In 2009, the poet Monica A. Hand asked for definitions of “female aesthetics.” While there are no actual definitions of female aesthetics or woman aesthetics, there are working definitions of feminist aesthetics. I was intrigued by this notion of the female (vs the woman, aka l’écriture féminine and Hélène Cixous’s writing from the body) and what an aesthetics of female would like and who could who would claim this aesthetics. A bit later, I put together a panel on Twitter to discuss this concept, and I invited some of the participants from that panel as well as some additional people I thought would have something interesting to say, to have an informal symposium discussion via email. What followed was a series of questions, speculations, ponderings, and anecdotes with Racquel Goodison, Monica A. Hand, Patricia Spears Jones, Ruth Ellen Kocher and Tracy Chiles McGhee from August 13 to 20, 2009. The Conversant has agreed to publish that conversation in two parts. – Metta Sáma
Monica A. Hand: This evening on my commute home, a woman saw me highlighting some papers and remarked that she couldn’t manage to use a highlighter on the train. I responded that I didn’t have trouble using the highlighter but was a little challenged reading backwards. I had copied all your notes—adding each new post to the preceding one but had decided I wanted to read them from the first to the last. I told her what I was reading and asked her what she thought of the question. As it turns out, she had studied Victorian Literature and recalled reading George Eliot who wrote under a male pen name and she said she fooled most people at the time except Dickens who addressed her as “madame” in a letter because he knew she was not a man regardless of her pen name. Her craft was as good as any man but still he found her out.
[Moderator’s note—here is part of Dicken’s first letter to George Eliot: “I have observed what seem to me to be such womanly touches, in those moving fictions, that the assurance on the title-page is insufficient to satisfy me, even now. If they originated with no woman, I believe that no man ever before had the art of making himself, mentally, so like a woman, since the world began …”]
The woman on the train was hesitant, resistant to talk about there being a female aesthetic any further because “We have worked so long at not being called such, told we are different why ‘do’ it to ourselves.” I really did understand her ambivalence. I have the same unsureness. We have been excluded (and worse) because of our difference(s). When I was a pup and active in the Lesbian Feminist movement, we African American women called it “triple jeopardy”—this being Black, Female, Queer.
I am inclined to agree with Tracy when she says who we are shows up in our art. It is the same defense I use when anyone says my work isn’t black enough or queer enough (oddly enough I’ve never been accused of not being female enough).
I remember reading Memoirs of a Geisha, the book about a geisha written by a man in the voice of a woman and thinking what a great job he did at assuming a female voice. What was that voice? Does aesthetic mean – what you find beautiful? As art appreciators, readers, viewers, what do we find most beautiful? I do like non-linear story telling, I do like multiplicity, I do like cycles, I do like circular movement, I do like layers, I do like feeling full and feeling empty.
Although I appreciate what has been said about claiming the full and not the empty, I gasped when I read Tracy’s message this morning on the train. It caught me by surprise. My response was audible and self-conscious. I had to look away from what she had written and catch my breath. The warrior queen in me wants to claim wholeness but something else in me was overcome by Tracy’s words. I have known the longing she speaks of. Something about what she had written or how she wrote it appealed to me. It was so beautiful.
Is there a sensibility that is female? Does this discussion matter? I am interested in understanding how recognizing a female aesthetic may inform, enrich the reading and the writing.
Arisa White: Hello all, (aesthetics are always changing, how it is defined constantly shifts, based on who is adding to the conversation.) there is a female aesthetic because we exist and are socialized in a sexist society. because of that particular oppression, our lives get scripted in a particular way. we are engaged in a particular way. we are made visible and invisible because of this femaleness. we can tell stories that men cannot tell just by the fact that we are female.
we break the I/eye differently: we pay attention in a way that comes from the experience of being female. we have these various cages, restrictions, roles, we get to operate in—often all at the same time. when you are held in those spaces, you notice things, you pick up the language, its images, its stories and when you go to make your art, it shows. (so much of who we are has been made apparent to us by shock, how do we then discount its presence in our work? one identity may be more salient than the other at any given moment, but it remains, enacting its awareness/aliveness in subtle and conscious ways.)
