A Note From M Hill, Founder
AdFem began as an independent study created for the summer before my final year in the Kinetic Imaging Department at Virginia Commonwealth University. It began as a challenge to myself to create 30 unique works in 3 months inspired by the poem Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law by Adrienne Rich. I started this project with the naive idea that I would create a large quantity of pieces that were meant to be related to the words of someone else. Rich’s words sparked a fire under me that made me think, “These words need to be given something, they need to be interpreted and acted on.” What I have now realised is that those words were given action inside the poem shaped canister they originally inhabited and I did not need to give them physical shape to assign more meaning. If anything, I would have reduced my original feelings towards them with my own interpretations. Thus, my work would have made a mockery and a stunt of someone else’s breath.
With this revelation I came to realise that I could not pursue this project in the way it was originally set. It was an immature gesture to think I could provide a more valuable meaning with someone else’s work than they had already done themselves. No longer is it safe to assume that by simply copying a master’s work can the apprentice create their own kind of mastership. So with my own maturation has come the problem: I still need to create, what am I going to create?
My resolution came with the understanding that what I love above all, is talking about art. I have a great passion for discovering and sharing artists or works that I admire. However, what I learned through this research is that many of the artists that I find myself gravitating towards are women or other feminized minorities that don’t fit into the male artistic sphere, and that the reception these people are often met with is not equal. To me this is disheartening, as so many of these works transcend lines of gender, race, class, and status; but somehow they are only as valuable as the artist’s own personhood.
I started this project thinking I could take someone else’s words and give them my own meaning. What I realised is that if I just use my own words, I would not only be doing something infinitely more valuable to me, but that I could provide a space for other artist’s words, thoughts and work to be seen and heard.
Below is a transcript of the research I conducted that began AdFem.
AdFem—stemming from the latin Ad Feminam—was something I pulled from Adrienne Rich’s work at the very beginning of this journey. In Snapshots of a Daughter-In-Law she records, “The argument Ad Feminam…” Before I began analyzing this stanza, I circled this line in particular. There was something about the phrase that I connected to. When I looked up the translation, I found that the term is used to mark an attack on a woman’s character rather than answering whatever the woman has presented to you. This stunned me, as there was finally a word for what I felt I had been a victim of, not only in art, but sports, academia and, generally, by existing as a woman in the world. I have learned through my research that “fem” or feminised in the context that it currently exists, applies to a wider breadth of people than strictly women, and has served to become the greatest threat to what is standard.
In Global Gender Issues in the New Millennium, Anne Sisson Runyan and V. Spike Peterson explain how the term gender does not necessarily have to be synonymous with women only. “Gender is shaped by race and race is gendered. Moreover, because masculinities and femininities vary (by class, race/ethnicity, sexuality, age), some expressions of gender are subordinated to dominant constructions of gender. There are thus multiple masculinities that not only vary across cultures but also confer different levels of power.” (Runyan and Peterson, pg 4) In respect to how you are perceived in modern society, “gender is always raced, classed, sexualized, and nationalized, just as race, class, sexuality, and nationality are always gendered”(pg 5) and often in a way that sorts these people into lower spaces on the hegemonic hierarchy based on how many degrees of separation they experience from the Straight, White, Male norm.
In her work, Is Female to Male as Nature is to Culture?, Sherry B. Ortner describes the way in which women, and other feminized groups have been linked more closely to nature than to culture since the beginning of human society. Male groups, because they cannot create internally—via childbirth—are determined to create externally in the form of culture in order to transcend or trump nature. She claims that men, “In doing so create relatively lasting eternal transcendent objects while the woman creates only perishables—human beings.” (pg 2) The link between what is borne of a woman—and thus a feminised group—being valueless, and what is created by men—the dominant norm—having the most value is inherent in our society and goes back to the time of hunter-gather groups. We see a creation by a woman, or other feminized person and immediately assign it less value because both men and women have been socialized to assume that feminine intuition and relativity to nature insists that they are further from rational thought and cultural ideologies of strength, intelligence, and other masculine attributes that are given the greatest value in most societies.
To me Ad Feminam is a moment—in any space, regarding any action or thought—where in an attempt to acknowledge a feminized person’s achievements the statement must be qualified by reassuring the subjects otherness, rather than bringing them to the same level as the masculine norm. Work by this group can never be presented as work by an artist alone, it must be qualified as a “female artist”, “black artist”, “queer artist”, “artist of the third world”. These qualifiers create distance that reduces the perception of the quality of the work and the standards with which the work is discussed. This was explained best by the Victorian theorist John Stuart Mills, whose article, The Subjection of Women written in 1869, outlines that women’s contributions to art and science have suffered in the public eye because their work lacks originality. This deficit is attributed to women being kept from these environments until Mills’ time, “The writings of women abound in thoughts that are original in the sense of being not borrowed by [or] derived from the thinker’s own observations or intellectual processes. But women haven’t yet produced any of the great and luminous new ideas that form an era in thought, or any of the fundamentally new conceptions in art that open a vista of possible effects not before thought of, and found a new school” (Mills, pg 29). He goes on to say that because we have clung to the idea that women have “disabilities” outside of the home, we cannot truly allow for women to be as successful in the public sphere as we perceive them in the private.
Mills continues by arguing that just because women haven’t attained the same cultural, political, and social heights that men have, doesn’t mean that they can’t. It means there have been systematic preventions that kept them deprived of education and exposure to issues that dwell in the public sphere. This sentiment is reinforced by Edward Fitzgerald’s critique of Jane Austen: “She is capital as far as she goes, but she never goes out of the parlour.” (Bayuk, pg 3) Dismissing her work as less because she used her voice to tell what she knew, or rather, what she was forced to know.
