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An Intimate Distance: Women, Artists, and the Body.

What gets you wet? And what does art have to do with it? In two separate collections of essays, art historian Rosemary Betterton and artist Mira Schor take up these sticky questions, connecting art, women, and the fluids your body produces, takes in, craves, and reviles.

Betterton's An Intimate Distance considers representations of, and largely by, women, in a series of essays on topics ranging from British suffrage to contemporary food art. The title refers to the woman artist's relation to her female subject: her distance as an observer is complicated by her intimacy with what is observed.

I couldn't quite articulate what was so great about Betterton until I read Mira Schor's Wet. In her essay "Patrilineage," Schor points out that many writers on art by women implicitly devalue these artists by enshrining men as their ultimate source of luminous parentage; women are explained by reference to Barthes, legitimated as heirs of Duchamp, etc. Betterton, who teaches art history and critical studies at Sheffield Hallam University in England, refuses such moves. She studies the maternal nudes of Paula Modersohn-Becker and Kathe Kollwitz not only in relation to Johannes J. Bachofen and August Bebel, but also in relation to German feminist writers. Her suffrage chapter considers the contributions of Jean-Martin Charcot and Freud to debates about female sexuality, hysteria, and activism, yet gives primary attention to women's presentation of themselves, both to the public and in more privately addressed material. Among other things, the latter indicates a greater interest in sexual freedom and variety than the public enshrinement of patriotic mothers would suggest. Our understanding of what women envisioned is enhanced by Betterton's discussion of Olive Shreiner's influence among suffrage supporters and of letters between two working women who were active in the Women's Freedom League and in the Freewoman Circle.

Betterton is often eloquent in showing why the women who command her attention deserve it. The essay "Body Horror?" looks at fascinating works by Helen Chadwick, Laura Godfrey-Isaacs, and Nicoletta Comand that use the sensual and referential complexity of food to engage eating, the body, sex, and death. She is equally compelling on such topics as female embodiments in nonrepresentational paintings; battles over assisted reproductive technologies; and figures of political oppression, displacement, and exile in the work of Asian, Jewish, and Arab artists in Britain.

My gripes with Betterton mainly concern her great reliance on psychoanalytic theory, particularly as it focuses on motherhood and differences between men and women. While Betterton gestures toward lesbian and transgender material and issues in her theory chapter, they are largely relegated to footnotes and some interesting comments on Joan of Arc and lesbian mothers. Certainly, I appreciate her honesty about the personal issues that fixed her on maternal relations to an extent she realized only in retrospect. However, a book subtitled "Women, Artists, and the Body" ought to take more notice of the complicated gendering of individual female bodies and of desire between adult women that is not figured across the mother/child dyad. Ironically, Betterton's psychoanalytic readings subtly undercut her argument that the body is socially, culturally, and historically constituted, and make for some questionable emphases. For instance, is the impossibility of returning "to a pre-Oedipal haven of imagined safety" really the best preface for this excerpt from Leslie Hakim-Dowek's 1994 photo-text invocation of Beirut? "B. burned and burned. Buildings crumbled and voices turned to felt. The glass shattered, hair became limp with rage and bones were crushed." Too often, I found Irigaray or Kristeva where I would have liked to see something else.

Despite a similar focus on embodied women and art, Wet has different concerns. In essays published between 1985 and 1995, Schor takes on contemporary art and criticism as a feminist artist embattled by trends that devalue her medium (painting), her view of theory (mixed), and her context for coming to consciousness ('70s feminism). Wet is a great read. Schor is gloriously fierce, often hilarious, and has boldly trod on powerful, or at least fashionably shod toes. In 1986, she told David Salle apologists to cut the crap about ineffable somethings and call his misogyny what it is; in 1988, she wickedly re-outed some current biggies for their pruny 1974 disdain of Lynda Benglis' Artforum dildo ad. In other fabulous moments, Schor calls Mary Kelly's Post-Partum diapers a "Lacanian Shroud of Turin," and ponders critical fondness for terms like "scopophilia" that make visual pleasure sound like a disease. There are also nice essays on patrimony; teaching; artists Ida Applebroog and Ana Mendieta; and the politics and reception of the Guerrilla Girls, who turn Playboy on, turn MoMA off, and inspire chivalrous offers of assistance from charming yet clueless young men.

I liked Schor's "wet" deal, too, although I didn't quite buy it. Emboldened by Wet, I will admit in print that I have often responded to what I considered ill-founded assaults from theory queens with unkind thoughts about their own writing being pathetically and/or criminally unlubricated. So I greatly sympathize with Schor's impulse to call out the antipleasure component in the writing of certain high-theory, death-of-painting critics, and I think she's onto something when she identifies their distaste for "the 'goo' of femininity and of painting," of "fluidity and bodily materiality." But it hardly seems fair to imply, as Schor does, that painting is somehow the ultimate in female erotics or that most users and fans of photo-based media, wordworking, found objects, and construction labor in dry, dubious service to fad, accessibility, and narrow agendas. What about hot girls with power tools, working solid materials with muscular arms and strong fingers? Or the tactile thrills of metal and silk, wood and fur, texture and temperature? Or photographs, installations, and texts that jolt or coax you into seeing things in a new way? Is there something intrinsically less female, or wet-making, in these makers or media? I don't think so. Looking at Schor's own work, including Slit of Paint, 1994, a detail of which appears on the cover, I'm not sure how much she even does; its semicolon in fleshy labia suggest a complex and hot relation of language, body, and material.

Reading Betterton and Schor together reminded me of popular notions that dyke sex is one big 69 thing. This is not because either takes particular account of dykes as sources of art or theory - in fact, both leave the unfortunate impression of a feminism with dykes on the side - but because for both authors, fluids, whether breast milk or girl juice, represent the epitome of female erotics. But hot girls don't just suck it out or come all over your face. They also drill, bite, scratch, and talk trash to you. So do hot girl artists, viewers, and critics. While both books could use more attention to erotics beyond fluid, however, each still offers crucial insights about women's bodies seen in cultural and political context.

Erica Rand teaches in the art department at Bates College. Her writing includes Barbie's Queer Accessories.
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Author:Rand, Erica
Publication:Artforum International
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Nov 1, 1997
Words:1164
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