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  • 1945
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  • 1946
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  • 1948
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  • 1949
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  • 1950
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  • 1953
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  • 1954
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Features

Essays

Essays

(3) What Does Feminist Art/Artists Do?

This failure to function within the confines of a society that fails us is a pointed and necessary refusal.1 

The concept of practicing failure perhaps prompts us to discover our inner dweeb, to be underachievers, to fall short, to get distracted, to take a detour, to find a limit, to lose our way, to forget, to avoid mastery, and, with Walter Benjamin, to recognize that “empathy with the victor invariably benefits the rulers” (Benjamin, 1969: 256). All losers are the heirs of those who lost before them. Failure loves company.2   

In contemporary art and humanities, “failure” is, of course, a rhetoric of resistance. Rejecting the competitive structure of Neoliberalism, where the success story of self-development is rampant, and taking a strategy of failure have been common feminist methodologies. It is a declaration that feminism will walk shoulder to shoulder with more diverse minorities. It is also a confession of solidarity that feminist language will no longer participate in this musical chairs of taking someone’s space and putting another in, nor focus solely on the act of “saving” only “qualified” women and injecting the power of “positive.” It is a confession of solidarity to respect failed lives, prohibited words, and the disabled bodies of those excluded from the norm. When failure becomes a methodology of art practice, it implies that one will challenge traditional aesthetics and art tastes as well as the authority of existing art criticism and art history while gladly defending the politics of discord as a “failed” person to survive in the contemporary art world full of the desire for success.
 
In Only Paradoxes to Offer: French Feminists and Rights of Man (1996),3 feminist historian Joan Wallach Scott argues that feminist claims have always been a paradox. In the 18th century, French revolutionary Olympe de Gouges who advocated for the rights of women that were excluded from the French Revolutionary agenda described herself as “a woman who has only paradoxes to offer and not problems easy to resolve.”4 Her statement highlights ‘paradox’ as a key concept that allows political debate and establishes the core concept of feminism. Scott asserts that the notion of paradox has created a meaning that challenges the ordinary usages of rhetoric and aesthetics in that "paradox marks a position at odds with the dominant one by stressing its difference from it.”5 In addition, she argues that modern Western feminism is inevitably paradoxical by nature because it was constituted through the discursive practices of democratic politics, which has historically equated individuality with masculinity.
 
Scott traces examples that have demonstrated the singularity of self on the premise that modern individuals are an “abstract prototype for the human.”6 There have been attempts to distinguish between hypothetical universal humans and the rest to explain the unity of humanity based on sameness and universality. As political science began to explain differences as a function of gender, the infinite diversity of the difference between the self and the other has been reduced to the problem of sexual difference. Masculinity is identified with individuality while femininity is identified with otherness, and consequently, a political individual is represented as a masculine subject, namely, a universal human. Therefore, women had to erase gender differences from politics in order to demand their political rights by proving that they were not different than men. However, those demanding women’s rights inevitably faced a paradox because it was imperative to reveal the gender difference again. Therefore, feminism is a paradox because it must accept and reject gender difference. For this very reason, Scott believes that feminism can become a political movement and expose the uncertainties of conventional ideologies and political systems that have been believed to be common sense of the times.7 
 
Scott develops her argument further. She reveals that even though a feminist consensus may have become stronger relative to a politics and history that has systematically led to the exclusion of women, the common experience of exclusion does not unconditionally identify the meaning and expectation of women. She then goes beyond the historical usage of terms such as “woman” and “feminist” and challenges the meaning of those terms, which were considered self-evident and immutable. According to her, a feminist subject consists of actions, and this subject should be interpreted by focusing on the specificity of each feminist act. For Scott, feminism is a discursive process in which actions take place, namely the process of epistemology, institutions, and practices. She believes that feminist history can be rewritten by reading historically specific paradoxes.8 Of course, "the history of feminism is not the history of available options or of the unconstrained choice of a winning plan.”
 
Indebted to feminist theorists such as Joan Scott, Legacy Russell, and Jack Halberstam, I hope to enrich feminism as a reading practice of the ignored, inconsistent, and irrational aspects of history stained with conflict and contradiction. Most artists always want a better alternative because the balanced distribution of capital and opportunity is almost impossible in a thoroughly-capitalized, highly-competitive art world, where achievement is easily accepted as the only solution to sustainability. At the same time, considering the varied rhetoric of resistance, deviation, and negativity, I would like to take a more political look at awkward feelings that I have experienced in the art world. For example, the question of whether the rhetoric of failure is still a valid strategy of resistance for the current minority political perspective is reflected in how my own concerns have been unpleasantly awoken in the following anecdotes. 
 
