Melt Together When Ready
(Regarding Lise Haller Baggesen's Lipstick Modernism)
One thing learned over the past year is that the stability of progress is never assured, that what was once assumed as bygone racism, sexism, homophobia and other deplorable ignorances can flare again if such corrosive flames are fanned. In poet Stacy Szymaszek’s recently-published stream of notated glances, gleanings, reflections, maunderings and starkly rendered opinions collectively titled Journal of Ugly Sites, one line jumps out for its annoyance and assumptive tone:
// having to say “I’m gay” in this day and age //
That “day and age” was July 2012. Things are far different now. That teetering summer, leading up to then-President Obama's re-election, was a span of hot apprehension that the societal progress of the past term might be lost, should the political Left fail to gather behind its compromised hero. Failure was avoided—seemingly miraculously—due to a variety of forces that would lose cohesion soon enough.
A cold, bone-chilling wave of patriarchal regression has swept the nation. Szymaszek’s declaration “I’m gay” is a political statement again, risky outside the cozy & collegial confines of urbane New York City, doubtful in its acceptability in far too many corners of the country, which now feels even vaster for its unfamiliarity. The poet’s exasperated lament hides deeper currents of resoluteness, risking seeming naïveté with its notion that positive change is permanent, as it weighs whether gains can actually be lost in the flash of a political instant. Thankfully, not every step of progress can be overthrown by two steps overnight, and some recent rafts of change are now embedded in the national consciousness. We have the youth to thank, who, having absorbed the debates into their DNA, no longer have patience for gender stereotypes. As weak as North Carolina’s repeal of the “bathroom law” was, it still happened, largely due to pressure from LGBTQ+ groups (and the state’s college-driven economic bottom line, which encourages sensitivity to the true diversity of student populations). Ground has been properly seeded for the unexpected long fight. Crucially, recent history cannot be unwritten, even if physical memory is trampled, erased & wiped with an ignorance-stained rag. Fragments of collective memory breathe on.
Of course histories are rewritten all the time. Teju Cole defines history as a necessity of healthy cultures:
that battle over versions of stories that marks the creative inner life of a society.
In so many elementary textbooks, colonialist invasion and slavery are glossed as if they weren’t the heinously vicious, hateful, murderous ventures they were, as if victory somehow erased those victimized people and their enduring legacies. The inverse of such white-washing are post-colonialist corrections that acknowledge far more complete, and complex, realities. Jansen's ‘classic’ History of Art may not have been intended as violently exclusive against women and anyone other than highly privileged European men, or as ignorant as it was comprehensive about one comparatively small, well-funded facet of cultural production over millennia, but it has fully earned whatever derision and correction is has received in our less stupid era. Whole histories of women in art, for example, judiciously chart the yawning chasm of lapses in recognition and acknowledgment, and serve as counter to patriarchal history.
An unfortunately hypothetical question: What if femininity, womanliness, motherhood and queer identity had been permitted open and equal acknowledgment throughout the history of Western art? As the West felt itself dominant in the world, warring almost constantly over its stolen treasures, we've all been stuck with the results of its long-term ignorance. Corrections are multiplying, though, and once-secret acknowledgments are coming out into the open.
Why such exclusion, based on a mistaken ideal of the supremacy of male concerns being somehow grander, less involved with minor stuff like child-rearing, were allowed to predominate for so long is the result of mistaken notions that big ideas drive the world. They don't. Big ideas are certainly transformative, which can produce disastrous ends as often as progressive results. This reasoning sums up traditional modernist thinking:
The goal is that sine qua non of art—unity. Most of the drama and excitement of life, as well as of art, lies in an eternal quest for this oneness and coherence. In life, as well as in art, the real kick, the genuine reward, comes in creating order and unity out of disorder and chaos. And, lest we forget, the wise, aware person knows in his bones that it is man's fate on earth never to be satisfied for long with any one order or any one unity that he creates.
