The Muzzle: Gender and Sexual Politics in Contemporary Czech Art

Introduction

While feminism has been part of Western art and art history since the end of the 1960s, it continues to be suppressed in this field in most Eastern European countries. However, the number of remarkable women artists who deal gender, sexuality, or the role of women in society has increased enormously during the last ten years in this region.

Many of them exhibit extensively and receive a lot of attention in press. Yet the perceptions, interpretations, and promotion of their work are usually either framed in a gender-neutral category of “Art” (which, however, is historically and culturally gendered male) or overwhelmed by surviving patriarchal and sexist bias.

In such a context, women artists have an illusion of freedom and equality, but they see themselves through male eyes–and their “proper” place in art is, thus, clearly demarcated by the traditional notion of femininity.

When Výtvarné umení, a prominent Czech art magazine, published a special issue focusing on women in art in 1993, its message was clear: There are women artists, but “women’s art as such does not exist.”(Výtvarné umení 1/1993.)

This volume included a question-and-answer section, in which ten Czech women artists responded to questions regarding the difference between art done by men and by women and questions of whether gender issues are relevant for making or analyzing art.

How these questions were asked suggested that if there is any specificity in art by women, it consists of “female imagination and bodily experience.”

Significantly, the political and social dimensions of art and gender were carefully put aside, and the word “feminism” didn’t appear at all. Similarly, eight out of ten artists claimed that art is either good or bad and flatly rejected any and all association with the category “woman artist”. Today, most of the ten artists who voluntarily accepted the universalistic dogma eight years ago would probably answer very differently.

Yet despite the shift in their perspective, gender and feminist issues in visual culture still exist on the periphery of intellectual debates . Thus, while some Czech women artists claim to be feminists, they wouldn’t dare to repeat the claim in front of a journalist.

What are the reasons for ignoring, or even ridiculing, any serious debate about feminism, gender, or women’s emancipation and sexuality in contemporary Eastern European art? Why are these issues marginalized, domesticated, or assimilated?

Part One: “Muzzled” Identity

By common usage, “muzzle” is a special covering for the mouth used to prevent biting and barking. In the context of my paper, “muzzle” is used as a metaphor for various power and ideological mechanisms whose aim is to restrain feminist consciousness among contemporary Czech women artists and to control their socially and culturally “inappropriate” gestures that could disturb the dominant patriarchal order.

“Muzzle” also refers to the title of a show by a group of women artists that took place in Prague in June 1994. The following 13 very telling nouns are written on the frontispiece of the catalogue accompanying this show: barrier, resistance, rejection, dismissal, power, intervention, protection, opening, filtration, explosion, taming, locking, powerlessness.

The relationship among these nouns is tense. It suggests freedom and discipline, rebellion and obedience, desire and self-taming. Today, when nobody wants to be identified with the mainstream, center, or authority, such an ambiguous position might seem an ideal place for radical and innovative artistic or intellectual gestures.

However, if this “in-between” position is a forced residence rather than a “site of travel encounters,”(James Clifford,”Traveling Cultures, ” in Cultural Studies, Routledge 1993.) if it doesn’t enable the transformation of various unacknowledged relationships of power and control, and if it doesn’t destabilize fixed categories, it becomes highly problematic.

Indeed, being on the periphery, in the exile, or ostracized–an experience shared by many Eastern European intellectuals and artists under the totalitarian regimes-could be a productive state of mind, but its glorification and romanticization often masks pain and frustration of such a state.

Part Two: Stolen Consciousness?

The exhibition Muzzle presented the work of six Czech and six German women artists and was organized by Juliette Güthlein, a Berlin-based curator.(Muzzle [Náhubek], Jan Frágner Gallery, Prague, June 4 – 21, 1996.) Around the same time, the City Gallery of Prague hosted the exhibition entitled Female Art, which showed the work of three women artists from Japan, Switzerland, and the U.S., and which was supplemented by several pieces by a young artist from the Czech Republic.(Female Art [Ženské umení], City Gallery, Prague, April 6 – May 5, 1993.)

Several other all-women shows appeared in Prague around the same period. Significantly, most of them were organized by foreign curators, and none of them included exclusively Czech artists. These exhibitions were crucial for introducing a new gender paradigm into the sphere of visual art in the country that was cut off from the international art scene for more than 40 years.

Moreover, they helped to build new cross-cultural links and deconstruct the problematic binary notions of center and periphery (in this case the West and the East). And yet, it is their international character that I want to call into question.

