Book Reviews - Winter 2024

Bodies Grotesque and Beautiful

Searching for aesthetics and meaning in the monstrous

By Sierra Bellows | December 4, 2023

Art Monsters: Unruly Female Bodies in Feminist Art by Lauren Elkin; Farrar Straus and Giroux, 368 pp., $35

In 1972, Suzanne Lacy, Judy Chicago, Sandra Orgel, and Aviva Rahmani staged a performance during which women dipped their naked bodies in metal vats of eggs, cow blood, and clay, then were wrapped in sheets, while the audience listened to an audiotape of women talking about being raped. Animal innards were nailed to the walls, and eggshells, ropes, and chains were strewn on the floor.

The performance, called Ablutions, “harnessed the power of repulsion to make its point—one they found could not be expressed in language alone,” writes Lauren Elkin in her politically perceptive and disarming exploration of feminist art. “The old ways of making art or telling stories were no longer equal to the task of telling the story of the body under assault.”

Elkin, a Franco-American writer and translator who lives in London, is the author of No. 91/92: Notes on a Parisian Commute and Flâneuse: Women Walk the City, and the U.K. translator of feminist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir’s previously unpublished novel The Inseparables. Her book Art Monsters connects the work of feminist performance artists, filmmakers, photographers, painters, sculptors, and writers through an idea of the monstrous that evolves over the course of the text. The idea begins with the term art monster, used by the writer Jenny Offill to describe the female artist who rejects what have historically been considered to be the obligations of her sex—the mundane and domestic, specifically marriage and motherhood—for art making. But quickly the idea turns from the circumstances of production to art that is itself monstrous.

“We can understand a culture by what it calls monstrous; the monster stands for everything a society attempts to cast out,” Elkin writes. Patriarchy constrains femininity by requiring that it be small, pleasant, obliging, and selfless. A femininity that is large, repulsive, confrontational, or ambitious is monstrous. Elkin contends that monstrous art, especially that related to the body, has pushed the boundaries of what feminist artists can express. “What I think I hear in the term art monster is something to do with the way monstrosity authorises women to thwart received ideas about how we—and our art—should be, look, behave,” writes Elkin.

In 1975, Carolee Schneemann stood on a table in an art gallery, her naked body smeared with paint. She withdrew a roll of paper from her vagina and read aloud from it. The performance was called Interior Scroll, and the text began:

I met a happy man
a structuralist filmmaker […]
he said we are fond of you
you are charming
but don’t ask us
to look at your films
we cannot
there are certain films
we cannot look at
the personal clutter
the persistence of feelings
the hand-touch sensibility
the diaristic indulgence
the painterly mess
the dense gestalt
the primitive techniques.

Schneemann’s text functions as a manifesto for feminist artists, expressing the conditions under which feminist art is made and listing aesthetic strategies that serve it. Schneemann’s aesthetics developed over a career during which her work was censored and attacked for what it depicted. When she was an art student, only male art students had access to nude models, so she painted her naked boyfriend while he slept, and was kicked out of school. In 1963, she included a photograph of her clitoris in a collection called Eye Body and was called obscene, a pornographer.

“The female nude is art or obscene, depending on the context,” writes Elkin. In classical art, painted by men, it personifies beauty. But when female artists depict their own bodies, they are accused of narcissism or capitulating to the male gaze. Jenny Saville, an original member of the Young British Artists (a group of nonconformist art students who gathered in 1980s London), “didn’t want to be only the artist or the subject; she wanted to be both.” Elkin describes Saville’s 1992 self-portrait Propped, for which “she painted her own body on a monumental scale, Rubenesque, in mottled shades of flesh and sinew.” Saville said she wanted to express the incongruence between how women are perceived and how they feel about their own bodies, and the result is visceral and sublime: it is monstrous.

When she was an art student, only male art students had access to nude models, so she painted her naked boyfriend while he slept, and was kicked out of school.

In 1931, Virginia Woolf told the National Society for Women’s Service that there were two adventures in her professional life. “The first—killing the Angel in the House—I think I solved. She died,” Woolf said. “But the second, telling the truth about my own experiences as a body, I do not think I solved. I doubt that any woman has solved it yet.” The Angel in the House that Woolf references is the societal expectation for a woman: that she be selfless and domestic. For Elkin, the second adventure, telling the truth of the experience of the female body, is the irresolvable quandary of feminist art. How can it be done using the aesthetics and language of a patriarchal society? “being born into and part of a male world, she had no speech of her own. all she could do was read male texts which weren’t hers,” wrote Kathy Acker in her 1986 novel Don Quixote, which remixes Cervantes’s book and recasts the Spanish knight-errant as a 66-year-old contemporary woman who has an abortion.

Elkin investigates feminist art that doesn’t just react against art history and masculine aesthetics but also invents a history and aesthetic of its own. Betye Saar repurposed racist Americana into assemblages that gave new meaning to household objects; in The Liberation of Aunt Jemima (1972), Saar added a rifle to the left hand of a statuette of a Black woman holding a broom in her right. Sutapa Biswas’s Housewives with Steak-Knives (1985) shows the Hindu goddess Kali as “a pissed-off British housewife” holding a bloody machete, the head of a white-haired man, a flag, and a flower in her four hands. The painting brings the domestic, political, and mythological into dialogue with the image of a warrior goddess in a housedress.

“I realised the word monster was just as effective as a verb: art monsters,” Elkin writes. “In this new form the term tells us something about what it is art does: it makes the familiar strange, wakes us from our habits, enables us to envision other ways of being, and lets the body and the imagination speak and dream outside the strict boundaries placed on them by society, patriarchy, internalised misogyny.”

Elkin’s book does the same kind of work as the art she describes. It shocks us. It presents us with images that cause strange, sometimes uncomfortable feelings. It invites us to untangle ideas that turn out to be paradoxes. Elkin shows us how the women she documents invented a new language and aesthetics to enlarge what female artists could do, and thus made space for us all.

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