Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Book Review: Through The Flower, by Judy Chicago

Through The Flower: My Struggle As A Woman Artist
Judy Chicago
(introduction by Anaïs Nin)
Trade Paperback, 226 pages
Penguin Books, Oct. 1, 1993
Art, Feminism, Memoir, Nonfiction

Book Synopsis:
Through the Flower was my first book (I've since published nine others). I was inspired to write it by the writer and diarist, Anaïs Nin, who was a mentor to me in the early seventies. My hope was that it would aid young women artists in their development and that reading about my struggles might help them avoid some of the pitfalls that were so painful to me. I also hoped to spare them the anguish of reinventing the wheel , which my studies in women's history had taught me was done again and again by women, specifically because we have not had access to our foremothers' experience and achievements -- one consequence of the fact that we still learn both history and art history from a male-centered bias with insufficient inclusion of women's achievements.

My Review

I first came across Judy Chicago's Through The Flower several years ago, while still an art student, and read a bit of it, skimming the rest. I recently decided to revisit it, reading it thoroughly this time. 

This book, a manifesto of sorts, has made it crystal clear why many women do not become professional artists. I can synthesize the answer in one phrase: "societal conditioning".

Art is all about creating something new and original. It demands boldness and daring, the willingness to try something that has never been done before, and/or to infuse a work with one's personal vision. 

In short, art is an inner quest that eventually culminates in an outer statement of how an individual artist perceives the world, as well as, implicitly, him/herself.

Most of us women have traditionally not been brought up to question the status quo, to take risks, to dare, to experiment, to bring to birth art that comes from the deepest core of our beings, and then promote that art out in the world. We are instead brought up to always put others first, whether it's parents, siblings, husbands, children, other  relatives, and even our friends.

I am not against altruism, of course, but it must be balanced by self-interest. Women are almost exclusively steered in the direction of altruism, to the exclusion of their own interests. It's only in relatively recent times that this conditioning has been questioned, in the several waves of feminism that have arisen since the 19th-century.

The pursuit of an aesthetic vision is usually also a solitary one. The artist must courageously endure the loneliness of creation, at times even facing ridicule and disdain from friends and relatives. 

So I can readily identify with Chicago as she recounts her experiences with male artist friends, teachers, gallery owners, and museum curators. That she was able to confront and rebel against the stereotypical view that women are unable to create Art with a capital "A" is due to her own upbringing. Her parents were extreme left-wingers, and always encouraged her intellectual growth -- especially her father. Judy Chicago has always had good self-esteem because of her childhood background. She was taught, from a very early age, that she could do anything she put her mind to. At the age of eight, she was already attending art school. Her mother was the one who encouraged her artistic talents, as her father stimulated her intellectual growth. She was thus never brought up as a stereotypical female. 

I found it very interesting that, during her student years, Chicago was told by male art students that she was "different" from the other female art students in the Art Department. She felt proud of this at the time, and tried to be "one of the boys" by acting more self-sufficient and "tough". It's really sad that a woman is praised for not being "a typical female", and even tries to fit into the prevailing male culture.  Chicago even started smoking cigars, at one point.

The artist/writer finally came to the conclusion that we women artists have to affirm, instead of deny, our identities as female artists. Thus, art made by women has to reflect female experience. Here is where I began to have a problem with the author's aesthetic philosophy. Her art ended up becoming a political statement. Injecting politics into art always makes it less about what it should be -- the expression of the beauty of line and form. Art does not need anything beyond itself, beyond its own concepts and methods of execution. Chicago defines this view, however, as the "male standards" in art. She actually criticizes Modernism for being more concerned with form than content. I believe she is thereby defining herself as a Post-Modernist. I would add that she's gone to the opposite extreme -- sometimes emphasizing content at the expense of form. 

Furthermore, and even more problematic, Chicago has made her political statements through the depiction of female body parts, primarily the female genitalia. This, in my honest opinion, cancels out her whole point, because she is continuing the very same sexual objectification long perpetuated by male artists, and in a far more intimate, and thus, far more invasive, manner.

