Unruly Bodies in Feminist Art
by Lauren Elkin
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Pub Date 14 Nov 2023 | Archive Date 31 Dec 2023
A Must-Read: Vogue, Chicago Review of Books, Literary Hub
"Destined to become a new classic . . . Elkin shatters the truisms that have evolved around feminist thought.” —Chris Kraus, author of I Love Dick and After Kathy Acker: A Literary Biography
What kind of art does a monster make? And what if monster is a verb? Noun or a verb, the idea is a dare: to overwhelm limits, to invent our own definitions of beauty.
In this dazzlingly original reassessment of women’s stories, bodies, and art, Lauren Elkin—the celebrated author of Flâneuse—explores the ways in which feminist artists have taken up the challenge of their work and how they not only react against the patriarchy but redefine their own aesthetic aims. How do we tell the truth about our experiences as bodies? What is the language, what are the materials, that we need to transcribe them? And what are the unique questions facing those engaged with female bodies, queer bodies, sick bodies, racialized bodies?
Encompassing with a rich genealogy of work across the literary and artistic landscape, Elkin makes daring links between disparate points of reference— among them Julia Margaret Cameron’s photography, Kara Walker’s silhouettes, Vanessa Bell’s portraits, Eva Hesse’s rope sculptures, Carolee Schneemann’s body art, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s trilingual masterpiece DICTEE—and steps into the tradition of cultural criticism established by Susan Sontag, Hélène Cixous, and Maggie Nelson.
An erudite, potent examination of beauty and excess, sentiment and touch, the personal and the political, the ambiguous and the opaque, Art Monsters is a radical intervention that forces us to consider how the idea of the art monster might transform the way we imagine—and enact—our lives.
A Note From the Publisher
"Art Monsters joins a larger conversation about monstrousness and art. [. . .] provoking new, deeper questions about how feminism can and must evolve to engage with those who do things differently." —The Guardian
"A truly feminist work . . . building a ‘monstrous network’ of artists, while allowing the work to shape itself, veering between beauty and excess, and so to find its own monstrous form." —New Statesman
"A lively and vibrant account of feminist art that articulates the everyday experience of having a body . . . [A] superb book’" —The Spectator
"Insightful, provocative and at times heartbreaking." —Literary Review
"Elkin proves a more informative guide to feminist trends in the visual arts, bringing many an ephemeral happening energetically back to life." —Daily Telegraph
“Expertly blending astute critical analysis with intellectual curiosity, Elkin resists easy answers about questions of femininity, physicality, and art, leading the text into rich and unexpected directions. Even those well acquainted with feminist art will be enlightened.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“Lauren Elkin’s exhaustive, incisive re-readings of feminist writing and art across several centuries prove that the questions raised in these works are far from resolved. In fact, they're more timely than ever. The book seems destined to become a new classic. Making a passionate case for the monstrosity entailed in all acts of creation, Elkin shatters the truisms that have evolved around feminist thought.” —Chris Kraus, author of I Love Dick and After Kathy Acker: A Literary Biography
“Lauren Elkin has the nerve to defend the guilty, fight tooth and claw for long abandoned causes while making heroines out of trouble makers. Her book makes you take sides, change sides, change back and sometimes shout out loud with furious indignation, but you won’t find anything like this history, told in this way, anywhere else.” —Lubaina Himid, Turner Prize-winning artist
“Elkin’s authority as a cultural critic springs from her signature style of curious questioning. Rather than imposing her conclusions on the reader, she juxtaposes ideas, images, language, in a vivid collage that invites us to look more deeply. Never linear—because life isn’t—but perpetually moving, in both senses of the word.” —Jeanette Winterson, author of Frankissstein
“Soaring and vivid, the experience of reading Art Monsters is like watching a lightning storm at night, each chapter a bolt of light. A remarkable twinning of intellect and brightest scholarship, it left me giddy with possibility.” —Doireann Ní Ghríofa, author of A Ghost in the Throat
“A fascinating re-visioning and re-imagining of women artists who have used their bodies in all sorts of creative, subversive ways. Lauren Elkin provides fresh insight into more familiar names and works, and brings plenty of less well-known ones to light, taking us through more than a century of women who boldly took on the world.” —Juliet Jacques, author of Trans: a memoir
