Giselle Gatsby takes her water with no ice cubes and two slices of lemon. She likes her martinis dirty — “filthy,” she will tell the French waiter in English. She scoffs at dollar oysters. She scoffs at French. She is a woman who knows what she wants. Don’t touch her in bed, don’t ask her to babysit you. She is not your mother.
Gatsby, a self-proclaimed spider weaving a great web of powerful women, founded Glamour Girl — an annual art anthology with a fiercely feminist slant — in 2014, drunk on fine white wine chilled-to-perfection, brand unremembered. The ‘Letter from the Editor’ in Issue One states simply: “Unedited, raw reflections of their reality with all its imperfections,” and features page after page of disposable exposures by artists like poet Sara Sutterlin and photographer Alex Lopez. (A plain, full-page Sutterlin spread reads: “I BELIEVE IN THE IMPORTANCE OF WOMEN CREATING SPACE FOR OTHER WOMEN. A CONTINUOUS SHARING OF ALL THINGS, A TRANSFERENCE OF POWER.”)
It’s the kind of magazine that makes you blush, featuring womxn-identifying artists mostly in the nude — full-frontal spread-eagle being the vibe on all fronts. Gatsby cultivates a loud crowd. Issue Six, launching at the new Hoxton Hotel in Chicago this April, features spreads of performance artists like Sheree Rose (known for her performance work and BDSM relationship with artist Bob Flanagan) and Marie Segolene (a queer performance artist and fellow psychobitch from Montreal).
Many of the artists featured in Glamour Girl use their bodies and sexuality as a site for performance. And the thing is: the naked female body sells paper… but where is the line between agency and exploitation?
Judith Butler has famously written that gender is performative. To her, it’s not that gender isn’t ‘real’ or that gender is some truth that exists within us, but rather it’s an effect that we are giving off.
In Foucauldian terms, gender is not a choice but a trap we are working, a seemingly-given situation we are constantly re-negotiating through our habits. Gender identity is not a metaphysical, substantial, or natural reality, but a series of repeated actions.
Nietzsche wrote: There is no doer, there is only the deed. So gender comes to exist through a process of repeated actions. What do I pick out of my closet every day? How do I use pronouns every day?
These gender troubles exist inherently in the English language and in the formation of the subject (man, being the given and assumed subject, woman being the other). Our compliance with and repetition of language in this way makes us feel like gender is pre-discursive and a natural part of life, as opposed to a cultural construction that comes to exist through repetition.
For a long time after reading Butler’s Gender Troubles, I had a problem with her use of the word performative. I wanted more, I wanted a better definition of the word performance and what it is that is being performed. Eventually I came across Lacan, who wrote that there are two kinds of language: performative and descriptive.
Descriptive language is when we say something like, “That dress is red.” And performative language is language that brings something new into being, like wedding vows, or ceremonial language that is used to actually transform a situation (i.e. before you say ‘I do’ you are not married, and then after you say it, you are).
Lacan goes on to say that all language is performative, especially descriptive language. To say that the dress is red is to make the dress red — to culturally define what red is and is not, what ‘red’ is and what ‘red’ cannot be. To describe a person as a man or a woman is to make that person a man or a woman, and to define what a man or a woman can and cannot be. Then, to do it over and over again is to solidify the idea in culture, which we are constantly conflating with nature.
I don’t think gender is inherently bad — I think language is inherently oppressive.
Gender is and should be a playground, an active site for performing the self.
The artists in Glamour Girl seem to be actively playing into this idea of sexed performance. To be a woman is to actively participate in the idea of woman, but to strip your body naked, down to nothing but nude panty hoes and gala apples stuffed within them, inviting your chosen dom to feed you said apples in front of a room full of people, is something else entirely. (Panty hoes being an obvious — but not tired — symbol of the gender trap.)
So much feminist performance art crosses this threshold beyond the deeply political and into the deeply absurd.
Many art historians, including Giselle Pollock, have called for a new art historical mechanism. Their goal is to not add women to the existing canon (after all, there are no women-identifying Michelangelo’s). The problem is not that the canon excludes women, but that the parameters of an academic canon — in general — exclude all thinkers and makers who lack inherent ‘genius’ as it relates to creation. All known canons operate within a discursive structure that support the given male subject and his creations, his narratives.
All projects that exist under the umbrella of the body — or the domestic, or the performance of femininity — exist somehow outside modernity, outside genius, and thus, outside of the canon.
But these are not the things Gatsby is thinking about while she is in Michigan helping her parents out with their medical marijuana certification business. These ideas — these very important ideas — are only accessible to grad students and whomever else has managed to jimmy together a JSTOR account since their undergrad years (assuming one has been privileged enough to have undergrad years). The fact that even basic gender theory is reserved for only those within the highest tier of academia speaks to how confused everyone seems to be, and how complicated the relationship between gender and canon really is.
Art history has too easily dismissed women making work about their own bodies and their own experiences — all while happily naming Picasso’s bathing nudes the genesis of modernity.
In The Argonauts Maggie Nelson writes: “To align oneself with the real while intimating that others are at play, approximate, or in imitation can feel good. But… if a man who thinks he is a king is mad, then a king who thinks he is a king is no less so.”
The madness abounds.
In the meantime we must find ourselves in close proximity with naked images of women trying to tell us something about what it means to be a naked woman. And we must accept these experiences, not necessarily as our own personal truths, but as real, as raw, and as glamorous.
Kristina Pedersen writes and photographs in Chicago. Her most recent book, What Humble Place As This, documents oil pride in rural Texas. She aspires to play Willy Wonka on Broadway. Follow @kristinapicture on Instagram.