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 didnt necessarily mean that it wasnt 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 didnt 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 Princenthals 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 doesnt 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 arent 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 Onos 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 its 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 its the irresolvable tensions that give Princenthals 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 thats easily consumed, they give shape to experience we dont 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