Talking about Art

Feminism in stitches.

Next week is International Women’s Day which has got me thinking. I am a feminist. That means I believe in equality for everyone. I don’t think that’s particularly controversial but for some reason the term seems to be shrouded in confusion and discombobulation (I have never used that word in a sentence before but its seemed to fit nicely with what I wanted to say).

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Jenny Eclair

Last week British comedian Jenny Eclair was invited onto BBC Radio 4’s Front Row to debate which piece of “female-generated” work would best mark 100 years since many women got the vote.

 

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Tracey’s Bed

She was batting for Tracey Emin’s installation, “My Bed”, while a bright young female writer and performer was championing the Nora Ephron film When Harry Met Sally.

Surprisingly, to both me and Jenny Eclair, more listeners voted on twitter for When Harry Met Sally than “My Bed”. It was a landslide, in fact. What had gone wrong? Had a load of male trolls or even Russian bots voted for  When Harry met Sally? Were young people just stupid?

But then I thought about it. Both pieces are about women (Nora Ephron and Meg Ryan in When Harry… and Tracey Emin) openly expressing the reality of their sex lives in a frank way.  For Tracey it was as a heavy-drinking, chain-smoking woman falling to pieces in her period-stained bed, for Meg it was about showing that man cannot tell when women are faking an orgasm (with all her clothes on in a deli), as well as exploring the question can men and women ever “just be friends?” Perhaps, more importantly it demonstrated that for modern women friendship and emotional equality, not just sex, is at the heart at the most rewarding relationships, in a Hollywood, fluffy way.

 

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Tracey’s Tent

I would say, however, that Jenny Eclair, missed a trick when she offered up Tracey Emin’s “My Bed” to Front Row audiences. She would have done better with Emin’s “tent” Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963–1995. Her reinvention use of a traditionally female craft – quilt-making and what it nowadays termed “craftivism” – was particularly radical and exciting. This was a craft usually associated with old ladies,turned on its head and made positively offensive and downright controversial. She turned a craft into art.

Yet, women have always been able to turn this genteel craft to political purposes. In the early decades of the 19th century ordinary people were keen to show their support for Wilberforce’s  anti-slavery campaign. Thousands took part in a sugar boycott, bought and wore anti-slavery pins, plates and badges.

Some made their own embroidery pieces. Later the suffragists and suffragettes made their own banners, belts and slashes. This craft also helped give women some financial independence. My great-aunt, Janet, who never married but lived all her life with her mother in Cardiff, sold her designs to embroidery magazines.

Craftivisim still has resonance two decades later.  In last years’ Women’s March in the USA thousands of woman wore pink “pussy” hats. These pink hats weren’t mass produced in China – they were handcrafted by women through a grassroots effort. Over 80 patterns for pussy hats were published on social media.

And then again, maybe, Tracey’s embroidery and the history of women’s political action in the last 200 years or so just would not have won over the twitterarti because When Harry Met Sally is a lot funnier!

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19 replies »

  1. Gah! Just wrote a really long reply and lost it. Couldn’t agree more. Period blood still upsets men and women so much; all tied up with body shaming and fear. Love Tracey Emin’s bravery.

  2. Really interesting post, Emma. I have long been a quilter and – on a tangential point – it has long fascinated me the way in which many women take up the craft and find themselves able to spend time and money only if they justify it by creating something useful for others – for someone’s bed or baby perhaps. So many times have I been asked why I waste time cutting up new fabric and then stitching it back together again. In vain do I respond that if I played golf, followed football or whatever then no one would question the cost of doing so, nor the hours expended, yet somehow this traditionally female pursuit still has to be justified. Ceri

    • That’s an interesting point. Perhaps, next time you should just say “it’s art” – no one asks what a painting is for! Quilting is a wonderful activity and cutting up fabric and sewing it back together is a great way of reusing it in a beautiful and creative way. Emma

  3. I couldn’t agree with you more, Emma. It’s exciting to see you use the “F” word. 😉 I’m not so sure how men feel about it – they all seem so progressive on the outside – but I’ve heard many women speak ill about feminism, as if it’s a disgusting, dirty word. Or they say… “I’m not that kind of feminist”. Drives me insane.

    I’m also not much into conceptual art, but I always liked “My Bed”. It deserved better. Now, I can’t help thinking whether the landslide win wasn’t about concept and meaning, but about mainstream (romantic comedy) vs. niche (art world). I think art is always going to lose to Hollywood, since it has a far lesser reach.

    • Gosh, you must live in an enlighten place Gabriela, to say that men “all seem so progressive on the outside” – not the case in the UK, just the sensitive types. As for the feminist-bashing women either a) they misunderstand what feminism is (after all its an umbrella for many types of opinion and some of them, I admit, are not particularly appealing) or b) are stupid. After all, plenty of women didn’t want the vote (including the most powerful woman in the world, Queen Victoria). They fail to see the political and social ramifications of it all. Laws are past saying we must have equal pay, do we have it in the UK? Nope. We have a long way to go. Yes, as a painter, I am not especially interested in conceptual art as I think there’s too much of the “emperor’s clothes” about it but I think that really good art, regardless of the medium, is always really good art Yes, “My Bed” wasn’t really going to win over the Hollywood film. But I am encouraged by more and more powerful female characters on TV and Film (Line of Duty in the TV has a female character who regular saves the male one and chases after the villan, gun in hand, without anyone needing to rescue her. Game of Thrones is full of tough, fighting women as well as manipulative ones (there are more manipulative men, mind you). I have enjoyed the chat, Gabriela.

      • I’m cautiously optimistic about men. The well-educated, younger ones seem to get it: they divide the house chores, they take paternity leave, they (supposedly) support the #MeToo movement. I’m living in a bubble when I talk to them, I realize that’s not the case overall. Certainly not in Romania. We’re already behind, struggling with homophobia and racism.

        Hollywood is making feminism hot again. Amen to that! There was a lot of commotion last year about the box-office success of the “Superwoman” movie and how it was directed by a woman. It’s a small thing, but it matters in the grand scheme.

      • “Superwoman” is important for providing role models – after all you can be what you can’t see – but structural changes need to take place. In the UK companies with over 250 employees have to publish male/female pay and the gender gap is shocking. That’s not enough, those companies need to be punished for breaking the law but the right wing government here is not interested.

  4. Thank you for pointing me to the word craftivism and the work of Tracey Emin. The tent is glorious as is her bed. A comparison of her and When Harry Met Sally, in which the latter wins, is why more women don’t become artists or writers. How approachable you must make your art and how much must you lose in the process? Good food for thought.

    • It seems to me that any field of work that is interesting and rewarding (and I include in that writing and art) is brutal in terms of competition and challenges. I like Tracey Emin a lot, I like her and I like her work. I also enjoyed when Harry met Sally when it came out. Any, woman who can make it at such a high level deserves applause. I don’t think it puts off women, but fewer of them achieve success at the highest levels. It mirrors inequality elsewhere in society.

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