Essay review: Else Surely We Shall All Hang Separately: The Politics of Western Women’s History by Virginia Scharff

Poster from the movie “Calamity Jane” (1953) with Doris Day and Howard Keel
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History, then, is one word commonly and confusingly used to refer to two things: what happened, and what we say happened. (537)

Apologies for my unusually long absence from the blogosphere, all! The last six days have been filled with preparations for getting to, attending, and returning from a wedding (third of the month for me) in San Diego, which involved a lot of insanely early mornings. Consequently, I didn’t as much done over the last week as I would have liked– exhaustion made sure of that– but I did read three essays over the weekend: “A Minoritarian Feminism? Things to Do with Deleuze and Guattari” by Pelagia Goulimari, “The Gentle Tamers Revisited: New Approaches to the History of Women in the American West” by Joan M. Jensen and Darlis A. Miller (inconsequential aside: this essay was the first PDF I read and highlighted using my GoodReader app on my iPad!), and of course Virginia Scharff’s “Else Surely We Shall All Hang Separately.” I also started reading a book called Photography and Surrealism: Sexuality, Colonialism, and Social Dissent by David Bate, which I will hopefully be able to review tomorrow or Wednesday. Goulimari’s “A Minoritarian Feminism?” was an unnecessarily jargon-y and difficult-to-read essay that is mostly useful as a secondary source (most of the essay was spent critiquing two works by other scholars) and which I don’t feel like reviewing here. Jensen’s and Miller’s “Gentle Tamers Revisited” was referenced a lot in Scharff’s essay, thus I felt compelled to read it for the sake of thoroughness, but again, I don’t feel like it is necessary to write a review for it. Therefore, by process of elimination/preference, I am now going to review the last aforementioned essay. Continue reading

Book review: Western Places, American Myths, ed. Gary J. Hausladen

Peter Goin, “Intersecting Tracks” (1998)
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The power and importance of the American West, ambiguous or not, cannot be overstated. Not just a real geographical region, the West is a mythic concept that repeatedly transcends simple historical-geographical description. For Americans, the West is part of our psyche, an essential part of who we are as a people. (Gary J. Hausladen, Introduction)

Western Places, American Myths: How We Think About the West is a fascinating anthology of essays dealing with the American West, with topics ranging from historical geography to regionalism to art history and analyzing both the myths and realities that signify the “West.” Despite the leaps and bounds that contemporary scholarship has made in analyzing the West, this does not seem to have extended outside of academia, meaning that people still look at its history from a white, masculine perspective that glorifies the notion that it is a fundamentally different place from the Midwest and the East Coast. This notion identifies it as a freer, wilder place that in turn verifies larger ideas of individualism and American nationalism, though it is overall seen as distinct from the rest of America. Physically, it is a different place than the East Coast– drier, generally more mountainous, and greater distance between urban centers– but it is also psychologically and historically more complex than it is given credit for. Continue reading

Ryan Lochte and “Surrealist nature art”

Note: Before everyone yells at me for being “unpatriotic” or anti-Olympics, know that this piece is not a commentary on Ryan Lochte as an athlete, because there is no denying that he is an amazing swimmer. It is rather more of an analysis of what he coins as his “Surrealist nature art” and the implications of declaring oneself (or one’s artwork) as Surrealist.

An example of Ryan Lochte’s “Surrealist nature art”

A couple days ago, Jezebel.com posted an article called “10 Reasons Why Ryan Lochte is America’s Sexiest Douchebag,” which was brought to my attention by a fellow grad student. This article makes a pretty convincing argument for his douchebaggery, noting that his signature phrase is “Jeah!” (which is obviously cool because it’s “Yeah!” with a J instead of a Y) and his constant need to wear a bejeweled grill on his teeth when accepting his medals (and which he has been forced to remove because it is not a part of the official Team USA uniform). However, douchey as he may be, what really piqued my interest in this article was the brief discussion of his “Surrealist nature art.” I particularly enjoyed the following quote:

[it] looks a lot like stuff the pothead next to you in psych 101 drew when he was super bored.

I could not have said it better myself. Though the Surrealists certainly enjoyed their recreational drugs on occasion, which helped them access the subconscious, this particular “artwork” has nothing to do with Surrealism. How do I know that? Because Surrealism is so much more than dream imagery– or in this case, drug imagery.  Continue reading

Essay review: Speaking with a Forked Tongue: ‘Male’ Discourse in ‘Female’ Surrealism? by Robert J. Belton

Valentine Hugo, “Untitled (Object of Symbolic Function)” (1931)
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… we have discovered the issue of methodology itself to be deeply problematic in such a socially crucial area. It is necessary, in a word, to learn to speak with a forked tongue. And since we have no metalanguage with which to characterize absolutely where the female Surrealists stand, what we must do is remain eternally vigilant to our own psychological social, ideological, and methodological preoccupations. (60)

This essay was included in the anthology Surrealism and Women, which was edited by Surrealist scholar-extraordinaire Mary Ann Caws as well as Rudolf Kuenzli and Gwen Raaberg and deals with various postmodern issues in the study of Surrealism. Belton confronted a big issue in a relatively short paper: how can we objectively discuss the work of female artists in a genre that is dominated by male rhetoric? As we have seen in previous works, Whitney Chadwick, for example, is all for seeing Surrealism as a joyous outlet for women artists. This outlet not only allowed them to finally express themselves in a less restricted way, but also (in Chadwick’s view) paved the way for feminism. Belton was much less optimistic in his views– he wastes no time in mentioning Chadwick’s views, which indicates to me that he clearly wants to refute them– and wants the reader to recognize that women and Surrealism is a difficult combination to discuss. Continue reading

