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Art Labor, Sex Politics

Feminist Effects in 1970s British Art and Performance

2015
Author:

Siona Wilson

Art Labor, Sex Politics

Sex and labor politics in feminist-engaged, avant-garde artistic practices in 1970s London

In Art Labor, Sex Politics Siona Wilson investigates the charged relationship of sex and labor politics as it played out in the making of feminist art in 1970s Britain. Her sustained exploration of works of experimental film, installation, performance, and photography maps the intersection of feminist and leftist projects in the artistic practices of this heady period.

Art Labor, Sex Politics is a totally compelling book on an important period in art history, and the most comprehensive analysis of a set of projects that define feminist art history. We come away with a real appreciation for the commitment of a generation of artists to the politics of representation and to the challenge of providing us with new ways of looking at the world in the effort to remake that world.

Jennifer Doyle, UC Riverside

Contrary to critics who have called it the “undecade,” the 1970s were a time of risky, innovative art—and nowhere more so than in Britain, where the forces of feminism and labor politics merged in a radical new aesthetic. In Art Labor, Sex Politics Siona Wilson investigates the charged relationship of sex and labor politics as it played out in the making of feminist art in 1970s Britain. Her sustained exploration of works of experimental film, installation, performance, and photography maps the intersection of feminist and leftist projects in the artistic practices of this heady period.

Collective practice, grassroots activism, and iconoclastic challenges to society’s sexual norms are all fundamental elements of this theoretically informed history. The book provides fresh assessments of key feminist figures and introduces readers to less widely known artists such as Jo Spence and controversial groups like COUM Transmissions. Wilson’s interpretations of two of the best-known (and infamous) exhibitions of feminist art—Mary Kelly’s Post-Partum Document and COUM Transmissions’ Prostitution—supply a historical context that reveals these works anew. Together these analyses demonstrate that feminist attention to sexual difference, sex, and psychic formation reconfigures received categories of labor and politics.

How—and how much—do sexual politics transform our approach to aesthetic debates? What effect do the tropes of sexual difference and labor have on the conception of the political within cultural practice? These questions animate Art Labor, Sex Politics as it illuminates an intense and influential decade of intellectual and artistic experimentation.

Art Labor, Sex Politics

Siona Wilson is associate professor of art history at the Graduate Center and the College of Staten Island, the City University of New York.

Art Labor, Sex Politics

Art Labor, Sex Politics is a totally compelling book on an important period in art history, and the most comprehensive analysis of a set of projects that define feminist art history. We come away with a real appreciation for the commitment of a generation of artists to the politics of representation and to the challenge of providing us with new ways of looking at the world in the effort to remake that world.

Jennifer Doyle, UC Riverside

Art Labor, Sex Politics

Contents

Introduction: Sex Politics
1. Nightcleaners: The Ambiguities of Activism and the Limits of Production
2. The Spectator as Reproducer: Mary Kelly’s Early Films
3. Prostitution and the Problem of Feminist Art: The Emergent Queer Aesthetic of COUM Transmissions
4. Revolting Photographs: Proletarian Amateurism in Jo Spence and Terry Dennett’s Photography Workshop
Acknowledgments
Notes
Bibliography
Index