Art Labor, Sex Politics

Art Labor, Sex Politics: Feminist Effects in 1970s British Art and Performance

SIONA WILSON
Copyright Date: 2015
Pages: 320
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5749/j.ctt1287nw3
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Art Labor, Sex Politics
    Book Description:

    Contrary to critics who have called it the "undecade," the 1970s were a time of risky, innovative art-and nowhere more so than in Britain, where the forces of feminism and labor politics merged in a radical new aesthetic. InArt Labor, Sex PoliticsSiona Wilson investigates the charged relationship of sex and labor politics as it played out in the making of feminist art in 1970s Britain. Her sustained exploration of works of experimental film, installation, performance, and photography maps the intersection of feminist and leftist projects in the artistic practices of this heady period.

    Collective practice, grassroots activism, and iconoclastic challenges to society's sexual norms are all fundamental elements of this theoretically informed history. The book provides fresh assessments of key feminist figures and introduces readers to less widely known artists such as Jo Spence and controversial groups like COUM Transmissions. Wilson's interpretations of two of the best-known (and infamous) exhibitions of feminist art-Mary Kelly'sPost-Partum Documentand COUM Transmissions'Prostitution-supply a historical context that reveals these works anew. Together these analyses demonstrate that feminist attention to sexual difference, sex, and psychic formation reconfigures received categories of labor and politics.

    How-and how much-do sexual politics transform our approach to aesthetic debates? What effect do the tropes of sexual difference and labor have on the very conception of the political within cultural practice? These are the questions that animateArt Labor, Sex Politicsas it illuminates an intense and influential decade of intellectual and artistic experimentation.

    eISBN: 978-1-4529-4301-5
    Subjects: Art & Art History, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. Introduction: Sex Politics
    (pp. xi-xxix)

    The germ of this book was a surprising detail about Mary Kelly’s early collaborative work. It was just another art historical reference, a tidbit of information that Griselda Pollock dropped in as background texture in a passage in her essay “Screening the Seventies” about Kelly’s best-known workPost-Partum Document(1973–79). I was already familiar withPost-Partum Document,and as a graduate student of art history and feminist theory I was studiously—if rather coolly—interested in this icon of feminist conceptual art. But what I had just discovered about Britain’s best-known feminist artist was that she had collaborated on...

  4. 1 Nightcleaners: The Ambiguities of Activism and the Limits of Production
    (pp. 1-51)

    Britain’s first public action in the name of second-wave feminism took place in 1970 at London’s Albert Hall. The occasion was the Miss World Beauty Contest, and two of the participants, Laura Mulvey and Mary Kelly, subsequently became important feminist figures. The British protest was inspired by the feminist disruption of the Miss America Beauty Pageant in Atlantic City in 1968. A landmark in the popular imaginary of feminism, this American protest produced the stereotype of the bra-burning feminist (although no bras were in fact burned that day).¹ After taking into account the self-critique by various American feminist groups, the...

  5. 2 The Spectator as Reproducer: Mary Kelly’s Early Films
    (pp. 53-91)

    We cannot help but read Mary Kelly’s first known public performance,An Earth Work Performed(1970), retrospectively through the lens of British labor activism. In three different recording media (8 mm film, video, and taped sound), followed by a twenty-minute live sequence, a figure repeatedly shovels a pile of coal (Plate 1). Although the artist stages labor in action, the political resonances of the performance are shaped largely by later events that seem only obliquely relevant from the perspective of 1970. The year 1972 saw the first national miners’ strikes in Britain since the general strike of 1926. This inaugurated a...

  6. 3 Prostitution and the Problem of Feminist Art: The Emergent Queer Aesthetic of COUM Transmissions
    (pp. 93-137)

    1976 was Britain’s year for art scandals and each one fed into the next. The first was provoked by the Tate Gallery’s purchase of Carl Andre’s minimalist sculptureEquivalent VIII(1966)—a rectilinear arrangement of unaltered house bricks. Later that year the media were again up in arms because of Mary Kelly’s installationPost-Partum Documentat the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA). Her presentation of framed diaper liners with traces of her infant son’s feces was considered comically obscene, not just a hoax like “the bricks”; and the “dirty nappies” were in bathetic contrast to the artist’s extended intellectual exposition...

  7. 4 Revolting Photographs: Proletarian Amateurism in Jo Spence and Terry Dennett’s Photography Workshop
    (pp. 139-200)

    In 1975 there were two exhibitions in London titledWomen and Work.They were organized independently by groups of women collaborators. Their coincident appearance dramatizes different aesthetic ways in which photography engaged questions of gender and labor during this period.Women and Workby Margaret Harrison, Kay Fido Hunt, and Mary Kelly deployed a recognizable conceptual art format with visual and textual information—photography, tape recording, film footage, and typewritten data—addressed to the implementation of the Equal Pay Act in a South London metal box factory. The otherWomen and Work,by the Hackney Flashers (the first all-female photography...

  8. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 201-202)
  9. Notes
    (pp. 203-240)
  10. Bibliography
    (pp. 241-266)
  11. Index
    (pp. 267-288)
  12. Back Matter
    (pp. 289-289)