Blood and Guts in Art School

Art Monsters: Unruly Bodies in Feminist Art BY Lauren Elkin. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 368 pages. $35.

The cover of Art Monsters: Unruly Bodies in Feminist Art

NIKKI SHANER-BRADFORD: Your new book Art Monsters: Unruly Bodies in Feminist Art (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $35) riffs on a term many people first heard in Jenny Offill’s 2014 novel, Dept. of Speculation. Offill’s narrator says, “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 with mundane things.” What did you think of Offill’s term, and what does it mean in your book? 

LAUREN ELKIN: Offill’s “art monster” was quickly taken up in the debate over whether one could be both artist and mother, but I understood it in terms of the unshakable self-belief it takes to be an artist of any kind: to impose yourself and your work on the world, the commitment to taking up space, to being listened to, to forcing people to take notice. I wanted to rethink the monster as a useful figure, borrowing more from the Augustinian notion of the monster as a sign or a wonder than from the Aristotelian concept of something threatening. I was partly following the trans theorist Susan Stryker, who urged trans and nonbinary people to draw subversive energy from that marvelous Augustinian monster. I was also influenced by the writer Chris Kraus, who describes the female monster in I Love Dick as “the Blob”: “unwise and unstoppable.” I was less interested in who was or wasn’t an art monster than in thinking about it as a noun-verb construction. What happens when we make monsters a verb? Art monsters. How? What does an aesthetics of monstrosity allow us to do or to say?

That debate frames the artist as working against or outside of a community rather than creating within one. You advocate for the opposite . . .

The idea that art competes with motherhood is just one example of how pursuing your art can be construed as monstrous. Many of the women that I write about, like Eva Hesse, Hannah Wilke, and Carolee Schneemann, didn’t have children. Most people are embroiled in a network of responsibilities and obligations. That can’t mean you can’t do the work.

Take Vanessa Bell, whom I used to think of just as Virginia Woolf’s painter sister. She was a mother, and she wrote (perhaps paraphrasing her more famous sister) that it is quite difficult to create when one doesn’t have the space to do it. That’s such a sweet rearticulation of the monstrous idea that we have to claim space for ourselves and get big and make claws. Bell was making sure everyone was looked after, but the work she was making was incredibly loud and bright. It could be something as restrained as thinking, I’m just going to quietly make this revolutionary work

The Eva Hesse 1970 work No title—a tangled latex-rope-and-wire sculpture—provides a helpful visual for how the book proceeds. Even as you focus on women artists who were active in the 1970s, you note that there’s a bleed and a messiness there. They’re working in a forward-backward, now-then mode. Were there points where you felt pressured to move in one direction?

There’s an agreed-upon structure for nonfiction books, but every single time I tried to write the traditional introduction, it took me in all different directions. I needed to follow the thread wherever it went. The Eva Hesse image was very useful to me because I knew that I couldn’t make the book artificially clean. The urgency came from the feeling of all the different women crowding in and their voices overlapping. Hesse’s tangle was a better image for me than trying to lay out the threads separately.

I also drew on an idea in Eileen Myles’s 2001 poem “Writing”: “I can / connect // any two / things // that’s / god // teeny piece / of bandaid.”

In the book, the slash is one of your Band-Aids, both as a punctuation mark that links paragraphs on the page and as a symbol and an action.

For most of the book, it was less a purposeful setting of two fragments together and more intuitive and generative. I started using the slash unconsciously when I was drafting some early material, and the project of delineating a feminist aesthetics of monstrosity became primarily a question of linking, of bringing together people who, for reasons of discipline or convention, aren’t usually written about side by side. The slash allowed me to juxtapose ideas like a mosaic.

How does the slash function in this passage?

 “Three Guineas is a bid to stop dusting over the imperfections. Blow up St Paul’s with a lifetime’s worth of face powder.


(In 1973 Ana Mendieta carves her silhouette into the earth, lines it with gunpowder, sets it alight.)”

The idea of powder yielded the reference to Ana Mendieta’s “Siluetas” series. Art Monsters is very attuned to materials and materiality, and when I spotted a resonance like this one—a visual rhyme—I included it. The slash enabled me to do that, whereas, in a conventional work of criticism, I’d have to write through that transition. The slash allowed me to bricolage the two references together.

