Symposium 3: Reassessments

A Perpetual Problem

I was at the Museum of Modern Art, looking at their Surrealism collection. I’m not sure how long it took me to notice there were no women in it…

Meret Oppenheim, Object, 1936 (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

A Perpetual Problem

Jessa Crispin

I was at the Museum of Modern Art, looking at their Surrealism collection. I’m not sure how long it took me to notice there were no women in it. I was maybe 20% of the way through it when it dawned on me, that despite all the Dalis, the Ernsts, Bellmers, there were no Carringtons, no Cahuns, no Toyens. I went back to the beginning of the collection and went on the hunt. I double checked every placard, thinking surely, surely in this day and age, an institution like MoMA would not be so idiotic, so patriarchal, so blind as to omit women from one of their most important collections. Even if their motivations were purely optics, coming out of political correctness and the fears of what happens when that’s violated, would motivate them to find some women.

The problem for me is that as a woman, this is a common occurrence. Outrage at our continued invisibility. Indignation. And if you continue to pay attention to the way women have been erased from the history of the arts and letters, then you find yourself getting increasingly shrill. You can feel your voice rising, even when you’re trying to be light about it. You can feel yourself careening towards being the type of person who uses words like HERstory and spelling women with a y. And you can also feel men’s lack of interest, their barely contained eye rolls, their ‘now, now’s, as they continue to dismiss your complaints, as they go back to behaving the way they always do, with the utter confidence that all of the best art and letters were produced by men. That explains their museums, their history books, their general swagger as they walk through the world.

I did finally find a woman in the Surrealist collection. In the last room. It was a Frida Kahlo, stuck in a corner. She was obviously there as a token. After all, the entirety of the rest of the collection focused on the Parisian Surrealist scene, which she was not a part of, as if it were the only scene there was. Also there’s the fact that what Kahlo was doing wasn’t Surrealism in the strictest sense. She didn’t fit the room at all. The best I can guess is that she was there to alleviate the curator’s headache, earned through the protestations of so many women who find themselves becoming shrill.

Now. The only reason I’m up here not calling for the full removal of men from all cultural institutions and universities – and don’t think I have not entertained that particular fantasy – is because I know men are not the problem. Or, men are not the only problem. It has happened frequently that I’ve read lists of quote-unquote essential feminist texts, lists curated by straight, white women, who forgot to include any queer writers, or black feminists, or international thinkers, and so on. Not only that, feminists have consistently downplayed the racism and homophobia of its past white leaders, whitewashing its history even further.

And it’s not just heterosexuals who are the problem. I’ve seen this same problem in two recent histories of homosexual culture, the AIDS document How to Survive a Plague and a history of the formation of gay identity in early 20th century Germany, a book called Gay Berlin.

In How to Survive a Plague, the heroes of the AIDS crisis were all conveniently attractive white men. Like the filmmakers and writers were attractive white men. Gone from the story were all of the lesbians who took care of the gay men on their deathbeds, who were very often leaders of the early days of ACT-UP, as the lesbian resistance was, at that point, much better organized for direct action. Also gone were all of the queers of color, who were not just peripheral but actively engaged in and leading the movement.

In Gay Berlin, the gay male stands in for homosexuality as a whole. The gay identity is the gay male identity, to the point where I believe it was 70 pages in before a lesbian was even named. The writer (I’ll let him be nameless here, I’ve cursed his name in writing maybe too much already) dismisses out of hand the contributions of lesbians to important committees and boards in the gay community, yet women not only participated, they were often founding board members. He writes about the important writings by WH Auden and Christopher Isherwood in documenting the gay male nightlife, but leaves out Jeanne Mammen, the artist who painted the drag kings and lesbians at the clubs.

The question becomes: how much of this kind of erasing, forgetting, and dismissing, is an unconscious narcissism or lack of interest in The Other, and how much of it is agenda. Is the author, the professor, the critic, the judge on the award panel, even aware that he is privileging his own experience over the experiences of people foreign to him?. Can something as subjective as taste be political, and can something as objective as genius be entirely responded to subjectively? Can we miss it, just because of our expectations for what genius looks like? And when ignored demographics fight for representation, why do they so often do so at the expense of even more ignored demographics?