We'll get to the problem of encoded white male supremacy in language, but for now, consider that 'unity' should be the literal goal of everything. Really? Couldn't the goal instead be finding ways to get along without demonizing each other? Is that a form of unity, or of a far more accurate recognition of multiplicity? Why do we keep yearning for unity when that almost always means exclusion of unlikeness? Purity is a dog-whistle of modernist thinking, as is reduction to absolutes, false unities, of art as divorced from the world of lived experience. The grand pronouncements of authoritative critics, Greenberg & Danto chief among them, followed the reductive line of Malevich's Black Square to a supposed logical conclusion, a zero-sum game of art as a puzzle to be solved.
Lipstick Suprematism is Lise Haller Baggesen’s response not only to art-historical glossing over of feminine influence, but also to the recent tidal wave of white maleness deluding our current cultural moment. If history could be rewritten to properly feminize the schematic formalism of Malevich, the lyrical notation of Kandinsky's abstracts, Leger’s steel-cylindrical mechanization of human shapes, and other tenets & go-tos of the modernist canon, would history dematerialize and sink into a morass of pink & glitter? The only dangers are to continued ignorance and small-mindedness, and to atrophied senses unable to admit the chorus of other voices surrounding whatever we think the central subject is. Women have been at least equal contributors to every facet of our world, even if not admitted or recognized as such, and Baggesen's work intends to redress the corpus in an inclusive rainbow of color and light. Glitter seems a most appropriate opposite to Malevich's and Reinhardt's black squares—it directly reflects its source, rather than seeking to obliterate or pretend autonomy from it. This is not a condition of purported unity, nor is it even of duality, between the subject and its source, but of multiplicity, of the relationship between a thing and the world as a constellation of influences, sources, effects, balances, and contradictions.
Baggesen found her voice with the high-concept Mothernism, a tome comprised of letters to her daughter, sister and mother, and presumably to every woman, since in some sense all are at least the products of mothers if not moms themselves. Mothernism is less a refutation or argument than a plainspoken integration of impulses to make and to be, and to exist, having made, as co-creator of a shared reality. After describing the generative 'pre-conception attraction complex' as a cooperative impulse between ovum and sperm, Baggesen writes:
...it is therefore not correct to say that the sperm "penetrates" the egg. Instead, they melt together when ready.
Already a perfectly concise refutation of the normative image of impregnation as a male-driven act, she goes on to draw an even finer egalitarian point:
Incapable of differentiating between forced entry or courtship, that bilateral readiness of egg and sperm is as dumb as it is deaf and blind; still it has an inherent intelligence.
To begin the chapter (Mother of Abstraction), Baggesen brilliantly reconfigures a half-century of modernist pursuit of non-referential 'purity':
Draw a circle. Draw another circle inside it. Draw a dot in the middle. In, further in. You have a target. An egg. a pregnancy. An abstraction.
Dudes haven’t traditionally been as good at subsuming the self. Despite centuries of fresh evidence that seeing the self as bilateral—at a minimum—furthers empathy and understanding, which in turn furthers peaceable co-existence (hopefully), a sense of rugged individualism pervades social discourse, even within a system designed fundamentally to protect those under power from those in it. Baggesen's emasculation of the process of impregnation succinctly elucidates the illusion that life is anything but a fundamentally cooperative venture, that even our presumed “singular geniuses” did anything but synthesize multitudes of information entering their consciousness through the discoveries and efforts of others, that the individual "marinates" in a culture of influences—thesis is made of synthesis. It's okay to give credit where credit is due—to the moment of novel synthesis and its instigator—but true credit would include the entire range of sources, not to mention inventors the synthesizer stole stuff from (Picasso at least deserves some credit for admitting his thievery). In the continuing inversions of white male privilege and modernist thinking, the artist’s sources were punished with obscurity, and thief rewarded for their clever adaptations. Telescopic vision is like that—it misses everything outside the tunnel between eye and gazed-upon object, bringing objects so close that context is lost.
In a similar way [as organic collective consciousness, and the "marination" process] you can imagine new ideas emerge, not as singular strokes of genius, but in response to the readiness of the collective; the singular mind being ripened in the marinade of the collective, until it is good and ready to conceive of an idea. So it was that at the beginning of the 20th century, the collective mind was good and ready to conceive of abstraction.