It may seem that the Victorian era is far removed from the modern equality of our own time, and while it is true that women have created new schools of literature and art, it cannot be ignored that these feminine creations have not been held on the same plane as masculine ones. We can look to Confessional Poetry in the late fifties as an example. It is, for the most part, considered a feminine practice due to its dealings with issues of the self. For this, it is most often, and most negatively, associated with the poet Sylvia Plath. Her work, even after her death, is most commonly used as a reflection of her to be studied and dissected as an investigation of her abilities as a mother, her mental status, and the inevitability that she would never attain true success because of her inability to detach from her own feminine shortcomings. Because of the movement’s feminised status, describing a work as confessional removes value from the poem and the poet and classifies them as self-indulgent or juvenile. However, this is not the case in describing the work of Robert Lowell—a male confessional poet—whose status as an influential American Contemporary poet in the top tier is not marred by the feminine afflictions associated with female poets of the same movement.
The same can be said of contemporary performance art which, as a medium, is often ascribed less value than traditional forms of art because it has been heavily inundated, since its inception, with female artists. The very nature of performance—the incorporation of the body, movement, and brevity—places it on a feminine scale. However, when it is demonstrated in an incredibly masculine manner, as with Chris Burden’s Shoot, it is given more merit in the art world as being a critical or rational investigation of masculinity. It should be noted however, that Burden’s own masculinity is never called into question. Discussions on his incredibly radical work are rarely centered around the artist himself, or even his body. Instead, the concepts surrounding the work, and theory and thoughts behind it are dissected to their fullest extent. While his female equivalent, Marina Ambromovic, who has subjected her body to just as much peril, is often criticised for the emotional and sexual quality of her work, which because she is the focal point of her work, becomes a direct critique on her own emotional state and sexual practices.
I find qualifying femininity, sexuality, racial and class structures, as if the fragility or infirmity of mind and body is still a defining mark of these genres—regardless of massive social, political and economic strides, and despite facing opposition at every turn—is one of the more detrimental things that our society has done in an attempt to satisfy inequality for people who fall into a category of “other”. In her response to Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, Ellen Bayuk Rosenman claims that Woolf “strips off the illusion that art exists in some special, privileged cultural zone that exempts it from the considerations of money, politics, social class, and, especially, gender” (Rosenman, pg 1). Something that still hasn’t changed by the year 2015. It is almost as though by acknowledging and bringing our otherness to the forefront of the discussion, they can disregard us even further. As though every institution is saying, “Yes you can have the same things that we have, but they will go over here in a special category where your achievements will be diminished by the same societal standards that existed to prevent you from doing this in the first place.”
It would appear that if a minority does something, particularly in the realm of art, literature and theory, that the foremost discussion surrounding their creation will have nothing to do with the work. It will have to do with how impressive it is that the artist can even exist in the art world with an affliction such as a disadvantaged gender, race, class, sexuality, or ability. Often, the conversation will then diverge to how whatever was presented by the creator, is inferior because it has been limited by their inability to see past their own experiences. The conversation is directed towards the artist’s personhood or why they deserve or have not earned the right to be given attention, rather than the piece itself and the topics or concepts surrounding it. There is no critical discourse surrounding work that is perpetrated by someone who has been feminised by these hegemonic structures. People who can be situated in the realm of other, no matter how diverse their backgrounds, are given a homogenized space that they are allowed to occupy inside these predominantly male spaces. When you belong to the feminised grouping, even by one degree, you are assigned lesser value, regardless of ability. If we return to the thoughts of Mills, we will see that he believes that simply by the constructs of our society— and by not letting women achieve any higher than second best status—we are allowing men who may not be qualified to remain seated at the highest position, rather than put an actually qualified woman in the same place. This kind of societal stunting has led to a space that casts a critical lens on the productions of feminised individuals and groups, while allowing male mediocrity to carry on, undisturbed.
My hope with this project is to provide a space for the observation and understanding of these “others” in art, literature and theory that is removed from the societal expectation that we are any less because of what we are. This will be a place to showcase artwork and artists, together and on the same equal plane. However, this does not mean that I disregard the importance of these factors on a work. As someone who works primarily from a place of extreme self reflection and internal discovery, I want to give those works a place to shine. It also doesn’t mean that you can only have honest self reflection if you have had to endure a societal struggle. It simply means that giving the work the opportunity to speak before you are bombarded with the full declassification of a person’s humanity is something that I feel is not being given enough priority.
My goals for this are as follows:
-To subvert traditional means of curation and display by presenting work in a digital format, and refuse to have the work be devalued for this presentation. Rather, I shall see it as the optimal way to present work to the widest possible audience.
-To provide artists from a local to international scale an opportunity to have their work seen and discussed in a forum that would often be closed off to them either due to the content of their work, or societal challenges.
-To create an environment for myself where I am in charge of curating, advertising, marketing, and maintaining what has potential to be a very valuable space for many artists.
To me, this project is an effective way of taking something that I believe is wrong with the not only the art world, but the entire structure of our culture, and acting to change it. What matters the most to me is that no one ever has to feel like they are less valuable, simply by virtue of being placed low in the societal hierarchy at birth. I want everyone to feel like they have the ability to contribute to a larger conversation without feeling like what they have to say is unimportant because it deals in gender, sexuality, race, class, and abled subjects, without being defined by their subject matter. Simply put, I want equality in the realm of creativity.