Towards new expression

Towards new expression

domenica 8 marzo 2009

Torward new expression

During this period of my research (which preceded and followed publication of Towards New Expression, Rome, Italy 1972-73) I oriented my studies to restoring those characteristics of the female image which had been intentionally hidden or transformed by a whole tradition in the visual arts. I also wanted to parallel particular female structures with certain elements in nature.

I particularly wanted to study objects at close range: the female sexual organ, a conch shell, the structure of a flower, all those secondary symbols such as architectural details, drapery in Roman statuary, a sarcophagus or o ther elements in sculpture and painting where it is still possible to perceive a primordial naturalness of female symbols which have gradually become covered up.

I am also aware of those elements in the human figure which present both female and male characteristics. This kind of dualism is present in the tradition of the visual arts and attracted me as other ambiguous phenomena that the artist could not reveal directly. I try to uncover a structure of form in the hidden message which is not immediately apparent. As the field for this research I have chosen predominately classical art: Etruscan, Roman sculpture and Roman painting which are the very origins of western culture.

The surfaces of my work are often very dark and reflecting. I like to veil the exactitude of details and leave only an indeterminate halo. At other times the meaning is more than clear…

Suzanne Santoro 1976

sabato 7 marzo 2009

‘…Another example would be the reaction of the Arts Council of Great Britain to Suzanne’s Santoro’s artist’s book, Towards New Expression.

In the short textin this image-based work, Santoro’s words resonate with Irigaray’s slightly later comments on the excision of women’s genitals from the scene of representation in phallocentric ‘art’. The text first discusses a graffito on a wall in Rome of a penis, a vulva and drops of semen being collected in a cup: The penis and the semen were drawn with force and the cup for the care and preservation of the semen was given great importance. On the other hand there was the subordinate and mystified presence of the female genitals, the usual crack-hole. […] When I saw how this subject had been treated in the past, I realized that even in diverse historical representation it had been annulled, smoothed down and in the end, idealized. […] We can no longer see ourselves as if we live in a dream or as an imitation of something that just does not reflect the realty of our lives. […] The substance of expression is unlimited and has no established form. Self expression is a necessity. Expression begins with self assertion and with the awareness of the differences between ourselves and others. (Santoro 1974, ‘Towards New Expression’, Rivolta Femminile, Rome, Italy.)

note: Ce sexe was first published in France in 1977, but other similar comments appeared in Speculum in France in 1974. I do not wish to suggest any direct influence one way or the other, Santoro’s full text is reprinted in Hilary Robinson (ed.), Feminism-Art-Theory 1968-2000 (Oxford: Blackwell, 2002), pp. 277,278.

venerdì 6 marzo 2009

Santoro’s aim through the bookwork is (as the title suggests) to begin to work towards what

we might call a syntax appropriate to women. She does this through the delicate and space selection, editing and juxtaposing of photographic images in this intimately scaled book (each page is approximately 16cm x 11cm). The images are of the vulva; the labia; the clitoris; of women’s genitals seen from the front, with the outer and inner lips visible above the ‘Y’ formed by the tops of the thighs; of shells; of flowers; of Greek statues; and of the ‘Y’ as represented by artists such Cranach and Raphael, missing the representation of the lips, in the same fashion as the triangle mentioned earlier as presenting the mother goddess omitted the line indicating them also. Santoro makes explicit her aim of encouraging women towards expression through an appropriate significatory system: The placing of the Greek figures, the flowers and the conch shell near the clitoris is a means of understanding the structure of the female genitals.

It is also an invitation for the sexual self expression that has been denied to women till now, and it does not intend to attribute specific qualities to one sex or the other. (Santoro 1974)

mercoledì 4 marzo 2009

Notoriously, The Arts Council of Great Britain (as it was then called) remove ‘Towards New Expression’ from an exhibition of artist’s books touring Britain in 1976-1977, after it had been selected and included in the published catalogue. In an article written about the affair, Rosika Parker contrasts this censorship with the inclusion of Allen Jones ‘s artist’s book ‘Projects’
(Parker 1977).

It was about Jones’s work that Laura Mulvey had expounded her theory of fetishism (Mulvey 1973), and Parker cites this in order to analyse why the ACGB felt able to include the Jones book while excluding Santoro’s. She quotes Robin Campbell of ACGB justifying the exclusion ‘on the grounds that obscenity might be alleged’. Obscenity per se was clearly not the issue, however, as the ACGB was ‘willing to defend obscenity on the grounds of artistic excellence’.
The ACGB’s problem was that Santoro’s book did not merely image the ‘obscene’ but was in and of itself ‘obscene’ because ‘ the avowed intention of the book was primarily a plea for sexual self expression’ (in Parker 1977: 44-45).

Bypassing the skewed logic of this (as Parker points out, presumably Santoro’s work was artistically excellent enough to merit its initial selection), and the vexed question of the definitions of ‘obscenity’ in a patriarchal legal system, (note: see Lynda Nead, ‘The Female Nude: Art, Obscenity and Sexuality’ (London: Routledge, 1992) particularly pp. 25-33, on this definition.)
I think we can expand Parker’s understanding of the censorship as resulting from phallocentric man’s need to remove women’s genitals from his sight.
It is notable that Jones’s work, which takes its imagery from fetish and bondage magazines, does not image the female genitals. Drawing from Irigaray’s insights about hysteroscopy on the one hand, and the need to develop women’s sexuate subjective identity (as the subjects, women) and the necessary concomitant, a Symbolic syntax appropriate to women on the other, we can see Santoro’s work as being part of that broader, cultural and ontological threat to threat to phallocentric man which Irigaray identifies. It is this not because it images women’s genitals, but because it is a strategic response, developed from within the political, collective site of the women’s movement (Parker 1977: 44), to what Irigaray identifies as the ‘need […] to work out an art of the sexual, a sexed culture’ (Irigaray 1987f: 15; 1993c: 3); ‘an art of the sexual that respects the colors, the sounds, and the forms proper to each sex’ (Irigaray 1987b: 179; 1993f: 165).

Citation from: Reading Art, Reading Irigaray (the politics of art by women) from chapter 5, Divine Beauty, pp163-164, 165 Hilary Robinson. 2006. I. B. Tauris London, New York
Also see: Spare Rib “Censored”, Rosika Parker Jan. 1977 London