Comps 11: The Obscene Body/Politic

Schneemann, Carolee. “The Obscene Body/Politic,” Art Journal 50.4 (1991) 28-35. Print. 

Schneemann’s essay was a wonderful test to read alongside Elinor Fuchs’ “Staging the Obscene Body”; it puts into question how the pair are differently defining obcenity in connection to the female body. This essay is a history of Scohneeman’s work, and the outrage, riots, attacks and closures that surround it. She points out the integral sexist contradiction implicit in the female body, and further, asks productive questions that help reimagine, rehistoricize her body, and feminist politics. 

Schneeman begins by discussing the resistance to her work early on, as well as basic contradictions in how she used the female body, as well as how she started using her own body as material. She is caught by the paradox of the female body: “My sexuality was idealized, fetishized, but the organic experience of my own body was referred to as defiling, stinky, contaminating” (28).  This essentializing contradiciton is what spurs her and others to make work: “Women artists explore erotic imagery because our bodies exemplify a historic battleground—we are dismantling conventional sexual ideology and its punishing suppressions—and because our experience of our bodies has not corresponded to cultural depiction” (28).  In Scohneeman’s words, the body becomes “visual territory” with “flesh as material” (28). 

She reflect that in this effort to use the body as art, she was either put in the role of the pornographer or the “emmisary of Aphrodite;” categories which strip her of all social or political power and agency (29). She laments the need to pull a scroll out of her vagina, but felt compelled by “the culture’s terror of my making overt what it wished to suppress” (31). She points to the fact that her performances from the 60s continue to illicit emotions in viewers and theories suggests that there exists in them “latent content the culture is still eager to suppress” (31). In other words, she is active is exploring the ‘difficult’ terrain that patriarchal society has deemed inappropriate, and make visible the sexism at the heart of those value judgements. 

In closing, Schneeman reflects on why her works are deemed ‘obscene’ and whether that has to do with her body as material or with her as artist/agent: 

If my paintings, photo- graphs, film, and enacted works have been judged obscene, the question arises: is this because I use the body in its actuality-without contrivance, fetishization, displacement? Is this because my photographic works are usually self-shot, without an external, controlling eye? And are these works obscene because I posit my female body as a locus of autonomy, pleasure, desire; and insist that as an artist I can be both image and image maker, merging two aspects of a self deeply fractured in the contemporary imagination? (33)