Feminine Persuasion: Art and Essays on Sexuality

Buy this book from Amazon.comEdited by Betsy Stirratt and Catherine Johnson
Indiana University Press ($35)

by Stacy Brix

In 1953, the noted sexologist Alfred Kinsey published Sexual Behavior in the Human Female. The book confronted a culture that had centered its marketing on homemaking, marriage, and motherhood—all making way for the returning soldier—and revealed the realities of the feminine experience, which were dramatically different than previously thought. Kinsey interviewed almost 6,000 women asking for their observations, and the results of his research sparked an unprecedented discussion of sex, as well as an academic debate concerning such matters as gender roles and sexual identity. His process assumes that the women's voice has value and that it must be heard.

Feminine Persuasion: Art and Essays on Sexuality is the catalogue for an exhibition that celebrated the 50th anniversary of Kinsey's landmark publication. In two essays and 45 plates of visual artworks, we re-encounter the feminine world that Kinsey sought so genuinely to understand, complete with the contemporary and increasingly problematic milieu that developed in the decades following his career. The catalogue thus re-presents many of the ideas that Kinsey offered us, but goes further in celebrating this information in light of recent developments and reconsiderations of the feminine ideal.

The first essay, June Machover Reinsisch's "Ideal Images and Kinsey's Women," asks how women perceived themselves historically, what ideals they had, and how they attempted to reach those ideals. Machover Reinsisch looks to the past 500 years and concludes that the goals regarding the alluring female have not changed: "Most women across the centuries have aspired to be desirable and have been willing to work and suffer toward that end." She reviews the constant shifting in conceptions of beauty and the often-gruesome modes for pursuing them.

In the second essay, "Artistic Behavior in the Human Female," Jean Robertson develops a response to the patriarchal culture and expectations that Machover Reinsisch describes by exploring how such structures were reflected and rejected in art. "Artistic explorations of sexuality are closely connected to the sexual politics of the wider culture," says Robertson. Depictions of female sexuality are present throughout the history of Western art, but only in the last century have there been specific attempts to subvert female representation from its grounding in male-centered ideologies—especially as female artists began in the 1960s to assert subjective authority. It is in this arena that we witness the surfacing of deep-seated feelings towards sex, violence, body image, appearance, identity, diversity, pleasure and desire. Robertson points to the Womanhouse exhibition of 1972, organized by Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro: these powerful art historical figures also exemplify the extensive counteractions against unfavorable historical conditions uniquely faced by women. Today artists are creating more artwork about sexuality than ever before.

The Feminine Persuasion exhibition was divided into three parts, and plates featured in the book are organized likewise. The first section concerns itself with works by women in the Kinsey collection, though few of these early works focus their attention overtly on sexual subject matter; as the editors point out, full freedom of expression involved risks that most women were unwilling to take. The second component of the exhibition discusses the male perspective of the feminine. These selections reach further back in time, as men were freer to deal with matters of sex in arts. Some are pornographic in nature while others reflect a more egalitarian understanding of male and female relationships. Works by Otto Dix, Douglas Kirkland, and Marcantonio Raimondi are a few among the many male artists who contribute to the development of this part of the exhibition.

Bolstered by the framework and understanding of relevant complexities that the book's essays provide, the first two sections of visual artworks lead us emotionally and logically to the third component of the exhibition, which deals with the feminine as seen by the contemporary female. Dramatic tensions and commonalities lie not only in how widely the experiences of women vary, but also in how women choose to reflect those experiences: Ghada Amer uses embroidery in a way that eroticizes the medium; Patty Chang's videos play on the ambiguity between pleasure and disgust; Nancy Davidson takes a lighter approach as she alludes to body parts with an irresistible humor.

Feminine Persuasion reveals layers of the female experience to us, just as Kinsey's book did 50 years ago. What Kinsey boldly held a mirror to in 1953 is echoed beautifully, elegantly, and powerfully in the book that celebrates it. It is likely that in this revelry we will turn our eyes once more to the complexity of the feminine, and its enduring persuasion.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2004 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2004