Transcript for Let Me In Let Me Out Video
What I wanted to do was I wanted to encourage my students to do what I was then gonna try and do in my own work, which was peel away the formal prohibitions to my own content. But of course they didn’t have them yet, because they hadn’t professionalized like I had, so they didn’t have the same level of prohibition against their own content. And as soon as I gave them permission and a context, it was like taking the lid off of a boiling pot.
In the late sixties, early seventies — mid-seventies — for a woman to openly express her own content was extremely dangerous. It was tantamount to risking one’s, well, for me, what little modest reputation I had at the time. And it was sort of wrought in the macho environment of L.A. art of the sixties. And faced with things like, attitudes like, you know, you can’t be a woman and an artist too; the idea that there was no such thing as female content; that women didn’t have a different point of view — I mean none of that was accepted. It wasn’t even thought about at that time.
Women were supposed to be in a certain way. I used to call it the period of white gloves. Because if you didn’t go out with your husband to the restaurant, and you didn’t wear your white gloves, then people would look at you because you were out of line. There were rules, and the rules were not the women’s rules at all. They were the men’s rules. There was no such thing as a specific art by women.
Artists were invited to create a work of art around their heroes. And I wanted to do something that was about a woman, and I wanted just to make my protest feelings heard through this piece. And I’d found this little plaque of an Aunt Jemima — one hand held a pencil and the other, her stomach, her apron, was like a notepad. And I just got this idea to make her a warrior. And so instead of the pencil I put a rifle in her hand; the other hand has a hand grenade; and in the stomach where the plaque, where the paper went, was a postcard of a mammie holding a mulatto child. And then I think before that was the black fist for the Black Power sign. And so I made it into a little enclosed box with Aunt Jemima pancake labels behind it, and I called the piece “The Liberation of Aunt Jemima,” which was my first protest piece.
I had fears presenting that. Even though I had been collecting derogatory images, we do not always feel comfortable with those images, and my aim, my goal in recycling them was to make them come out in a positive view.
Well the first time that — well, no, it’s not the first time, but — when John was playing “Instant Karma,” for MTV or something, and I was there, what I did was I put Kotex on my eyes so I can’t see very well. And I bound my feet to the chair, and I started knitting. And it was symbolic of what women were in those days. In other words I was saying, “Ok. You know, our feet are bound, and our eyes are closed, and we’re just knitting.” Hm. But very few people got that message, and they were saying, “What is she doing?!” (Laughs) But anyway, that was one period.
And then after that, I made some statement like “Woman is the nigger of the world.” People didn’t like that statement. But what I meant was, yes, you know, we’re still slaves of the society, conveniently controlled by men, so that we were slaves of men. And the battle started and we started to keep battling to increase our position or whatever. And now it’s a totally different age.
Alright, so how to define feminist art. Well, I find that very difficult to answer. But I think that any woman artist who is out there in the world producing is in a way making a feminist statement.
In my own life, I’ve really had to assert myself to go places in the art world. Feminism is a great big word that means women’s rights. I didn’t even stop to wait for the right to make art; I just did it.
The Guerrilla Girls
Kathe Kollwitz: In 1984, the Museum of Modern Art opened an exhibition called “An International Survey of Painting and Sculpture.” The only problem was it contained only thirteen women artists out of one-hundred-and-sixty-nine, and there were even fewer artists of color.
Frida Kahlo: The curator made a public statement that any artist who wasn’t in the show should rethink “his” career. There was a demonstration in front of the museum, but it had NO effect at all.
KK: So we got together a bunch of great women artists; we named ourselves the Guerrilla Girls; and we started sneaking around New York in the middle of the night putting up posters.
FK: We used facts, humor and outrageous visuals to expose sexism, racism and corruption in the art world, and then also in the world of politics, film and pop culture. We take the names of dead women artists as pseudonyms, and this anonymity keeps the focus on the issues. Everybody thinks that the art world is getting better in its treatment of women artists. Let’s got back to our poster from 1989, where we went to the Metropolitan Museum to conduct what we like to call “the weenie count.” We counted naked males and naked females in the artworks. Less than five percent of the artists in the modern art section are women, but eighty-five percent of the nudes are female.
KK: So in 2005 we went back to the Met and counted again. This is what we found: a few less women artists and a few more naked males.
FK: Is THIS the number of cocktail parties MoMA gave last week to entice money from hedge-fund managers?
KK: Probably. But six is also this paltry number of retrospectives and mid-career surveys MoMA gave to women artists over the last ten years. Now, it’s paltry because it was only 18 percent of the total number of shows. Eighty-two percent were given to male artists, and only one exhibit during that time was given to a woman of color.
FK: Eleven: the number of trustees with sweatshops in Asia? No! That’s the percentage of women in MoMA’s architecture and design collection.
KK: Lucky 13? That’s the percentage of women artists in MoMA’s painting and sculpture collection.
FK: Seventeen! Percentage of women in prints and illustrated books.
KK: Eighteen: women in drawings
FK: Nineteen: photography
KK: And huh? MoMA has no idea how many women are in its film collection.
FK: According to MoMA, almost no women artists are good enough to be in a show about which subject? A) War, or B) Still life.
KK: The answer is: Still life. In 1997, MoMA curator Margit Rowell [mar-GEET roo-EL] organized a show called “Objects of Desire: The Modern Still Life.” Despite the fact that throughout centuries of Western art, still life was one of the few categories of art open to women, Margit included only three white women and one woman of color. So we sent her hundreds of post cards suggesting she change the show’s title to “The Objects of MoMA’s Desire Are Still White Males.”
Lynn Hershman Leeson
Audience Member: I mean, it feels sort of old fashioned to be dealing with women’s issues because we are liberated now, and, you know, we can do whatever we want. So it’s kinda, you know, it’s a different struggle. Right? It’s not that we’re being put down; it’s that we need to be relevant in a different way. Don’t you think?
Lynn: Well no, (laughs) I don’t. I think one has to be constantly vigilant. And constantly attentive to restrictions, and I think you have to look at numbers, at values — you know, how many women are in museums still? How many are having the exhibitions? What do their works sell for? Is it on an equal level? I know that documentaries of the Oscars came out with their fifteen shortlisted films. There’s not a single woman’s film, of the fifteen, that was selected for shortlist even. All the predictions for the major feature films — there’s not a single woman that has been on any list. So is that equal? Are we there yet? I don’t think so. The Museum of Modern Art now, in New York, has started something where they’re giving, through a philanthropist, a million dollars a year just to buy women’s work. Because when they started to put together some exhibitions of women’s work in their collections, it was very hard to find enough to actually do that. And I see that as a really positive thing; I see that as a model for the future that hopefully other people will take up; and as something that really has to happen, ‘cause we’re nowhere near equality or where we should be.