Can we do a bit of slashing here? Can you talk about your experiences of Carolee Schneemann’s 1967 film Fuses alongside Kathy Acker’s work? There’s something about shame here . . . 

I first saw Fuses at the 2017 MoMA PS 1 retrospective, in the context of Schneemann’s early kinetic paintings, which she designed to spin, burn, or pop out from the wall. It was clear she was a painter who wanted to get away from the two-dimensional canvas. In that context, Fuses signified so much more than a sex film. It was a dynamic self-portrait of the artist as a sexual being. I was thinking about that as I watched it, spellbound, but also feeling keenly embarrassed to be in a gallery with a bunch of strangers watching people have sex on such a large scale—the screen must have been twenty feet tall. And I think Schneemann was probably interested in that kind of embarrassment. Why should we feel shame watching two people have sex?

But then, when I reread my draft chapter about Kathy Acker, I realized that I was writing about Acker and masturbation and the body and the drive to get the body into language, and I had said nothing about Acker’s sex tape! I had been avoiding it. So, I watched it—it’s an amazing document. And I was physically affected by it: that’s the body, that’s just chemistry. I thought this is not what I wanted. But that’s what this book is about. The bodily stuff that we want, the bodily stuff we don’t want. 

Do you think artists like Acker, Schneemann, and Mendieta were playing with the idea of the male genius?

Definitely. But the concept of “genius” has prevented us from understanding the structural ways in which some people get to be considered in that category and others don’t. That was Linda Nochlin’s whole point in her foundational 1971 essay, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” Nochlin’s answer isn’t to say, “Yes, there were! Look at all the great women artists!”—though obviously, that’s a fine and important thing to do. Nochlin is more interested in the mechanisms by which “greatness” is determined and gatekept. I like what Sheila Heti says about it in her novel How Should a Person Be?: “One good thing about being a woman is we haven’t too many examples yet of what a genius looks like. It could be me.”

Those three artists were also all met with intense misogyny and vitriol. Bell and George Sand, by contrast, don’t typically come to mind in those groupings. Do we need to assess artists like Bell and Acker in the same terms?

You’re right: when Fuses was shown at the Cannes Film Festival in 1968, something like forty men in the audience hated it so much they shredded the seats with razor blades. (I always wondered: Is that just what you did as a serious film person in the late ’60s—carried something sharp with you in case you needed to slash something to ribbons in protest?)

But yes, it shakes things up to talk about Bell and Schneemann in the same book, let alone in the same terms. I was aiming for a feminism of aggregation, of space-claiming, that listened as much to the silent, self-effacing painters like Bell as much as to the punk self-mythologizers like Acker.

Art monstering then refers less to having a Hemingway-style outsize reputation than to the work itself. Has your own work changed because this book gave you permission to slash and roam?

Writing Art Monsters, I was aware that I was navigating issues of my own obedience at the same time that I was writing about disobedience and monstrosity. Because of my training as a scholar, I feel compelled to cite widely and deeply partly because I’m writing into a conversation that predates me and also to demonstrate I’ve done the research and I’m not just some schmo writing about getting turned on by Kathy Acker. But I admire writing that just gets on with it without constantly footnoting itself. I still recoil at the idea of writing without citations, but that could be a way to throw off feelings of obedience and obligation. To just write—not in a hobbled, constantly referencing other people way.

Yet there is a feminist tradition of having a community backing your voice. Instead of framing feminist art in terms of abjection, you advocate for an approach that centers exchange.

Exchange is a nice way to think about it. In Marina Abramovic’s 1974 performance piece Rhythm 0, she placed seventy-two objects on a long, white table. There were things like a perfume bottle, flowers, and a newspaper, but also a knife, a whip, and a bullet with a gun. People could do what they wanted to her body for the duration of the piece, using those props. She invited the audience to co-create the work with her and centered their responsibility to be ethical participants. Will you pick up the gun? That was the challenge she leveled at the audience.

We could attack perceived narcissism or abjection in someone’s work—we could pick up the gun. Or we could just not. The invitation is there: artists and writers are always giving us that choice. 

Nikki Shaner-Bradford is a writer who lives between Paris and New York.