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The artists who want to enter the monster zone

23 October 2023

From the October 2023 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.

This season past yielded not one but two books on gender and monstrous creativity, both taking their cue from the same quote from Jenny Offill’s novel Dept. of Speculation (2014): ‘My plan was to never get married. I was going to be an art monster instead. Women almost never become art monsters because art monsters only concern themselves with art, never mundane things. Nabokov didn’t even fold his own umbrella. Véra licked his stamps for him.’ From Offill’s splotch of monster blood sprang forth Claire Dederer’s Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma and Lauren Elkin’s Art Monsters: Unruly Bodies in Feminist Art – each carving a distinct path into the monster zone.

Dederer looks to great artists – mostly men – accused of obnoxious, abusive, in some cases illegal, behaviour. Early on, she asks whether it is possible to separate our distaste for the artist from our love of the art. She thrills to the work of Roman Polanski. Can she – should she – still love Chinatown (1974) knowing the director drugged and raped a 13-year-old girl? Perhaps monstrosity is part of the bargain, a prerequisite for any great act of creation: ‘a little part of me has to ask: if I were more selfish, would my work be better? Should I aspire to greater selfishness?’

Dederer identifies a specific dynamic that complicates discourse around this subject – that has allowed it to be dismissed as unserious, unintellectual. In responding to revelations of monstrous behaviour, historic and contemporary. ‘We tell ourselves we’re having ethical thoughts when really what we’re having is moral feelings. We put words around these feelings and call them opinions,’ Dederer writes. ‘And feelings come from someplace more elemental than thought.’

We are disgusted, horrified, furious rather than philosophical. Angry women – women being ‘emotional’ – are seldom taken seriously. Women’s anger has historically been seen as a loss of power, of control. These moral feelings can be – and often are – swatted aside as ridiculous.

In Art Monsters Elkin asks how a woman might not only become an art monster but also claim that notion as something liberatory. Her roster of ‘monstrous’ artists includes Carolee Schneemann, Judy Chicago, Hannah Wilke and Lynda Benglis, all women who explored matters to do with the female body, often using their own as raw material. Elkin looks to artists and writers who are transgressive, who push against the accepted behaviours for a woman artist (including behaviours considered acceptable by those within the Women’s Movement). Might we celebrate this as a kind of feminist monstrousness, she asks, this honest engagement with the female body as hungry, randy, active, naked, capable, not on offer, unconcerned with pleasing? ‘Radical feminist expression is a making visible of what we have been told to cover up, to correct, to make smaller, mainstream,’ she writes.

au travail (2010), Miriam Cahn. Private collection.

By coincidence, an exhibition titled ‘Unruly Bodies’ opened at Goldsmiths Centre for Contemporary Art in London the same month Elkin’s book was published. In this show dedicated to the body, monstrousness often derived from a sense of the physical self bursting beyond its own limits. In a magnificent ceramic relief commissioned for the show, The Mannequins Reply by Paloma Proudfoot, women stitch one another into tight fashionable ‘skins’. Violent collapse feels imminent.

Many works in the show offered a vision of the female body as seeping and leaky – a commonplace that belies the leakiness of male bodies (ask any mother of a teenage boy.) Elkin pushes back against this convention in Art Monsters, suggesting that abjection becomes a way not to engage with other realities of the female body, among them sexual agency.

To focus exclusively on matters of the body suggests a separation between the corporeal and the intellectual – one that is challenged forcefully in the work of Miriam Cahn. Cahn’s paintings of pale figures emerging from inky darkness convey an intensity of experience – a burning, stripped sensitivity of the skin, a weighty fleshiness that nevertheless mingles with and relates to the space around it. The bodily quality of Cahn’s au travail (2010) carries an intensity of feeling – a blood-tinged, warrior-like woman who rejects invisibility and refuses to be old and quiet and overlooked. Cahn has noted how monstrosity is conventionally identified by the beholder and calls for positive connotations for the self-identifying monstrous.

The monstrosity of the figures in Cahn’s paintings is rooted in anger – that attribute considered so troublesome and unappealing in women, so easily dismissed. The artist’s correspondence and poetry are collected in a volume titled Writing in Rage (2019). Among the letters are precisely catalogued objections to certain displays or discussions of her work, fury at episodes of religious intolerance and institutional sexism, and spirited gestures of refusal. Among many other exhibitions, Cahn refused to participate in a survey of contemporary feminist art in Glasgow in 1989, which she considered five to eight years too late: ‘It is high time for us women artists to be more demanding about shows and not to be glad about everything we can get.’ Cahn will not shut up and be grateful. Her art points instead at ongoing atrocities – exploitations of power, sexual violence in conflict – and complex push-me-pull-you feelings about sexuality and ageing.

I am intoxicated by – and jealous of – Cahn’s eloquent rage and the steadfastness of her acts of refusal. Bulging, rooted, muscular, the women in her paintings are a monstrous response to monstrosity. They are avatars of an anger that will not so easily be swatted aside.

From the October 2023 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.