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Why Feminist Artists Found an Ally in Antonin Artaud

Lucy Bradnock—

Instances of feminist artists citing Artaud are curious and not a little confusing. The French poet and dramaturg died in 1948, leaving behind a legacy that was both bound up in historical modernism and dogged by accusations of misogyny. Neither would seem to align him with second wave feminism, which sought to escape the burden of a masculinist past and assert women’s agency. Yet, as Carolee Schneemann and Nancy Spero fought to express their own creative voice in the deeply patriarchal New York art world of the 1960s and 1970s, they turned to Artaud for inspiration and solidarity. Schneemann cited Artaud as an important inspiration behind her pioneering 1964 performance Meat Joy, and Spero incorporated quotations from his works in a series of Artaud Paintings and the group of vast scrolls she titled the Codex Artaud. So, what exactly did Schneemann and Spero see in Artaud that rendered him a kindred spirit and a valuable feminist ally? 

Feminist identifications with Artaud hinged on his status as marginalised, disempowered, and silenced. In the 1960s, American small press editorials waxed lyrical about Artaud’s difficult life and career—he was beset by mental health difficulties, institutionalised for much of his life, and often professionally overlooked. In 1960, the New York based little magazine Exodus published Artaud’s anguished letters to the editor of the Nouvelle Revue Française, in which he expresses a despairing sense of rejection in near-hysterical terms. 

The letters represented a compelling point of identification for women artists battling to be acknowledged. In Spero’s words, Artaud was a “victim par excellence.” In one of her Artaud Paintings, she transcribed one of those letters in full, allowing Artaud’s words to speak for her own sense of professional exclusion. She later explained that she had “wanted a vehicle to show my anger and he was the angriest poet there was.” Accordingly, she paired his words with violent imagery: collaged body parts, painted explosions, handwritten incantations. 

While Spero saw in Artaud a way of articulating her own disenfranchisement, Schneemann found in Artaud’s theatrical ideas a way of breaking free. English translations of Artaud’s work were published in American little magazines and poetry journals throughout the post-war period, and he proved popular with the counterculture. The publication in 1958 of his collection of theater manifestoes The Theatre and Its Double cemented his American reception and reputation as a rebellious anti-authority figure. Where Artaud decried the rigid structures of conventional staging, Schneemann saw the oppressive control of the patriarchy. In the anarchic theater that Artaud advocated, she perceived a way of enacting liberation of the sexes. The Theatre and Its Double provided not only a dramaturgical framework, but also a political mode of cultural and social resistance, one lent credibility by Artaud’s difficult life experience.

On the one hand, Artaud served as an ally in women artists’ fight against the art world establishment. On the other, the act of citing a male voice to assert female experience posed ethical and political problems, serving to replace women’s voices with the words of men. Schneemann’s and Spero’s practices suggest that such contradictions were in some way part of the point: Schneemann imaginatively merged Artaud’s ideas with those of feminist author Simone de Beauvoir and Spero employed collage and tearing to fragment his texts. Such practices served to disrupt the idea of the single author whose words must be respected and, in doing so, challenged the process of citation itself, reclaiming it as a powerful feminist practice.

Note: Presented by 192 Books and Paula Cooper Gallery, Lucy Bradnock will discuss her new book, No More Masterpieces: Modern Art After Artaud, with Stuart Comer today at 6pm EST. Learn more about the event here.

Lucy Bradnock is associate professor of art history at the University of Nottingham.

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