“Powerful. An icon. Elegant.” These are the three words the Brooklyn Museum chose to describe one of America’s most important and famous 20th century artists in the opening of the video trailer for their 2017 exhibition, Georgia O’Keeffe: Living Modern. The focus of the exhibition was not any one particular era of O’Keeffe’s work, nor was it a comprehensive retrospective of her career. It was, for some reason, about Georgia O’Keeffe’s clothes.
There were a few of her paintings scattered around the room, but it was her dresses and photographs of her by other artists, including her partner, Arthur Stieglitz, that were the center of attention. Instead of studying her work, which is still overly simplified and reduced by audiences and curators alike as being mostly vulvic flowers, the crowds, including many young women with their eyes filled with stars, were all focused on her outfits.
When I visited the exhibition, the thing I was struck most by was how easily it would be to mistake O’Keeffe for a model, not an artist. She had been reduced down to how people saw her — particularly how her husband saw her — rather than how she saw the world. Even the words chosen for the trailer — powerful, an icon, elegant — all relate back to her physical appearance, and not her art. No longer an artist who took her work so seriously she spent most of the year away from Stieglitz so she could focus on painting, now, somehow, she has been turned by a powerful artistic institution into a muse.
Apparently, the approach worked, because the Brooklyn Museum recreated this approach to women artists with a new exhibition, Frida Kahlo: Appearances Can Be Deceiving. (In the trailer for this one, someone refers to Kahlo’s “brand” in the first ten seconds.) Once again, the actual work was sidelined for an emphasis on clothing and photographs, even including space for old bottles of nail polish. (The exhibition was sponsored by Revlon cosmetics.)
O’Keeffe had been reduced down to how people saw her.
Both O’Keeffe and Kahlo made much of their own clothing, and it’s true that women are often more thoughtful about their physical presentation than men, but I reject the idea that a woman’s choice in blouse or lover says more about her work or life than, say, Kahlo’s radical politics or O’Keeffe’s musical training.
But then again, why not embrace the style as well as the substance? Fashion has long been derided as frivolous and vain, a “woman’s pursuit” and condemned for that association. Why not reclaim what has been discarded, and provide the intellectual framing that helps us to legitimize “women’s work.” “In the field of art history,” Linda Nochlin wrote in her influential 1971 essay “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists,” “the white Western male viewpoint, unconsciously accepted as the viewpoint of the art historian, may — and does — prove to be inadequate not merely on moral and ethical grounds, or because it is elitist, but on purely intellectual ones.”
Maybe we really do think of things like fashion and personal style to be frivolous because we’ve learned a very masculine idea about artists and the action of creation. This would be a very convenient idea for an era in which so many artists and writers talk freely about their “brand” and promote themselves through selfie-heavy Instagram accounts.
I’m less concerned about what is being added to our understanding of what an artist is and more about what we are leaving out. Which is, anything inconvenient, disturbing, or problematic. In order for O’Keeffe to be an inspiration to women in this “Everyone Should Be a Feminist” era, we have to deny or forget her serious hostility toward the feminist movement. In order for someone in the Women’s March #Resistance to feel okay carrying a Kahlo tote bag, she has to forget about how seriously devoted to communism and anti-colonialism she actually was.
The effect of the exhibition was that of an exclusive clothing boutique than an art gallery. The photos of the young, rich, white art collector and Brooklyn Museum board member Stephanie Ingrassia showing up to the Appearances Can Be Deceiving opening night wearing a Kahlo-esque flower crown and long peasant-y skirt did nothing to solemnize the occasion.
There was a similar exhibition of the clothes of experimental writer Kathy Acker in San Francisco in 2006, ten years after her death. Her wardrobe, mostly by high end, avant garde designers like Comme des Garcons, hung from the ceiling and gave a ghostly sway as the viewer walked through the arrangement.
I thought of this exhibition as I read through Olivia Laing’s 2018 novel Crudo, which is narrated by an imagined Kathy Acker, an Acker who did not die of the breast cancer that killed her in real life, an Acker who suspiciously resembles Laing more than herself. Or, rather, a Laing wearing one of the ever-fashionable Acker’s original Vivienne Westwood creations.
Crudo follows a woman named Kathy as she prepares to marry a significantly older man, which Laing too was set to do at the time of the book’s writing. But the backstory is almost entirely Acker: there’s the push-pull relationship with the dead, abusive mother, the trail of exes and dead relationships, the back catalog of work, and other more complicated and painful biographical elements. The Kathy narrator is supposed to be an amalgamation of Acker and Laing, but it’s more mermaid – Acker’s fishy past glued onto the more human present of Laing – than chimera.
