A.R.T. and Artists:
Feminist Body Theory


Marian Staats

Loyola University, Chicago

Copyright (c) 1998 by Marian Staats, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. Copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the editors are notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.

Review of:

Rosemary Betterton. An Intimate Distance. New York: Routledge, 1996.

  1. In An Intimate Distance, art historian Rosemary Betterton explores how women artists and theorists have addressed the changing relationships between women, the body, and its representation, both in art and in other cultural discourses such as psychoanalysis, history, and medicine. In these essays Betterton covers a wide range of subjects, from the women's suffrage movement, to the transgressive pleasures of food art, to contemporary reproductive technologies. The "intimate distance" of the title refers to the woman artist's distant yet intimate relation with her female subject, where the distance required to observe is complicated by her intimacy with the woman observed. Though Betterton's thesis--that women's art, by reinscribing the female body in ways that transgress its boundaries and reimagine its potentials, has begun to reconstruct our conceptions of what femininity and female bodies might mean for our culture--isn't exactly new, her examination of the shift in women's art and theorizing from issues of representation to the question of embodied subjectivity is comprehensive and well elaborated. She draws examples from private letters and journals, news articles and political cartoons, and women artists' paintings, videos, and installations.

  2. Betterton's project moves beyond the "negative aesthetics" of 70s and 80s feminist cultural theory, which focused on deconstructing existing representational forms and privileged textual strategies that refused identification between viewer and image. Rather, she examines the work of feminist artists who represent the sexual body in ways that cannot be contained within the paradigmatic "male gaze" and that yet manage to avoid what Nancy Miller has termed "the feminist bugaboo about essentialism." Betterton sketches the theoretical framework for her analysis in a chapter that draws primarily on the work of Luce Irigaray and Julia Kristeva. She views their rewriting of Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis as enabling an understanding of how women's embodiment and female sexuality can be translated into a language that operates in a nonlinear, anti-logical way. Such language creates ruptures in western systems and discourses that exclude or oppress women, and it offers spaces for reinhabiting the social body of modernity with their previously absent forms.

  3. In two chapters that look at the political and artistic reconfiguration of female embodiment between 1890 and 1914, Betterton maps some strategies women developed for taking possession of the body in representation and for engaging with the issues of female desire and agency. While offering new readings of Paula Modersohn-Becker and Kathe Kollwitz, she links the work of these two important women artists of the early twentieth century with debates in German socialism and anthropology about the role of women, sexuality, and motherhood. In so doing, she demonstrates how each artist used the maternal nude to address the contradiction of women's sexual and creative identity at a time when the roles of artist and mother were viewed as irreconcilable. Though the nude was readily available as an image for affirming male artistic identity, Modersohn-Becker and Kollwitz worked through a complex process of negotiating desires to inhabit the body of the artist, as well as that of the mother, in order to represent maternal subjectivity as one condition of artistic production. Betterton likewise shows how patriotic mothers of the women's suffrage movement constructed resistant subjectivities through imaging and narrative. Drawing inspiration from Joan of Arc as a model of self-possession, suffrage militants translated the internal space of the violated female body from private into public and political domains through their own accounts of the tortures of imprisonment and forced feeding. Here Betterton also discusses various ways that suffragists rewrote traditional scripts of deviant sexuality and hysteria so automatically associated with women's activism; in addition, she indicates how suffrage supporters' enthusiasm for Olive Schreiner's narratives of sexual independence, among others, reflected a greater interest in variety and freedom outside heterosexual norms than previously documented.

  4. In subsequent essays Betterton elaborates on issues of female desire and agency, and also examines relationships between body and voice and the split subjectivity of the woman artist. Some of her descriptions and analyses of abstract art are vague and unconvincing, probably due in part to the difficulty of translating these artworks into the radically different discourse of criticism. However, in chapters on nonrepresentational painting, assisted reproductive technologies (A.R.T.), and postcolonial feminist art practices, Betterton is generally very good at showing why we need to consider the texts of the women she has selected. In a particularly compelling essay, "Body Horror?" she looks at a number of fascinating videos and installations by Jayne Parker, Nicoletta Comand, Laura Godfrey-Isaacs, and Helen Chadwick, which trope on the deep sensuality of food, food fetishism, and bodily transformation to explore the complex relations between women and eating, sexuality, and death.

  5. While Betterton uses revisionist psychoanalysis in order to theorize how women artists challenge rigid notions of maternal subjectivity, her reliance on psychoanalytic theory, especially her focus on motherhood, emphasizes gender differences and neglects alternatives to the maternal subject. As I read, I kept wondering about women who either can't or choose not to be mothers and how they would figure in her theorizing. Do we limit our notions of womanhood when we assume that women are primarily defined through motherhood or through some fraught relation to the maternal? What about other cultural influences on female embodiment and sexuality? A similar problem with An Intimate Distance is that race and ethnicity are handled in a single chapter on postcolonial feminist art, and do not figure as substantially in chapters on A.R.T. and abjection as one might expect, given that race figures so prominently in cultural notions of purity and propriety, not to mention metaphors of the "proper" woman--and motherhood. And what about desires between and among women that don't fit the mother-child configuration? Though she briefly cites several lesbian theorists in her early chapters and comments on the transgendered, transvestite appeal of Joan of Arc, she virtually ignores the lives, loves, and bodies of women who stray more radically from Oedipal plots. She also neglects feminist theorists such as Teresa de Lauretis and Judith Butler who have reframed psychoanalytic debates and concepts to account for queerly embodied subjectivities. These complaints aside, I much enjoyed reading the book and learning about such an exciting group of women painters, performers, and installation artists, who are re-imagining bodies and sexualities in ways that enable stimulating and productive cross-identifications among men and women, and between various identity formations.

Back to Contents Page || Back to Jouvert Mainpage