Soon to graduate with an MFA degree, I am now an Emerging Artist, emerging from my pupil/pupa stage of development into the art world at large. This State of Emerging is sometimes confused with a State of Emergency. It seems to require a faith great enough to walk on water--emerge or submerge. Or just merge--but with what? With the sites of a modernist mainstream? With alternative sites that uphold a true postmodern ideology? And can these sites/sights be distinguished from each other? In quest of an ideological and economic niche to occupy, I currently have a schizophrenic attitude that combines a personal vocational ambition within the prevailing art system and a deconstructivist skepticism of the same system. After all, the Art Hierarchy seems to be a classic example of Lacan's Phallus (1): we see artists, critics, dealers et al, slipping and sliding in a frenzy of activity on the sides of the Hierarchy, on their way up, on their way down, up, down, up, down, faster and faster, and from the top gushes forth power, prestige, glamour and privilege, while everyone waits for the trickle-down effect.
In negotiating a path through the status quo and seeking new borders and new territories, humor is a vital and empowering tool. It helps me make peace with inner opposing feelings. It allows me to look obliquely at my anxieties, anger and sadness, accept my imperfections and lighten up. Laughter is related to freedom of spirit and freedom of speech. It is a way to reclaim identity, image and representation. It can be irreverent, rowdy and rebellious. Clowning around and being goofy and zany disrupts the rigid codes and conventions that are not only out there in the world, but also internalized into self images that hold me back. Humor breaks down barriers, breaks up/cracks up structures of domination.
One of the structures of domination that we are trapped by is the patriarchal language we speak. We can "know" outside of language, but we cannot speak outside of language. Language may imprison our thoughts even on the unconscious level, giving subliminal clues that are transmitted and received. When you see that the word "semantics" contains: semen man some antics, you get an idea how semantics can really fuck with you. Feminine language is a missing language in a patriarchy; we are currently developing symbolism. One strategy is to dismantle words that perpetuate male domination, and to create and reclaim words that value femaleness. Puns and jokes also help to disrupt the single meaning or single view and work to create new meanings. As Jo Anna Isaak writes in The Revolutionary Power of Women's Laughter, "The conventions and power of language are disrupted by a witticism or a meta-language athwart the text, annihilating for an instant its domination by the challenge of nonsense." (2)
There is an elegant relationship between wit and wisdom, between being light and seeing light. An example is the connection between humor and wisdom found hidden within the history of the word "weird." Weird now means off-the-wall, out of place and funky, and may have a humorous connotation such as zany or goofy. Weird originally meant destiny; the Weirds were women who had the power to foresee and control future events.(3) The feminist philosopher Mary Daly discusses reshaping patriarchal words in a re-visionary sense, and suggests that "we strive to make the world weirder." (4)
The developing feminine symbolism is of course not only in the structure of language but also appears as signs, codes and images on many levels. In my artwork I am playing with text and double meanings of words. I have also been investigating the meaning of the color pink, as it has come to symbolize the feminine, and have been playing with a double meaning, or "pun", of pink. Since pink is used for female childhood, I first attempted to decode the pink as it was used in my childhood in the 1950's mentality. After WWII there was an attempt to push women back from the work force into the domestic sphere. The color pink appeared in domestic interiors at that time in many manifestations, and it served to reinforce femininity as a fixed category within an era of highly stereotypical models of gender. (5) Pink stood for domesticity, containment, dependency, sweetness and submissiveness. Feminist theory has attempted to deconstruct such "naturalized" femininity with parody and to use humor and exaggeration to expose the masquerade. (6)
Using the notion of gender parody, I was curious to see if I could rethink pink, and to actually recode it so that it came to stand for a new incarnation of the color, a peri-postpatriarchal pink. My desire was for pink to be: aggressive not submissive, insubordinate not obedient, fluid not fixed, active not passive, resisting not yielding, and independent not dependent. Could pink be reconfigured and carry new meaning? In addition to using pink in my paintings, I also began wearing a lot of pink as part of the playful dismantling tactic of exaggeration. Shopping for clothes became easier; at the local Community Value Center, all the pink clothes are conveniently grouped together. I no longer had to worry so much about color matching, although some pinks do clash with each other. Additionally I dabbled in pink lipstick and pink fingernail polish. As well as being fun and funny, this ongoing performance piece produced some unexpected results. I found that some men "read" the pink in the traditional code of pink, and treated me subtly in accordance with this perspective, having, of course, no idea of my imposter role and the "pun" on pink. This was very amusing and weird. I found that the pink, first used as masquerade, also took on a transformative and nurturing quality. It became symbolic of a protective shield or harbor, as well as an expanded sexual identity. Pink is also a symbolic color of the heart, nurturing and restoring my wounded femininity.
Perhaps this potential of pink to be a symbol of a new self image, attitude and lifestyle, will help in my search for an ideological niche and the pink paradigm. Certainly humor will help me navigate through the Hierarchy both physically and philosophically. As a newly emerging artist at large in the world, I will strive to make the art world Weirder. ¥
1. Madan Sarup, An Introductory Guide to Post-Structuralism and Postmodernism, 2nd ed. (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1993) 16, 27-28. Lacans concept of the phallus, as distinguished from the penis, is that the phallus is a symbolic attribute of power in culture and signifies plentitude. Some feminists have criticized Lacan for being phallocentric, privileging masculinity and perceiving women as lack.
2. Jo Anna Isaak, ed., Feminism and Contemporary Art: the Revolutionary Power of Womens Laughter (London:
Routledge Press, 1996) 15.
3. Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed., 1989.
4. Mary Daly, Beyond God the Father (Boston: Beacon Press, 1985) xxvi.
5. Penny Spark, As Long as Its Pink: the Sexual Politics of Taste (London: Pandora, 1995) 170, 196-198.
6. Pamela Robertson, Guilty Pleasures: Feminist Camp from Mae West to Madonna (London, Durham: Duke University Press, 1996) 6, 10-12.
Helen Wood is currently an MFA candidate at San Jose State University. She is interested in how feminist theory applies to the practices of both art and life.
The Importance of Lightness