the limitations we face as female give us language. gives us a body of language. the domestic, the vagina, the sexuality, the sexism, the violence, the fear (because of the bodies we are in), gives us images and language that we can constantly fuck with, rearrange, reconfigure, dismiss—we are always bringing it with us wherever we go.
no wonder George Eliot got called out (read all her books and her point of view was affected by her femaleness—she was able to incorporate a different angle that’s not experienced by men).
because i believe that the making of the individual, in the case female, is a result of a series of personal, cultural, and societal intersections, there is going to be certain conversations we like to have in our work, certain concerns that we address—we can body it, embody it, we have a body of language for it, and therefore we can envision some imaginative ways to talk about it.
i like what Patricia said: “There is I would say more of a continuuming from mind to skin in women’s writing” for its feeling of movement, but also for its feeling of bridging, for its attempt at synthesis or translation. but mostly i like that there is no rest in this continuuming from mind to skin. that feels more like life, like humanity to me. when i think of the women poets i enjoy the most, they have a way of resisting rest in the poem.
( and maybe that search for wholeness is the search for proper translation. )
Racquel Goodison: As I reflect on all that I’ve read here, but very likely not all that’s been said, I think about the foundations and framing of my own aesthetic: my experiences (which are all too often tied to how my body is racialized, gendered, classed, sized, located on the looker’s beauty scale, assessed through the looker’s individual lens—maybe I look like a friend they haven’t seen in a while or like the bitch who treated them like dirt in high school), my languages and cultures (which shape my own looking and understanding in ways I may only begin to understand), and my individual self. I hear each of you harkening to all of these in some way, to a self that is built on the body you inhabit, to an eye and an I that is not buried in a body, and to a perception that is informed by what you’ve read, seen, heard, felt, done, have had done to you or your social grouping, and are striving to do in your lives and in your art.
I come back again and again to what makes me who I am and how much of that is nature, how much nurture. I wonder this quite a bit because I’ve felt that sense of queerness and have been called out as queer in so many settings. I didn’t “act like” the other girls on my street in Kingston 20, Jamaica—even though there were plenty of girls flying kites and running barefoot through the streets with me. I was the “queer one” in my family (prompting me to think I was adopted even though I looked very much like my parents) and this designation allowed me to shave my head in sixth form, cross-dress when out of my school uniform and behave in ways that suited me fine, but were considered strange by my folks. I was also the 15 year-old altar-girl who took to the pulpit in defense of “shacking up.” None of this seemed foreign to who I was and how I saw the world working. At the same time, the reactions to me showed me how unlike even my own flesh and blood I was. So, what were the forces shaping my eye and the I I am? I did not want to be an outsider in my own family. And I have never found joy in being “the strange one” anywhere. So, then, with our similar familial, social, gender-based, race-based, class-rooted experiences, why am I so different than my very sisters? A simple answer is because I am me and not them. So how much of my aesthetic is some innate individual self and how much of it is constructed by the “world” I’m in?
In the same spirit, how much of what is published, and continuously referenced in our courses, in our schools, fits outside of an accepted discourse, an accepted way of laying out (or even stepping out of) the published world.
I am not suggesting some post-race, post-gendered, post-whatever-social-category-your-body-belongs-to. I am just wondering if there can be a “female aesthetic” that is not tied to the body, much like there maybe a self within us all that is not tightly encased in the skin we are born in.
Patricia Spears Jones: I think most writers—at least the ones I know—have always been “outside” on some level. And we are often the rebels. It is sort of a classic stance. You don’t have to be “queer” in the homosexual sense to have that as an essential experience. Those w/strong spiritual leanings (the Shamanic, the mystic) also have this. Almost all of the Southern writers have stories of being different; of finding a champion in a teacher (usually a great English teacher—I had three!) and a family that sort of came to either accept the scribbler (yeah Mom & my siblings) or say “you’re damned to hell.” Your personal experiences are important and your self-awareness quite admirable and a little scary. And your question is a serious one.
I guess I have problems with “the body” as the source of all of this. It seems as if we have moved from dealing with our location in space: place of birth (Kingston, Jamaica/Forrest City, Ark) and the attendant personal, family and cultural issues and experiences to simply location of body provided at birth (female). Could this be the ubiquity of the internet and the sense that we are not located on this earth, but somewhere in the cables of cyberspace? Is that why we look to the body only?