I have no problem with what Chicago terms "core imagery"; this is the concept behind mandalas, for example. It's the idea of having a center around which the entire artistic composition revolves. It appears, then, that this is really nothing new, although Chicago has used the concept in her own way, and for her own purposes. She has some gorgeous pieces -- very abstract -- in which core imagery is the primary design element. I love them precisely because they are abstract; they take the image of the female genitalia and transform it into a powerful -- but again, I emphasize -- abstract -- image of radiating power. 

It's when Chicago makes these images more overtly similar to the real thing that I have a problem. There is such a thing as phallic art, but the greatest male artists in history have not made such art their primary concern. Artists like Michelangelo, Raphael, Cezanne, Van Gogh, and Degas have instead chosen subject matter that would enable them to explore  such things as light and shadow, balanced composition, the function of color, and so forth. Making art based on realistically-depicted human genitalia (whether male or female) can border on pornography, and thus, voyeurism, not to mention, again, that it involves sexual objectification.

For instance, I fail to see the effectiveness of a work like "Red Flag" (1971), which you can view HERE. I find this work to be totally disgusting, of no aesthetic merit whatsoever. Paradoxically, Chicago intended it as a statement of female power, but in my honest opinion, it's anything but. Instead, it represents something which is an intimate part of every woman's life, and should remain thus.

In contrast, her 2012 piece, "The Return of the Butterfly", is indeed a powerful work, using that same core imagery, but in an abstract way that does indeed honor women. You can view it HERE.

I do agree with Chicago that women artists have been marginalized throughout art history, and have even been omitted from that history. However, I do not therefore agree with her concomitant conclusion that creating vulvic art is necessarily a way for a woman to reflect the female experience in her art, unless, as I have already stated, such images are abstract.

In one part of the book, Chicago  mentions that she pioneered the creation of feminist art with her Fresno art program, which she designed to be exclusively for female artists. This was a very valuable experience, as the students were actually pushed to achieve their highest potential, and were also taught to use tools and techniques women have not traditionally learned to use  in art school. Again, I can agree with her aims, if not totally with her choice of imagery. Her students also began producing art that referred to the female body.

The creation of Womanhouse, a collaboration of Chicago with her students, as well as artist Miriam Schapiro, was an important feminist statement, a psychological stepping stone toward a woman's achievement of a strong self-image, toward a woman's assertiveness as an  artist.  Although this project was also a political staement, I feel it had  aesthetic value, as well. However, I found the incorporation of menstruation imagery in one of the installations to be totally repugnant

I must admit to very mixed feelings regarding this artist's work, as well as this book. While I do think that she has helped women to be taken more seriously as artists in some ways, in others, she has not. Instead, she has made it seem as if women cannot go beyond their own sexuality in the creation of art.

Male artists have always focused on the objective and universal, which applies to all human beings. Chicago herself has stated that she wants other women to understand her art, and indeed, she feels that only women will totally empathize with her viewpoint. She is therefore contradicting her own rationale for making art. Great art must be objective and universal, not subjective and particular. By creating art that appeals primarily to women, Chicago seems to be implying that objectivity and universality are also "male standards". I vehemently disagree.

Chicago has not only worked as a painter and sculptor, but has also done performance art, as have her students. Needless to say, this type of art lends itself perfectly to political statements. Chicago and her students thus wrote and performed feminist pieces as part of the Womanhouse project. I have never liked performance art, so this didn't appeal to me much, either. The Penguin edition of the book includes some of these performance art scripts. 

This book is very well-written, and it captured my attention throughout. Chicago articulates her views in a very compelling manner, although there are parts of the book that struck me as redundant; she does tend to belabor her point. 

To be honest, I have had a very hard time discussing and rating this memoir/manifesto. At times I've felt it deserved five stars, while at others, I really thought I couldn't give it more than three. Although I don't agree completely with the author's viewpoint, I do think it's very important reading that's still relevant to women artists working today. I have therefore finally decided to give it 4 stars. 