Baggesen goes on to tell the story of Hilma af Klimt, properly identified as one of the inventors of abstraction, and restores the form’s early connection to spirituality and qualities of ‘otherness’ not generally ascribed to the ‘traditional’ notion of singular genius, always somehow the province of men rather than women, despite the obvious evidence otherwise.
Sometimes coincidences suggest a collective subconscious at work, connecting thoughts as though they were meant to occur in the same space and time. Such was the coincidence of The Warming Hive at The Open & The Oven with Lise Haller Baggesen's entry into the Nicholas Frank Public Library on April 1. A womb-like construction (the Hive) meant for social comfort, paired with the Mothernism author's post-election paintings, opened a social space where comfort and the discomfort of recent events could mingle amiably.
In Baggesen’s 2014 treatise Mothernism, she cites the influence of Nikki de Saint Phalle on subsequent generations of women artists, in particular her 1966 HON piece, the gloriously giant open-legged mama that gave walk-in-&-out access back into and out of her sculptural womb. The Hive was its own womblike enclosure, an example of inflatable architecture built around The Oven, which warmed the crowd with delicious, warming fare cooked on the spot by chef Peter Sandroni of Milwaukee’s La Merenda. The mutual theme of nurture was inescapable, even if the purpose and participating makers of the Hive did not necessarily think of their construction as a mothering device. Inside The Open, Baggesen's Lipstick Suprematist Sculpture recalled Janine Antoni's remaking of minimalist sculpture in her own image, in intent if not in form or material. Baggesen's Sculpture is a dress-form, somewhat like a dirndl, recalling Leger's painted figures in its tubular construction but pink-hued with a fashionable grey accenting. To remake the human form as a set of tubes, when in its most basic form it is a tube, with tubes attached, is to rehumanize Leger's formalization of the body as an industrial-era machine, a reducible and replaceable form stripped of nuance, anomaly, and character. Underneath Baggesen's flash and glitz is a desire to restore desire to formalist thinking, to recurve its straight lines into eccentricities, she plays an expansive Gaudi to the regular geometries of modernist reductiveness.
Like HON, the Warming Hive is rounded and bulbous—imagine a pregnant Michelin Woman’s midsection—named for a queen-centered insect-domestic space wherein males and maleness are sacrificed for the good health and function of the community. The Hive’s primary mover is Jordan Nelson, a muscular blonde easily mistakable for an archetypal college-age male—brawn over brains, blunt, inexpressive, controlling—but who exhibits a gentle, quiet, nurturing and collaborative demeanor, along with enthusiasm to offer whatever help is needed. Along with a team of fellow students, Nelson designed the Hive as a temporary construction for Whitney Moon’s pneumatic architecture class at UW-Milwaukee’s SARUP, a thoughtful response to a prompt asking for attention to The Open’s concept and physical space. Nelson’s initial Hive proposal expanded beyond the class and semester, and became his baby, brought to fruition largely through his own enthusiasm and commitment. Nelson maintains full recognition of the entire system of supports that birthed the project, and eschews singular credit. The Hive is one example of patriarchal inversion that offers hope for a more mutual future, and in its April Fool’s Day premiere, did honor to Baggesen’s work.
1. Stacy Szymaszek, The Journal of Ugly Sites, Fence Books [Albany], 2016: “7.25.12 – 7.27.12,” p. 81.
3. Teju Cole, Every Day Is For The Thief, Random House [New York], 2014, p. 117.
4. For example: Whitney Chadwick, Women, Art and Society (World of Art series), Thames and Hudson Ltd., [London] 1990, p. 15. This quote from the introduction (“Art History and the Woman Artist”) summarizes one key facet of the issue, arising early in the period in question, and rather gently ascribes the problem to patriarchy:
The origins of art history’s focus on the personalities and work of exceptional individuals can be traced back to the early Renaissance desire to celebrate Italian cities and their achievements by focusing on their more remarkable male citizens. The first formulation of the new ideal of the artist as a learned man, and the work of art as the unique expression of a gifted individual, appears in Leon Battista Alberti’s treatise, On Painting, first published in 1435. Modern art historical scholarship, beginning in the late eighteenth century and profoundly influenced by Idealist philosophy with its emphasis on the autonomy of the art object, has closely identified with this view of the artist as a solitary genius, his creativity mapped and given value in monographs and catalogues. Since the nineteenth century, art history has also been closely aligned with the establishing of authorship, which forms the basis of the economic valuing of works of Western art. Our language and our expectations about art have tended to rank art produced by woman below that of men in “quality,” and thus their work is often of lesser monetary value. This has profoundly influenced our knowledge and understanding of the contributions made by women to painting and sculpture. The number of women artists, well known in their own day, for whom no work now exists is a tantalizing indication of the vagaries of artistic attribution.