I was reading Derek Sayer’s excellent cultural history book Prague, a few months after my migraine-inducing trip to MoMA, and he points out that while Surrealism is thought of by many as an essentially Parisian movement, its roots are in Czech writing, painting, and music. Even Andre Breton, the so-called father of Surrealism, credits the artistic community of Prague as being the true pioneers.

So how did the history of Surrealism get re-centered? Turns out it is the fault of MoMA, no kidding. It was their first Surrealist exhibition, supposed to be the definitive exhibition, and its corresponding catalogue. If you’ll indulge me, I’d like to read a rather lengthy passage from the book, as it is so illustrative of this problem:

Styrsky and Toyen were among the contributors who had dipped beneath the art-historical radar by the time William Rubin put together his blockbuster retrospective Dada, Surrealism, and Their Heritage at MoMA in 1968. The MoMA exhibition did not include the work of a single Czech artist, and Rubin’s accompanying 525-page book Dada and Surrealist Art omitted the names of Nezval, Teige, Styrsky, and Toyen altogether from what the publishers claimed to be ‘this first truly comprehensive history of the two movements.’ This might not matter were Rubin not the Chief Curator of the Painting and Sculpture Collection at MoMA, which is as authoritative a position from which to define what is or is not part of the modern canon as the world has to offer. Absurdly, but not improbably in a time when few would have challenged New York’s claim to have taken over from Paris as the global capital of modern art, the book’s chronology begins not in Europe at all but with Francis Picabia’s arrival in Manhattan in January 1913 for the Armory Show that jolted America into a belated awareness of what Picasso, Matisse, Duchamp, and company were up to. Rubin’s chronology makes no mention of the Poesie 1932 exhibition at the Manes Gallery – a show three times the size of The Newer Super Realism exhibition the previous November at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut, which was the first surrealist exhibition to take place on American soil. Nor does this listing of key dates, events, and works in the history of the surrealist movement mention Breton and Eluard’s 1935 visit to Prague, which gave rise to the Bulletin international du surrealisme and several of the texts in The Political Position of Surrealism.

The disappearance of the Czechs is not the only lacuna in how the 1938 Exposition and indeed the entire interwar surrealist movement, came to be remembered. Of the 331 works exhibited in Dada, Surrealism, and Their Heritage, a grand total of seven were by women. Meret Oppenheim’s Fur Lunch made the cut, as did her no less evocative My Nurse – a pair of high heeled shoes tied together with string, soles pointed outward toward the viewer to frame what might just, but of course need not be, another gesture toward the origin of the world. The other female contributions to the exhibition were Hannah Hoch’s ‘Cut with the Kitchen Knife’ and ‘High Finance,’ and only two other artists. Dada and Surrealist Art similarly neglects to give serious consideration to a single woman artist. Rubin was quite candid about his intentions, stressing that the aesthetic judgments underlying his selections were ‘not simply outside of the concerns of the Surrealist poet-critics, they were utterly alien to their beliefs.’ ‘Yet,’ he insists, ‘despite the Dada posture (accepted by most Surrealists) that rejected the possibilities of inherent aesthetic value, the ultimate survival of the objects in question depends on the fact that they are art and not mere cultural artifacts.’ Art, we might ask, as defined by (and for) whom?

In fact, the exposition was remarkable by the standards of the day for the number of female contributors, as dozens of women artists were considered central to the movement and were regularly exhibited prominently throughout surrealism in Europe. Whatever may since have been written concerning surrealism’s supposed ‘male gaze’, the movement provided more space for female creativity than any earlier avant-garde (wth the exception of the Russian) and most since.

