Just because it’s art doesn’t mean it isn’t racist sexist objectification of women

Bjarne Melgaard who as described by art critic Roberta Smith,  “never met a taboo he didn’t like breaking,” has a reputation to maintain as an aging enfant terrible .  He has produced a ‘chair-as-art’  based on a similar one created in the 1960s by Allen Jones. The chair is a woman on her back with her thighs pulled up to her chest and her calves and feet sticking up in the air.  The backs of her thighs make the seat.  She is wearing black knickers, long gloves and boots.  The difference is that Melgaard’s chair is a made to resemble a black woman and Jones’ is white.

Russian fashion designer and the editor-in-chief of new bi-annual art and fashion magazine GARAGE, Dasha Zhukova (note – it really isn’t acceptable to reduce a woman to that of girlfriend of a man, however rich and famous he happens to be) is a white woman who has been photographed smiling beatifically from the chair. The image is of a fully-clothed white woman sitting on top of a pornographied black woman. The photo-shoot accompanied  an interview with on-line fashion website Buro 24/7 about the launch of Zhukova’s magazine and has sparked what has been referred to as a ‘racism row’. The editor of the Buro 24/7 Miroslava Duma and Zhukova herself have since apologised. Duma’s apology reads:

“Dear all, Buro 24/7 team and I personally would like to express our sincerest apology to anyone who we have offended and hurt.  It was ABSOLUTELY not our intention. We are against racism or gender inequality or anything that infringes upon anyone’s rights. We love, respect and look up to people regardless of their race, gender or social status. The chair in the photo should only be seen as a piece of art which was created by British Pop-Artist Allen Jones, and not as any form of racial discrimination. In our eyes everyone is equal. And we love everybody.”

Zhukova is reported as saying: “This photograph, which has been published completely out of context, is of an artwork intended specifically as a commentary on gender and racial politics.”  Art critic Jonathan Jones has waded into the furore and defended  the piece arguing that the intention is the opposite of racist:

“in making this woman black he means to retoxify the art of Allen Jones, to offend people with an image long since accepted. It is to question power and representation. Are you offended by this black woman’s abuse? Then why is it OK for white women to be similarly humiliated in a respected pop art icon in the Tate collection?  Offensiveness in art is often a way to satirise injustice.”

Firstly, yes,  I am offended by Jones’ original piece.  The sexual objectification of women is taken to the further depth of a literal objectification by turning us in to a piece of furniture.  But whether art critic Jonathan Jones realises it or not, the objectification of white and black women is not the same.  Black and white women are rarely treated the same in pornography, depictions of black women are rarely free of racial stereotypes.  In Miroslava Duma’s world, everyone might be equal – though I would be interested to see a breakdown of the sex and race of contributors to her magazine – but in the real world they are not; and black women are doubly oppressed, through their race as well as their sex.  The model of the objectified pornographied black woman is made more offensive when it is sat upon by a fully-clothed white woman.

There’s nothing inherently big or clever about breaking taboos,  there’s nothing new about dressing –up porn as art or the art elite explaining to us plebs that we just don’t get it.  Miroslava Duma and Dasha Zhukova are absurdly wealthy white women making Duma’s protestation that “everybody is equal’, at best  ill-considered and uninformed.  Bjarne Melgaard, Allen Jones and Jonathan Jones are white men.  As people who have experienced neither racial nor sexual oppression, their defence of either is worthless.  Pornography is the eroticisation of unequal power relations and art or not, pornography reinforces, not challenges inequality.

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It’s not all about you

Last week, the Office of the Children’s Commissioner released a report on the impact of pornography on young people. Tweets about this report from the perspective on an organisation working with women, young people and children elicited responses including the following:

“so improve porn. Don’t ban young people from seeing it. Porn is a healthy aid to masturbation. It’s just badly done.”

“Telling women they’re debased by sex. Feminism.”

“I’m sick of people shaming porn. I’ve been watching porn since I was 11. It’s a healthy part of my life.”