5. Just one tiny example, gleaned from a recent issue of the London Review of Books [Vol. 39 No. 3, 2 FEB 2017] in a review of Bruce Springsteen’s new biography Born To Run: Both Springsteen & Frank Sinatra regard their audiences as 'mother,' yet both wittingly or unwittingly (due to their overweening ambition) participated in the patriarchal exclusion of women from equal consideration in the quest for greatness. John Lennon, it seems, evolved to recognize & admit his errors, finally giving actual credit where credit was due: https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2017/jun/15/yoko-ono-john-lennon-imagine-songwriting-credit
6. Sine qua non is a common Latin phrase still in use, defined by my onboard dictionary as “an essential condition; a thing that is absolutely necessary.” The quote [Donald L. Weisman, The Visual Arts as Human Experience, 1970, Prentice-Hall, Inc. [New Jersey], p. 77] is telling for its dependence on the illusory concept of “unity,” which hews close to other fallacies like “purity,” “order,” hierarchy, privilege—as well as for its use of exclusionary and assumptive language, as though “men” were the only beings worth consideration.
7. The full passage, for reference (Lise Haller, Mothernism, Green Lantern Press [Chicago] & Poor Farm Press [Manawa], 2014):
I was basking in that maternally blind love the other day during my yoga practice, visualizing an impregnation. Like one of those movies you will watch in sex-ed class; a microscopic view zooming in on millions and millions of little tadpole spermatozoids racing toward the expectant egg cell like a venereal Survival of the Fittest, getting close and closer, until the lucky winner gets to dive in, head first ... But that's not quite how it happens. In reality, the impregnation of an egg cell is not the work of one fit little bastard's superior tail fin. Rather, the fertilization of an egg is a collaborative project in which the egg is marinated in all that lively willing and able spunk, until by some enzymatic osmosis the membrane protecting the egg becomes porous, and she is READY! This "marinating," — called the pre-conception attraction complex — preempts the fusion of egg and sperm cell, and is a process that can take up to several hours. The flocking sperm shed their acrosome (outside shell), prodding the membrane of the egg cell, while provoking a chemical change in her outer "coat" until it merges with the membrane of one (and only one) sperm cell allowing their DNA to mingle in one cell: the zygote.
8. Baggesen, ibid.
9. A frequent citation of mine, Kevin Young’s The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness [Graywolf Press (Minneapolis), 2012] also restores the origins of Modernism, in his estimation to its black forebears. Young’s and Baggesen’s formulations join the growing chorus of redress, helping to right the wrongs of near-blind patriarchal renderings of art history.
Young's writings on the black origins of Modernism are extensive, but two salient quotations (pp. 136-137) are:
This idea of blackness containing modernism, and vice versa, has been increasingly recognized by critics detailing Harlem's role in New York's emergence as a literary capital. [Emphasis mine]
While the era and movement have been greatly explored in recent years, the Harlem or New Negro Renaissance's importance, intricacies, and intimacies cannot be overstated—if only to reemphasize how the achievement of these African American writers (and artists) should be thought of as one of the heights of modernism.
10. I cannot, shall not forget that my friend Mike Mikulay, in studies to become a Registered Nurse, described his revelation that the human body is essentially “a tube.”
11. Fully aware that I’m trafficking in common white male stereotypes, I offer this as backup: “The Universal Phenomenon of Men Interrupting Women,” https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/14/business/women-sexism-work-huffington-kamala-harris.html?hp&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&clickSource=story-heading&module=second-column-region®ion=top-news&WT.nav=top-news&_r=0
12. The University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee’s School of ARchitecture & Urban Planning is locally renowned for its forward-thinking, holistic & community-centered approach.