The thing about a really good piece of writing is that it surprises you every time you return to it, no matter how well you think you know it. I realized this as I was drafting the opening chapters of my book Art Monsters, which was meant to explore the ways in which women’s professional lives as artists are shaped by their gender.
The obvious corollary to the art monster was, it seemed to me, the angel in the house, the Victorian feminine ideal that Virginia Woolf takes aim at in her 1931 speech, Professions for Women (posthumously published in 1942). The angel sat by young Virginia’s side as she wrote her first essays, slipping dangerous ideas into her ear, ideas about obedience, modesty, purity. Woolf realized her writing career depended on ridding herself of this unwanted guide, so, she writes, she hurled a bottle of ink at her head. “Had I not killed her she would have killed me,” she writes. “She would have plucked the heart out of my writing.”
But when I returned to the speech, I found I had completely forgotten about a whole other section, in which Woolf figures the creative writer as a fisherwoman, casting her line into the depths of her imagination, letting it “sweep unchecked round every rock and cranny of the world that lies submerged in the depths of our unconscious being.” Then something happens: “The imagination had dashed itself against something hard.… She had thought of something, something about the body, about the passions, which it was unfitting for her as a woman to say.… She could write no more.”
Woolf killed off the angel, but she couldn’t quell the self-censorship that arose if she dared to consider certain ideas about the body, which dwelled deep in her unconscious, ideas that were not only impossible to articulate but stopped her completely from writing. If killing the angel was the first challenge she faced in her professional life as a writer, this, then, was the second: “telling the truth about my own experiences as a body.” She speculated that it might take another 50 years before women might be able to write those truths, to let their line sweep where it would.
“She had thought of something, something about the body, about the passions, which it was unfitting for her as a woman to say,” Virginia Woolf wrote in 1931.
My whole book clicked into place as I read that section of the speech. That was it, that was what unified all the feminist art and writing by women I had been gesturing at by calling it monstrous, that was what the art monster was after, what made the work worth being called a monster to make. I realized, as Woolf had so many years before me, that any exploration of the professional lives of women was going to have to deal first and foremost with the problem of the body.
You don’t need to jump forward 50 years from 1931 to land on a woman who was purposefully trying to put the body front and center in her professional life as an artist, to be the artist and the art. In 1975, the artist Carolee Schneemann stood naked on a table in an East Hampton gallery, pulled a scroll from her vagina, and read aloud from it:
I met a happy man
a structuralist filmmaker …
he said we are fond of you you are charming
but don’t ask us
to look at your films
there are certain films
we cannot look at
the personal clutter
the persistence of feelings
the hand-touch sensibility
the diaristic indulgence
the painterly mess
the dense gestalt
the primitive techniques
Schneemann was referring to the responses she received to her own films, some of which were autobiographical, sexually explicit, and layered, textured documents, thickly collaged with different inks and feathers glued on. The structuralist filmmakers didn’t like it, and the feminist film critics, who should have been her allies, didn’t, either. She later said it took decades for her reputation to recover from this performance.
Thinking about Woolf and Schneemann together unlocked not only the subject but the structure of my book; instead of writing chronologically, or by artist, I decided I would write looking backward and forward from the 1970s, a time when women artists took it upon themselves as a political project to write about and depict, among other things, pregnancy, childbirth, breastfeeding, menstruating, masturbating, and aging. Is it any wonder that artists would turn to the body during the decade in which abortion was finally legalized, 10 years after the birth-control pill came onto the market? For the first time, women had some control over their bodies.
Like Woolf, Schneemann looked forward to a time when women would be even more free. Reading her published essays, I encountered one called “Women in the Year 2000,” first printed in 1972. It is an attempt to imagine what it would be like to be a young female artist or art historian 28 years hence.
I graduated from college that year, and so feel particularly seen when she writes: “The young woman coming to these vital studies will never really believe that we, in our desperate groundwork, were so crippled and isolated.… That our deepest energies were nurtured in secret, with precedents we kept secret—our lost women. Now found and to be found again.”
I wish that Schneemann could have lived long enough to read my book, but she died while I was drafting it, in 2019. I’d like to think that it would have meant something to her to see the connections I’d drawn between her work and that of precedents, these lost women, as well as those who followed her; that she would have been gratified to see it all pieced together this way, by someone who was once a young woman starting to make things in the year 2000.
Lauren Elkin is a London-based writer. Her latest book, Art Monsters: Unruly Bodies in Feminist Art, is out now from Farrar, Straus and Giroux