RG: To clarify, I’m not for seeing the body as just gendered. When I refer to the body, I refer to the thing that is located in various social and biological categories. Is our self limited to this? Is our aesthetic? (Can a transvestite woman or a transgendered woman or a hermaphrodite being have the female aesthetic? How would this aesthetic then be understood in terms of the mind-body-spirit that makes us who we are?)
AW: if not the body then what?
i don’t think of the body as a limited space or location. the body is a means; we can start at the body but it doesn’t have to end there. and in occupying a space of “queerness” one begins to realize that more and more each day.
i just feel to take the body out of the equation is to remove the equation entirely. it’s how we navigate whatever space we are in. what is bothersome is the limitations placed on the body—that the female body can only produce this kind of story or this kind of art and that kind of story and art will be championed and recognized.
as female bodies we are noted as different and our relationship to space, other people is informed by the fact that we are in a female body.
i think that because our particular socialization as female, we got stunted. most of our lives have been spent on shaping us into proper women that some things don’t get to grow within as much. and it has to do with the hyper focus on our bodies, how to control it and how to have it controlled. the politics of our bodies are at the center of our lives. (maybe the attention toward our bodies should go away, and we can spend some time focusing on other things. our skin is constantly being activated and scrutinized.)
if we got a chance to live our bodies on our terms, would we care about the body being the source of art or anything else for that matter? if our bodies were “neutralized” would we care?
Tracy Chiles McGhee: In one of my favorite memoirs, Black, White, & Jewish by Rebecca Walker, I came across this passage: “I do not have to define this body. I do not have to belong to one camp, school, or race, one fixed set of qualifiers, adjectives based on someone else’s’ experience. I do not have to remember who, I, or anyone else, thinks I am. I am transitional space, form-shifting space, a place of a thousand hellos and a million goodbyes.”
I love this idea of the shifting self—the mind, body, and spirit and the sum total of our experiences in constant movement. I have always described myself as so many things and evolving. Basically, you may choose to emphasize any one or more of your layers or aspects in the poem or writing, but it is always you and then a new you and then another from moment to moment. There is not one group that I have been part of that I have not felt like an other. Perhaps because I am an observer, I am always watching, taking in, and
analyzing my relation to others, what makes us different and the same. So yes, beyond any aesthetic you want to talk about, there is and forever will be the “me” aesthetic.
Metta Sáma: Greetings, all. I’m sitting here having coffee with you all & remembering the times I poured wine with you all; your voices live with me in that way. I walk down the street chatting with you & engaged with you & wishing I could have you all in my living room, but happy to have you in all in my “body house.” My mind goes back to Ruth-E’s original note about “the impulse to find freedom in restriction” (a definition of jazz) and Tracy’s note that outlines the emptiness of fulfillment & the fulfillment of emptiness, the cycles of longing and needing and advancing (towards what?) and constant searching (Anaïs Nin’s letters & poems come to mind), paired with Monica’s “magic of the body” which Patricia likens to Lorde’s erotic & Ruth’s return to versatility & Arisa picking up the issue of the “eye’s I” and the “I’s eye,” & Racquel’s provocative question on who gets to own the “female” (aesthetic? subjectivity?). What strikes me is that in this (wonderful, thoughtful, productive) conversation, I keep thinking back to Ruth’s “freedom in restriction” and thinking how much this all sounds like the making and shaping and creating of jazz, and the making and shaping and creating of queer (see Judith Halberstam’s “queer time” vs “straight time”) …
In this wondering, I’m almost at a definition of a collaborative (malleable) definition of female aesthetic as “I/eye’s fluidity and its (drive/desire/compulsion) ability to “read the silences,” to draft and create and shape those silences and to recover what’s been lost and muted and pushed aside, to experiment with what has come alongside, to be in and of the body while not being limited to the body’s first note; to be caged & untethered; to redefine (Audre Lorde’s “erotic”, for example, is about redefining and reclaiming, but really about finding the original source/text and to recover/recoup the power inherent in said text, yes?) and re-inscribe power” …
I recently attended a play, Dirty Little Girls, about three domestic workers, all women, all of the African diaspora, from various parts of the globe, who spend their days cleaning and musing and making metaphors about their domestic lives and their physical bodies (as one woman says, & i paraphrase: She says they’re imported, speaking of lace thongs, and I have to be careful with them. Well, I’m imported, too, but I’m not handwashable.) The story also includes a woman, a Caucasian woman, who has a long affair with her maid; and finally, there’s a character who takes on many roles, including that of a “black demon,” a “white devil,” one character’s mother, an impish-seeming “savior” figure, etc.
