Articles

Feminist Protest Disrupts the Whitney Biennial

by Jillian Steinhauer on May 17, 2014

The cliterati reading their rallying cry (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

The cliterati reading their rallying cry (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

“Envision an art world utopia in which every artist, irrespective of gender or race, is valued for their work!” It was (and still is) a lovely sentiment, shouted by 14 female artists decked in flowers and gowns and leotards, and standing in the second-floor galleries of the Whitney Museum. The group of artists, who called themselves the “cliterati,” were winding down their performance-protest over “the tokenistic approach to diversity on display at the [Whitney] Biennial” with a rallying cry, followed by a photo op.

What preceded the cry was equally well-intentioned, if not entirely successful. The cliterati, along with more than a dozen others, showed up at the Whitney during pay-what-you-wish Friday night hours to stage the Clitney Perennial (rhymes with “Whitney Biennial”). Beginning around 6pm, they congregated in the lobby, dressed in various degrees of cliterateness: colorfully elaborate headdresses here, sheer slips and makeup like face paint there; others wore plainclothes with hand-drawn patches pinned on, and always, everywhere flowers (channeling Frida Kahlo). Twenty or so minutes later, the group made its way up the stairs to the central galleries of the museum’s second floor, where a few of the women began with a performance of sorts — gyrating and hissing and dancing — followed by a quiet welcoming of viewers to the Perennial.

Opening dances (click to enlarge)

Opening dances (click to enlarge)

From there it became more like a happening, a kind of freeform event with diffuse surges of energy. (Although the event was unsanctioned by the museum, the guards did not intervene.) Some of the artists continued dancing and moving through the space. Others struck up conversations with bystanders, inviting women to discuss the biases and discrimination they’d experienced in the art world. Artist Asha Man sat down on the ground with strangers and, blindfolded, led them in a word-association exercise. Artist Rebecca Goyette continued to touch, and encourage others to touch, the plush, inviting clitoris she’d mounted to her leggings. Artist Sophia Wallace handed out handmade, freshly painted CLIT-Glasses that said “CLITERACY,” as well as clitoris cutouts. People mulled about and looked at the art and looked at the interlopers; some of them asked questions and engaged in conversations. The mood was low-key but festive — the makings of a clit carnival.

Artist Rebecca Goyette

Artist Rebecca Goyette and her clitoris

I asked visitors and guards if they knew what the intervention was about and what they thought of it. “What are they protesting — this floor?” asked one. “I think it’s really interesting for a Friday night. I don’t know what the message is really, but it’s interesting,” said another. “Something about the movie that was taken down.” “I’m kind of wondering what they’re supposed to be doing.” “I’m not sure — I thought it might have been a legitimate performance, part of something on this floor.” “Something about the number of female artists … but you’ll have to ask them.” I found myself explaining the gist of the event to the majority of people I approached. “I think that’s a fair criticism, but I don’t know how this gets it across,” one woman responded, pointing to the slow, gestural dances happening in front of Gary Indiana’s oversize LED curtain.

Family "cliteracy" photo (click to enlarge)

Family “cliteracy” photo (click to enlarge)

There were moments of (admittedly comical) enlightenment, as when a boy, maybe 11 years old, asked his mother, “What’s a clit?” And she responded, “It’s a part of the vagina that’s very sensitive,” whereupon she turned to her daughter (13?) and asked, “Do you know what phallocentric means?” (The family later took a group photo wearing Wallace’s CLIT-Glasses.) But for the most part the Clitney Perennial was vague, and far too often wrong, as when numerous artists attempting to incite discussion about art world discrimination cited the incorrect percentage of women included in the biennial. (If you’re going to protest something, know what you’re protesting.) Not to mention the near-complete omission of race from the conversation, save for two artists handing out small rectangles of paper with an appropriately provocative statement. (The Yams Collective withdrew from the Biennial this week over gender and race issues.) Or when one of the artists tossed out, “We weren’t invited, and we just feel that we belong here.” (The personal is political, but for it to have any meaning it must remain in the least bit political.)

At one point, Kay Turner, the folk arts director at the Brooklyn Arts Council, led a congregated group in the recitation of a pair of lines written by Virginia Woolf and later channeled into feminist art writing by Arlene Raven. “Light up the windows of the new house, daughters! Let them blaze!” we all cried. And for a moment, I felt the heat. But soon it was gone, and the Clitney Perennial, while considerably fun, left me cold. The cliterati walked away with their photos, and the Whitney got a chance to prove it tolerates dissent. Where does that leave the rest of us?

Cliterati congregating in the Whitney Museum lobby before the event

Cliterati congregating in the Whitney Museum lobby before the event

Susannah Simpson performing

Susannah Simpson performing

Elisa Ghs and Katie Cercone performing

Elisa Ghs and Katie Cercone performing

DSC01820

Artist Darshana Bolt

Kara Rooney initiates a discussion.

Kara Rooney initiates a discussion.