I am certainly not concerned with their resignation to a local specificity of art. (The notion of national authenticity of artistic style is alien to me, and most attempts to define the originality or identity of Czech art on such premises are highly questionable for their quasi-nationalist or even xenophobic rhetoric).

What strikes me, however, is that in order to hear the Czech women artists’ voices, and to show them in a gendered–as opposed to a gender-neutral-context, the initiative had to be taken not from within but from outside, and the discourse had to be signified as a foreign one.

Located on the boundary between “here” and “there,” the issues introduced by these exhibitions were interpreted as imported from abroad, and thus were seen as potentially less threatening to the masculine canon dominating “at home.”

It was their exoticization and exteriorization that functioned as a “pacifier” of male anxiety, and through these strategies the imaginary expatriation of feminism from Czech art could be executed. As one critic noted around that time, “[if] feminism contributes to women’s wildness . . . it seems that in this respect, Central Europe is still a more tolerant space with an experience of ‘another type.'”(Marek Pokorný, O case s prostorem ve Štencove dome, in Ateliér 8/1994, p. 12.)

Undoubtedly, experiences of Czech women strongly differ from experiences of women in the West, and any uncritical appropriation of Western feminism can easily turn into a political or intellectual colonialism.

And yet, indicating the absence of feminism as a sign of both a greater tolerance and “uniqueness” is not only a dubious argument; more importantly, it shows how easily the unknown could be demonized (feminism = savage behavior), and how its explicit condemnation could mask intolerance towards the Other.

Part Three: Those Soft Tissues, How Much I Adore Them . . .

A growing visibility of women on the Czech art scene provoked a counterreaction very early on. In 1993, a group of male artists organized a show entitled Just Like Women.(Just Like Women [Jako ženy], Nová sín Gallery, Prague, June 26 – July 11, 1993.) Located in one of the foremost galleries in Prague, this all-men show was touted as an examination and transgression of the gender codes.

However, what it offered instead was a mockery of both femininity and women themselves. In order to be “just like women,” these artists didn’t challenge but mimicked the social and cultural expectations and stereotypes about women.

Apparently, they had a lot of fun donning women’s clothes, wearing make-up, cooking, breast-feeding, giving birth, sewing, or painting sentimental and kitchy paintings, and the popularity of the show was a great reward for them. Although they promoted their strategy as a gesture of support for women, it turned out to be a parody.

The principle of mimesis could be an effective tool for undermining various kinds of stereotypes, and it is no coincidence that this principle is so often used by women artists who deal with gender identity. Yet in order to be truly critical, this principle has to destabilize the object of its own focus, not maintain it.

Wanting to be “just like women,” or any other marginalized group, one has to run a risk of losing own power–only then, I believe, mimesis and humor can subvert the status quo instead of conform to it. In this case, however, men risked nothing: choosing women as the object of their gender “inquiry,” they remained in the position of a judge whose supreme masculine identity is kept intact.

When several of these artists participated in a project called On the Body a few years later,(On the Body [Na telo], Behémót Gallery, Prague, December 10, 1996 – January 10, 1997.) my doubts about reasons of their previous coquetry with gender and sexual identity transformation even intensified.

In this neo-Yves Klein project, 12 male artists painted their fantasies on the skin of 12 female models hired by the gallery owner. Ateliér, the biweekly visual-art journal, published a praising review of this exhibition on its front page.

In this review, an art critic wrote about the “eternal beauty of the female body,”(Jiøí T. Kotalík, Na tìlo, in Ateliér 26/1996, p. 1.) the “magic power of colors spread on the naked skin,” and sacred rituals through which the artists return to the prehistory of visual culture.

With great admiration, he discussed the artists’ courage to paint with a similar engagement and experimental vigor as the old fresco masters, i.e. a la prima.

While celebrating the spiritual and formal qualities of the living “works of art,” the critic treated the models as white canvases onto which the genuine artistic gesture should be imprinted.

Moreover, the 12 photographs of artistically decorated pin-up girls were used for the gallery’s annual calendar, which, as I was assured by one of the artists shortly after, sold really well. Not only the artists confronted the female nude as an adversary whose freedom should be assimilated to male artistic needs and erotic desires, but they also turned it into a commodity object.

While painting on the woman’s body might be the most explicit evidence of artistic misogynism, there are other much more sophisticated strategies.

However, since they come from well-meaning critics and curators who position themselves as “progressive,” and who proudly promote their strategies as women- or even feminism-friendly, these strategies are rather difficult to recognize and negotiate.

