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Feminist Art and the Maternal

2008
Author:

Andrea Liss

Feminist Art and the Maternal

A highly engaging, taboo-breaking study of feminist contemporary art

Feminist motherhood is a surprisingly unexplored subject. In fact, feminism and motherhood have been often thought of as incompatible. Profound, provocative, and innovative, Feminist Art and the Maternal is the first work to critically examine the dilemmas and promises of representing feminist motherhood in contemporary art and visual culture. Andrea Liss incorporates theory with personal reflections on the maternal, and advances a fresh perspective on both feminism and art.

It’s been commonplace for second-wave feminist theory to insist on the uneasy relations between feminism and motherhood. Passionately and with great personal investment, Andrea Liss tells a counter-story by tracing feminist artists’ complex and often ambivalent representations and reflections on the maternal. At a moment when feminist art is being reassessed and displayed in major volumes and exhibition, Feminist Art and the Maternal adds an important chapter.

Marianne Hirsch, Columbia University

Feminist motherhood is a surprisingly unexplored subject. In fact, feminism and motherhood have been often thought of as incompatible.

Profound, provocative, and innovative, Feminist Art and the Maternal is the first work to critically examine the dilemmas and promises of representing feminist motherhood in contemporary art and visual culture. Andrea Liss skillfully incorporates theory with passionate personal reflections on the maternal, and in doing so she advances a fresh and necessary perspective on both feminism and art.

Offering new research on works by well-known and emerging artists who approach feminist motherhood issues from their own knowledge and experiences, Liss explores a wide range of examples from the challenging to the taboo, including Mary Kelly’s Post-Partum Document, Mierle Laderman Ukeles’s Maintenance Art projects, Renée Cox’s Yo’ Mama portraits, and Ngozi Onwurah’s film The Body Beautiful.

Liss considers traditional characteristics that mothers are assumed to possess, such as nurturing, empathy, and sacrifice for their children—qualities that paradoxically have negatively defined women as “sentimental”—and assertively revalues them within both motherhood and feminism. Throughout, she deftly intertwines theoretical analysis with the arresting and enlightening first-person voices of artist-mothers and their children.

Putting forth an original ethics of feminism and the maternal—how to be in the place of the other and inside one’s self, how to care for another and one’s self—Liss reconceives the mother-child relationship as a model for relations among races, genders, and ages and radically reinterprets maternal traits as vital forms of social, artistic, and political address.

Feminist Art and the Maternal

Andrea Liss is the contemporary art historian and cultural theorist at California State University, San Marcos, where her teaching focuses on feminist art and theory, photographic theory, and representations of memory and history. She is the author of Trespassing through Shadows: Memory, Photography, and the Holocaust (Minnesota, 1998).

Feminist Art and the Maternal

It’s been commonplace for second-wave feminist theory to insist on the uneasy relations between feminism and motherhood. Passionately and with great personal investment, Andrea Liss tells a counter-story by tracing feminist artists’ complex and often ambivalent representations and reflections on the maternal. At a moment when feminist art is being reassessed and displayed in major volumes and exhibition, Feminist Art and the Maternal adds an important chapter.

Marianne Hirsch, Columbia University

The genius of Andrea Liss’s achievement lies in her ability to skillfully negotiate the terrain between postmodern theory and lived experience. Rather than reiterating only the painful exclusions of mother-artists, Feminist Art and the Maternal celebrates the great emotional power of the artworks under scrutiny.

Nancy Buchanan, California Institute of the Arts

Feminist Art and the Maternal is a marvelously rich and bold study, highly original in both content and form. Andrea Liss guides us through a dizzyingly wide-ranging selection of well-known and less well-known artists, themes (lesbian motherhood, the loss of a child, the relationship of mother and daughter) and critical contexts (Julia Kristeva, Luce Irigaray, and Adrienne Rich). In all, the argument for ‘art and the maternal’ as a central contribution to feminist art history is made loud and clear.

Moira Roth, Mills College

I am certain this book will become a valuable ‘must-read’ for students and artists to break down the mythology of the separation between art and motherhood. This is a thoughtful exploration of what feminists have brought to this question over several generations of art production.

n.paradoxa

Liss herself is a generous and thoughtful character here, sharing the insights of her young feminist students on motherhood and poignantly recounting her life history as a mother in order to initiate an intimate bond with the reader.

Choice

The structure and content of Liss’s book underscores her argument cleverly—chapters alternate between collective accounts of the efforts of ‘feminist mother-artists’ to critique conventions and representations of mothering, and focused essays on individual artists.

Choice

Informed by her own experiences and labor as a mother, as well as her work as an art historian and professor, Liss’s book is not only an important addition to contemporary art history—which has often been silent about, if not hostile toward, the subject and larger role of motherhood in artistic practice—but is also an example of the intersection of the personal and the political in feminist pedagogy and scholarship.

Feminist Formations

Liss’s use of a reflexive voice is effective in integrating theoretical concepts and personal experiences with an analysis of maternal feminist art. Her identities, as mother, art historian and feminist, exemplify how the interplay between our different subjectivities creates a richer understanding of self and other.

Visual Studies

Its new treatment of a timeless subject makes Feminist Art and the Maternal an important and welcome contribution to the literature on the topic of motherhood and the visual arts.

Woman’s Art Journal