As I watched this play, I kept asking myself—what are female aesthetics? Am I looking at one female aesthetic? Where? How? I saw, in this play, Ruth-E’s sense of “recovery,” and I saw Tracy’s sense of fulfillment and emptiness and cyclical nature of living (each of these characters, in some way, talked about loss and gain and the circularity of experience & wholeness), and I saw Audre Lorde’s “erotic” (in which each of the women went about their work as deliberately as they might go after a lover—I can’t recall the exact quote from Lorde, in which she talks about the making of a poem having no difference from, say, having sex with a woman she desired) and I saw much discourse concerning the body (one character says, and again, I paraphrase, that “words come and go; but what happens between/on bodies sticks” and the body of work and the body of thought/feeling). Yes, all of this was there.
The day before, I read the following short notes, from The Village Voice, about several different shows by women, and my ponderings were mostly focused on the middle note, on the show, “The Female Gaze: Women Look at Women.”
I’m listening to Esperanza Spalding these days, and wondering what distinguishes her bass line from, say, Mingus’s … is it an approach (is the female aesthetic, in part, how one approaches?) …
& I just read through this article on women artists, asking myself the same questions (thanks for sending along, Patricia!) … Are there additional artists & writers you would like for us to think about or know, whose work you see as engaged with this loose collaborative (malleable) definition of female aesthetics?
TCM: Metta, that play was chock-full and right on time. Also, loved listening to
Esperanza with my eyes open toward the aesthetic we’ve been discussing. The visual from the Village Voice article brought up a tinge of longing (clearing throat). I wanted to add another visual from an emerging painter named Brianna McCarthy. Notice the lack of arms, the closed eyes, the opened mouth but also the beauty.
I had one more visual to add in the form of a video, a representation of women through the ages by Phillip Scot Johnson. What does it say? What doesn’t it say? How does it make you feel watching it? OK in the end, I’ve got more questions than answers. Perhaps I am just sharing Patricia’s sentiment about summer. I enjoyed being a part of the discussion and will continue to think on this question as I come to art and bring art but mostly, I just plan on enjoying art. Thanks Metta for bringing us together. Peace.
PSJ: Our creativity is but interaction of despair and hope on a great cosmic scale and Schaller has the courage to show us that beauty is the force resulting. (from “Tower and Hole,” my essay on post 911 drawings by Rhonda Schaller)
Over the past 40 years or so there have been a great many artists and cultural critics who have looked at women’s art, feminism, etc. in the U. S. and globally. If any of you saw WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution at P. S. 1 or in L. A., you have some idea of the breadth of work going on around the world during the mid 1960s to the end of the 1970s. The catalogue is really useful.
Ana Mendieta. Her art started with the body often in outline. Mendieta used all the elements: fire, water, earth and air and silence since many of her pieces were done in solitude. The Siluetas series from Cuba are haunting and amazing. The Hirshon organized a major retrospective four years ago and produced an excellent catalogue. Her death was as dramatic as her life and art.
Mickalene Thomas. A terrific painter. Her nude at the Brooklyn Museum is an extraordinary painting, particularly in its size, composition the sheer audacity of it. Love that piece.
Quoting an email I sent out earlier this year: Carolee Schneemann is an amazing artist; a real pioneer; a woman drawn to the depths of eroticism, sensuality, pleasure as well as suffering, injustice, romantic loss, longing and a deep desire for a wildness in beauty. Fur, umbrellas, motor driven combines (we talking ’60s here), the naked body, new media from the ’60s (video, film, photography), and a intense connection to paint and surface, she’s one of the world’s most daring artists. Along with Hannah Wilke and other women artists from the mid-1960s, she foregrounded female sexuality as seen by actual females as material to be dealt with in art. We are still grappling with their courage and generosity.