Two years ago, the Girls Show 99 was on display in a private, highly visible gallery in Prague.(Girls Show 99, MXM Gallery, May 4 – June 6, 1999.) This exhibition gathered works of mostly young women artists. The show had no particular theme besides the curator’s emphasis on the “girlish” dimension of the works on display, which, as we shall see, provided him a key for deciphering the specificity of Czech women’s art in general.

His text in the catalogue reads: “If feminists more or less agree that it is necessary to reach a social recognition of women’s labor, from raising children to still-life painting . . . then the Czech female artists seem to identify themselves just with these traditional characteristics of women and their art: sensibility, sensuality, inclination towards nature, asserting their interests indirectly through ‘hidden’ power. The relative openness of our art scene enables women to avoid radical comments . . . They simply explicitly manifest their femininity, motherhood, and sometimes think a little about stereotypes that define their social role and behavior. . . . It’s a kind of art of soft tissues that I like so much.”(Radek Vána, Girls Show, Prague 1999 (unpaginated).)

It seems that men who pull the strings on the Czech art scene can sleep quietly: Women artists are, in their view, good “girls”-that is to say, they like baby diapers and flowers, they don’t think too much, they leave all that dirty war and avant-garde rebellion in men’s hands, and they even let a male curator who claims to be a feminist and who adores their “soft feminine tissues” talk for them.

The curator calls the Czech women artists “the post-feminist girls . . . who automatically adopt territories conquested by . . . [the] women’s movement.”

But what does the term “post-feminism” signify in the country where feminism is just slowly waking up from a long dream? In this case the prefix “post,” which signifies termination or temporal designation of whatever it prefaces as finished and obsolete, is not only absurd; it becomes a powerful means of co-optation which neutralizes and depoliticizes any subversive power which art made by women might have.

“Post” stands here for absence of the feminist discourse, and, as such, becomes a gesture of remasculinization.(This term is borrowed from Amelia Jones’s essay “‘Post-Feminism’: A Remasculinization of Culture?” in M/E/A/N/I/N/G 7, 1990.) Nevertheless, it is not only the potentially “bad girls” who become objects of this gesture, however obvious a target they might be. Paradoxically, another object of this gesture are men themselves.

In her book Male Subjectivity at the Margins, Kaja Silverman suggests that “the male subject’s aspiration to mastery and sufficiency are undermined from many directions–by Law of Language, which founds subjectivity on a void; by the castration crisis; by sexual, economic, and racial oppression; and by the traumatically inassimilable nature of certain historical events.”(Kaja Silverman, Male Subjectivity at the Margins, Routledge 1992, p. 52.)

It was the resistance against the communist regime which united Czech people regardless of gender, and this resistance is also one of the reasons why the gender debates or feminism are still considered to be a luxurious and unnecessary “adornment” of Czech politics and culture.

However, being deprived of their freedom and independence, Czechs experienced a certain historical trauma whose consequences could be traced to these days.

I would like to argue that this trauma had a bigger impact on men than on women because it was the patriarchy of both former capitalist ownership and the public sphere that was replaced by the authoritarian ideology of socialism, which, among other things, forced people to follow the rules obediently and speechlessly, and to withdraw to the private sphere.

The former inability of Czech men to sustain the “imaginary relation with the phallus,”(Silverman, Male Subjectivity, p.52.) and to participate in mechanisms of power reinforced their current efforts to reclaim the lost territories.

Whether it is expressed through sexism and hostility towards feminism, or through gender-neutral equalitarianism, these efforts result, to a large extent, from the damaged status of masculinity.

While diminishing the political impact of women’s art and claiming the most radical feminist statements about feminism coming from the male artists’ side, even the curator of the Girls Show 99 clearly demonstrated how feminism itself could be appropriated in order to be defeated, or, at least, in order to be controlled by being held on the leash. Feminism on the leash and with muzzle might still be called feminism or post-feminism, but its radius and power remain illusionary.

Then, one might question: What do the Czech male artists do to cause their contribution to the gender discourse to be designated as radical, nonconformist, vigorous, etc., besides mocking women and painting women’s bodies?

In spring 2000, a group exhibition entitled after Piet Mondrian’s famous statement “Every single drop of lost semen would deprive me of one masterpiece” appeared at the Gallery of the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague.(Every single drop of lost semen would deprive me of one masterpiece, Gallery of the Academy of Fine Arts, Prague, March 21 – April 4, 2000.)

After seeing the show, I asked a few exhibiting artists about their goal. I heard it said repeatedly that the show, which consisted of “decorated” pornographic images, an installation made out of dirty sanitary napkins and women’s underwear, and other pieces of a similar character, is a provocation.

