Near the end of Virginia Woolf’s essay “The Professional Lives of Women,” she confesses: “Telling the truth about my own experiences as a body, I do not think I solved. I doubt that any woman has solved it yet.” Woolf, in A Room of One’s Own, advocates for women resisting the role of serving men. However, in “The Professional Lives of Women,” she contends that the challenge extends to a woman’s ability to serve her own body through art. Effectively capturing the essence of a woman’s body, according to Woolf, requires embracing its passions and imperfections — truths once deemed unsuitable for a woman to speak.
Woolf’s doubt serves as an entry point to essayist Laura Elkin’s newest book, Art Monsters: Unruly Bodies in Feminist Art, where women writers and artists find solace in the unspeakable. These interlocked essays traverse the landscape of feminist art over the past 50-plus years, offering an erudite and personal reassessment of controversial feminist artists who turned to body-focused art to rebel against the societal norms eager to suppress them. Unlike other theory-focused texts, Elkin weaves memoir and self-reflection into her analysis. This technique brings intimacy to academic writing and positions Elkin in the heart of a tradition borne to break and reconfigure the concept of tradition itself.
The term “Art Monster,” coined by novelist Jenny Offill, becomes a focal point, not to define women as such but to explore what makes their art monstrous — that is, resistant to self-censorship and patriarchal constraints. Art Monsters is divided into three parts, seamlessly connecting the disparate ideals and works of women artists who’ve found connection in the controversial and community in imperfection. The essays focus on the body and its inhabitants, the polemical works of artists like Carolee Schneemann, Kara Walker, Eva Hesse, Hannah Wilke, Julia Margaret Cameron, and many others blazing through their pages. Elkin’s exploration of cultural and socioeconomic factors surrounding these artists adds depth to her analysis, tracing their trajectories from radical to reviled to sacred.
Part I, “Monster Theory,” delves into the genealogy of feminist art through Julia Kristeva’s theory of femininity as “abject,” which she relates to mortality and bodily excess. Parts II and III explore how artists and scholars including Sutapa Biswas, Hélène Cixous, and Kristeva have reclaimed culturally discarded fragments of feminine decay, excess, and chaos, and transformed them into a tactile aesthetic that challenges and inspires.
As an observer and critic, Elkin brings her literary and art historical background to bear on her analysis. She acknowledges her respect and frustration with writers like Kathy Acker, questioning the boundaries of transgressive prose. Unlike Elkin, Acker wrote from a male lineage of writers she defined as outlaws worthy of imitation. Sometimes Acker’s prose was less imitation and more appropriation or “piracy” as Acker called her process, likening herself to a pirate, adventurer. Yet Elkin acknowledges Acker’s desire to break boundaries and practice literature as collage. “To be an experimental writer in the 1980s was to be a male writer,” Elkin empathizes, “and women writers had to negotiate that bias however they could, including building up a monstrous self-regard.” She extends her critique of lineage and creative choice to a controversial painting by White artist Dana Schutz’s of Emmett Till, raising ethical considerations regarding the limits of the art monster’s exploration.
But Art Monsters is ultimately a driving force for hope. Elkin’s collection is not only a work of art history but also a guidebook for a new generation of artists. In a digital age where daily doses of doom scrolling, advertisements, and short meaningless content can cause us to disconnect from ourselves, the book shows us how a return to the body’s desires and imperfections can deepen art making and life. It thus becomes a powerful testament to the resilience of women artists and a call to arms for those seeking to embrace what the body was always meant to do: take up space.
Art Monsters: Unruly Bodies in Feminist Art by Lauren Elkin (2023) is published by Farrar Straus and Giroux and is available online and in bookstores.