What I find so interesting about this story is that not only did a man, either consciously or unconsciously, not value the artistic output of women and so not find the work of women surrealists (who had been absolutely present in the exhibitions and the histories up until that point) valuable enough to include in the exhibition: he re-centered the entire history of the movement around his own city. He didn’t just erase women. Out of his own… what? Narcissism? Frail ego?… he erased the contributions and influence of Prague.

Let’s think about that for a moment. And again, without knowing whether this was an intentional act of erasure, a man decided to disregard anything from the history of the surrealist movement that did not line up with his reality. His need for his story, his reality, his culture to be dominant was so overwhelming that he cast aside anything that usurped that dominance.

We tell ourselves stories about which nations are important and for which purposes. And that devours the contributions and histories of out of the way places like Central and Eastern Europe, Latin America, most of Africa, and the Pacific. There are certain regions of America that are more important than others, and the important ones exist on the coasts. We very rarely stop to question how it possibly could be that all of the important philosophers of the last 100 years just happened to be born in Western Europe. I mean, if the canon is a meritocracy, then it couldn’t be that we just favour certain regions, that we ignore the contributions of 95% of the world based on unconscious prejudice and laziness, it has to be that there are no really good philosophers born anywhere else. It just so happens that Foucault’s vision of the world is relevant to all things, not that we are so used to using Foucault’s vision, or Derrida’s vision, or whoever, to explain the world that we stop being able to see it any other way. We reinforce this every time we select what to read, who to look at, who to listen to, because we, as academics and writers and whoever else is in this room, then use those devouring stories in our own work. Every time we reference Foucault, we are reinforcing the dominant story. Every time we include Jackson Pollock in our history of American art, we are reinforcing the dominant story. We are devouring the stories of the marginalized, who are so far on the margins we rarely can see that they are even there.

And what is the result of one museum’s, one curator’s, sexism and nationalism? Well, fifty years later the museum still excludes women from the surrealist collection. Check out any history of Surrealism and you’re unlikely to see someone like Toyen, the Czech woman artist who was a central figure in her time, given more than a passing mention. Women are relegated to ‘The Women of Surrealism’ collections and histories. They are decentralized, seen as being a curiosity off to the side of the real action, which was masculine. They are not integrated into the primary story.

Now, if somehow the world we lived in was a matriarchy, is it not possible a woman would blindly write men out of history as well? Of course. As we so often forget in our age of identity politics, the problem is not one demographic. The problem is power. Men have the power to write women out of the history of art. Gay men have the power to write lesbians out of the history of homosexuality. White women have the power to write women of colour out of the history of feminism. And so on. The powerful want their reality to dominate, to be unquestioned. The powerful in part maintain their power through the act of writing the archive, of maintaining the canon, of deciding which stories are important to tell.

Let’s not forget what the canon does. It is not only a list of the greatest books in the history of literature. It is the tradition in which a writer is supposed to work. It is a collection of writers who are allowed to be influential. It is the solidification of taste. It signals to contemporary writers what is seen as significant, what is important. It tells the contemporary writer what he or she should be doing if they too would like to be considered important.

The fact that such a small segment of the population – the white, straight, highly educated men who live in culturally dominant countries like the United States and Western Europe — have been so long in charge of maintaining the canon, of deciding what stories are important, should make us deeply sceptical, or at least on alert, of their ability to tell what stories are important for anyone other than themselves. As the story of MoMA and Surrealism shows us, we will, consciously or unconsciously, gravitate toward stories and ideas that are centered around us, that tell us we are important, that reflect our reality. It’s easier to deal with the discomfort that comes with being challenged by a reality not our own by dismissing it out of hand. By saying it’s just a matter of taste.

The canon then is a problem, and while this has been acknowledged for years now, no one really knows what to do about it.

One suggestion is that we do away with the canon in its entirety. This is not a serious suggestion. It’s the solution a child would come up with. Oh, if something is a problem let’s just get rid of it. As if by chucking Shakespeare out the window we can somehow send cultural narcissism, white supremacy, patriarchy, all of these things that power the exclusivity of the canon out the window with it.

