What is the work of art for violence against women?

Author: Dr Lola Frost

The work of art, and here I mean what art does, is difficult to describe.  Our experience of art exceeds our understanding, but also calls for an interpretation of that experience. My studies have focussed on what is aesthetically, politically and ethically at stake at the interface between experience and interpretation. Via consideration of a few images, I here explore how ethics and norms are caught up in that interface.

But before I do so, a few thoughts on what the work of art can do for violence against women. Unlike war, which is commonly perceived of as the public enactment of militarised aggression between societies and states, practices of misogyny and of violence against women are mostly conducted beyond public scrutiny. That it is secret, or hidden, is a key feature of the way in which misogyny undermines the rights, dignity and freedom of women. This raises the spectre of an omnipresent and unethical misogynistic ‘fog’ that obscures those arguments, values and practices mustered to sustain control over women’s bodies, desires, freedom and agency.

Unlike law and political action, works of art cannot deliver justice. But they can mediate injustice by illuminating the ethical failures tied up, for example, in that misogynistic ‘fog’. That illumination, or what some call an aesthetic education – involves an ethically entangled and experiential provocation that cannot be reduced to cognition. Participants in the practice we call art, are inscribed into an experiential and pluralising spectrum that veers between and across, sense and understanding. As co-participants in that practice, artists and audiences individually grapple with processes and unconscious affects which invite their uniquely inflected imaginative interpretation, creative ecstasy and affective approval or disavowal.  In this short presentation, I briefly explore how such processual, performative and aesthetic entanglements are also tied up with norms and ethics.  

Penny Siopis, Shame series (2002-2005). Permission to reproduce granted by Stevenson gallery.

For example, in provoking our recognition of the psychological and ethical offence that rape and violence against women entails, Penny Siopis’ astonishing Shame series (2002-2005), is both an ethical identification with that shame – as a call to compassion – and an indictment of the misogynistic social order that produces it. A response to the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Siopis claims that this body of work is the articulation of a “poetics of vulnerability”. By this she means, I think, that these images carry the vulnerabilities of those whose violations she seeks to make public – as well as something of her affective and creative commitments that require her own undoing – itself an ecstatic ethical and normatively inflected aesthetic performance. 

Louise Bourgeois claims that childhood family traumas relating to her father and the patriarchal construction of female identity, were exorcised through her art practice, whose narratives of desire, transformation and resistance mount a subliminal critique of misogynistic and patriarchal systems of domination. Bourgeois claims that her famous ‘spider’ sculptures allude to the strength of her mother, where metaphors of spinning, weaving, nurture and protection provoke, and threaten, alternatives to the phallocentric status quo. Our experience of these mesmerising ‘creatures’ is caught up in the ethical alternatives posed by Bourgeois’ artworks to contest the phallocentric status quo by normatively invoking an alternative and grotesquely beautiful, female power.

Lola Frost, Coming Alive. Permission to reproduce granted by the artist.

My painting, titled Coming Alive, is saturated by libidinal investments and is part of a longstanding quest to resist the repression of desire and the patriarchal subordination of women. The fractal life-force of this painting is folded into this visceral body/umbilical cord assemblage, that rises vertically and ‘aspirationally’ – against those hidden repressions laid down by a phallocentric project to demean, silence, and control women, including their bodies, agency and desires.   This abject assemblage both bears the traces of, and contests, such misogynistic violation by folding the femaleness of that ‘pregnant belly’ and ‘umbilical cord’ into an anonymous and unconscious life-force energy. That normatively entangled experiential provocation, oscillates between a sense of triumph and rage; vulnerability and power; sensuality and threat. 

Zanele Muholi, Aphelile IV (2020). Permission to reproduce granted by Stevenson gallery.

Lastly Zanele Muholi’s image titled Aphelile is an interrogation of a politics of representation and of ‘the gaze’. In the traditions of portrait painting and photography, the work of that gaze has also been pressed into sustaining racial, gendered and heteronormative hierarchies that disavow racial violence and demean women of colour. Muholi’s activist work within the LGBTQI+ community in South Africa is an explicit ethical address of the violence that non-gender-conforming individuals suffer because they threaten hegemonic heteronormativity. This medically attired self-re-presentation contests misogynistic and racist structures of domination by amplifying the blackness, seductiveness, agency and vulnerability of their body and face – whose return gaze is a normative challenge to each viewer. 

The work that art does, I have argued here, is registered as an interpretive and experiential event that cannot be fully understood. Yet, this nexus is normatively saturated and ethically alive – and as such, the work of art can be an unconscious diagnostic for, and a mediation of, any number of ethical failures – including misogynistic abuse.

About the author: Dr Lola Frost is an artist and a Visiting Fellow in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London. Her interdisciplinary research focuses on the overlaps and tensions between art practice, international relations and political theory. Lola Frost’s painting practice lays claim to an anti-identarian ethos that contests the demands and values of the phallogocentric order. For more information please visit www.lolafrost.net.

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