Jennie Klein. Feminist Studies. Volume 35, Issue 3. Fall 2009.
In 1977, Mary Beth Edelson, an artist and feminist activist, set out with her traveling companion, Anne Healy, to visit the Neolithic Goddess Cave at Grapceva on Hvar Island, Yugoslavia. Edelson was armed with the archaeological maps in Marija Gimbutas’s The Gods and Goddesses of Old Europe, 7000-3500 B.C.: Myths, Legends, and Cult Images as a reference source. Edelson managed to find an elderly tourist guide in the nearby town of Jelsa, who arranged for his son to take them up the mountain to the Neolithic site. The following day, carrying two Yugoslav flashlights and a number of candles, Edelson returned to the cave, where she engaged in a ritual designed to connect her to the power and female energy of the Neolithic Goddess worshippers. In an article about the experience that she published the next year in “The Great Goddess” issue of Heresies, Edelson documented both her journey and the indescribable feelings that she encountered while practicing her rituals in such an ancient and sacred setting. “I felt one long hand extending across time, sending a jolt of energy into my body. I began my rituals- The energy from the rituals seemed to pulsate from the vaulted ceiling to me and back again.” The photo documentation of Edelson’s ritual, enacted with no artificial light other than the candles that Edelson had brought, show a nude figure that seems to glow from a spiritual fire that burns from within, seated in the midst of a fire circle. At the uppermost edge of the photograph the ceiling of the cave is just visible, as though the ritual did in fact take place in a womblike structure.
Edelson’s journey to the Grapceva cave was taken long before Goddess tourism had turned into a thriving capitalist enterprise complete with tour guides, cruise ships, and well-marked, easy-to-locate archaeological sites. In order to journey to Grapceva, Edelson had unsuccessfully applied for a number of grants. She finally sold her car in order to finance her pilgrimage/performance/art work. When she went to the Balkans, Edelson had been doing ritualistic performances such as See for Yourself at various sites in the United States, particularly in Los Angeles and New York where cultural feminism was strongest. Deeply committed to feminist spirituality and radical leftist politics, Edelson viewed her embrace of feminist spirituality-albeit a feminist spirituality that was grounded in an overarching, universal worldview- as a catalyst for her political activism.
Edelson’s unwavering commitment to making ritualistic art informed by her feminist spirituality, her commitment to leftist political causes and organizations, and her gender can all be used to explain why she didn’t get the grants and tenure-track positions that were awarded to her male peers in the 1970s. To add insult to injury, by the mid- to late 1980s, Edelson’s commitment to using her nude body to make Goddess-worshipping art had made her something of a pariah among feminist critics and artists more interested in Marxist, psychoanalytic, and poststructuralist theory. As feminism- and feminist art and artists- increasingly gained ground in the academy, Edelson’s brand of feminist art came to be seen as an unsophisticated and naive attempt to undo patriarchal assumptions by simply reversing the terms by which men were associated with culture and the mind and women with the body and nature. In 1989, for example, Edelson attended a lecture on feminist art given by Thomas McEvilley at the Artemesia Gallery in Chicago only to hear her work dismissed because of its references to the Goddess and its use of her own body. An incensed Edelson responded to McEvilley in the pages of The New Art Examiner, an alternative publication that was based in Chicago. Noting that the Goddess for her was always “a metaphor for radical change,” Edelson took McEvilley to task, writing in an open letter that had he seen her work in the 1970s he would have understood how threatening the Goddess was to the status quo: “This was powerful work, but its marginalization by the mainstream should be proof enough that it was not complicit with their program.”
