Artist, Woman, Human: Feminism in Practice
February 25, 2012
Excerpts from panel discussion at The Feminist Art Project Symposium, MOCA, Los Angeles (video)
To live by one’s ideals is much harder than to simply name those ideals. This goal is hard for individuals, institutions, nations and entire schools of thought. Practice rarely matches theory. For example, Buddhism and Feminism do not always meet in practice, and many strains of Buddhism have maintained patriarchal and unjust systems to this present day. But there are important points of intersection between their ideals, Rita Gross names them in her book: they are: the emphasis on human equality, the affirmation of embodied practice over theory, a critique of the ego and ego patterns and the goal of radical liberation from suffering. This panel will explore some of these intersections.
When I taught a public speaking class at Cal Arts, I noticed that a number of students – most of them women – used a rising intonation when making a statement, as if their statement were a question. And they were most likely to use the rising intonation when describing a significant accomplishment. A student would say “I started an afterschool art program for elementary school students?” instead of “I started an afterschool art program for elementary school students.”
In teaching the class, I had to confront that I often do the same thing, even after 14 years of teaching and speaking publically. I do it completely unconsciously. Our bodies can be ahead of our thinking, and we’re not always conscious of our actions or behaviors. Internalization is an unconscious bodily process. Patriarchal expectations are deeply internalized: like this unwillingness to make declarative statements. In the case of my students’ rising intonations, we concluded that the intonation in certain contexts was fine and even preferable, a sign of receptivity, openness and generosity. But when naming an accomplishment in a job interview it was likely that the person you were speaking to would hear the rising intonation as a sign of uncertainty and incompetence. The person would come to some judgment about you, also unconsciously, saying, “she seemed timid and meek, I can’t put my finger on it,” and this simple unconscious speech pattern could have real world consequences.
In this scenario, one’s unconscious bodily memory could overpower one’s ideals, another instance where practice and theory do not come together. A reason for this disconnect is that ‘practice’ is often performed and received unconsciously, whereas theory is made up of conscious ideals and declarations. I am relying on the language of psychoanalysis here. In this paradigm, one changes unconscious behaviors by making oneself conscious of them, through ‘talk’ therapy.
But the ‘talking cure’ is not enough. If the root of the problem is physical, material, bodily and unconscious, one must engage in physical and material preparation to make a change. In the case of the rising intonation, my students and I worked on how to actually change it: the same way you learn a foreign language: you have perform it on a regular basis, through a series of preparatory repetitive exercises. You repeat a sentence again and again until your body gets used to a new way of speaking. To talk about the problem and will it away is not enough. Physical preparation thus becomes the important missing intermediary link between theory and practice. In the case of Buddhist practice, this preparation takes the form of meditation, which is the way in which one prepares the body to be calm and insightful, not just as an end in itself but as a way to act calmly and compassionately in times of times of stress and conflict.
What seems to be sorely lacking in Western philosophical traditions is the lack of emphasis on this type of practice, and Buddhist scholars such as Stephen Batchelor and Rita Gross point out that western theoretical movements can learn something from Buddhism. As Gross says:
To see feminism as a ‘practice’ is not usual in feminist circles because the language is so very Buddhist. Buddhism is at a root a ‘practice’, a spiritual discipline; various meditation techniques are the heart of the tradition, and its method for achieving its goals of calm, insight and liberation. ‘Theory’, or philosophy, in Buddhism grows out of practice and gives the meditator some motivation and faith, but it is the handmaiden, not the queen, of the tradition. Feminists, more used to the Western predominance of theory over practice, are prone to talk of ‘feminist theory’, but feminism really involves a fundamental reorientation of mind and heart that cannot bear fruit if it is merely theoretical. To be effective, feminism needs to become an ongoing practice of changing one’s language, one’s expectations, one’s ideas of normalcy….i
While I do not want to equate meditation with these other bodily categories of physical preparation, such as speech exercises, athletic training, I am interested in their connection, especially to examine the relation of these practices to my own painting. This is the same question Stephen Batchelor asks as he points out how Buddhist art can embody the practice of Buddhism:
A Zen garden can say at much about what the Buddha taught as the most erudite treatise on emptiness…. ‘Just as a farmer irrigates the fields’, said Gotama in the Dhammapada, ‘Just as a fletcher fashions an arrow, just as a carpenter shapes a block of wood, so does the sage tame the self.’…To tame in this context means to pacify the selfish and unruly aspects of oneself in order to begin forging a more caring, focused, and integrated character. The examples he used are of working people: farmers, fletchers, carpenters … Their handicrafts serve to illustrate how to nurture, fashion, and direct the raw materials – sensations, feelings, emotions, perceptions, intentions – of one’s self.ii
This may be an important description of why form, material, and therefore art, matter. While the Buddha is only making an analogy here between these craft practices and the Buddhist practice of mindfulness, it doesn’t seem to be an arbitrary analogy. There is some connection between the materiality of these craft processes and the materiality of a mindful practice. What is important here is the Buddha speaks of the self as a material entity whose materiality needs to be crafted, rather than talking about the self as a disembodied soul.