But a provocation against whom, I wondered? The relationship between sperm and a work of art might be metaphorical in Mondrian’s statement but it clearly speaks about the symbolic order whose privileged signifier is the phallus. I’m worried, however, that stressing the penis-phallus equation in the motto of their exhibition didn’t make these angry young men better or more “progressive” artists.

Rather, I believe, it reflected the anxiety of male artistic subjectivity losing its normative grounds.

Around the same time when this exhibition was released, another critic, Jaromír Zemina, publicly expressed his condolence to women who participate in all-women shows, a gesture which, he says, only confirms the inferiority and second-rate quality of their art: “Men have never had a need to group and exhibit [their art] on the basis of their masculinity–that is perhaps done only by homosexuals.”(Jaromír Zemina, O jednom umeleckém manželství, in Ateliér 8/2000, p. 5.)

On the one hand, these words echo homophobic condemnations about dangerous and degenerating feminization of men that have been accompanying intellectual debates in art for more than a century now, and they arrogantly ignore the fact that male artists usually have very little reason to underline “manliness” of their collective projects because they dominate the discourse anyway.

On the other hand, Zemina takes no account of a relatively recent phenomenon of all-men exhibitions dealing with issues of gender and sexuality, including those I previously touched upon.

I believe, however, that it is also this phenomenon that shows how biased but also how fragile and ambiguous is the concept of masculinity that still controls the hierarchy of Czech art, and which calls for a radical reconceptualization of its gender agenda.

Part Four: “Is This a Feminist Exhibition?”

Last summer, I curated a show entitled Under the Cover that featured works by Ivana Lomová and Erika Bornová.(Under the Cover [Pod dekou], MXM Gallery, Prague, August 15 – September 10, 2000.) Addressing the impact of memory on constructions of subjectivity and dealing with methods of psychoanalytical inquiry, this exhibition was also concerned with gender issues, but they were not more important than those of remembrance, amnesia, history, dream, childhood, mimesis, etc.

And yet, when I was asked during the exhibition opening, “Is this a feminist exhibition?” I got stuck. My answer was ambiguous, a kind of yes-and-no quibble. All of a sudden, I was not sure whether the work of art is feminist because of the attributes of the author, because of certain attributes of the work itself, or because of the way it is interpreted.

Contemporary Czech women artists are by no definition a homogenous group. They deal with sexuality as much as with the public sphere, with abstraction as much as with iconography, they use the very diverse visual means–from the most traditional (painting, sculpture, drawing) to the most ephemeral (performance, video, new media)-but, unlike many women artists in the West, they rarely address political issues explicitly.

Nevertheless, I would like to argue that the absence of direct political interventions doesn’t make their project less political and more “soft-tissue-agreeable,” and it similarly doesn’t weaken their feminist aspirations.

What does enfeeble their project of undermining gender bias is an ongoing antifeminist and sexist rhetoric of art history and criticism, which maintains the glorification of male artists’ accomplishments.

When the magazine Umelec, which promotes itself as a tribune of the most up-to-date artistic tendencies and nonconformist ideas, came out recently with the “Top Ten Artists” of the last decade, it included only one woman artist who, moreover, collaborates with that very magazine as a graphic designer.

After ten years of its existence, MXM Gallery, which has long been considered as the most challenging gallery of contemporary art in Prague, only recently made the first step to “feminize” its all-men crew, when it declared it would finally represent a woman artist. Unfortunately, these two examples are in no way exceptional.

As I pointed out in the beginning, the visibility of Czech women artists increased enormously in the post-socialist era and their gender-consciousness rose accordingly. download extreme jav video

However, as long as feminism will not speak its own name in my country, women artists will be treated as the Other, the evaluation and critique of their work will be vulnerable to the masculine canonicity, and, undoubtedly, their own courage to speak up as women will be paralyzed. Taking off the muzzle that prevented me from clearly articulating my answer last summer, I can finally say, “Yes, it was a feminist exhibition.”

Martina Pachmanová is a frequentcontributor to ARTMargins. She is an art historian, independent curator, and writer. Her essays and articles on modern and contemporary art, many of them dealing with issues of gender, sexual politics, and feminism, have been published in periodicals and exhibition catalogues in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Croatia, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The following essay is part of ARTMargins’ series of interventions regarding the state of contemporary art in East-Central Europe. It is based on a panel recently convened by Susan Snodgrass at the College Art Association’s annual meeting. This article is the shorter version of a longer essay.

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