It is little wonder that Edelson was astonished and dismayed by McEvilley’s talk. Six years earlier, McEvilley had published “Art in the Dark,” an unapologetic celebration of body art that embraced “the Dionysian night of the unconscious,” in order to “reconstitute within modern civilization something like an ancient or primitive sensibility of oneness with nature.” In “Art in the Dark,” McEvilley did not find Edelson’s use of primitivism problematic; in fact, he praised the invocation of the Paleolithic sensibility of “shamanic magic and ordeal” and the Neolithic sensibility of “fertility and blood sacrifice” in a number of pieces by women artists, including that of Edelson. But by 1989, McEvilley’s position regarding Goddess body art had shifted, reflecting no doubt the corresponding shift in emphasis among feminist artists and art critics who were influenced by ideas coming out of the United Kingdom. In 1980, Judith Barry and Sandy Flitterman-Lewis, writing for a British feminist publication, dismissed Goddess body art in favor of a “more theoretically informed art” that questioned the manner in which meaning and representation were constructed through discourse. Essentialist art, which included body-based art (art in which the body serves as the artist’s medium, such as the piece by Edelson described earlier) and art associated with mysticism and spirituality, “simply reverses the terms of dominance and subordination. Instead of the male supremacy of patriarchal culture, the female (the essential female) is elevated to primary status.” The primacy of theory-based feminist art and criticism over “essentialist” feminist art was subsequently cemented in the United States with two publications: Craig Owens’s essay, “The Discourse of Others: Feminists and Postmodernism,” in 1983 and the catalog for the exhibition Differences: On Representation and Sexuality curated by Kate Linker and Jane Weinstock for the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York in 1985. Both publications included artists such as Mary Kelly and Victor Bürgin whose work was concerned with the representation of women in culture rather than the exploration of female experience. When McEvilley dismissed Edelson’s work at the Artemisia Gallery, he was reflecting the current critical climate.
Unlike other gender movements once considered radical, such as feminism or gay rights, feminist spirituality has always remained on the margins of mainstream culture and academic acceptability. To this day, the nature Goddess/witch figure is depicted as monstrous, abject, and horrific. Just how threatening the Goddess figure remains in popular culture was demonstrated recently by Tudor Balinisteanu, who shows how the Star Trek film, First Contact, serves to contain the Goddess/nature figure of the Borg queen. That the idea of a Goddess aligned with the forces of nature would be deeply threatening in a culture that continues to be based upon both Judeo/Christian religious beliefs and Enlightenment ideas that premise the mind over the body is hardly surprising. What remains less understandable is the degree to which feminist spirituality- particularly Goddess feminism- was almost more troubling to feminist critics and academics than it was to the male avant-garde. In this article, I return to feminist art work that referenced the Goddess in order to answer the following questions: First, what is feminist spirituality? Second, why was feminist spirituality so appealing to artists, particularly artists based on the West Coast? Third, why has feminist art that references spirituality and/or the Goddess continued to be marginalized in discussions of that art, even by scholars who are very sympathetic to the artwork? What is the relationship between the increasing academicization of feminist art and the lack of sustained attention to this topic?
When I first began researching this topic, it struck me that a lacuna existed in this particular area of feminist art scholarship. Much of the feminist artwork made in the mid-1970s to late 1980s was informed by a particular strain of radical feminism most often referred to as “cultural feminism,” as I do in this article, that emphasized feminist separatism, the value of female connections, and feminist spirituality/embrace of the Goddess. Sympathetic art critics such as Lucy R. Lippard, Arlene Raven, and Gloria Orenstein readily acknowledged this influence on feminist art, documenting it in their published criticism. Even though there was a renewed critical interest by the mid- to late 1990s in this artwork, documented in important exhibitions such as Sexual Politics curated by Amelia Jones in 1996, there has been very little mention of the role played by feminist spirituality and belief in the Goddess for these artists. Nor has feminist spirituality been addressed in any systematic manner today, in spite of a recently published biography on Judy Chicago, a number of panels and events celebrating the thirtieth anniversary of the founding of the Woman’s Building, and two major exhibitions of feminist art in 2007: Wack! Art and the Feminist Revolution (Los Angeles) and Global Feminisms: New Directions in Feminist Art (New York). Feminist art historians and critics have shied away from mentioning the invocation of feminist spirituality and the Goddess in this art, preferring instead to engage it in terms of contemporary theory, such as the use and meaning of the body, the performative articulation of identities, and its relationship to contemporary feminist activist art. For feminist critics writing sympathetically about 1970s feminist art in these postmodern times, the Goddess is the unacknowledged white elephant in the room of feminist body art. I propose to revisit feminist spirituality as it was constructed and articulated at the time, in order to understand what it meant to feminist artists in the 1970s and what it might mean to artists and critics working today.