And what does a Kathy Acker, still alive in the summer of 2017 yet somehow younger than she was when she died in 1997 because oh right I guess she’s actually Olivia Laing’s age, do? She travels around Italy, she eats a lot, she reads Trump’s tweets and has feelings about them, she hangs out at the pool and complains about the heat. She misunderstands her own work, somehow, as Kathy reflects on her novels, thinking “she was in many ways Warhol’s daughter,” which (the real) Acker certainly was not.
What we don’t see Kathy doing is work. “What Kathy was supposed to be doing was planning her wedding,” Laing writes. If one was familiar with Acker’s take on heterosexuality, this sentence would make their skin crawl. Acker did marry, a few times; she also slept with many other women’s husbands, she did a stint as a sex worker, she wrote extensively on the abjection of women’s desire under current societal conditions, she flayed herself and revealed sexually transmitted infections and abortions and a double mastectomy and romantic degradation. To take that whole history and then imagine Acker picking out bridesmaids dresses is a weird thing to do.
I wonder if what Laing was trying to do was imagine Kathy Acker as happy. But why does that happiness have to be so bourgeois? After a lifetime of dedicated nonconformity, why does Laing insist what would truly bring Acker pleasure was, actually, what Laing herself had decided to do? Which is to marry, to choose a life of comfort, pleasure, and consumption.
In Crudo, the emphasis is all on the consumption: everything Kathy/Olivia eats and drinks on this trip with her fiance through Italy is documented. It starts on page one with “two bottles of duty-free champagne,” then within a few more paragraphs it’s “potato foam,” passata, plum-cardamom gelato, “porchetta in rolls and porchetta on rocket,” “yoghurt cream dusted with lavender and tiny meringues,” rack of lamb, black cod, picci with pork ragu, all by page five. While it is true that the radical often soften with age, taking cozy professorial positions and I guess like Trent Reznor has four kids now, not everyone does. The fantasy that inevitably we all slide into the bourgeoisie if given the opportunity only serves those who never acknowledged there were other options available to them.
Why choose Kathy Acker as an avatar? What did she have that Laing does not? If anything, Laing today has the kind of career seen as being more enviable. She has consistent writing gigs with top level publications like Frieze and The Guardian. Her books came out with major publishers, win mid-tier awards, and receive warm and respectable notices in the top newspapers and review sections in both America and the UK. Acker’s books are still banned in some places, she came from money but her fortunes ebbed and flowed throughout her life, and while she had infamy the literary establishment mostly ignored her until she was dead.
I wonder if what Laing was trying to do was imagine Kathy Acker as happy. But why does that happiness have to be so bourgeois?
So what Acker had was simply lifeforce. It was a distinct point of view, a gutsy, nervy power that shocked and repulsed many of the women writers around her, while enchanting their husbands, something documented by one such wife of a lover of Acker’s, Chris Kraus in her book After Kathy Acker. That particularly disingenuous, if not entirely intellectually corrupt, “biography,” which portrayed Acker mostly as a lunatic was, like Laing’s Crudo, an attempt to corral Acker’s too muchness, to narrate it in a way that discredits it.
Unlike Laing, Kraus had personal reasons to portray Acker in a certain way, as Acker had an affair with Kraus’s husband, Sylvère Lotringer, while simultaneously being an enormous influence on her own writing. It was idolatry and hatred and envy, but Kraus did not reveal any of this in the text itself. Instead she indicted Acker while pretending to be a detached observer of her life. Why couldn’t she just grow up and settle down, like a respectable adult (like myself) is the implication of much of this work. Would she have been “happier” if she had been medicated? Why couldn’t she just behave?
The radical life unsettles the cozy lives around it, simply by showing what else could be possible. Oddly, Laing’s project is only one of many that have been released in the last year, all women writers associating themselves with more radical women writers. Lara Feigel’s Free Woman: Life, Liberation, and Doris Lessing takes a similar approach, as Feigel interrogates her own married, two home-owning, financially comfortable existence through the lens of the avowed communist and ambivalent Nobel Laureate Lessing.
Feigel, like Laing, opens with marriage, the first line reading, “There were too many weddings that summer.” Feigel feels worn out by her marriage after a miscarriage causes a kind of emotional estrangement from her husband, and she is left wondering what else might be possible in her life. She quotes a Lessing character, Anna Wulf from The Golden Notebook: “I am interested only in stretching myself, in living as fully as I can.” Feigel shares this feeling, but, she admits, “without quite knowing what I would want that to entail.”
This fixation on marriage in both Crudo and Free Woman is telling. Once forced into marriage by professional, educational, societal, and economic restraints, now women freely choose it and seem to be surprised it retains its confining nature. Feigel, writing safely within the 21st century and post wave after wave of feminism, writes about marriage that, “What I minded more strongly was the apparent assumption that this remained the only way to live.” She comes to the same conclusion: that Lessing would have wanted quiet domesticity, that, given the opportunity, she would have chosen a life much like Feigel.