Lately I’ve been wanting to connect these ideas to my painting process, not because I’ve ever consciously intended them to refer to meditation but because the connection just seems increasingly physically present, both in my process and in the finished product of the paintings.
I’m interested in intonation and in gesture because they affect how we read things, unconsciously. When I make marks on the surface of one of my paintings, I aim for a gesture in between handwriting and calligraphy. I see handwriting as a utilitarian gesture: a grocery list, a quick message, where content of the words is more important than form. Calligraphy, on the other hand, is a much slower deliberate process where form is there to elevate, affect and sometimes, overpower the meaning of the words.
As a young person, I learned calligraphy and noticed that when I often misspelled words, because I was so concentrated on the physical and material form of the letters that I completely forgot about language. This can also be expressed in the idea that you forget the forest for the trees: that you are focusing on the part, rather than the whole. When painting, I strive for a space in between those worlds. A place where I am in the present moment of body and materiality, but also somehow still aware of a greater project, a greater whole.
Ann C. Klein writes about mindfulness:
…trying to hold two very different perspectives simultaneously: the vastness of the universe and the smallness of our own immediate being. Both are crucial to a full view of our situation. We are limited and also part of something vast. Too often mindfulness becomes cultivation of a very small internal space … at the same time, people who are too enamored with this sense of vastness may be tempted to overlook the specifics of what happens within it.iii
My most recent work is painted freehand, without the aid of a grid. While I rely on a strict structure of color and geometry, I also aim for improvisation. In my earlier work, which was painted onto of a grid, I could just focus on the gesture and feeling of the mark, the present physical reality, now I have to intend the shape, scale and direction of each and every mark because it will ultimately determine the direction of the overall painting’s space and geometry. Only through this physical preparation (doing something again and again) does some limited knowledge come to me. Before I begin a painting, there is always some geometry problem that is just beyond my conceptual grasp: how to make my modules get smaller, how to make them converge to a center point, how to reconcile a seam between two curves. Only through embodied experience, do I come up with a ‘solution’ and this new knowledge also leads to a deeper awareness of growth patterns in nature and corresponding mathematics.
These laborious, handmade, meditative paintings also refer to the screen, but at the same time provide an antidote to the very disembodied nature of the screen. The distortion refers to the undulating space of op art or computer modeling, but unlike these conventions they are not mapped mathematically, rather filtered through the scale of the painting in relation to my own body.
The philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell named two types of knowledge: knowledge by description (knowing the rules of mathematics or grammar, for example) and knowledge by acquaintance (knowing how to perform the rules via lived experience). It should be noted that an infant learns language through acquaintance and performance, not by learning the rules of grammar first, and acquaintance seems to be an underestimated and rather forgotten in our culture, though Buddhism asserts it.
We live in a culture that privileges description and technology can emphasize this privilege. To know something, all you have to do is ‘google’ it in a completely disembodied way and you get description. The seamlessness and perfection of the screen never reveal their vast technological and cultural mechanisms. But do we really know things? Because you can quote something, because you can read about and describe it, do you really know that thing? Just because I’ve read about Islamic tile designs, do I understand how they work? I’m not interested in merely quoting or ‘describing’ these forms, forever suspending them in their historical moment. Rather I ‘acquaint’ myself with them: I use them in the present tense for what they are and what they can become.
Finally, to end with the technological and conclude here again with my public speaking class, it soon became apparent how timely such a class was in this moment in time, when most of my students have grown up with more disembodied forms of communication that involve the screen: instant message, email, text message, facebook. To speak publically, to look someone in the eye and speak with a clear and confident voice was no longer a matter, simply of sustenance: it was a matter of survival.
Thus, to be an equal is undeniably an ongoing and in many ways mundane process. That also means we can triumph in small ways when we come to understand the role we each play in perpetuating inequity, and through material preparation and practice, come to make change.
i Rita Gross, Buddhism After Patriarchy (New York: Suny Press, 1993), 128.
ii Stephen Batchelor, Confession of A Buddhist Atheist (New York: Random House, 2010), 152.
iii Ann C. Klein, Becoming Bodies (Boston: Shambala, 1997), 144.