to be fairly problematic. The tape is meandering and repetitive, a shortcoming exacerbated by the quick editing style which results in works of art speeding by, often with no identification. Several images of Ana Mendieta's work, for example, punctuate the tape, yet are not commented upon. Likewise, a photograph of Mierle Laderman Ukeles' Maintenance Art performance goes by entirely unattributed. Given that the tape has been designed, in part, for educational use, this lack of specificity is worrying: for a project fuelled by the desire to bring this historical period to a wider audience, it does not actually dispense much information, speaking primarily to those already in the know. The archival footage is extraordinary, but most of it is rendered piecemeal by the MTV-style editing. One result of this is that the insistence upon real time in much feminist performance, replete with its political and ideological connotations, is squandered. (The notable exception here is the duration given to Faith Wilding's Waiting performance, in which the artist, rocking back and forth like an autistic child, sums up the life of a woman who never made any choices; to whom life simply 'happened'.)

Although billed as an 'essay', Not for Sale lacks a cohesive narrative structure: in essence, it doesn't make an argument. This is largely due to the fact that Cottingham has refused to make distinctions among the wide range of work she attempts to cover. In the pamphlet that accompanied the gallery screening, she asks 'Where and how do we locate ourselves, individually and collectively, in this process called history?' This question is obviously at the heart of all intellectual and aesthetic encounters with the past. However, the writing of history cannot simply be a tallying of facts, of who was where, when - even if it's a history of those who have traditionally not been tallied up before.

In 1998 we find ourselves at a remove of nearly three decades from the emergence of the second wave of American feminism, and this necessitates a different kind of historical argument. It would now seem possible for feminists to establish which political positions, aesthetic objects and performances were important, influenced others, engaged with historical debates and, better yet, still maintain contemporary relevance through having changed our intellectual, political, and artistic landscape. It is no longer enough to claim that all work made by women is important because it was made by women. Indeed, such a position serves to re-ghettoise feminist art, for it refuses to allow it to affect the dominant narrative. This is precisely the impact of Not for Sale: one walks away feeling as if the art made by women in the 70s had no historical ramifications, that it presented no challenge or offered no inspiration outside the unwieldy category called 'the feminist movement'.

In the name of the radical, and in the name of feminism, Not for Sale ultimately propagates a very antiquated set of ideas. It offers art history as a compilation of proper names, first person narration and the taste of the writer. It assumes that biography and artistic intention are at the root of art's meaning, and pre-supposed a one-to-one correlation of cause and effect: women are oppressed, hence they make art about their oppression. It is based on the model of the art history survey, which assumes that everything included within it is good without ever explaining why. In the attempt to account for everything it ends up not saying very much at all. This is the old art history. But we've had years of writing other types of history: histories that are genealogical, that track effects and ideas, exclusions and inclusions - a history that understands itself not as truth, but as an actively produced discourse - and this is a way of thinking about history made possible, in large measure, by feminism. I agree with Cottingham that it's time for feminist art of the 70s to be given its proper due, but that can only happen when we learn the history lessons of feminism itself.