Hobnail Boots to Stiletto Heels:
A Dialogue on Lesbian Artistic Sensibilities

Adrienne Fuzee (critic, curator), moderator,
with Barbara Hammer (filmmaker),
Osa Hidalgo-de la Riva (filmmaker),
Wendy Cadden (printmaker)

© LVA (Lesbians in the Visual Arts)

Adrienne Fuzee: We are going to discuss lesbian aesthetic sensibilities and I would like to begin by saying I don't have any answers. We exist in a time of awakening consciousness. Groups which have been previously silenced are emerging with very strong voices to challenge the assumptions society has placed on all of us. This action requires self-knowledge. This discussion is another step in defining our reality as artists and lesbians. I would like to acknowledge Dr. Arlene Raven at the Feminist Studio Workshop in L.A. who first developed the germinal concepts of a lesbian aesthetic that I expect we will explore, define and redefine yet again. We engaged in a process of exploration, researching to identify lesbian antecedents in the 20s and 30s in Paris, London and the U.S., when people like Gertrude Stein, painter Romaine Brooks and writer Radclyffe Hall were describing a highly cultured and intellectual lesbian society. The reality of WW2 eliminated public lesbian expression. It emerged again in the 50s, identified as butch and femme. During the 70s, the feminist movement encouraged the development of an art reflecting the reality of women's lives. There was the necessity to find images which would express and transcend our reality as victims. Thus women drew upon archetypal images, goddesses, and folklore creating a new amazonian culture. These artists and historians realized, and I quote from "Woman with her parts coming out" by Susan Griffin: The word lesbian must be affirmed because to discard it is to collaborate with the silence and lying about our very existence.

Barbara Hammer: I began 23 years ago because I had to make the images of women loving women that had changed my life. As an artist, I was trying to find what expression was best for me. I'd taken a camera and made some psycho dramas. One was called schizy. I had all this energy that wasn't considered feminine, so I shot with a split screen, I got bifocals and shot through them, and even before I had a film class I was finding some form that represented my content. Form is content and the two go together and speak one to the other. Touch became very important in my work - I felt my lesbian aesthetic (I used to say A lesbian aesthetic and decided to withdraw that and just speak for myself) is one of touching, because if you touch another body that's similar to your own you reinforce your sense of skin, most of our sense of touch is from skin. In my research into touch, and I stress research because I think it is really important to look at our subjects and our forms before we blithely go down the path and make the work, I found that we actually touch before we see. I made a lot of films in the (San Francisco) bay area, celebratory rituals, before moving to New York. My early work was critiqued negatively as being essentialist - in other words, being lesbian, being female, is essential. The idea that biology is destiny or that lesbian is genetic or that woman is different because of her biology was very declasse at the time (and it still is). I was influenced by this criticism and became fascinated with constructivism, the ideology that suggests that all knowledge, behavior, institutions, genders, sexualities are constructed or made. The difference that we lesbians have to offer the world is wonderful and varied but it is a difference that comes from the construction of our lifestyle, clothing, lovemaking, not from biology. I imagine that with everything there are many inputs and that biology is one of a host of influences, but not the only or dominant one. I began listening to this sense of construction/deconstruction. It still interests me very much, how the lesbian community made me, i.e., how did we dress then and now? Then go back to the ex-patriot construction of what lesbian was, etc. A lot of what I make now is with looking critically at my past and to the construction of biology, of science, even of death, the way we think about the most important things in our lives. I look at all the information we've received around us and at education, the family, the government. I look at why we are chic today and weren't yesterday. Then I have material to work with, content, and that's what interests me. Each of us, in making our work, have to take something that scares us. It is very hard to work in a fearful way, but then you know you are breaking the taboo. It's not to be easy and content and repeat power images, to look in the mirror and say yes I am powerful. I mean we did that for 20 years. It's time to go and be afraid and push ourselves.

Osa Hidalgo-de la Riva: I was thankful to participate, to have this dialogue about lesbian sensibility. Then I was thinking oh dear, I have to go back to that white man's book again and what is sensibility exactly. I thought in a way lesbian sensibility is like that movie - "What's love got to do with it?" And I thought what does love have to do with it? I hope, even though we have problems and different conflicts living with reality, that love is the base of lesbian sensibility. As a Chicana lesbian, I've had to come in contact with my native self, my multi-cultural self, my transcultural self and cross cultural. What does all that mean when putting it in context with history? It has to do with the earth. I feel, and maybe it's eccentrism, that lesbian sensibility has remained closer to the earth. This earth is spinning very funny these days, you know. I would like to believe though that the majority of humans have this innate instinct to survive. Looking outside of the U.S., as a Chicana artista and activist connecting with my sisters throughout Latin America, I realize that even though we may not speak the same European language or have the same daily realities, there is still something in our heart and our blood that connects us and takes us further than these past 500 years of destruction and greed and disease. I believe that we women and activists and lesbian artistas are trying to speak to a basic common vision of survival and love, peace and harmony by reflecting and realizing and being conscious of our contemporary historical specificity. The way that we lesbians of color do survive takes a certain amount of energy that other cultures with different privileges and different experiences don't necessarily have to spend time with. To at least stay focused for myself, I try to remember that we need to continue to stay close to the earth, to feel how connected we are to the earth. And I think that all connects with the idea of touch. I look at skyscrapers and think how hard it is to stay focused on what is right and our responsibility and our art.

Wendy Cadden: Image is Power is a phrase that has haunted me over the years. I think it is the reason I began to make art in the first place. It was a way to access a voice, to access power, to express my sense of powerful-ness and empowerment and to interact with other people in a powerful way - the way that art can put you in touch with other people's energies and feelings. I'm also in the process of understanding that freedom really is a constant struggle, a really important concept in my life because of the various movements I've been involved in. I redefine again and again what that struggle is about and it seems the definition never stays the same for very long. So the minute I see our lesbian nationhood defined, I say this is not what we need, what we need is something new. Now I'm working diligently to create a real multi-cultural base, a base of diversity in the art world. We know that art takes place in the streets and in people's personal homes in ways that the galleries are never really able to define. Those are important things to explain and describe as well as describing a real diversity of voices. We have the knowledge and a way to connect all these different threads and weave them together, to make something very strong, very bound together and very whole and that's obviously something we can see that the planet needs. So as lesbians we are in a very volatile and very creative and important position in the world. I feel we have something to teach and we also have something to share and hopefully we can explore just what that is. I do think it is that connectedness between our passion and our power as women, as lesbians, that makes us activists and able to express something incredibly powerful, strong and important to this moment in time and to this moment on the planet. When I use that word passion, I m speaking of the fire and anger as well as of the activism and love. Passion is one of the essential ingredients in lesbian art. I don't mean passion in a lusty sense, I mean it in terms of the potency of speaking to the personal, to what is important and what has not been spoken.

A longer and slightly different version of this discussion was published in LVA: Lesbian in the Visual Arts (Fall 1993), the newsletter of the networking organization which sponsored the discussion. LVA can be reached at 870 Market St. #618, San Francisco CA 94102.

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