Available on NetGalley
“The book like the body is teaching us how to read it.” Art Monsters: Unruly Bodies in Feminist Art is a strange beast of a book, in which Lauren Elkin so seamlessly threads together a whole host of complex and disparate ideas about art and bodies and feminism, blending art criticism with literary criticism, and interpolating some art history and personal memoir elements for good measure. It is a work, like many of the ones Elkin explores within, that should not work but absolutely does. Having only read Elkin’s (truly excellent) bus diaries, and the occasional short piece, I had no idea what to expect — maybe a more straightforward, neat little narrative, a chronological arrow about representations and uses of the body, mostly female, in art made by women. Instead, Elkin is elliptical, unafraid to see how contemporary filmmakers and twentieth century writers and seventeenth century artists are all working in conversation with one another, consciously or otherwise. This is the first, but I hope not the last, book where I have seen Lady Gaga’s name printed next to Susan Sontag’s, not far from Simone Weil, a thrill that may be unique to me, but still reveals Elkin’s eclectic, irreverent approach to the subject at hand. She also plays on the multiplicity of the titular ‘monsters’ as both noun and verb: to monster. Herein lies a great achievement of Elkin’s work, putting the work before the artist, itself a monstrous thing, overthrowing old narratives: “monstrosity, […] in its broadest, most marvellous form, dwells more in the surprise of the work, than the personal life of the artist making it”. Rather than answers, questions are offered like windows, letting light in by which to read, to view; to paint, to write.
Art Monsters: Unruly Bodies in Feminist Art by Lauren Elkin is an engaging and enlightening critique of art in its many forms (bodies?) and the intersection with society and everyday life.
Once I settled into the way the book is presented, snippets both long and short, art criticism mixed with memoir(ish) stories, and some more general cultural criticism, I came to love it. I thought of it as sitting and having a conversation with a friend, albeit an extremely intelligent and perceptive friend, where the topic can shift from moment to moment but never really leaves the larger subject.
Even though I came mostly for the art and cultural criticism, the analyses of works both known and unknown to me, I remember being floored by a couple sentences early on that spoke more to our current political and social environment, especially in the United States where I live. Talking about Christine Blasey Ford's testimony, delivered clearly and consistently, then Kavanaugh's emotional and unhinged response, all of which was followed by his confirmation as a Supreme Court justice, Elkins put into plain words what has been often unspoken but known by many who watched. If an educated white woman giving calm and consistent testimony isn't going to be believed, who will? And the kicker, the thing that is upsetting but also, in my opinion, more likely the truth, what if she was believed and "it didn't matter?" It sure seems like, to a large part of the population that is the case.
I would recommend this to anyone interested in feminist art (in a broad sense) and especially those interested in the dynamics between that art and the society to which it is speaking/responding. As I have come to expect from Elkin, the writing will engage and challenge you to think through and beyond what is written.
Reviewed from a copy made available by the publisher via NetGalley.
Wow! Lauren Elkin has delivered with this fascinating deep dive into feminist art and its use of the female body. From Simone Weil to Lady Gaga, Elkin has woven such an eclectic mix of female art Monsters bookended by Virginia Woolfs musings from her bath. Ultimately the book is ‘ a pointed reminder that whether we’re loved for our bodies or our brains, we are nothing but meat’ within the patriarchal society we live.
This was such an incredible book. As someone who studies feminist art history and also communication theory, many of the concepts brought up in these pages were very familiar, and unsurprising, but seeing it in a mainstream book like this is beautiful. Usually this kind of theory work is locked inside of academia, so I'm glad texts like this exist outside of graduate programs and universities.
This is my favorite non-fiction book I've read all year, and I cannot wait for it to come out to purchase a physical copy! This book was so informative and truly exciting! I took more notes than I have while reading any book, maybe ever. I think Lauren Elkin is a wonderful writer and I was delighted to see that the title, Art Monsters, was inspired by Jenny Offill's Dept. of Speculation, which is a beloved book of mine. Thank you Lauren for this amazing book!
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