Friday, March 12, 2010

Once again, the NYT finds feminism out of fashion (by Suzie)

I planned to write about the New York Times’ take on the 75th biennial exhibit of the Whitney Museum of American Art. Then I realized two of those stories were in the same Sunday edition as its crappy story on Amy Bishop. I read it in the bathroom, but I’m sure that was mere coincidence.

First, let me note that this isn’t the weekly Wyoming Sheep Horn. This is the NYFT, which has international influence.

Echidne tore up the Bishop story, which appeared in the Feb. 28 print edition sold in my area. I can’t resist highlighting a few more statements by Sam Tanenhaus, the author. He recalls movies that depict abused women turning on men.
A decade or two ago this all made sense. The underworld of domestic abuse and sexual violence was coming freshly to light. … Much has changed since then, but the topic of women and violence — especially as represented by women — remains more or less in a time warp, bound by the themes of sexual and domestic trauma …
Later, he discusses two performance artists whose work comments on violence against women.
All this is stimulating in its way, but it feels curiously outmoded. … They persist in registering the dimmed signals of a bygone time.
There are a lot of guys who haven’t gotten the message that violence against women is outmoded. The violence continues, and men are still way more likely to commit violence than women are. What’s out of date, for Tanenhaus, is saying that male violence against women remains a serious problem. It’s yet another NYT piece that suggests feminism is passé. (It's still OK to talk about violence against women in poorer countries. cf. Nicholas Kristof.)

The trivialization continued that Sunday in T, The New York Times Style Magazine. “Women’s Work” was the headline of a story by Linda Yablonsky, followed by: “How many angry feminist artists does it take to make it into the Whitney Biennial? None.” That subhead – usually written by an editor – appeared in the print edition I got, but not in the online version. I hope someone recognized it was inaccurate.

Yablonsky has written about feminist activism in the art world. Surely she doesn't think it has zero effect on the inclusion of women now.

This is the first Whitney biennial – titled “2010” – in which more than half of the artists are women, and some people are calling it “the women’s biennial,” she notes. When women's representation mirrors our numbers in the population, some men wail that women are taking over. Yablonsky continues:
“2010" suggests that the art of the moment has achieved gender equality, even if the market for it has not.
What does this mean? That women now produce as much art as men? That we now produce art as good as men? That the representation at this biennial indicates what's going on elsewhere? That gender no longer matters?

In the same edition, in an article on the opening party, Guy Trebay quotes a curator saying that “they had gone looking ‘for work with active political and social content’ to shake up the museum.”

According to Yablonsky, however, “This biennial generally puts the personal before the political.” Does she understand the phrase: “The personal is political”? Her next sentence is: “Sharon Hayes, 39, is mainly concerned with speech and who gets to voice or hear it.” How is this not political? “Indeed, Hayes says everyone in her video occupies 'a queer position.' Or as she puts it, “There’s a fine line between a butch lesbian and a trans man.” Oh, no, that’s not political.

“Photographs by women in this biennial suggest anything but a weaker sex,” Yablonsky writes. Is this supposed to bolster her argument that the artists are less feminist than ones in the past? In a photo essay, Stephanie Sinclair depicts Afghan women who set themselves on fire. Yablonsky comments: “Sinclair’s photos may be gruesome, but they’re filled with more compassion than sisterhood.” Wait, compassion isn’t part of sisterhood?

Most of the female artists in the biennial, she says, “seem blasé about their place in the social order … In fact, many women selected for '2010' are simply making art and don’t believe their status as women has anything to do with how far they get with it — or not.”

She doesn’t quote any of the artists saying that, but she does note that those photographed for her article talked as easily about lipstick as about work in the studio. News flash: Women can have concerns about the role that gender plays in the art world while still caring about how they will look in a NYT photo shoot.

Because of her depictions of men and penises, the Daily Beast says, Aurel Schmidt got tagged as a man-hater. “I was coming across a little feminist-y.” To Yablonsky, Schmidt says, “I don’t want anyone to accuse me of being a man hater, which I’m not.” Schmidt must believe that her gender affects her success. After all, a man who made the same art wouldn't be perceived as a feminist man-hater.

Some biennial artists have produced important feminist work, including Babette Mangolte and Lorraine O’Grady. Although 75, O’Grady is in the NYT photo titled “Girl power.” For this post, I've reproduced Mangolte's composite for "How to Look ..."

Four days before Yablonsky's article ran was a NYT review by Holland Cotter. From him, we learn that this biennial has been greatly scaled down and underplayed, compared with the last two. He doesn't discuss gender -- that was relegated to the NYT style magazine, which has the traditional subjects of the women’s pages: fashion, food, design, travel and culture.

Nicole Smith says women’s pages can “be traced at least as far back as the 1890s.”
In women’s pages, the “four Fs” were core content: “family, food, fashion, and furnishings” (Armstrong, 2006, p. 449). Special sections of the newspaper were developed for women, including society pages, which covered engagements and weddings; food sections, which included recipes and tips on being a good homemaker; and beauty sections, recently refashioned as women’s health, in which women received advice—some clinical and most not—about how to look beautiful, if not stay healthy (Armstrong, 2006). Even when women were reporting the stories in the women’s pages, the assumption of editors was that these types of stories were particularly appropriate for women—as opposed to “hard” news—because “women were assumed to have special abilities at the emotive storytelling, character sketches, and telling anecdotes that human interest stories demanded” (Fahs, 2005 , p. 306). While many women journalists pushed their editors to assign them stories that were relevant to a general audience and which represented real news as opposed to filler, the majority of women were relegated to these special pages ...
Although renamed, the special pages continue. That's why major newspapers such as the NYT and the Washington Post still relegate some stories on women to their style pages.