Working as a teacher at art universities for well over 15 years, I have witnessed the increasing popularity of feminist or queer works among students nowadays. It seems an important change not only in terms of the quantity and quality of artwork and themes but also in terms of individual students’ identity, orientation, experience, practice, life, and attitude. Yet it is interesting to see how my colleagues react to this phenomenon. In the past, most art instructors I worked with considered feminism and queer politics so unfamiliar that they could not even provide any valid comments or instructions for students. It was impossible for them to evaluate these even casually. I often suspected their motives for this approach and was enraged at them as they might serve to systematically ignore and exclude the existence of feminism, queer politics, and queer art. Yet I ended up feeling very frustrated in finding out that they were simply silent because of their ignorance and puzzlement regarding these issues.  
 
However, over the years, the responses of my colleagues has dramatically changed in a more active and politically-correct direction than in the past. Now I see that instructors show at least some effort to avoid disrespecting students in such situations, even if they still lack in-depth understanding of feminism and queer politics. In most cases, they remained silent as a safe way to display a courteous and respectful attitude. This is mainly because they are afraid of students criticizing them as “bigoted” professors. As such, feminism and queer politics have become familiar to teachers and lecturers in recent years. There have been a variety of meaningful precedents in academic curriculums as well as a flood of easy-to-access information. Now, at least at in art universities that privilege the so-called avant-garde spirit, instructors can say to students with more specialized knowledge and sincerity: Resist! Break the rules! Try strange forms! Don't be afraid! Stand on the border! And above all, strategize failure!
 
But while I was attending critiques where this kind of “right talk” took place, I suddenly lost control and got upset. It was a strange moment. These comments were not problematic at all, as I often gave them to my students as well. Far from being problematic, they were so boring because they were too “right.” To be honest, I felt that it was so hypocritical that academia pretends to forget its long history of neglecting and ignoring feminism and queer politics and refusing to teach any knowledge or information about feminism and queer politics, and now demonstrates the audacity to ask students to “take a difficult path” and “work harder.” Of course, this may be my victim mentality from my past experiences. However, is it really fair that those who have never even attempted to adopt or include feminist-queer rhetoric, aesthetics, and methodology in the institutional curricula are making these demands to younger generations? These young artists may no longer find any meaning in our “progress” or “resistance,” or may live a more tiring life because of their own chosen direction and identity than we have had to.10  
 
This pattern shift is also evident in the art field outside academia. It seems quite easy now for minority political concerns related to topics such as feminism, queer, disability, and medical condition, to cross the barriers of institutional art. Although there is some backlash, the agendas related to minority politics have now become regular themes for national and public art galleries, and various creative and research funding systems have paid attention to these subjects.11 It is interesting that foreign artists with radical tendencies, rarely introduced in the past in South Korea, now often appear in the Korean art scene without many aggressive responses or criticism. Amid this trend in 2021, Kukje Gallery held the first large-scale Robert Mapplethorpe retrospective exhibition,12 in both its Seoul and Busan branches at the same time. These are the titles of articles in Korean newspapers that reported this event: “Black Male Nude, Sadomasochism. . . Kukje Gallery says, ‘It is not an R-rated exhibition’” (Newsis, February 18, 2021), “Controversial Artist Mapplethorpe, Crossing Obscenity, Art, and Aesthetics” (Kyungyang Newspaper, February 22, 2021), “Capturing Taboos and Desires, Seizing Beauty” (Busan Ilbo, March 11, 2021), “Stabbing the Limits of Expression” (Korea Economy, February 24, 2021), “Problematic Artist Mapplethorpe, Attacking Taboos in the World with Photos” (Hankyoreh, March 1, 2021). In these phrases, we can find a common perspective: It is a fantasy-like belief that queer and non-normative sexuality, which was a taboo subject in the past, can create a new form of contemporary art.
 
I expressed my discomfort with this exhibition through my review published in the art monthly magazine Art In Culture.13 Apart from the interest in the real lives of queers, the titles and contents of the above articles, which seemed politically correct at first, ironically complicated my feelings. For example, let’s look at the last paragraph of the Hankyoreh article: 
 
However, more than 20 years later, the circumstance surrounding the exhibition seems distinctly different. It demonstrates that galleries are no longer restricted by social customs or conventions, while the audience also fully understands the context of the exhibition. It is a meaningful sign that tolerance is taking root in the South Korean art world. Representative Charles Kim also said, “Looking at the audience's reaction, I feel proud that I can now realize that South Korea is definitely an advanced country.”14 
 
At some point, queer politics became a “global standard” and functions as a measure of the level of “advancement” of South Korean society among a particular group of the elite class. However, we still face a South Korean society where the anti-discrimination law has been pending in the National Assembly for decades,15 the Ministry of Education gives an order to remove any mention of sexual minorities from the curriculum,16 and a government cabinet member touts “the heal movement for homosexuality” as a solution to the low birth rate.17 In this sense, it was impossible for me to comfortably accept such insensitive, a-historic views and attitudes that praised the importation of Western queer art while ignoring that queer citizens’ political rights and desires are thoroughly being neglected in South Korea.
 