Artists and Cultural Feminism
In the mid- to late 1970s, cultural feminism, with its emphasis upon feminist spiritualities, including Goddess worship, was in its ascendancy. In 1973, Mary Daly published Beyond God the Father: Toward a Philosophy of Women’s Liberation, which called for the complete disavowal of all patriarchal systems, including religious systems, and the creation of a cosmic covenant of sisterhood through the raising of female consciousness. Beyond God the Father was quickly joined by a number of nonacademic publications on feminist spirituality, ecofeminism, and the Goddess, such as Merlin Stone’s When God Was a Woman, Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution, Susan Griffin’s Woman and Nature: The Roaring inside Her, and Daly’s Gyn/Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism} It did not take long for feminist artists on both the East and West Coasts to embrace the philosophical and cultural approach of these writers and in turn to engage in a practice that engendered much debate.
Women’s spirituality was very appealing to visual artists for several reasons. First, evidence for the existence of ancient matrifocal cultures existed in the form of small, anthropomorphic sculptures, ephemeral cave paintings, and monumental stone structures from the prehistoric era that appeared to be female and that cultural feminists assumed were priestesses and Goddess figures, giving many artists an already existing bank of nonpatriarchal images to tap into. Betsy Damon’s performance artwork, The 7,000 Year Old Woman (November 1976), referenced the many-breasted Diana of Ephesus, associated with a Neolithic Goddess site in Turkey where Damon had lived as a child. Covered in small bags of colored flour that she ritualistically punctured in a public ceremony on Wall Street, Damon eventually formed a spiral/labyrinthine pattern on the ground. Damon based 77k 7,000 Year Old Woman on a dream that she had had years before. She resolved to realize the images in her dream. Similarly, Cheri Gaulke employed a video image of the Woman from Willendorf for her 1985 performance Revelations of the Flush (a follow-up performance to This Is My Body) at Wilshire United Methodist Church in Los Angeles. Second, the belief in “immanence,” or the recognition of the divine in all life forms associated with the feminist spirituality movement, meant that nature and the body were honored. Ana Mendieta connected nature and the female body in her Serie Arbol de la Vida (1976), an earth-body work in which a mud-covered Mendieta pressed her body against a tree. Many artists used nudity to suggest divinity, as did Cheri Gaulke in This Is My Body, a performance done to counter the patriarchal suppression of women’s spirituality.
Third, cultural feminists, with their embrace of ritual and performance, were particularly appealing to feminist artists such as Edelson who were interested in reconfiguring avant-garde performance so that it had meaning and significance beyond the narrow concerns of the avant-garde art world. Edelson’s ritualistic treatment of ordinary life had much in common with Allan Kaprow’s dissolution of the line between art and life in his performance art (he called them “Happenings”). But unlike Kaprow’s Happenings, Edelson’s rituals were meant to be personal and sacred. Of the early rituals that she did with her children, Edelson has written, “I was trying to tie them to the Earth, to help them feel in a direct way that nature is not outside, but a part of them. We merged- mother, child, and nature- becoming one again for a moment.” Barbara T. Smith, performing as a living sculpture in Feed Me (1973), also viewed herself as a temple priestess, asking visitors, who entered her space one at a time, to “feed” her in some way. In 1979, Donna Henes created sculptures that looked like macramé webs based upon Spider Woman from the Navajo Emergence Myth.
Although performers influenced by cultural feminism worked on both coasts, Southern California was the Mecca for artists interested in the Goddess and where feminist spirituality was loosely interpreted to include just about everything that wasn’t patriarchal. As Jenni Sorkin put it, Los Angeles in the 1970s was “a beacon of counterculture set in the shadows of Hollywood” that “witnessed the sexual revolution, the birth of the aerospace industry, bodybuilding, roller-skating, surfing, and vegetarianism, as well as a myriad of alternative religion, lifestyle, and spiritual practices.” The anything-goes attitude of the hippie culture in Southern California was much more conducive to the development of an alternative feminist spirituality than the considerably more regimented East Coast culture of New York City. The art scene in Los Angeles was newer and less established than the scene in New York. It was considerably less organized, making it possible for a geographically diverse group of artists to come together as a community based on affinity rather than address. Los Angeles also had three things that New York City did not: the archaeologist Marija Gimbutas, the Woman’s Building, and Chrysalis: A Magazine of Women’s Culture.
The “high priestess” of the women’s spirituality movement in Southern California was not a theologian, an artist, a writer, a philosopher, or a psychologist. In fact, Gimbutas wasn’t particularly interested in feminism for most of her career. An archaeologist and linguist who had begun her career in Lithuania but fled the repressive regime of the Soviet Union, Gimbutas settled first on the East Coast where she took a position as researcher at Harvard University’s Peabody Museum. Until the 1970s, she was best known as a Bronze Age archaeologist. The 1974 blication of her book, The Gods and Goddesses oj Old Europe (reissued in 1982 as The Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe) changed all that.