Besides, part of what the canon does is filter. Out of the swamp of the history of the written word, a swamp to which is added hundreds of thousands of novels a year, here is what is essential. Here is what needs to be paid attention to.

You can say, well, then what is needed is for each person to develop their own personal canon. The books, art, philosophy, music that is important to him and her. But who has that kind of time. To read the entire output of the world, create an independent scale of assessment, and then find a way to verbalize free of any cultural context that body of work’s importance.

It’s even more of a worrying suggestion that each demographic should have its own canon. Here is the canon of women’s literature. Here is the canon of homosexual art. But we’ve already seen that even within a demographic, people have varying levels of power and do not play fair. Within each demographic is a power struggle to determine who gets to tell that demographic’s history, who gets to award its excellence, what specific people or traits or values are considered the most important. And for some reason, it’s truly a mystery why, the person with the most power will think that the traits or qualities they just happen to embody or possess are the most important traits or qualities. And besides, this other solution creates fragmentation, rather than bringing a sense of shared humanity. Only people experiencing a certain level of guilt will ever go paying much attention to the canons of demographics less powerful than themselves.

We are in a stage of reclamation and questioning the canon, of trying to retell the stories that the dominant stories devoured. We are going through, or some of us at least are, the written record and scribbling things into the margins and between the lines. This year we had the film Hidden Figures, which re-inserted the black women who did work essential to the space program at NASA. For decades, we had looked at the history of science and only saw white men. Now we are scribbling the erased black women, white women, gay men, men of colour, who were there, unseen, the whole time.

What’s interesting is the anger this provokes in white men. Because in this age of decreasing masculine importance, when the male reality of dominator is crumbling, when men are not able to access and use to their advantage the power they were promised, rather than questioning the danger and immorality of that power, or trying to understand why they no longer have unfettered access to that power, the story of male dominance is all they have left. Attack that, in sometimes just a simple way as adding some female Ghostbusters, or adding a black Stormtrooper, and men will declare war on you. They will accuse you of threatening the white race, of threatening masculinity, because they are so invested in these stories of their own importance.

It would be nice to think that this anger is contained to the realm of the trolls, the cucks, the virginal basement dwellers, but watch what happens when you challenge male authority of the canon. And the male authority is not propped up solely by men, but by all who are interested in maintaining traditional systems of power. When students complained to professor and critic Helen Vendler that her British Lit survey class, required for all English majors, included only one woman on its syllabus, Mary Shelley, Vendler stood in front of her class and said, ‘There have been some complaints that this course only discusses major writers, so today I will discuss some minor writers.’ The lecture focused solely on women writers.

Then we have writers like Richard Dawkins dismissing the contributions of women and of people from Muslim cultures from the history of science simply because he doesn’t like them. We have professors and critics regularly decrying the influence of political correctness on history and on thought, even though what they are calling political correctness are simply firm requests to question their own assumptions and prejudices. And men are still writing histories of the world where they are the most important players.

And this is an uncomfortable truth that emerges from these controversies: men have yet to encounter feminism. Don’t you think we would have noticed if they had? I mean, if men acknowledged that feminism existed, in anything other than the very surface level way they have so far, wouldn’t they be doing this questioning, this historical re-assessment, all on their own? It’s not just that men are still writing histories of philosophy without including a single woman. It’s that they’re not, as a whole, having that pause, that ‘what have I missed?’ They are not voluntarily going through the work of St. Teresa of Avila, Simone Weil, Adrian Piper and questioning their initial dismissing of the work as ‘minor.’ They don’t understand that one reason a woman’s work might be minor is men’s need for it to be.

And white people have not encountered civil rights and done the work of revisiting the work of writers of other races. And America and Western Europe have not encountered Romania or India or Argentina. And so the act of filling in the margins and the spaces between the lines is still the emotional and intellectual labour of those marginalized.

This is important work. It’s also tricky. It’s tricky not to fall into the same bad habits the powerful have done, by insisting that our stories, whichever demographic we feel we are best representing, are more important than others. That our stories are more heroic, or that our stories are universal.