Since then, the voices of so-called pro-porn, pro-sex-work and tory-feminists have started to sound increasingly similar to me. The young woman defending porn as a healthy aid to masturbation, the sex-worker celebrating her mastery of her craft or the former-tory politician describing that hard work that she had to undertake to reach the lofty heights of power, to my ears they’re all ‘me, my needs, my achievements, my just rewards’.

Starting with Louise Mensch, her own words really do it best:

“Aged 14 I had big glasses, was nerdy, feminist, ambitious, idolising Thatcher, and determined to be famous, to be an author, and to be rich. I was at private school my parents couldn’t really afford because I bust my ass and won a 100% academic scholarship. I always believed in myself and I had and have no intention of checking my privilege for anyone. I earned it. I hope the next generation of young women feel the same.”

That’s lovely, Louise. But no matter how hard you busted your arse, it might not be so easy for someone who doesn’t have a family descended from Roman Catholic gentry, who doesn’t get that scholarship and ‘earn’ a place at Oxford.

It’s clear that some groups have power and advantage where others do not. No one should deny that inequality, injustice, disadvantage and privilege exist. No one should deny that some experience multiple oppressions that others do not. This powerful blog by Reni Eddo-Lodge is a kick in the guts illustration to anyone who ever doubted it that that Sojourner Truth, Bell Hooks, Audre Lorde and Angela Carter are as relevant to feminism today as Karl Marx’s thoughts about economic exploitation, alienation and the opium of the people. But from recognising the effects of class, race, age, sexuality, of life choices, life chances, of biologically determined or socially constructed differences, feminist identity politics has developed. Identity politics has become a sort of cultural nationalism, emphasising differences between those who share or do not share certain characteristics of identities whilst blurring what they may share.

Somewhere along the way ‘the personal is political’ became – not about the way that patriarchal society shapes the detail of women’s lives, not about the commonalities of experiences and certainly not about the social and political forces defining and constraining what it is to be a woman – but about identity, the individual, empowerment, the freedom to choose, the freedom to excel, to achieve.

The conflation of empowerment and the personal – as an individual, not social being – as the political undermines collective action to dismantle the structures upholding inequality. Emphasising self-determination and personal achievement is conservative, it protects the status quo if it stops us from recognising or caring about the barriers that others face. Autonomy, choice, agency, empowerment are at best tools, political means not ends. If we confuse them with our goals then we might as well watch the chance to create a fairer and more just society for all slip through our fingers.

Can we create autonomy for ourselves as consumers? Does the young woman enjoying her healthy aid to masturbation see this outside of the global porn industry? Is her masturbation not influenced by the big business of the market, competition and profit? Feminists have historically and continue to fight for women’s sexual liberation, but on our terms; not a plasticised, eroticisation of power inequality defined by men and their profits. Can her freedom to enjoy porn be separated from the exploitation of women and girls? How easy is it to separate her ‘ethical feminist porn’ from that which produces images of violence against women and girls created by actual violence against women and girls? What about the women and girls who suffer sexual abuse, violence and coercion from men and boys whose expectations have been shaped more by the pornography they have seen than their own experiences?

Do we want the freedom to gain economic advantage from commodifying women, packaging our sexuality, whether through lap dancing, pornography or selling sex, to appeal to the male gaze? If we can see the relationship between cheap clothing, the Rana Plaza Bangladesh Factory collapse and international economic exploitation, why can’t we see the connection between buying and selling women, exploitation of women and girls through prostitution and trafficking and inequality between women and men? If we want better and fair working conditions for people in Bangladesh factories (the largest sector of women’s employment and creating over 75 per cent of the country’s export income), do we not equally recognise that a gendered employment market with economic inequality and the low paid, dead end jobs being disproportionately held by women in the West creates the conditions that make selling sex a viable (lack of) choice?

Or do we only care when it suits us?

Empowerment is all well and good, but how will it change the world? Feminism for me is not about focusing on the individual. It’s about transcending the politics of the individual. I want a better world for all of us.