The Gods and Goddesses of Old Europe was based on Gimbutas’s experiences as the director of several major Neolithic excavations in Eastern Europe after she had taken a faculty position at the University of California at Los Angeles. Gimbutas was struck by how different the Neolithic artifactssmall, anthropomorphic female figurines- were in comparison to the Bronze age sculptures with which she was more familiar. As she recalled, “I came to a point when I had to understand what was happening in Europe before the arrival of the IndoEuropeans. It was a very gradual process. I did not know then that I would write about Neolithic religion or the Goddess.” Gimbutas eventually concluded that prior to the invasion of Kurgan warriors- so called because of their burial mounds- Neolithic Europe had been a peaceful, art-loving, matrifocal culture that included the worship of a Goddess or Goddesses. Gimbutas wrote, “In her various manifestations- strong and beautiful Virgin, Bear-Mother, and Life-giver and Life-taker- the Great Goddess existed for at least five thousand years before the appearance of Classical Greek Civilization.”
As a scholar, Gimbutas was flamboyant and outspoken, a throwback to the early years of archaeology when personality and chutzpah counted for a great deal. Rather than restricting herself to cautious conclusions made on the basis of empirically verifiable observations as did her peers in the discipline of archaeology, Gimbutas modeled her scholarship on latenineteenth- and early-twentieth-century scholars such as Sir James Frazer (TTic Golden Bough, 1890), Robert Briffault (The Mothers, 1927), and Johann Jakob Bachofen (Mutterrecht und Urreligion, 1926), who made claims for the existence of an ancient matriarchal society based on the study of ancient mythology.13 Along with other archaeologists who were also trained in the first part of the twentieth century, such as James Mellaart (best known for excavating Çatal Hüyük), Gimbutas turned to mythology and folk religion. The Goddess society that she reconstructed- based on her belief that all the Neolithic figurines were female and most structures were templeswas extrapolated from her extensive knowledge of Eastern European folklore. According to her methodology, which she called archaeomythology, the vestiges of Neolithic civilization were evident in Goddesses such as Athena and Artemis and continue to exist in Eastern European folklore.
Gimbutas’s myth-inflected theories, based on visual rather than historical evidence and deeply imbued with a Eurocentric point of view, found little support among her archaeological colleagues, who were suspicious of her generalizations regarding religion, myth, and prehistoric cultures. She was supported, however, by a number of feminists who were intrigued by the idea that a matriarchy might have existed in prehistoric Europe. Carol Christ has observed that had Gimbutas published The Gods and Goddesses of Old Europe twenty years earlier, it probably would have been ignored; but The Gods and Goddesses of Old Europe was published one year after Daly’s Beyond God the Father, the same year that Woman Spirit magazine was launched, and it was quickly followed by Stone’s When God Was a Woman, which also looked to Paleolithic and Neolithic artifacts for proof of an ancient, Goddess-centered culture. Stone, however, was an artist and art historian and not an archaeologist: it was Gimbutas who gave Goddess civilization legitimacy. As Orenstein pointed out, “Marija Gimbutas’s archaeological studies have given the highest scientific authority to our knowledge of ancient Goddess civilization.”
Gimbutas’s ideas about the peaceful and artistic Neolithic culture were eagerly received by artists, writers, linguists, and anthropologists. Gimbutas, who went on to publish The Language of the Goddess and The Civilization of the Goddess, responded graciously to this new authence, taking time to give lectures and interviews to artists, writers, and filmmakers interested in Goddess civilization. She became a hagiographie figure for these women, who wrote essays and poems about her and made a documentary of her life, Signs Out of Time in 2003. One example is the poem titled “Tea with Marija” by Starr Goode:
I ask, “What were they, our ancestors?” Marija says, “They were like us, only happy.”
She describes the scene of a fresco from Thera in ancient Greece. “Oh the men were not excluded but religion was in the hands of women.”
