At the last USIH conference there was a fabulous panel on which Maria Cotera spoke about acts of willful anachronism being necessary for some types of gendered intellectual history.  My paper for that conference explored Habermas and Lyotard in feminist manifestos (I went looking for Lyotard), but I found her remarks evocative in terms of the catalog essay I wrote for the exhibition Doin’ it in Public, as well, in which I discussed various genealogies of feminist art history created by activists in the 1970s.

What got me ruminating about this today is the request on the USIH blog “U.S. Intellectual History: Who are the ten most influential American intellectuals of the 20th centu

The request gets back to earlier questions on the blog about why women (actually gender) isn’t more influential in women’s history.  I blogged some quick thoughts, but frankly the discourse that emerged was so different from the sort I normally have with art or gender scholars that it felt like talking apples and oranges.  So I withdrew from the conversation.

Still the question today about “influential thinkers” caused me to recall Maria Cotera’s remarks (and the rest of that FAB KICK ASS panel which I tweeted) and to write about it in conjunction with my current project, an intellectual history covering activists as well as people who eventually became professional knowledge producers.

 Lacking a continual “genealogy” (in the traditional sense of the word) lineage to connect women “thinkers,” scholars must take more divergent genealogical (a la Foucault) paths. The artist-activists about whom I wrote were happy practitioners of just such acts of willful anachronism. They refused to accord status along the criteria established by the art world or even by the standards of traditional historical scholarship. In their search through the past for models and inspirations, women’s liberation activists were remarkably open to using whatever they found. Because these activists inherited from WLM an emphasis on the value of women’s everyday ordinary lives, which they combined with an intense desire for artistic predecessors, they mounted exhibitions of works by famous women and the unknown, in acknowledged art fields and in mediums they sought to recuperate.

In many ways, this approach reflects Foucault’s ideas of counter discourses and reverse discourses. Counter discourses sought to overturn prevailing truths, while reverse discourses offer alternate accounts. There have been great women artists is an example of the former, while women’s quilts illustrate the existence of a prior women’s culture is an example of the latter because the prevailing dominant discourse has no concept of women’s culture to overturn. This notion of creating “discontinuous” narratives of history, out of the remnants of the past occurred the same time as attempts to intervene into the prevailing discourse of art history and women’s history.

In March of 1975 for example, in the midst of a 10-day period in which the Woman’s Building sponsored 5 separate conferences, two exhibitions occurred. The first, The Art of Eileen Gray attempted to retrieve from obscurity a designer who was quite well known in her life. In 1924 Eileen Gray was described a “the centre of modernism,” but her reputation had waned over subsequent decades.

The story they told could have been one of discrimination and sexism barring Gray from her rightful place in history, a straight forward counter discourse. Ultimately As Ms Magazine noted in 1980, Gray did gain a place in history: “long after feminists had rediscovered her, “third- rate” artist Eileen Gray had a one-woman retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.” They could have just as easily offered a reverse discourse narrative about Gray’s life, as they viewed her work as an example of design that contemporary advocates of women’s culture might emulate: “ her form language which reflects rarely recorded aspects of a woman’s culture.” (see article which takes similar approach)

Instead, the poster for the exhibition, written and designed by Sheila de Bretteville, offered both discourses at the same time. Gray is described as trapped by the conventional notions of womanhood and modesty “reinforced by the required etiquette for women in which aggressive demands for attention were seen as inappropriate.” However, the text of the poster also documents discrimination against her work, asking “why reviewers of the period to call her work ‘disquieting” and argued that her work had been “denied the recognition and influence it could have had” given its high regard by leading male designers of the period, like Le Corbusier.

These nuances however were easily overlooked. The Los Angeles Times for example, while noting “if one wishes to see her designs as embodiments of a uniquely feminine concern, the viewpoint is valid to whatever extent it provokes thought,” argued emphatically that her work cannot “be fully appreciated without reference to the work of her better-known contemporaries” thus put back into art history rather than “related to her femininity” which the author argues is “open to debate” in terms of influencing her work. Also discounts “the lack of opportunity in her career [as] a product of her sex” and finally described “the belated interest in her work” as “feminist curiosity.”

Interestingly, the reverse discourse they crafted did not connect Gray to the expatriate Paris salon world surrounding Natalie Barney and Romaine Brooks. Activists interested in historical antecedent of women’s culture much admired this group. In New York five women writers created the Woman’s Salon in 1975 based on historical models such as those held by Germaine de Stael and Natalie Barney. In 1976 when lesbians at the Woman’s Building created an art group, they named themselves the Natalie Barney collective in her honor. The salon, and the group of creative women who comprised it, stood as an example of women producing criticism, art and literature.  I’m still sorting out why they didn’t connect Gray to these other historical figures they sought to use both to create lineages and antecedents for women’s culture.  This book however does. (UPDATE contacted Sheila de Bretteville and she had no idea in 1975 about Gray’s connections to Barney salon).

At the same time as The Art of Eileen Gray appeared in the large exhibition space, upstairs in a much smaller gallery, a show of historical quilts was hung. Susan King and Darlene ? organized the quilts, which merited no review from the Los Angeles Times, and for which there is now scant documentation. The impetus for the show derived from both counter and reverse discourses, at once art historical, as well as intensely personal. As King explained

“I grew up in Kentucky and finally made a big escape to New York … I discovered after I left Kentucky that one really important thing in my life had been the whole heritage I had grown up with of Appalachian crafts.” 