Because for every Hidden Figures, there is also a Girl with a Pearl Earring. You might remember this novel, it was everywhere for a while. It told the story of the anonymous young model from Vermeer’s painting. In a modern woman writer’s hands, the anonymous woman in the Vermeer painting becomes a young servant who turns out to be Vermeer’s spiritual equal. She sits for the painting because she truly understands Vermeer’s art in a way his wife never can, not just because she needs money — she assists the artist, mixes his paint, adjusts the objects in the room for a more harmonious alignment. She could have been a great artist, but because of the limitations of the time, blah blah blah. It’s possible my cynicism is wrong, that this book was an accurate portrayal of this woman. Maybe the real girl in the painting had a natural gift that was squandered and maybe heavily symbolic and metaphorical things happened to her all the time. But it’s not a sociological argument on the level of Virginia Woolf’s imaginings of Shakespeare’s sister, it’s a feel good story that tells women yes, yes, you are possibly a genius but we’ll never know because you are so oppressed by society.

I read Ruth Butler’s 2008 book Hidden in the Shadow of the Master: The Model-Wives of Cezanne, Monet, and Rodin and I respected the project, going back into history to give voice to those who have been denigrated and misunderstood by historians – and on the list of people who have been denigrated and misunderstood by historians, the wives of geniuses ranks high. Butler tries to flesh out the lives of these women so recognizable in their husbands’ art, but from whom the barest bones of an identity were left behind: a letter or two, an official document announcing a birth or marriage, an anecdote in a friend’s diary. Butler recreates their lives by examining the standard life in 19th-century Paris for a young woman of such deprived socio-economic backgrounds and transferring the information to the wives. But she defaults too often to honour and intelligence. However. When she needs to imagine a scene — which she must do frequently, as none of these women left behind a memoir or a large cache of letters — she imagines the woman acting with honour first, or speculates on the quiet strength with which they endured. But men, even great men, sometimes do not marry their equals. I have seen them at dinner parties, great writers who get tense when their wives start to speak. The hand of the great man grasps his wife’s after only a sentence or two with a ‘You are only embarrassing yourself’ gesture. But Butler is defensive about these women. She wants to believe the best about them, and the result is a book that feels like an over-correction.

It is important not to over-correct, not to beat the bully by becoming the bully. We must admit our humanity, not our superiority. Now that we have a chance to tell our own stories and have them be honoured, we must make sure that our stories now are not just about how great we are. How brave, how heroic. Stories of our mediocrity, of our ability to fuck up and be stupid are just as important as the stories of our triumphs. Because these are the stories that prove we are humans, and deserve to be treated as such.

For the past couple years, my friends and I have been doing this experiment. It all started because I was drinking and watching the Oscars. Now. Everyone knows that the Oscars and other awards are bullshit. That they prefer the sentimental over the profound, that awards are entirely political, that they are inherently racist and misogynist. But that doesn’t stop the culture from paying attention to the awards. Instead of giving space in the cultural conversation to work that defies the values of the awards industry, we spin endless commentaries, re-assessments, and complaints.

Attention is a currency. Like money, it is a currency of which we only have so much, and where we spend that currency reveals what it is we value. So even if we are talking about how much we hate the Oscars, by paying attention to the Oscars, we are revealing that we value the Oscars. We bestow meaning onto the Oscars by paying attention to them.

And in many years, I pay attention to the Oscars and to the National Book Award and the Booker and whatever else, because I would like to see great work rewarded, and I also want the self-satisfied outrage that comes when it’s not. Because it almost never is. And I don’t even remember what the award was that set off this experiment, only that I was absolutely, momentarily, incandescent with rage about it. About the fake gold statue going to the wrong person. This is what I had decided to spend my limited resources of time and attention and anger on that day.