The Los Angeles Woman’s Building (1973-1991)
It was more than a serendipitous coincidence that the city in which Gimbutas taught and lectured for the latter part of her academic career was also the home of the Woman’s Building, the only institution in the United States dedicated to providing a feminist art education. Named after the Woman’s Building at the 1893 Columbian Exhibition in Chicago (the one building designed by a female architect, Sophia Hayden), the Los Angeles Woman’s Building, which opened on November 28, 1973, was founded by Judy Chicago, Arlene Raven, and Sheila Levrant de Bretteville. The building housed bookstores, art galleries, a thrift store, and an art school, the Feminist Studio Workshop. In 1981, the art school was dissolved, and the administrators of the building, comprised of women who had begun their careers at the building as students, turned their attention to promoting cultural events and activities and to broadening the constituency to include minorities, working women, and single mothers. In 1991, just three years before Gimbutas lost her battle with cancer, the building finally closed.
Feminist/Goddess spirituality was extremely important at the Woman’s Building, at least during its first decade. During its heyday, in 1975, the Woman’s Building hosted two major conferences concerned with feminist spirituality, “Public and Private Rituals: Women in Performance Art” and “Lady Fingers/Mother Earth.” The curriculum of the Feminist Studio Workshop, modeled on Judy Chicago’s earlier experiments with the Feminist Art Project at Fresno State and CalArts, was geared toward an exploration of female identity, corporeality, and spirituality. Consciousness raising, in which women gathered in groups to speak collectively about their experience of oppression, along with collaboration and construction work, was the linchpin of the educational program. One theme that came up frequently in the consciousness raising sessions was the pervasiveness of violence and sexual exploitation experienced by the young women students. Feminist/Goddess spirituality, with its emphasis on the sacredness and beauty of the female body, was taught as a way of countering the unrelenting misogyny experienced by faculty and students alike. Raven, for example, had changed her last name after her first encounter with Chicago, who urged her to re-create herself after the devastating experience of being raped. Along with Terry Wolverton, Raven later proposed a radical lesbian pedagogical practice, the Sapphic Model of Education. Based on the sixth century B. C. E. community and school of Sappho on the Greek island of Lesbos, the Sapphic Model of Education, which was never realized, proposed to resurrect a community much like that described by Gimbutas. According to Wolverton, “education included living within a community of women, having love affairs, worshipping the Goddess, developing creativity and self-awareness, and celebrating the seasons.” Edelson did her first public ritual performance, Mourning Our Lost Herstory, for the Mandeville Gallery at the University of California at San Diego in 1977 using students from the Feminist Studies Workshop whom Raven had brought with her. Raven also curated Edelson’s exhibition, Your 5,000 Years Are Up, for the gallery.
Chrysalis: A Magazine of Women’s Culture
Probably the most important contribution made by the Woman’s Building to feminist spirituality was Chrysalis: A Magazine of Women’s Culture (1977-1980), whose readership numbered 13,000 at its high point. The magazine was funded by reader contributions and a small grant from Adrienne Rich that came from the proceeds of Of Women Born (a history of motherhood that begins in the Neolithic Goddess-worshipping period), and the editorial staff managed to produce ten issues before ceasing publication due to lack of funds.
From the beginning, Chrysalis was devoted to all aspects of women’s culture, particularly the intersection of feminist spirituality and the visual arts. The list of contributing editors reads like a who’s who in feminist spirituality and feminist art criticism. The five-member editorial board that founded the magazine included Raven, Ruth Iskin (the editor of the important but brief Womanspace Journal), and Levrant de Bretteville. Managing editor Kirstin Grimstad had previously traveled around the United States interviewing women in alternative communities about their beliefs in spirituality. Audre Lorde served as the poetry editor for the first seven issues. Contributing editors included Judy Chicago, Mary Daly, Carol Duncan, Susan Griffin, Lucy Lippard, Linda Nochlin, Deena Metzger, Gloria Orenstein, Adrienne Rich, and Michelle Wallace.
During its two-year run, Chrysalis confirmed its commitment to cultural feminist values and writers by publishing material that supported an alternative feminist spirituality that by and large was organized around a Goddess or Goddesses. Every one of the ten issues included an article, poem, or original work of art that embraced feminist spirituality or the Goddess in a positive light. Issue no. 6 included a resource catalog on women’s spirituality compiled by Linda Palumbo, Maurine Renville, Charlene Spretnak, and Terry Wolverton. Excerpts from books by key players in the feminist spirituality movement, such as Lippard, Daly and Rich, appeared in Chrysalis prior to publication; books sympathetic to feminist spirituality received extremely sympathetic reviews. In issue no. 7, for example, Griffin and Daly reviewed their respective new books: Gynecology (Griffin on Daly) and Woman and Nature (Daly on Griffin).
