The image above is a gouche study for a finished painting that was installed in an exhibition curated by Ken Aptekar for Artists Space, in New York, in 1990. The show was called, Post Boys & Girls. The excellent catalogue essays were written by a posse of “scholars and writers from both the theoretical and practical spheres of gender discourse.” For the show, this particular picture was hung alone on a twenty-foot wall. The wall was mine to do with as I liked. I covered it with a layer of dirt. Hung on this velvety “ground” the pristine two-panel painting had this same formal flower with a plucked petal next to the word “dirty.” But in the finished painting, the word was written in dirt. The name of this clean picture was, as you may have guessed, Dirty Picture.
While I was grateful to be included in this exhibition and totally down with anyone using painting to “engage questions of subjectivity and authority” or to “re-examine the relationship between pleasure and desire in terms of dominant gender discourse” (two claims made on behalf of the artists in the show) neither of those projects were mine. Instead, I was interested in exposing nostalgia for old gender divides.* I also wanted, with this particular piece, to suggest a new taboo by offering a shout-out for sentiment .
sentiment, noun sen·ti·ment \ˈsen-tə-mənt\
a : emotion
b : refined feeling : delicate sensibility especially as expressed in a work of art
c : emotional idealism
d : a romantic or nostalgic feeling verging on sentimentality
That’s a lot to ask a picture to do. Fortunately, I had several pieces in the show so the work was divided up. Anyway, I knew the ideas that fired me up were my inspiration; they were not the things that got made. Those objects had to speak for themselves with their own vocabulary.
There were academics whose writing I truly admired, but I didn't care for writing in the style of fashionable scholarship. It ended up being a whole lot of form with little content. It smacked of sanctioned thought. It criticized strays from the path of whatever enlightened understanding it was peddling.
Recently, as part of the response to the current political moment, I went to see the dystopian film, 1984, directed by Michael Radford and released in the year of its title. This spring it was shown simultaneously to moviegoers in 48 cities. Its sound quality made many of the scenes incomprehensible. (A string of students texting and passing candy in front of me didn’t help.) But the movie builds to a powerful climax. It remains visceral if antique. For me, the progress through the plot was a weird journey of rediscovery. I remembered each scene from the book as it was unfolding. Until in a whoosh, the last scene from Orwell's cautionary novel came back to me right before it appeared on screen. So quickly I gave myself permission to exit the theater before the, you know, rats.
Two college professors introduced the film. One of them, a particularly lovely young woman, warned the audience against the film’s shortfalls. She spoke with machine gun rapidity that did justice to her capable mind but I’m sure was lost on the texting youth seated in front of me. She used phrases just like “dominant gender discourse” to build her case against Orwell’s personal political failings. She insisted we should not be lulled by the film’s ideal of “freedom from oppression” an old “classical liberal” notion. (Tell that, I thought, to any of the millions current living under authoritarian regimes.) She wanted the audience to do better intellectually—to challenge whatever makes us not free to act.
Her careful distinctions were, I thought, terrific for the classroom and less good for life.
This brings me back to my watercolor and my own youth. I called my painting Dirty Picture although its most innocuous reference is the ritual of tearing petals off in sentimental anxiety—she loves me/she loves me not. In the self-serious context of the exhibition, the picture's title was poking fun at what couldn’t be said. There were lots of things we could talk about in those early days of gender discourse but the sentimental—so linked to love and sex, assigned and otherwise—was in jail, cordoned off as if feeling were at war with intellect.
Feeling is different from thought. I believed then, and know now, it is its engine.