Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Portrait Of An Artist As A Woman: Saint Phalle, Subversiveness, and Sex

Lifesaver fountain by Niki de Saint Phalle in Duisburg, Germany. Photo by JuergeunG, reproduced here under Creative Commons License.

I don't know if you happened to read Ariel Levy's recent New Yorker profile of the artist Niki de Saint Phalle, who built gigantic sculptures in the hills of Tuscany in the 1970s.

Personally, I read the piece with mixed feelings. On the one hand, the gigantic sculptures really speak to me. They look so cool, looming out of the countryside. Plus, during the twenty years she worked on them, she lived in the sphinx sculpture, with her bedroom inside one breast and her kitchen inside the other. How cool is that?

On the other hand, as I read more about the artist herself, I felt ... annoyed. Saint Phalle lived a life full of self-created drama. She had a lot of "personal charisma," which helped to get people to pay attention to her art. She did a lot of pieces involving shooting a gun at stuff. About those pieces, she said, "I mean, it isn’t as beautiful as war, it isn’t as beautiful as seeing someone killed or the atom bomb, but it’s the most that I can do!" She had children, whom she then completely ignored.

But even these things, which are annoying to me, are complex and multifaceted. The shooting paintings, which she started in the early 60s, began as an attack on domesticity and the suffocating lives women were expected to live. Properly irritated that the way male artists could go around doing whatever they want while women were expected to cook dinner, she decided she would, herself, just start doing whatever she wanted. Part of that, obviously, was prioritizing her art over her children -- as so many men have done before her.

Levy puts it this way: "If American radical feminism of the time was about rewriting the rules of society, Saint Phalle had a different notion: she felt that the rules simply did not apply to her." I can really resonate with this. Because while it's important to change the rules, it's also important to have people just going off and doing something completely different. That's what art -- and artists -- are all about.

So the fact that she made a point of living, and doing art, in ways that challenge gender norms -- well, that's cool and kind of heroic.

And yet. The art historian Catherine Dossi is quoted here as saying that the more successful Saint Phalle got, the more her "challenge" to the establishment shifted away from "blowing up" domesticity, and more toward being a "femme fatale. "Always an extraordinary beauty, she starting doing more than making paintings -- she started putting on tight white jumpsuits and inviting people to watch her look amazing making them.

Frankly, on one level this is just depressing. Because making yourself hot and then inviting people to watch you do what you're doing? Not so much in the "challenging gender norms" category. Watching a sexy and beautiful woman do something is stereotypical.

And to me, even the mere fact of her beauty itself is frustrating. Do you realize how often when you read a story like this about a woman that it turns out her beauty and sex appeal is an important part of the story? Um -- always? Do you know how reading these stories over and over makes young girls classify themselves from the get-go -- the beauties, who can do the things they want, and the non-beauties, who have to play nice, find their way through, make people like them in other ways?

So I admit that when I learned about the white jumpsuits, my first reaction was disappointment and frustration. Really?

And yet -- however. The truth is that the link between beauty and subversiveness for women is real -- and even if it's a link they don't want it, it is put on them by the rest of the world. Saint Phalle says it herself:

"Here I was, an attractive girl (if I had been ugly, they would have said I had a complex and not paid any attention), screaming against men in my interviews and shooting."

She's right. And it's the same thing Courtney Love said -- correctly -- about getting cosmetic surgery (including a nose job) in her youth:

"I have to be pretty if I’m going to get over. And I have to get over if I’m gonna fuck [the system] up. And I’m gonna fuck it up."

And really, on top of everything, there's just the girls who want to have fun aspect. As women who have sex with men and men who have sex with men and everyone who has sex with men knows: if you want to have sex with men, and you want them to find you attractive, it's usually going to matter whether you look the part.

In this interview, Courtney Love lays it out with characteristic bluntness:

"When you’re fat like I was ... you do not get to fuck the boys you want to fuck. Right? Right? ... I swear to God, Lisa. I was a fat girl my whole life. No one would fuck, and when they did they’d do things like fart in front of me ... The minute I got skinny and got a nose job and became photogenic, and all of a sudden I had a bidding war, and every boy I ever wanted, wanted me."

Thinking about the matter this way, if you think it's important for women to get to enjoy life's pleasures, and if it's true that in our world a lot of those pleasures are more easily accessed the cuter you get -- well, I can't blame anyone for wanting to be as cute as possible.

So I guess all in all, if Saint Phalle wanted to wear white jumpsuits, and sleep around, and pal around with Jean Tinguely, and make giant Nanas -- big, bright female dancers with small heads and huge hips and breasts -- well, more power to her.

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