In looking over its ten issues from cover to cover, one is struck by the many approaches to feminist spirituality and Goddess feminism included within its pages. These approaches complemented and expanded upon, rather than simply reiterating, Gimbutas’s ideas about a Goddess civilization. The resource catalogs, for example, included not only lists of books but also pictures of their covers as well as short paragraphs extolling the relative merits of each one. “The Woman’s Survival Catalogue: Spirituality,” in issue no. 6, included short reviews of books on Greek religion, ancient Goddesses, tarot, the lunar calendar, feminist revisions of Christianity, and ecofeminism, as well as information on feminist journals on spirituality, such as Kay Turner’s Lady-Unique-Inclination-of-the-Night, WomanSpirit, and “The Great Goddess” issue of Heresies (1977)- a collector’s item that includes twenty-seven articles, poetry and art work, and a self-blessing ritual written by Z. Budapest and illustrated with a reproduction of a bread sculpture by artist Nancy Fried. Also included was a list Wolverton compiled of artists who were “creating art inspired by and infused with Goddess consciousness” and a section called “Art of Transformation” where Wolverton devoted a full page to Edelson’s work. She also discussed architect Mimi Lobell’s design for a Goddess temple and Chicago’s Dinner Party along with a statement by Carolee Schneemann, poems by Stephanie Mines and Robin Morgan, and a short review of a recording by Kay Gardner, Mooncircles.
Although Chrysalis is most often remembered for its focus on the arts, literature, and spirituality, articles in Chrysalis also addressed topical issues such as the media representation of women, sexual abuse of children, incest, rape, pornography, fashion, psychology, the idea of a feminist (rather than a feminine) aesthetic, and feminist films. The editors and writers gave advice and shared resources about publishing, finances, and the nascent computer technology. The editors tried to include a multitude of voices and viewpoints; rather than devoting a special issue of the magazine to topics such as feminist spirituality, Third World women, or lesbianism, as did Heresies, every issue of Chrysalis included articles, stories, poems, and artwork by and about marginalized voices and topics. Their efforts did not satisfy all their readers, however: the editorial pages of the second issue included a letter from Patricia Jones, who opined that “I as a Black Woman am quite annoyed that there was only one text by a Black woman in the magazine, a poem by Audre Lorde. … I noted that there are three black women involved in an editorial capacity, but I feel that is not enough.” The editors responded by printing a poem by Jones in issue no. 3. By issue no. 10, the editors were still struggling to include more voices of Third World women: “So we ask readers, Third World and white, to join us, to help us open the pages of Chrysalis to thinking about, exploring, confronting the issues of racism and, specifically, racism in the feminist movement.” In contrast, when an angry Janet Robinson complained that there was too much attention paid to lesbians, the editors, here at least, were able to defend Chrysalis’s inclusiveness, describing the magazine as “more truthfully reflectfing] the sexual diversity of women.”
The Politics of Feminist Spirituality/Essentialism
In the pages of Chrysalis, feminist spirituality was inextricably linked with a radical feminist vision that emphasized inclusiveness- of sexuality, race, and class identities- and antiviolence against the child, the woman, and the earth. Political action was sustained, rather than suppressed, through the invocation of Goddess spirituality. Charlene Spretnak, whose 1982 anthology, The Politics of Women’s Spirituality, grew out of her work with Chrysalis, argued in the introduction to “Woman’s Survival Catalogue: Spirituality” that the Goddess was profoundly threatening because “anthropology tells us that the sex of the deity in a culture usually corresponds with the sex of those governing”; the introduction was illustrated with an image of two women, both of them nude and one of them possibly pregnant, embracing in a lush and flowering landscape. In issue no. 1, Edelson, in an article co-authored with Raven, reiterated her belief that feminist spirituality and radical politics were bound up in one another. “The Woman’s spirituality movement has incredibly strong political overtones,” she wrote. “How it will evolve in[to] action we don’t know yet, but it will be a different kind of political action.”