But it got me thinking about what the true importance of awards might be. It’s not just that with awards come institutional support and opportunities for the creators awarded, giving them the ability to move toward cultural dominance. Awards are often the first stage of canonization. This isn’t always true, sometimes the culture knows, even in the moment, that what seems important today will be trivial instantaneously. But often awards are used to solidify the dominant paradigm, to reward creators for playing by the already established rules, for sharing their same values, for supporting the masculine hegemony.

What would happen, I wondered that night, if we looked back at a certain year and ‘corrected’ the written record? If we read what came out in that year and re-evaluated them. I was drinking with a friend that night, so we got on Google as one does after half a bottle of wine and looked up what won the National Book Award fifty years ago. It was John Updike. Of course it fucking was. What, we curiously wondered, won the next year? Saul Bellow.

So yes. We would read the books that came out fifty years ago and put John Updike in his place. We did this in public, as part of Bookslut. We called it The Daphne Awards. Part of my interest in this project was my total lack of interest in post-war American literature. If you look at who was canonized from that era, it was the big dick writers. Philip Roth, John Updike, Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer. They are still paid attention to, still valued, still given an outsized amount of meaning. The only thing I found interesting about these writers was that they were alive and working during the second wave of feminism. So while women were standing up and insisting they were fully human, possessing just as much value as men, and asking to be seen and treated as such, the masculine hegemony insisted, ‘No, you are not.’ And they wrote novel after novel where women are just bodies, just vaginas, just soul sucking parasites, just out there to get in the way of the true heroes, the men. And these men, who showed a total inability to even imagine a feminine internal world or reality, are somehow held up as geniuses, rather than failures.

Anyway. I wanted to reimagine the canon. Not just in the sense of, I wanted to find stories other than stories of male dominance and imagine a world where they were influential. I wanted to imagine a world where rather than emulating John Updike, it was Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector everyone wanted to be like and learn from. What we found surprised us. There were things that did not surprise us, like wonderful books by women and gay men and black women and so on that had fallen so far from the attention of the masses they were out of print. We found that questioning the value of a book like Saul Bellow’s Herzog, winner of the National Book Award, with its shocking casual misogyny, where an incident where a man goes off to confront his ex-wife with a gun in his pocket is played for laughs, infuriated a lot of men who had previously been allowed to love that book unconditionally. To be fair, we were also surprised to find that none of us liked The Bell Jar on second, post-adolescent reading. But what we also found was work of great sensitivity and empathy, written by straight white men, had also been sidelined.

And we found ourselves surprised to be awarding the first Daphne Award to a straight white man, Tarjei Vesaas, for The Ice Palace, his beautiful, vulnerable story of the intimate encounter of two young girls becoming friends. We were surprised to think how infrequently we had read a book by a man about girls, at least a book that didn’t make you feel entirely gross after. How uncommon it felt to read a man who saw girls not as representations of some feminine quality he was trying to belittle, not as some artificial construct, not as an other who is used to define somehow its superior opposite, the boy, but as human enough that they could be used to express something about humanity. That’s all. Maybe it was that the dominant story of what a male, straight writer is supposed to write about also devours the work of other male, straight writers, and not just the marginalized demographics.

The canon is a problem. But perhaps it’s better to be thought of as a perpetual problem, as something to be wrestled with, argued with, yelled at, than something to be solved. When we revisit the canon, it is as important to make sure we expand on the notion of what stories, what types of lives, are important, and not just level out the imbalances of gender, race, and sexuality. To honour diversity of skin colour, but to go further to diversity of thought.

There are so many ideas, points of view, philosophies and expressions out there in the world, and the only proper response to that information should be unbridled enthusiasm and the rushing out to meet them. But to do so requires the humility of understanding you were perhaps wrong about what is important, what is worth paying attention to. That is the where the defenders of the canon must begin.

Jessa Crispin is the author of The Dead Ladies Project and the upcoming My Three Dads, both with the University of Chicago Press. She is a columnist for the Guardian US, the film columnist for Caesura, and a contributor to the Telegraph, Spectator, Baffler, and other publications. She currently resides in Philadelphia.