Sex, Art, and Misogyny

Woman drawing on the sidewalk in Three Weeks in May
Suzanne Lacy
Suzanne Lacy: Three Weeks in May, Los Angeles, 1977

In 1974 the performance artist Marina Abramovic stood naked and immobile in a Naples gallery. Next to her was a table with seventy-two objects, including a loaded gun. Beside the objects was a document absolving the audience of responsibility for whatever they might choose to do to her with those objects. Freeing the audience from accountability turned the performance into an exposé of their ethics: they became actors in a scenario as well as witnesses of one another’s behavior. Some of them made violent gestures toward Abramovic—they were not exclusively sexual, but many were. She endured cuts to her skin as well as what one critic described as intimate caresses and minor sexual assaults before the audience erupted into a fight when a participant put the gun to her head. Interestingly, as soon as Abramovic ceased to be immobile and began to walk toward the people around her, they fled the gallery rather than reckoning with what they had done.

The performance in Naples, entitled Rhythm O, put sexual aggression toward a female body on display, but Abramovic has never identified herself as a feminist. She is not known for using her art to advocate for political causes—but in this case agit-prop wasn’t needed to make a point. Her performance compelled participants to examine their own and others’ violent impulses toward a woman. Abramovic created an in-between space, distinct from the activities of “real life” but existing in real time. In a sense she created a trap: by feigning feminine passivity she elicited actions among her audience members that dramatized an essential human struggle between our attraction to aggression and our desire to adhere to a social contract.

In the 1970s, as the second-wave feminist movement flourished, numerous women artists made their bodies, their sexual desires, and the social conventions that oppressed them the focus of their creative endeavors. The degree to which they saw their art as serving a feminist agenda varied: it wasn’t unusual then—nor is it now—for artists to fear that framing their work in political terms would limit how it would be perceived. And even among those identified as feminists, there was no consensus as to what feminist liberation in art was supposed to look like, or what art that sought to achieve women’s liberation needed to do.

Satirical tactics in activist performance have often proved to be more politically effective than purely aesthetic expressions of outrage. In 1970 feminist activist and scholar Karla Jay organized “Ogle-Ins,” in which female participants would catcall men walking to work on Wall Street to raise awareness of sexual harassment. The catalyst for these irreverent spectacles was the actual torment suffered by a busty, twenty-one-year-old Wall Street bank employee named Francine Gottfried, whose daily confrontations with thousands…

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