The radical life unsettles the cozy lives around it, simply by showing what else could be possible.
Feigel is exploring the idea of women’s freedom not because of some big political awakening, nor because of philosophical interest, but because she is unhappy in her marriage. She details the problems of her relationship throughout, casting her husband as unfeeling and unsympathetic. He yells, he demands, he wants to hijack her body to bear his children. And she is left wondering what a life outside of this relationship would be, and she uses Lessing’s unconventional life to explore the question. In the process, she turns a fascinating and brilliant writer — who wrote on politics, economics, philosophy, terrorism, and colonialism — into a lifestyle guru.
One could see Lessing’s life and work as an invitation to a more committed, unconventional existence, I guess. She rather famously left a marriage and children behind to become a writer, and her romantic life was one of open marriages, affairs, and tormented infatuations. But Feigel’s ambivalence toward the idea of freedom from living up to society’s expectations for her gender and class makes her simultaneously romanticize and reject Lessing’s choices throughout the book. When she contemplates Lessing’s decision to abandon her family to dedicate herself to writing, Feigel holds her own child close and makes a big deal about how she could never do such an unmaternal thing.
In one section, she considers Lessing’s communist ideology as a way of thinking about her own political beliefs. But she immediately finds fault with a radical worldview: communism, after all, led to the Stalinist show trials, so the whole pursuit is condemned. She compares her own “circulating petitions” online after Brexit with Lessing’s distribution of Marxist literature around Salisbury as a young woman, seemingly finding it mostly to be the same thing.
Feigel is seemingly obsessed with whether Lessing’s choices paid off. Did freedom make Doris Lessing happy? This is a strange metric to use to gauge a writer’s life. She was writing work that changed people’s lives, she was making a contribution to art and literature, she was awarded the goddamn Nobel Prize for Literature, does it actually matter that she had an “embarrassing” infatuation with her much younger collaborator Philip Glass for a while? That she was sexually disappointed and had a series of lovers but no lifelong partner? That she wasn’t entirely fulfilled through maternal love and was disconnected enough to walk away? Is that the only way we can understand the value of a woman’s life, in who she is in relation to others?
The origin point of these books seems to be Kate Zambreno’s Heroines which, while not being a huge hit, was quite influential among young women writers. Ostensibly about the wives of famous modernist writers like T.S. Eliot, F Scott Fitzgerald, Paul Bowles, it was more about Zambreno’s own marriage (we are back at the altar again). Because the question of marriage was on Zambreno’s mind, that seemed to be the only thing about these women’s lives that interested her. Women were reduced to wives. Anything inconvenient — like the schizophrenia of Lucia Joyce, daughter of James — was denied or sidelined.
Is that the only way we can understand the value of a woman’s life, in who she is in relation to others?
Lessing’s work, like Acker’s, like O’Keeffe’s, like Kahlo’s, is also sidelined in favor of the more convenient image. In the 2019 memoir All the Lives We Ever Lived: Seeking Solace in Virginia Woolf, Katharine Smyth shows a rather passive Woolf. Here she compares Woolf’s life mostly to her parents’ rather than her own, and while it is supposed to revolve around the writing of To the Lighthouse, she spends little time on how Woolf shaped that book. It seems already to exist, fully formed. Woolf, then, doesn’t write it, she “reflects,” “wonders,” “declares,” “learns,” “ventures,” “refers.” Smyth wants to get a Woolf quotation tattooed on her forearm, but she doesn’t want to deal directly with Woolf’s over the top anti-Semitism or her philosophical viewpoint or even her social circle outside lover and husband. She claims to have “an intuitive sense” of Woolf, and I guess that is supposed to be enough.
These books and exhibits begin to feel like the gentrification of the artist’s life, with everything dirty or weird or unfamiliar is tossed out for the same bland smoothness. These writers then come off like the suburban invaders of urban neighborhoods, wanting to associate themselves with a specific cultural history while actively working to erase it. These books and exhibits made me wish we still used “bourgeois” as an insult.
Smyth wants to get a Woolf quotation tattooed on her forearm, but she doesn’t want to deal directly with Woolf’s over the top anti-Semitism.
As Sheila Heti wrote in her book How Should a Person Be (another anxious meditation on marriage), “One good thing about being a woman is we haven’t too many examples of what a genius looks like. It could be me.” But here we do have examples of women genius — Acker, Lessing, Woolf, O’Keeffe, and Kahlo — and we can see what separates them from their imagined interlocutors. It’s understandable that these writers — all of whom seem to be very oriented toward creating a writing career and being socially acceptable and not fighting against the social norms for a woman’s life — would want to claim sisterhood with their more radical predecessors.
I only wish they had seen it as the project of trying to close to considerable gap between them to be about radicalizing themselves, rather than domesticating the others. They are, after all, all dead, and can’t protest against or reject the association.