'Unspeakable Acts' revisits a pivotal moment in the art world's treatment of sexual violence
The First Art Newspaper on the Net    Established in 1996 Saturday, July 20, 2024

'Unspeakable Acts' revisits a pivotal moment in the art world's treatment of sexual violence
“Unspeakable Acts: Women, Art, and Sexual Violence in the 1970s” by Nancy Princenthal. Illustrated. 288 pages. Thames & Hudson. $34.95.

by Jennifer Szalai

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- In “Unspeakable Acts,” a new book about how artists have made sense (or not) of sexual violence against women, Nancy Princenthal draws a subtle but crucial distinction: Just because an act was long deemed “unspeakable” didn’t necessarily mean that it wasn’t shown. In art as in life, abuse has been a constant; what changed in the 1970s, Princenthal says, is who depicted the experience and how it was consequently understood.

“No era or culture has lacked images of women in extremis,” Princenthal writes, pointing to a canon replete with representations of sexual violence and coercion. In the 16th century, Titian painted the rape of Lucretia three times; a hundred years later, Rembrandt painted it twice. Although their styles diverged — Titian depicted the moment of attack and Rembrandt her ensuing suicide — they both turned rape into “pure allegory,” Princenthal writes. Violent and dramatic, perhaps, but “without physical or psychological reality.”

Throughout the art-historical record, sexual violence against women was a subject typically rendered by male artists for a male audience. Princenthal shows how that finally changed in the last quarter of the 20th century. The political and cultural upheavals of the 1970s made for a decisive moment; women took an experience that had been artistically mined by men for millenniums — “the device that sets the real (male) drama in motion” — and found ways to convey it in their own terms. To do so was inherently radical, Princenthal writes, “to a degree nearly incomprehensible now, in an age where memoir is the default means of cultural expression, and trauma its dominant narrative.”

Princenthal, author of a previous book about artist Agnes Martin, takes a tangled history and weaves it into an elegant account. Performance art proved to be an especially generative form, even if some critics didn’t see it that way early on. Female performance artists were often accused of mere narcissism, while men like Chris Burden and Vito Acconci were lauded for using their bodies to articulate profound truths.

Acconci is a central and vexing figure in Princenthal’s book. She identifies him as one of the first American artists, and one of the few men, to address sexual violence in the late ’60s and early ’70s. In “Seedbed” (1972), perhaps his best known work, viewers entered an empty gallery by walking along a low wooden ramp that hid Acconci underneath, as he masturbated and narrated his fantasies. An earlier work, “Proximity” (1970), involved him “standing near a person and intruding on his/her personal space.” In other performances he enlisted women to tie themselves up (“Remote Control”), offer their companionship as a prize (“Broad Jump 71”), endure his attempts to force their eyes open (“Pryings”).

Despite the obviously sexual and aggressive dimensions of his art, Acconci, who had studied at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, insisted that he was preoccupied with high-minded intellectual concepts like perception and language. Princenthal doesn’t buy it, or not quite. Part of what gave his work its creepy intensity was the enactment of conflicts that the artist himself might not have been fully conscious of at the time, or might have been loath to name — what he would later describe more candidly as a fascination with “male power” and the “mystification of maleness” in intimate relationships.

Besides, artists’ (often confounding) statements aren’t always the most straightforward guide to their own work. Yoko Ono, who in 1968 scripted a film called “Rape (or Chase),” in which a cameraman was supposed to corner a “girl” in an alley until she fell down, compared such violence to “a sad wind that, if channeled carefully, could bring seeds, chairs and all things pleasant to us.”

But some of Ono’s statements hummed with a current of introspection. Writing about “Cut Piece,” which she first performed in 1964, sitting motionless on a stage as audience members were invited to take a pair of scissors and cut off pieces of her clothing, Ono described in a rush of prose how it felt to perform and sustain such vulnerability: “People went on cutting the parts they do not like of me finally there was only the stone remained of me that was in me but they were still not satisfied and wanted to know what it’s like in the stone.”

Princenthal considers Ono a pioneer, though, like Valie Export, another female artist who “staged sexualized encounters” in the 1960s, Ono “made only oblique references to outright violence.” For an insurgent generation of female artists, that would soon change. In 1972, Judy Chicago, Suzanne Lacy, Aviva Rahmani and Sandra Orgel staged “Ablutions,” involving women immersing themselves in tubs of raw eggs, beef blood and liquid clay, while a recording played of women recounting their experiences of assault. “A study in excess, it expressed, perhaps inadvertently, the conviction that no image could be adequate to the subject,” Princenthal writes, in a characteristically trenchant critique. “It was as if the only way the four artists could represent rape was with an assault on coherence.”