About The Author

(From the book's back cover)

Artist, author, teacher, feminist, and organizer, Judy Chicago is best known for The Dinner Party, the Birth Project, and the Holocaust Project, monumental works of art that combine an intense intimacy with an unabashed willingness to address larger issues of gender, power, and history. Those same qualities have made her autobiography a classic in the literature of women and the arts. Through the Flower details with charm and candor how Chicago survived personal tragedy and professional ostracism to become an influential and controversial artist, as well as a trail-blazing advocate for an art that not only speaks to other women but enlists them in its creation. Her story will provoke, inspire, and exhilarate any woman who has tried to find "a room of her own" in a world dominated by men. 


Brian Joseph said...

Absolutely fantastic post Maria.

Your perspective on women and altruism, creativity and art is so interesting and enlightening to me. I think that there is much truth to this. I have read something, that I really need to research further as I am sure that there are exceptions. But it has been said that before the twentieth century, most or all great women artists were childless. I quick survey of pre twentieth century women artists indicates that there is at least some truth to this. The presumption is that having children before 1900 took so much time and energy from a woman's life that there was little left for creativity. I think that this relates to your point. Giving so much to others leaves little left for anything else.

You wrote, "Great art must be objective and universal, not subjective and particular." this is so true. It is an issue with many artists and writers who's work is only meant for one group. That is not the way to greatness. I think that sometimes however, such art transcends itself and can have Universal appeal despite the original intent of the artist.

This book sounds very interesting in so many ways.

Maria Behar said...

Hey, Brian!

Yes, it's very true that most great women artists before the 20th century were childless. Even in the 20th century, this also seems to be true. Judy Chicago herself is childless, and she stated, in one part of this book, that she could never have accomplished what she has as an artist, if she had had children.

One of my favorite 20th-century artists, the American Georgia O'Keeffe, was also childless. However, another favorite of mine, the German Käthe Kollwitz, did have children. She dedicated herself entirely to drawing and printmaking, while O'Keeffe was exclusively a painter.

Interestingly, Chicago has interpreted O'Keeffe's flower paintings as symbolic of female genitalia, and thus, using core imagery. She invited O'Keefee to include some of her art in "Through The Flower". O'Keeffe rejected the offer, as well as Chicago's interpretation of her art. Apparently, she did not want to be associated with the feminist movement in any way whatsoever.

I will probably write more posts regarding this book. As you read in this review, I have very mixed feelings about it. While I can applaud Chicago for her refusal to be ignored and marginalized, I don't entirely like her aesthetic views.

Perhaps women had to go through this period of creating feminist art, on their way to creating art that is truly universal. And maybe that's the real meaning of the book's title. I do hope that future women artists have an easier time getting their work out there, and that they will evolve or develop beyond the need to create art that refers EXCLUSIVELY to the fact that they are women. This is too narrow a focus for artistic endeavor, in my honest opinon.

Ironically, even though I haven't had children myself, I never did become a professional artist. I needed to support myself, and could never afford a proper studio to work in, as I am interested only in painting and drawing. Paradoxically, I also saved myself from the struggle endured by Chicago. But then, the problem was also that I wasn't brought up the way she was. My upbringing was of the traditional type for women. Yes, my parents wanted me to go to college, but they also expected me to get married and have kids. I did the first, and was unable to do the latter, through no fault of my own....

Well, I have poured a lot of creative energy into my two blogs. Most of it is now in the area of writing, although some of the design elements reflect the fact that I studied art in college. That training has certainly helped with the feature "Shelf Candy Saturday", on A NIGHT'S DREAM OF BOOKS.

This review reflects the fact that I am a moderate feminist, not a radical one. As you know, I dislike all types of political extremes, and I do think Chicago went way out with her aesthetic views. Still, this is indeed an important book, which is why I ended up giving it four stars.

Thanks for the terrific comment!! : )