Rhonda Schaller–drawings and paintings (abstract and yet so female)
Faith Ringgold. Best known for her story quilts, I am more interested in her paintings from the early 70s based on Tantric paintings. Those paintings were framed in fabric and are unlike any of her more conventional work. I love quilting, but those paintings from the 70s throw caution to the wind.
Janet Goldner is a sculptor working in metal. Her vessels w/writing or figures on them are very interesting and take up lots of space, and they have a rough-hewn look that seems to contrast male polished metal work.
Louise Bourgeois, Elizabeth Murray, Martha Wilson, Loraine O’Grady, Sandra Payne, Mariko Mori, Bettye Saar and her daughters, particularly Allison Saar, Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson, Sabra Moore. I figure you all know Kara Walker, Joan Snyder, Carrie Mae Weems, et al.
MAH: Thank you Metta; thank you, all. I have enjoyed reading your points of view. In closing, this is what I take away from this discussion on defining a female aesthetic:
1. It is in the voice of a female, a female perception. It is the treatment of themes relevant and important to women that relate to historical, cultural and social situations of women.
2. The incorporation of words, images, events, and sounds true to our experiences: giving birth, menstruating, menopause.
3. The female aesthetic is constantly evolving: at one time, it has been important for us to write about our nappy hair, our bodies, our desire; at another time, it has been important to show our vulnerabilities without giving up our power; it has been important to say we are afraid and that we are not afraid; that we feel full, that we feel empty; that we love ourselves, our mothers, our fathers, women, men, life.
4. The point is we are the makers of this aesthetic.
5. Why is this discussion important – not to emphasize our difference(s) or to be in opposition – but so that we are visible.
Peace and blessing my sisters and thank you for the love and beauty.
Racquel Goodison has lived half her life in Jamaica and the other half in New York. Her imagination still lives in the West Indies and her stories testify to this. For her living, she is an assistant professor of English at a CUNY campus.
Monica A. Hand, author of me and Nina (Alice James Books, 2012) is a 60-year old Queer writer who is committed to being self-determinant and free to make mistakes; otherwise, how will she ever learn anything. She has an MFA in Poetry and Poetry in Translation from Drew University and currently is in the Creative Writing PhD program at the University of Missouri-Columbia.
Patricia Spears Jones is author of three collections, most recently Painkiller (Tia Chucha Press) and four chapbooks including Living in the Love Economy (Overpass Books, 2014) and two plays commissioned and produced by Mabou Mines, the acclaimed experimental theater company. A Lucent Fire: New and Selected Poems is due out from White Pine Press, fall 2015. Poems are anthologized in Angles of Ascent: A Norton Anthology of Contemporary African American Poetry (W.W. Norton); broken land: Poems of Brooklyn (NYU Press) and Best American Poetry: 2000 (Scribners) and the bilingual anthology, Mujeres a los remos/Women rowing: An Anthology of Contemporary US Women Poets (El Collegio de Puebla, Mexico). She is editor of and contributor to Think: Poems for Aretha Franklin’s Inauguration Day Hat and Ordinary Women: An Anthology of Poetry by New York City Women and is a contributing editor to Bomb Magazine.
Tracy Chiles McGhee is a Writer/Activist. Her writings have appeared in several anthologies and publications. Tracy was selected as a Finalist in the 2014 William Faulkner – William B. Wisdom Creative Writing Competition in the Novel-in-Progress category. She also received the distinction of “Honorable Mention” for the Penelope Niven Creative Nonfiction Award in the 2014 International Literary Awards presented by Salem College. Tracy is the co-founder of the Literacy, Empowerment, & Action Project. She attended Catholic University Law School and Georgetown University. She resides in Washington, DC.
Arisa White received her MFA from UMass, Amherst. She’s a Cave Canem fellow, and author of Post Pardon, Hurrah’s Nest, and A Penny Saved. A 2013-14 recipient of an Investing in Artist Grant from the Center for Cultural Innovation and an advisory board member for Flying Object, Arisa is a BFA faculty member at Goddard College. arisawhite.com. She is poet, queer, living out in Oakland, but raised in Brooklyn, likes her whisky on the rocks.