DSC01835

Poet Dorothy Friedman August in conversation with the cliterati

Asha Man leading a free-association exercise

Asha Man leading a free-association exercise

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Dancing

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Flyers distributed and left on the ground during the intervention

Bystanders listening to the cliterati's utopian vision

Bystanders listening to the cliteratis’ utopian vision

The Clitney Perennial took place at the Whitney Museum (945 Madison Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) on May 16, from roughly 6 to 8:30pm.

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  • Barb

    Pointless, insulting to women, and really, really, bad art, An, oh, btw, sex and women’s parts are nothing new. Men like this crap because it is pornographic, not because exhibitionists like to pretend to be artists.

    • Chicken_Fingers

      It was vulgar and stupid back when Annie Sprinkle did it in the 80s, called “Public Cervix Announcement.”

      NSFW http://dbprng00ikc2j.cloudfront.net/work/image/709573/slide/20130620224759-sprinkle_post-porn_modernist.jpg

      • Preying Mantis

        vulgar? it’s just women. women aren’t vulgar.

        • Barb

          If one behaves in a vulgar manner, then one is vulgar. Not everything is forgiven simply because the vulgar individual is female. I did not spend my life struggling for women’s rights so a group of cheap, self indulgent individuals could pretend to be edgy artists.

          • Preying Mantis

            based n this article, all they did was chat with the audience and dance around, while wearing more than you would see during an average day at the beach. They used a dirty word, YUCK. It’s actually telling how conservative what they did was.

          • Chicken_Fingers

            Can you see? Based in the photographs, you had a woman publicly inviting men to do what is ordinarily considered sexual assault.

          • guest

            Chicken fingers, is this your way of dismissing women who cry rape and people who say they have been molested? I hope to god not. Now who is being vulgar?

          • guest

            Hey, if people find it vulgar and totally unladylike, let them. At least, they’re trying to say this system is f*cked up, so we got to do something about it, instead of sitting on their couches and comfortably dismissing them as self indulgent, cheap whores. Meantime, the equally vulgar mediocre boys are called geniuses and get the jobs and cred, right? Because that’s totally, OK.

        • Chicken_Fingers

          Can you read? It, the work, is the subject if the sentence, to what vulgar refers. Not “women.”

          • guest

            Or let’s switch it again, I’m a man going to pretend I’m a woman and throw my dick around all over the art world. And they will say I’m a genius and hire me at Harvard and Yale and put me in many Biennials ingratiating me as an official very relevant artist.

          • guest

            Oops, my bad Princeton and Yale. Ivy Leagues are so difficult to differentiate this days…

    • guest

      As in regurgitated dick jokes is really, really good art and should have a rightful place in museum walls. And pussy exhibitionists who decided to carve their own space within an institution (see subversive protest) is so stupid and so bad. I truly hope, we are all smart enough to tell the difference between subversion and the perpetuation of women as inferiorly talented sex objects, art aesthetics aside…

  • Abby van den Noort

    Whooo Sexy Girls!!

  • mia

    lo and behold, white women making everything about them again without really trying to understand what they’re hijacking.

    in other news, water is still wet.

    • Art4med

      Looks like truth, mia. Too bad (truly) that an “intervention” was so diffractive, dissociative– when it could have played better if up-voting Joe Scanlan’s controversy, which was indeed bravely sanctioned by WB curators. However, *that may be the sole reason this was allowed to play-out and be forgotten.
      Too bad that Joe possibly overshot by making Woolford a black female (thus an under-represented minority nested in a minority, appropriated by an academic majority-figure). Joe, maybe the professor should have a Christies’ agent as his spouse? @craluce

  • Portal

    When the majority of people making art are women, the majority of MFA graduates are women, 32% doesn’t make sense. At least they stood up and said something about it.

    • Shawn Chapman

      Does quality of the art matter, or should it just be ‘boy, girl, boy, girl, boy, girl’ no matter what?

      • guest

        yes, a fake black woman and regurgitated dick jokes are on par with say a
        Frida Kahlo painting. I don’t know, quality matters right? or we can just go boy, girl, boy, girl, because they are sooo many more talented boys out there…

        • Shawn Chapman

          I don’t know what “fake black woman and regurgitated dick jokes” is referencing, but I do know that Frida Kahlo paintings are “good” and have no problem finding wall space in museums and galleries. Maybe if the ‘Clitney Perennial’ ladies had some quality paintings they could also find some space.

          • guest

            Funny how Diego Rivera was recognized as an art star almost immediately and hardly anyone gave a shit about Frida until Madonna started collecting her. See the pattern here? Oh the dick jokes are a reference to the other infamous mediocre artist aka. John Scanlan. It’s hanging at the Whitney Museum right now if you want to see high art.

          • Shawn Chapman

            It’s not funny at all. Diego went to art school and while studying in Europe made the connections and had the politics that let him ride the wave of the Mexican mural projects after the Communist revolution in Mexico. Frida started painting mostly self portraits after her very serious accident. I think her poor health, and painting subject inhibited her commercial success as much as anything.
            And whether of not the Whitney Biennial is showing a crappy artist, it probably has less to do with the sex of the artist than it does with the ineffably nebulous craptology they use to determine ‘this is good crap, and this is bad crap.’ If you look at past lists of participants, you could argue that it is more of an honor and career boost NOT to be part of the W.B. But hey, what do I know.

