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Is Carolee Schneemann one of the great women artists that Linda Nochlin forgot in 1971 when she published her highly influential essay “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?”?[34] Nochlin's own account of what constitutes great art begins to answer this question:

The problem lies…with [a] misconception…of what art is: with the naïve idea that art is the direct, personal expression of individual emotional experience, a translation of personal life into visual terms. Art is almost never that, great art never is. The making of art involves a self-consistent language of form, more or less dependent upon, or free from, given temporally defined conventions, schemata, or systems of notation, which have to be learned or worked out, either through teaching, apprenticeship, or a long period of individual experimentation. The language of art is, more materially, embodied in paint and line on canvas or paper, in stone or clay or plastic or metal—it is neither a sob story nor a confidential whisper.[35]

One look at Schneemann's art is enough to confirm that it is neither a “sob story nor a confidential whisper,” the terms Nochlin used to criticize certain directions in feminist practice of the late 1960s and early 1970s. By contrast, Schneemann's work has been erotically scorching, irreverent, and intractably headstrong. She has pressed against the boundaries and definitions of what art might be by violating culturally proscribed behaviors for women (both in and outside the institutions of art). She refused to fall in line with minimalist, structuralist, and conceptualist aesthetics that dominated the late 1960s and early 1970s. At the same time, her work is always aware and expressive of the changes in cultural forms and is equally informed art historically. Schneemann's conceptualization of the possibility of form after Cézanne reflects her theory of how the eye may continue Cézanne's proto-cubist, fractured picture space off and away from the picture plane into the real time and action of the body extended in actual space. Her letters show how she develops different aspects of her art, recycling aesthetic ideas and responding to changing aspects of experimental art; new media, intermedia, and multimedia; film and video; and cultural theories such as feminism and poststructuralism. In other words, her work participates in and continues the discourse of modernism as much as it contributes to determining the narratives of postmodernism.


Nochlin, in her argument about the art historical construction of great art, cautioned that “no serious contemporary art historian” believes “the fairy tales” told about “great artists,” such as “struggles against the most determined parental and social opposition, suffering the slings and arrows of social opprobrium like any Christian martyr, and ultimately succeed[ing] against all odds…because from deep within himself radiates that mysterious, holy effulgence: Genius.”[36] Although the sobriety and self-conscious earnestness of a postmodern, deconstructive culture mitigates against such myths, it institutionalizes a double standard by merely replacing the old canon with a new one. For “great artists” continue to be identified all the time, just as “genius” awards are given annually. So when Nochlin asked the provocative question—“If Giotto, the obscure shepherd boy, and van Gogh with his fits could make it, why not women?”[37]—she ironically poked fun at the hyperbolic “hardships” attributed to male “genius” and was simultaneously attentive to the social obstacles that confront women's ability to achieve greatness. But what if such hardships are, indeed, not “fairy tales” but real? Then Nochlin's question—“Why not a woman?”—becomes a rhetorical one.

Carolee Schneemann did fight against the most determined parental and social opposition, one that included having her father call her a “monster of nature” because she refused to have children in order to pursue her art in her way.[38] Nochlin also points out that the majority of women artists came from families where a close male relative was an artist. Not Schneemann. Moreover, what if one actually did suffer the slings and arrows of social disrepute? In this respect, Schneemann's display of her nude body in the early 1960s was seen as vulgar, pornographic, and inappropriate and was dismissed as a device for gaining attention.[39] A decade after the movement of body art (which she pioneered in her unprecedented action Eye Body) had become an acceptable genre of visual art, the very same body she had used throughout the preceding two decades was no longer a viable medium. Suddenly she had become too old to perform nude, if one considers the view of Fluxus artist Dick Higgins, who wrote to Schneemann in 1981 to suggest that she find a “younger” surrogate:

I think your strategy is wrong at the moment. You aren't recognizing that you are a master now (in the sense of master-artist, not of a male), that what you have been doing you have tried to do entirely yourself with your body as your instrument. But that instrument itself has changed. You're a beautiful woman, of course, but the very

nature of desire and potential for desire changes as one matures. You're less a Hollywood desire-object fetish as a physical entity than you once were…. What you need is, I think, to take a special kind of apprentice, to teach what you know on a one-to-one basis, and to find yourself a beautiful young woman to work with, not necessarily as a lesbian lover, but as a surrogate for yourself in certain performance situations so that you can maintain your masterly objectivity.[40]

The paradoxical, ironical, and maddening aspects of Higgins's suggestions are too obvious to require comment. Schneemann's entire career, like the life of women in general, has been caught in this contradiction, an age-old social problem that Schneemann's work not only depicts but represents. Moreover, many younger artists, including numerous imitators around the world, have received more critical attention, museum and gallery exhibitions and financial support, grants and other kinds of funding, teaching positions, new studios, and so on than she has. The perfect example of this neglect is the response I received in 1995 when I proposed a retrospective of Schneemann's work to a wellknown museum in the United States. The chief curator, a man, turned down my proposal with the explanation that his audience would be “better served by an apple than the stem.”[41]

Given such odds, why does Carolee Schneemann still radiate?[42] The answer cannot be that she is simply a genius. It is that, like any person accorded such accolades, she possesses “something special” that is not mysterious at all: dogged persistence. In this regard, it is far more compelling to observe how hard Schneemann has persevered to achieve her goals. Her indefatigable energy, her steadfast involvement in international culture, her insistence on creating work that expresses her experience of truth, and her refusal to accept inherited conventions for the behavior of women or women artists are all aspects of a rare will, determination, mastery of many fields of creative expression—and talent. Cultivated by education and personal rigor, she has studied the world and transformed her understanding of it into a visual and textual language that simultaneously constitutes and represents the culture of her time.

While the title of this essay about Correspondence Course celebrates Nochlin's groundbreaking essay, it also suggests an ironical gasp of “at last!” This irony calls for the paradoxical recognition that unless one is understood as “great” in her own time, she will not receive the support she needs and deserves. By all the criteria that Nochlin herself provided,

Schneemann is a great artist. While it is beyond my purpose here to quarrel with Nochlin's definition of great art, it must be asked how the art historian's criteria prevented her from identifying “a great woman artist” in her midst. How, for example, would a “self-consistent” language of form, independent of social and cultural conventions, be identified? How could that form exist apart from culture and simultaneously be identified as aesthetic? How could artistic production ever exempt “personal expression” and “individual experience” from its results?[43] Most important, Nochlin's criteria for the tools of great art are too conservative and were even when she wrote the essay. Such criteria made it impossible for Nochlin to recognize how Schneemann—an artist whose body figured prominently as the medium of art—extended the medium of painting and sculpture into real time and space and insisted that it was a woman's right to do so.

It should be clear that my aim is to validate Carolee Schneemann's work. As a scholar, I will not contribute to the normative art historical paradigm that demands that she die in order to garner serious art historical attention and respect. I further refuse to be cowed by the dogmas of new art historical methodologies and theory that naively suppose a scholar is somehow lacking in critical acumen if she resorts to biography, much less celebrates an artist. I want to celebrate Schneemann's life's work in her lifetime. Why? Because Carolee Schneemann is, as she shouts, alive! I have staked my professional reputation, and I continue to stake it, on my scholarly conviction that Schneemann's art warrants more critical attention. Reading her letters makes the need for this acclaim manifest. For in them one finds the ways in which Schneemann consistently extended contemporary discourses into a visual and textual vocabulary of forms and ideas convergent with and expressive of the central themes of her time: the authority and fragility of the human body in the late twentieth century; the significance of gender in rethinking and reconstituting the social conditions of Western epistemology; the tenuous connections between disease, death, loss, and friendship; love and its fury; the intersection and intertextuality of contemporary media in the move from a unified modern identity to a multiple postmodern multiplicity; the growing interdependence of humans, animals, and nature in the postbiological age; and, perhaps the most daunting challenge of all, the representation and study of sexuality—that immense, mysterious territory that structures individual experience and interpersonal relations and invisibly shapes culture at large. At last, a great woman artist!

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