A similar feeling of disappointment also confronted me at Catherine Opie’s artist talk event in July 2022. It was planned as an additional event to the solo exhibition of Catherine Opie, an exclusive artist of Lehmann Maupin Gallery.18 The event quickly filled up with visitors even though it was held in the early morning on Saturday. The atmosphere was intense with the crowd’s enthusiasm, which demonstrated the immense interest Korean art audiences had for queer arts. Opie went on to talk about her work very openly and affectionately based on her experience as an educator at the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) for a long time. Although her recent works were no longer particularly radical or provocative, she was nonetheless an almost incomparably “successful” lesbian star artist in queer art history, and her early works were apparently produced out of dedication and respect for the queer community. The enthusiasm and expectations for the day were natural, given that her works have made a remarkable contribution to solidifying the status of queer aesthetics in the art world.
 
However, I wondered why she mainly talked about her experiences of victimhood relating to attacks and hate despite the provocative and aggressive effect of her early series. In contrast, she talked more about her own interpretations and human rights consciousness in relation to the images in her recent works, even though these were more typical and conventional. Above all, I could not agree with her distinctively American “assimilating queer” attitude or her vague sense of (minority) human rights. Furthermore, when I saw how the exhibition organizers coupled her with a “normal and safe” middle-aged male photo critic, I felt that it was enough for me to put down my queer solidarity that I was struggling to hold so hard until that moment. When some audience members began to self-appoint themselves as the “anthropological informant of a non-civilized country” by asking for “a lesson” from “the successful queer artist in the developed country” during the following Q&A session, I eventually lost my patience and had to leave the event.
 
Jennifer Doyle writes an interesting anecdote in her article “Queer Wallpaper.”19 She asked a question about Andy Warhol’s sexuality, which the exhibition planner intentionally erased, at a press conference for a large-scale Andy Warhol retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles in 2002. Doyle recalls that she felt compelled to ask if Warhol’s works were possible to be explained without addressing sexuality, and her question was being ignored thoroughly and she ended up feeling her resistance as a questioner might be horribly meaningless. Here, she summons Valerie Solanas20 as a figure whose existence mirrors her21 own.  Doyle argues that the conservatism that the system and its collaborators adhere to not only erases the existence of minorities, but also “it is expert at managing our feelings—on making us think, ‘Why bother?’”22 While I considered that the passage where Doyle fantasizes that she is Valerie Solanas was too much, I completely empathized with her unique wit and narrative skill. After the humiliation, Doyle came to appreciate the presence of Andy Warhol’s “Sex Parts” (1978) at a local gay bar, as a place that reflected real life and sexual behavior, rather than in an art museum. And she adroitly emphasized that the works, like wallpaper, that are blended into our lives are the most important aspect of queer art.23 
 
This series of anecdotes has led me to analyze our ambiguous and contradictory emotions, inconsistent judgments, and impulsive and negative weak senses that are not skillfully controlled. If talking about what image or object an artwork is dealing with and what media or substance and intimacy is created in an artwork is important, is it not equally important to keenly examine the discomfort we experience during the struggle of existence not to be excluded or ignored as a minority? If the rhetoric of “failure” as an act of resistance can equally articulate our feelings of the real failure in the first place, how will they mirror each other? If we artists are so caught in such an unstable and ferocious mood and are devoured by the paranoid sense of victimhood and irritable anger, what kind of a secret solution can the aesthetics of failure provide to save our abandoned selves?
 
In this article, I—an artist, feminist, queer, and non-tenure track member of faculty—want to pay attention to my experience of conflict and struggle as well as my methodologies for accepting, redefining, rejecting, delaying, and transcending my existence to survive in the art world. By doing so, I aim to make “failure” a meaningful practice through my re-reading. In addition, I try to examine the kind of self-contradictory paradox that asks whether the rhetorical methodology of resistance, which intentionally declares failure, can still have any meaning in contemporary art scenes that are controlled by capital. Ultimately, what I want to leave the reader with is the last paragraph of Eli Clare’s book Exile and Pride: Disability, Queerness, and Liberation. Rather than accepting failure only as rhetoric of resistance, I want to use this passage to affirm my commitment to constantly establish a promiscuous and ethical relationship with those who failed, through failure. This is the most important learning and belief I have gained from my feminist queer community and perhaps the most radical strategy to make us exist.
 
The stolen body, the reclaimed body, the body that knows itself and the world, the stone and the heat that warms it: my body has never been singular. Disability snarls into gender. Class wraps around race. Sexuality strains against abuse. This is how to reach beneath the skin. . . In the end, I will sit on the wide, flat top of my wall, legs dangling over those big, uncrackable stones, weathered smooth and clean. Sit with butch women, femme dykes, nellie men, studly fags, radical faeries, drag queens and kings, transsexual people who want nothing more than to be women and men, intersex people, transgender people, pangendered, bigendered, polygendered, ungendered, androgynous people of many varieties and trade stories long into the night. Laugh and cry and tell stories. Sad stories about bodies stolen, bodies no longer here. Enraging stories about false images, devastating lies, untold violence. Bold, brash stories about reclaiming our bodies and changing the world.24 
 

Art Terms