In 1968, Argentinian artist Graciela Carnevale created an unlikely art exhibition: she invited people into an empty gallery, locked them inside, and left. But Lock-up Action, as the artwork was called, came to a swift end when the trapped gallery-goers flagged down a pedestrian, who broke a glass wall and set them free. To Carnevale, it was a comment on freedom in Argentina under a military dictatorship, and the broken glass was a metaphor for political resistance. Photos from the event are displayed as part of Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960–1985, an exhibition of feminist activist art at the Brooklyn Museum in New York. Featuring more than 120 artists from 15 countries, this group show was the first to bring together some of the most groundbreaking contemporary art by Latin American and Latina artists. It made its debut last year at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, and aims to showcase political pioneer artists.
Since the beginnings of the feminist movement or the so called ‘first generation’ feminism, its militant art was supposed to represent the body as naturally different to that of men. This ‘essentialism’ presupposed a ‘feminine style’. Although ‘Radical Women’ has been seminal since it has built an archive where there was none, it has failed to clarify how the conflictive relationship between political art and the art market, on one hand and how the politicised discourse of its curators relates to the politics of the show. A good opportunity to do so was the book that co-curator Andrea Giunta published a few months after the show, at the exact time when a bill for the legalisation of abortion was rejected by the Argentine Senate.
Titled ‘Feminismo y arte en America Latina’ (‘Feminism and Art in Latin America’), Giunta insists on the fact that during the sixties the, firstly, traditional and, secondly, modernist stereotypes around the construction of the female body that had dominated western art for centuries were put into question suggesting a new kind of disenfranchised body which was devoid of social morality and biological function. This, according to her, mirrored the advances of US feminist artists in the sixties with experiences such as Womanhouse and the Feminist Studio Workshop. All this was undoubtedly informed by the emergence of a theoretical debate around the microphysics of power suggested by French philosopher Michel Foucault. According to Giunta, this paradigmatic change in the representation of the female body is the biggest iconographic transformation of the XX century and it is difficult to disagree with her on that. In the ‘Radical Women’ exhibition works such as Marie Oresanz’ ‘Limitada’ (1978) or Liliana Porter’s ‘Untitled (Selfportrait with rectangle)’ (1973) were showcased as examples of this kind of iconography. This is, however, not clear at all in the case of the latter where the artist seems to engage in the debates that were taking place in the American art world between a feminist art whose newly emerged champions were practitiones such as Eva Hesse or Louise Bourgeois. For them, including the body was not only an autobiographical thing but also a statement of how insufficient they found the macho cerebral aesthetic of NY minimalism. This kind of debate had more to do with the dynamics of the art world than with the representation of a militant position in relation to any change in society at large. A confusion between what feminist art is and art made by women lies at the heart of the ‘Radical Women’ show.
Some of the artists that Andrea Giunta give as examples of her body-centered idea do not help her case as in the case of Elda Cerrato who, according to Giunta, represents the body of the masses as the new birth of Latin America. One wonders what this has to do with the representation of an emancipated female body or Graciela Carnevale’s aforementioned ‘Lock-Up Action’ which does not address the female body as such but the body, in general, in times of bio-politics which corresponds more to what Third Generation Feminism will propose thirty years later. Besides, if we bear in mind that Carnevale worked with the body in a similar sadistic sense than Oscar Masotta or Oscar Bony, we can only conclude that her work should not be qualified as ‘feminist art’. These problems become even more evident in the argument that sustains her recently published book where she struggles to find examples to illustrate her thesis of ‘feminist art’ as ‘a militant new way of representing the female body’. This is obvious in her analysis of filmmaker Maria Luisa Bemberg and her two short films ‘El mundo de la mujer’ (1972) (‘The world of women’) and ‘Juguetes’ (1973) (‘Toys’) which illustrate her point but are not works of art but documentarie where a sociology of sorts can be found. Giunta struggles at tying the realm of the aesthetics to that of sociological data only to fall into believing that the latter is sufficient to create artistic value. This is not art but sociologism.
The case of Maria Luisa Bemberg is, however, particular interesting both in, as I just said, the way Giunta’s choses the works to analyse and in how she refuses, again and again, to embark in a microphysical analysis of the way hierarchies (and thus, patriarchialism) function in a social context. A thorough critique should not exclude someone like Bemberg just because she claims to a feminist. Heiress to one of Argentina’s most important industrial fortunes, Maria Luisa Bemberg used her vast resources both to amass an astonishing collection of, mainly, Impressionist art and participated with her films in the emergence of the feminist movement in Argentina and Latin America. Andrea Giunta’s decision to chose the two aforementioned short films narrows too much her example if we bear in mind that, instead, Bemberg’s masterpiece was the feature film ‘Miss Mary’ (1986) starred by Julie Christie where her feminist argument gets autobiographical. It is from that point of view that she can dissect class privilege, taste formation and lesbian family relations paying painstaking attention to the aesthetic and technical aspects of film making that in the two documentaries chosen by Giunta are practically ignored. Besides and most worryingly, Andrea Giunta decides to put aside Maria Luisa Bemberg’s own contradictions in order to monumentalise her as a feminist champion ignoring the fact that as an art collector she followed the taste of her class which has hierarchical and patriarchal. In fact, her collection was exclusively composed by male painters. In other words, although she publicly proclaimed to be a feminist, inside the institutional art world she was totally functional to the patriarchal perpetuation of the social hierarchies where she was born. The way Giunta’s book and (‘Radical Women’) exhibition refuse to look into the specifics of those contradictions make her effort a good start for more nuanced future feminist research. J A T