          • guest

            Shawn, that is a great answer. Now we are getting somewhere. I don’t mean to diminish Diego’s socio-political endeavors, but you’d think after all that championing he would look at his bed-ridden wife’s art and say, hey she’s just as good as me, I should champion get work too no? And yes there is too much CRAPPY, PSEUDO-INTELLECTUAL ART championed by museums and galleries out there, so what are we going to do about it? Sit on our couches and name call people and people who do TRY?

          • punktoad

            Or maybe some more Jeff Koons bobbles

  • Elizabeth Ostrander

    Maybe this wasn’t so perfect but glad it happened – it’s been along time since I have seen any protesting in behalf of women artists and I still have fond memories of The Guerilla Girls wearing their gorilla masks! I believe that women artists do need to speak up for themselves!

    • mia

      there’s been nothing but female protest (even protesting for the sake of protest) in 2014. see: femen and pussyriot (the latter playing an expensive american music festival and not doing any actual subversion).
      there’s no more room for actual feminist presentation and thought if chicks like these shout out any actual protest with “lol idk flowers georgia okeefe i dunno any POC but check out my tumblr!”

      • guest

        Yes, those self-indulgent pussy whiners. Any one else want to volunteer 2 years in jail for protesting? And that so called self-promotional concert to benefit Amnesty and human rights is sooo self-iimportant, so cliche…

  • Christopher Howard

    For a protest of the 1970 Whitney Annual, feminist activists demanded that 50 percent of the chosen artists be women. A group that included Lucy Lippard, Poppy Johnson, Brenda Miller, and Faith Ringgold scattered “bits of paper carrying their demands, uncooked white eggs, hard-boiled black eggs, Tampax, etc.” inside the museum during open hours. To learn more, read Nancy Spero, “The Art of Getting to Equal,” in The Feminist Memoir Project: Voices from Women’s Liberation, ed. Rachel Blau DuPlessis and Ann Snitow (New York: Three Rivers Press, 1998), 368.

  • Bob Priest

    Yawn.

    • guest

      Yep, let’s just all go back to eating chicken fingers and watching porn.

      • Bob Priest

        That’s probably OK as long as no one pretends that they are viewing “art.”

        • guest

          Tell that to the higher ups who can’t seem to get enough dick jokes as “art.”

          • Rasta Man

            Better than the umpteenth painting in menstrual blood.

            At least sexism can be ironic at this point.

  • Jennifer Garbutt Winahradsky

    It seems a lot of you really don’t get that women and people of color are still very much discriminated against in the art world, especially in large exhibits. And to imply that women’s art should be displayed just because it was created by women implies that there isn’t enough quality art that DESERVES to be displayed out there, which is just bullshit. White men get way more exhibition space than their due. Sexism and racism exists in the art world. I’m not saying that this was an effective protest. Clearly it wasn’t, but at least they tried, albeit in a really poorly thought out way. But by all means, keep crying about white women co-opting other people’s causes and continue with the dick jokes.

  • http://www.annepundyk.com Anne Sherwood Pundyk

    As one of the organizers of the Clitney Perennial, I feel Steinhauer didn’t
    adequately convey in her article the overall warmth and feeling of camaraderie
    that filled the museum’s galleries throughout the night. The Clitney Perennial was conceived as an inclusive, activist art happening. Our goal was to reinforce the existence of institutional gender and racial bias in the art world. The event was inherently defiant; we did not
    seek the museum’s permission. We took the risk of expulsion or worse to show,
    by example, what is necessary to fight for important social changes. Throughout the evening, informal dialogue between participants and audience members touched on many personal examples of limiting and destructive bias in the art world. The camaraderie we felt was
    fueled by the open structure of the event, the opportunity to raise awareness,
    and by the sense of unity bonding those who had chosen to embrace the risk of
    speaking out.

    • Jillian Steinhauer

      Anne, thank you for reading and for commenting. I did feel that warmth, but for me it just wasn’t enough to sustain the entire event. But I do appreciate the spirit in which the intervention was done, and I thank you for organizing it.

  • Guest

    As one of the organizers of the Clitney Perennial, I feel Steinhauer didn’t adequately convey in her article the overall warmth and feeling of camaraderie that filled the museum’s galleries throughout the night. The Clitney Perennial was conceived as an inclusive, activist art happening. Our goal was to reinforce the existence of institutional gender and racial bias in the art world. The event was inherently defiant; we did not seek the museum’s permission. We took the risk of expulsion or worse to show, by example, what is necessary to fight for important social changes. Throughout the evening, informal dialogue between participants and audience members touched on many personal examples of limiting and destructive bias in the art world. The camaraderie we felt was fueled by the open structure of the event, the opportunity to raise awareness, and by the sense of unity bonding those who had chosen to embrace the risk of speaking out. ‪#‎clitneyperennial‬

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