Hi! This post is the first in what will eventually be 10 write-ups from my course titled “Art, Technology, and Society.” This semester, I was randomly assigned 10 pieces of art to research and report on, as were each of my peers. Each of us will write summaries of our pieces, then post them to a class timeline, so that by the end of the course we will have collectively documented about 150 artworks. I’ve been fascinated with the pieces I’ve researched thus far, so I’ve decided to share my summaries as I finish them. Eventually, I’ll file them all under a title along the lines of “Art History is Dope”. Here is my first summary:
“Some Living American Women Artists” sparks discussion like no other. As part of a Jungian experiment in art making, feminist artist Mary Beth Edelson asked 22 of her friends and colleagues to direct her art making in whatever specific or vague manner they chose. The goal, she said, was to meditate on their suggestions, then combine her energy and each of theirs into one third energy to produce an artwork. The final collection, titled “22 Others,” includes pieces constructed from a wide variety of mediums. Most notably, Ed McCowin prompted, “[E]xpose whatever negative aspects [of organized religion] might occur to you (Peiffer),” and “Some Living American Women Artists” was born. The collage consists of a black and white photograph of Da Vinci’s “Last Supper” over whose subjects are placed portraits of women artists. Georgia O’Keefe’s face rests above Jesus’ shoulders.
Initially, reactions to “Some Living American Women Artists” focused on humorous aspects of the piece, and it wasn’t until 1995 that conservative religious groups began to call for its censorship. The groups called the piece sacrilegious and claimed that appropriating Da Vinci’s work with women’s faces was no better than doing so with pigs’ heads. Some faculty members also called for the removal of a reproduction of the piece when it was displayed in the Women’s Centre of Franklin & Marshall College in Pennsylvania. The College Board declined to remove the artwork, so the groups took their complaints to the national press.
The disruptive artwork is one of the only pieces from “22 Others” to be exhibited independent of the rest of the collection, and its reappearance in a 2000 exhibit reopened past debates, evidencing the work’s ongoing relevance. There’s no doubt “Some Living American Women Artists” highlights gender imbalances in both religious and artistic circles, but it’s striking how scrutiny of Edelson’s details continually reveals deeply rooted criticism and broad, thematic questions. For example, religious paintings of the past have tended to portray saints and religious figures in as human and relatable a manner as possible in an effort to counteract religious texts’ remarkable ability to make these same subjects seem abstract and distant. Edelson’s decision to use collage re-abstracts the Last Supper scene she’s appropriating, while her use of photographs in the collage simultaneously and paradoxically draws her subjects into unmistakable focus. Her technique furthers the piece’s overt agenda in commenting on women’s place and status among powerful institutions, and it draws reciprocally overt reactions from its viewers, who must grapple with the artwork’s underlying questions: what is the status quo, and how do people react when someone disrupts it?
Peiffer, Prudence. “Mary Beth Edelson: The Suzanne Geiss Company.” Artforum International, no. 9, 2013, p. 329.
Rosenberg, Karen. “Mary Beth Edelson: ‘22 Others.’” New York Times, 5 Apr. 2013, p. C29.
Wijnia, Lieke. “The Last Supper: Marlene Dumas, Mary Beth Edelson and Elisabeth Ohison Wallin.” N.Paradoxa: The Only International Feminist Art Journal, vol. 33, Jan. 2014, pp. 48–56.