Book review: Irrational Modernism by Amelia Jones

Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven (Source)

My thoughts were powerless against unhappiness so huge. I couldn’t alter European history, or order the artillery to stop firing. I could stare at the War as I stared at the sultry sky, longing for life and freedom and vaguely altruistic about my fellow-victims. But a second-lieutenant could attempt nothing– except to satisfy his superior officers; and altogether, I concluded, Armageddon was too immense for my solitary understanding. (Siegfried Sassoon, 1930 [46])

First of all, let me say that I cannot even begin to describe how refreshing it was to read Amelia Jones after the structural mess that was Whitney Chadwick’s Women Artists and the Surrealist Movement. I have actually read a fair amount of Jones’ scholarship, as she was a visiting scholar at my school last semester, and I have concluded that there are four things that can always be counted upon in her work: a cohesive introduction with a thesis statement that is easily identifiable, a conclusion that wraps up everything with a nice little bow, a beautiful (albeit complicated) style of writing, and liberal usage of derogatory language.

Having met Dr. Jones in person, I can tell you that she reads like she sounds. She is brilliant, opinionated, and extraordinarily blunt (word to the wise: don’t try to talk to her about Harry Potter, because she’s one of the 1% of the population that thinks it’s a waste of verbage). During a lecture in which she presented a partial chapter from her new book, Seeing Differently: A History and Theory of Identification and the Visual Arts, she offended one of my professors so much with her repeated usage of the term “c*nt art” and a brief allusion to her own sex life that he opted out of dinner with her that night. I found this rather ironic, as he was teaching a class on Leo Steinberg, who was often just as blunt as Dr. Jones in his own writing (and in one of my papers in that class, I discussed how she reminded me of him). However, this particular professor loved her book Irrational Modernism: A Neurasthenic History of New York DadaContinue reading

Book review: Women Artists and the Surrealist Movement by Whitney Chadwick

Leonora Carrington, “The Juggler” (1954)
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I didn’t have time to be anyone’s muse… I was too busy rebelling against my family and learning to be an artist. (Leonora Carrington)

I have to admit, I was not nearly as impressed with this book as I thought I would be. My anticipation was framed by two factors: Women Artists and the Surrealist Movement was the first comprehensive look at the women artists associated with Surrealism (notice that I don’t say “Surrealist women artists,” as not all of the women in the book considered themselves Surrealists. Chadwick makes the distinction that these were women who were at one time affiliated with Surrealism in some capacity and had careers that were not reliant on Breton or Surrealism). Also, this book was one of the primary sources behind the In Wonderland exhibition and catalog, which is unsurprising considering that she was one of the curators/contributors to the catalog.

This book was written between 1980 and 1985. I found Chadwick’s writing to be informative, but poorly structured: I felt like I was following a mostly linear train of thought that she managed to break apart into six chapters, but there was little to no framing. Perhaps an introductory chapter that cohesively explains the book with nice summaries of each chapter is a relatively new requirement of scholarly work. And so are introductions and conclusions to each chapter, for that matter. What does this have to do with the actual content of the book? Not a damn thing, I just thought you all should know that the book was frustrating and that I am going to make sure my master’s thesis has a good abstract, introduction, conclusion, and that I properly frame my chapters.

Chadwick’s aim with her book is to make the women artists associated with Surrealism more accessible to study, and she claims to not want to isolate them as women artists, nor define them solely by their connection to the movement. It is debatable if she actually is successful in either of these aims, as her book ends up being somewhat essentialist and does not go too far outside of Surrealism to discuss the wider work of these artists. Chadwick prefaces her book with the confession that the histories of the women artists affiliated with “first generation” Surrealism were often difficult to distinguish because they were/are overshadowed by the histories of Surrealist men. These women more often than naught were remembered as muses to their male counterparts, but the fact that they continued in their own careers after the original group dissipated nullifies the idea that her role as muse outweighed her role as artist. Furthermore, the light that feminism shed on women artists particularly in the 1970’s and 80’s made it all the more important to address the women artists affiliated with Surrealism (even though Chadwick denies that this is a feminist retelling of the first generation of Surrealism). This book was the first time a woman attempted to address the “real” history of these women. This history is complicated, fragmented, often contradictory, and difficult to relay (which is definitely obvious in her piecemeal retelling of parts of different artist’s stories throughout the chapters).  Continue reading

Book review: Gender Trouble by Judith Butler

Judith Butler (Source)

The deconstruction of identity is not the deconstruction of politics: rather, it establishes as political the very terms through which identity is articulated. (148)

Oh Judith Butler, how you exhaust my eyeballs… It’s a good thing I took Representation and Gender in the Americas last semester, because Butler and her theory about gender performativity came up A LOT in our assigned readings (though her theory was being applied to Pre-Columbian and Colonial Latin American culture, often via artistic evidence such as pictorial codices). Therefore, actually reading Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity was not as mentally rigorous as it could have been, but there is no denying that Butler is a bit painful to get through. Her rhetoric is so overdone and unnecessarily complex, and though her ideas are fascinating, it bordered on being physically strenuous to get through her book. That really is one of the most frustrating things about scholarly writing; it’s like some writers try to write above everyone’s heads just to prove how awesome their brain matter is. But whatever, her cerebrum is neither her nor there, because there is no denying that Gender Trouble is one of the most important works ever written for feminism and queer theory.  Continue reading