Many of the artists associated with the Woman’s Building, including Suzanne Lacy, Gaulke, and Wolverton, did agitprop performances that used feminist spirituality as a catalyst for imagining radical political change. Gaulke, for example, has written that she belonged to two activist collectives, The Feminist Art Workers, who created positive interactions with people, and the Sisters of Survival (S.O.S.), who in the guise of feminist nuns, protested against the desecration of the earth. Wolverton was instrumental in organizing An Oral Herstory of Lesbianism, one of the first collaborative performances about lesbian identity and subjectivity. The Waitresses, a performance group founded by Anne Gauldin and Jerry Allyn, used ideas culled from feminist spirituality– Gauldin’s character copied the many-breasted Diana of Ephesus–to challenge the treatment of waitresses in various restaurants in the Los Angeles area. Given the close relationship between feminist spirituality/Goddess feminism, radical feminist politics, and activist art, a consideration of how feminist spirituality and politics were linked in the mid- to late 1970s is long overdue. As Kathryn Rountree has written, “the charge that ’embracing spirituality is an apolitical copout’ seems unfair, based more on a Marxism-derived theory about the relationship between politics and spirituality than on an observation of real failures of Goddess feminists. This integration of politics and spirituality is borne out by the history of the movement.”
Equally important for this discussion is the reconsideration of what constitutes essentialism, an idea that was regarded with suspicion by the generation of artists that came after the Woman’s Building. The political efficacy of essentialism depends, as scholars such as Diana Fuss and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick have demonstrated, on how that essentialism is deployed. Although it is true, as Rountree notes, that the “core of Goddess feminists’ worldview is a strong belief in holism, an emphasis on the connectedness and interdependence of everything on the planet,” it is also true that feminist spirituality /Goddess feminism was a pastiche of various rituals, beliefs, and traditions- a designer religion, as Rountree somewhat humorously put it. The essentialism of feminist spirituality was one that was progressively deployed to challenge equally essentialist, patriarchal assumptions regarding acceptable roles for women. What is more, the writers and artists who were interested in feminist spirituality make it quite clear that their “essentialism” was fabricated from the tools at hand in order to challenge the social inequities that confronted them at every turn. These writers and artists were well aware that their worldview was one that they needed to invent, and they had a lot of fun doing it. In her collaborative article with Edelson, written for the inaugural issue of Chrysalis, Raven stated, “this ritual form does not represent a retreat to an idyllic prehistory, but rather a projection of a post-patriarchal spiritual consciousness and an understanding of the present which is non-linear and can thus include the past and envision the future.”
It is not surprising that Donna Haraway suggested that Griffin, Lorde, and Rich “would simply bewilder anyone not preoccupied with the machines and consciousness of late capitalism.” Haraway recognized that the feminist spirituality movement was intended to disrupt ideological structures of the late-twentieth century rather than simply reinscribe a matrifocal worldview of the Stone Age. And yet Haraway seems to be one of the few postmodern feminist scholars writing in the 1980s who was able to see this connection. What was it about artwork that referenced Goddess feminism/feminist spirituality that caused later feminist art critics to ignore or even dismiss it?
Primitivism, Nostalgia, Bodies, and the Goddess
Part of the problem might lie with feminist/Goddess spirituality’s invocation of nostalgia and primitivism, both of which have been viewed pejoratively in contemporary art criticism and theory; but contemporary scholars have been too quick to take the writers and artists associated with feminist spirituality at face value, without unpacking what it meant for them to deploy these two terms. In the work of Goddess artists, nostalgia and primitivism are deployed strategically to challenge patriarchal limitations placed on women’s bodies. Rita Felski’s insight that there are two types of nostalgia, one that “glosses over the oppressive dimensions of the past for which it yearns” and the other that “may mobilize a powerful condemnation of the present for its failure to correspond to the imagined harmony of a prelapsarian condition,” grounds my argument. It was the powerful condemnation rather than the gloss that was at work in the pages of Chrysalis.
In “Quite Contrary: Body, Nature, and Ritual in Women’s Art,” Lippard wrote that “much recent feminist art seems aimed at returning the artist back to the earth, or into a nostalgic past where women may have ruled. Many of these works resemble or specifically include ritual, which began as animal communication and persisted as magic.” The artists discussed by Lippard, however, used ritual to return meaning to an avantgarde art that had become increasingly solipsistic in its pursuit of goals that were based on a formalist trajectory that developed from minimalist sculpture. Edelson, for example, used ritual because she saw “acting out” as a more complete way to communicate her message. See for Yourself, Edelson’s performance discussed at the beginning of this article, can be read as a nostalgic journey toward a past that Edelson herself constructed. This nostalgia, however, is proactive rather than reactive, a conscious recreation of the past in order to create a better present. Many of the authors included in Spretnak’s Politics of Women’s Spirituality repeated the same quotation from Monique Wittig’s Les Guérillères:
There was a time when you were not a slave, remember that. You walked alone, full of laughter, you bathed bare-bellied. You say you have lost all recollection of it, remember … you say there are no words to describe it, you say it does not exist. But remember. Make an effort to remember. Or, failing that, invent.