The fusion of art with activism was controversial, and not infrequently reviled; Princenthal writes tartly about generations of (often male) critics who have disparaged such work by extolling the virtues of beauty, “which, like Christmas, is always seen by some to be in mortal peril, assailed by the malignant forces of social awareness and political activism.” She delves into central questions of marginalization and race, discussing a persistent cultural bias toward the experience of white, relatively well-off victims, who receive a disproportionate amount of attention from both the media and the criminal justice system.

But it’s the irresolvable tensions that give Princenthal’s book, like the art she writes about, its pull. “Too often, in contemporary culture, feeling is cleaned up,” she writes; emotions get gentrified, reduced and marketed. The artists in “Unspeakable Acts” address themselves to “emotions before renovation,” she continues. In their extremity, in their unruliness, in their refusal to make work that’s easily consumed, “they give shape to experience we don’t quite know how to picture or name.”

“Unspeakable Acts: Women, Art, and Sexual Violence in the 1970s”

By Nancy Princenthal

Illustrated. 288 pages. Thames & Hudson. $34.95.

© 2019 The New York Times Company

Today's News

November 13, 2019

McNay Art Museum's Mary Cassatt exhibition features painting on loan from The Met

Contemporary American Impressionist, Mark Daly, on view at Rehs Contemporary

Magritte and Boccioni share the limelight in New York

Results of research on Spanish masterpiece Lady in a Fur Wrap announced

Art meets AI: computer-generated works set for New York sale

Licensed to thrill: Bond author's steamy letters go on sale

Xi Jinping urges Britain to return Parthenon Marbles to Greece

'Unspeakable Acts' revisits a pivotal moment in the art world's treatment of sexual violence

Paul Holberton Publishing releases 'Giambologna: Court Sculptor to Ferdinando I'

Booming sales at Paris Photo's 23rd edition

Pace Gallery exhibits new works by Richard Tuttle

Steady sales and a strong future for the 29th Winter Art & Antiques Fair Olympia

The organizers of the Salon Du Dessin and Fine Arts Paris Fair announce an ambitious new development plan for 2020

Victoria Miro opens an exhibition of new paintings on glass by Idris Khan

La Ménagerie Design Sale achieves $10.9 million

Sought-after European and Asian works of art come to Olympia Auctions

Baronian Xippas presents a series of new works by Vik Muniz

Institute for Contemporary Art at VCU announces inaugural ICA Research Fellows and two staff promotions

How one of the Whitney Biennial protesting artists spends Sundays

Poland says Netflix Holocaust documentary 'rewrites history'

Exhibition retraces the path of the Ephrussi family and their voluntary and involuntary travels

Cape Ann Museum appoints new Director of Development, Librarian/Archivist

Werewolf in London one sheet, Russian constructivist rarities highlight movie posters auction

London's Pax Romana presents The Royal Sale, a Nov. 24 no-reserve auction of superior-quality ancient art

Top 10 Coloring Pages Topics for Children

Gift Ideas for your Artistic Friend

Museums, Exhibits, Artists, Milestones, Digital Art, Architecture, Photography,
Photographers, Special Photos, Special Reports, Featured Stories, Auctions, Art Fairs,
Anecdotes, Art Quiz, Education, Mythology, 3D Images, Last Week, .


Ignacio Villarreal
(1941 - 2019)
Editor & Publisher: Jose Villarreal
Art Director: Juan José Sepúlveda Ramírez
Writer: Ofelia Zurbia Betancourt

Truck Accident Attorneys
Accident Attorneys

Royalville Communications, Inc

ignaciovillarreal.org juncodelavega.com facundocabral-elfinal.org
Founder's Site. Hommage
to a Mexican poet.

The First Art Newspaper on the Net. The Best Versions Of Ave Maria Song Junco de la Vega Site Ignacio Villarreal Site Parroquia Natividad del Señor
Tell a Friend
Dear User, please complete the form below in order to recommend the Artdaily newsletter to someone you know.
Please complete all fields marked *.
Sending Mail
Sending Successful