She then connected these personal memories to a feminist interpretation of the relationship between art and craft: “looking at anonymous art and really reclaiming all the richness that women have been working on for years is really important.”  She reflected on the historical aspects of the quilt, and connected it to contemporary art by women “this show is pretty much a conglomeration of historic patterns …. and then there are some contemporary quilts” loaned by a dealer in San Francisco who is trying “to sell and promote women who are working in all forms of textile arts.”

 Textile arts is an art world term for works made from fabric, thread, yarns etc. Using that phrase represents an attempt to insert women’s quilting into the story of modern art. Feminist art activists in the ‘70s asked why a “soft sculpture” by Claes Oldenburg was art but one of Faith Ringgold’s story quilts was not?

However, hanging quilts as a reflection of the “anonymous work” done by women in the past is an example of reverse discourse. “Anonymous was a woman” claimed Virginia Woolf, and ‘70s women’s liberationists ran with that idea, loving the notion of a hidden history behind all the anonymous works of art, which male-dominated discourses had assumed were created by men. The quilt in particular, became the central point of contentious discourse around and within feminist art activism. By 1975 the quilt had reached iconic status in the women’s liberation movement. As the art critic Lucy Lippard noted, the quilt was “ the prime visual metaphor for women’s lives, for women’s culture” These competing counter and reverse discourses around the quilt highlight the divergent ideas about how women’s past should be used by feminist art activists.

I highlight the reverse and counter discourses created here and their interplay because most activists at the time drew on only one or the other.  For example,  the counter discourse  line on quilts attempted to elevate the quilt to the status of a higher art form. In 1973, Patricia Mainardi pronounced quilts “The Great American Art.” She argued that art historians have ignored this indigenous art from because it challenged so many of their notions about gender and art. Mainardi lauds the quilts as innovative example of women find a way to express themselves creatively, despite the constraints of their circumstances. She points out that quilts qualify as original pieces of art, despite the use of traditional patterns because “when the additional design elements which make up the quilt are considered, such as borders, choice of fabric (color, pattern, weave) and the quilting itself, it is clear that two identical quilts would be even rarer than two identical paintings.”

The exhibition the Artist and The Quilt, organized by Dorothy Gillespie, Alice Barber and Charlotte Robinson, in Washington, D.C. continued in this counter discourse tradition. They invited prominent women artists to design quilts, which they viewed as a “return to a truly indigenous art form.” Like Mainardi, Charlotte Robinson connected quilts to modernism, arguing that geometric quilt patterns foreshadowed several contemporary art movements, such as Op Art, white embroidered quilts presaged minimalism, and appliqué and trapunto created the same effect as bas relief in stone. The comparisons using art historical lineage are clearly meant to offer a counter discourse claim to the dismissal of quilts as “not art.”

Other women artists were equally interested in seeing the status and prestige of quilts elevated, but drew on a reverse discourse, positioning them as part of a nascent women’s culture.. As Miriam Schapiro argued “quilts must be accepted on their own terms, not measured against painting and architecture. If we were to remove them from the frame of reference of women’s culture, we would obscure a unique aspect of their identity, and women would lose a significant element of their own history.” Activists interested in using women’s culture to challenge dominant discourses saw the quilt as a metaphor for women’s collective art making process. Ruth Iskin recalled that influenced by the ideas of Sheila de Bretteville, the members of the Woman’s Building saw the quilt as an early model for women’s collaborative artmaking. While one woman created the quilt top, she might trade cloth or dye with friends to acquire the colors she desired. New designs might be passed from friend to friend. In several types of special quilts, each woman contributed a square to the quilt top. Finally, the women worked together to completed the tedious task of quilting. For all these reasons, the quilt became

“a kind of compositional paradigm that had a meaning to us in terms of women’s culture, in terms of a different model for creating culture than the paradigm that was still very much the exclusive paradigm at the time, an individual hero artist. So it was model for something that was more collaborative and collective which of course our whole endeavors tended to be collaborative, collective, interchange, participatory and so forth, like the way we worked as a group on all these projects”

However, those who objected to the notion of a reverse discourse of women’s culture disliked this depiction of women’s quilt making. Mainardi, a member of Redstockings, and then Redstocking Artists, opposed any notion of women’s art that rested on differences from men. She argued, in a counter discourse fashion, that male art historians had misrepresented the art of quilt making as a mere collaborative crafting. Mainardi condemns “the distortion of the purposed of the `quilting bee’ into the false idea that quilts were `collective art’ instead of the work of individual women.” Mainardi believed that art historians adopted the myth of the quilting bee to support “the male lie that women lack individuality, creativity and initiative.” Mainardi pointed out that to represent the quilt as a collective endeavor is to misrepresent the control wielded by the quilt maker. Only expert needle women could participate in quilting and if a quiltmaker believed a quilter to be contributing inferior work, she would either send the worker to the kitchen to help prepare food or rip the stitches out and re-do the work. While Mainardi aims her remarks at the field of art history, her critique applies to the reverse discourse of women’s culture. Mainardi’s title said it all, she wanted the quilt to be seen as “great” art, not women’s art.

These competing discourses  often splintered into an either/or version of history. That had troubling implication for The Politics of Women’s Culture. The art activists I write about in large part eschewed this binary in an attempt to use everything in the creation of a women’s culture that could transform dominant culture. When other activists took more rigid positions, intense controversies often emerged resulting in some ugly battles in the ’70s that presaged the sex wars of the ’80s.

interview with Sheila de Bretteville