The spiritualized bodies that appeared in 1970s feminist art were bodies that invoked the Goddess in order to condemn the sexism and misogyny associated with female bodies in the present. In Goddess art, bodies might have been prelapsarian in the sense that they were pre-Christian bodies, but they were not sexually innocent and childlike, even when they invoked the sacred. Edelson and other artists used their bodies in performance to create a sacred body that was exuberantly sexual. These bodies were disturbing because they were excessive- bodies that refused to acknowledge the limitations placed on them by the patriarchy.
Fascination with the primordial/Paleolithic Goddess can and should be seen as (an)other manifestation of the art world obsession with the primitive; however, as I have argued in the case of nostalgia, this is a primitivism that similarly challenges traditional definitions of the primitive. As Rebecca Schneider argues, “Unlike the primitivism of their modernist predecessors [e.g., Paul Gauguin or Pablo Picasso], in contemporary work it is the primitives themselves, or the primitivized, who (re) perform their own primitivization, an exercise indelibly linked to the feminized who (re) perform feminization.” In Schneider’s reading, the invocation of the Goddess becomes a strategic mimicry of primitivism, the means by which the over-conflation of the body of woman with the primitive is countered. Artistic subjectivity is reasserted, not at the expense of the body, but through the body. In addition, the viewers of Goddess art also entered into a performative relationship with the imagery, which challenged the heteronormative narrative of “mankind’s” evolution from primitive/ prehistoric to civilization.
Goddess feminist artists used whatever art forms worked best in the service of their message. Edelson, for example, found herself integrating sculpture, drawings, photographs, collaborations, artists’ books, and public ritual performances into a living environment in order to achieve a more “holistic” approach to life and art making. Artists who used Goddess imagery did so because they wanted to invoke the harmony of the matrifocal prehistoric society that scholars such as Gimbutas, Stone, and Spretnak believed had existed. Their “nostalgia” for the prehistoric past was not “essentialist” (whatever that term signifies today), nor was it escapist. Rather, it was a politically engaged act of appropriation designed to ameliorate the present.
In spite of her admiration for cultural feminists, Haraway closed “A Cyborg Manifesto” with the polemical comment, “I would rather be a cyborg than a Goddess.” By the 1990s, the quintessentially postmodern cyborg–halfhuman, half-machine, dystopian rather than Utopian–was a much more attractive figure than the Goddess to a younger generation of feminists, especially those in academe. Part of the attraction was that the cyborg promised a politics based on affinities and shared political goals rather than a predetermined essentialist identity. Cyborg/postmodern feminism, at least in theory, held out the possibility for a feminism more inclusive of women (and men) of color than cultural feminism had achieved.
The failure to be more inclusive, as Judith Plaskow has shown, was not for lack of outreach. The editors of Chrysalis, along with the staff, students, and volunteers at the Woman’s Building, were very concerned that so few women of color participated in the events they organized and did their best to address this lack. The administrative staff of the Woman’s Building also responded proactively to charges of racism, founding an antiracism consciousness raising group in 1980 under the direction of Wolverton, who subsequently made a performance/video in 1984 about her experience, entitled Me and My Shadow.
These attempts to address racial exclusion, however, were ultimately unsuccessful because the racism of the feminist spirituality movement was not for lack of oureach. Rather, the problem was foundational, the initial, and unacknowledged, ethnocentricity of 1970s Goddess feminism, which did not question the (false) premise that culture–and religion–originated in European countries. Moreover, the belief, reiterated in the writings of cultural feminists, that various cultural rituals and artifacts were all part of a universal unconscious that belonged to everyone, tended to elide difference in favor of an imagined community of sisters. Unfortunately, not all of the “community” shared in the celebratory primitivism of the feminist spirituality movement, even if it was a primitivism primarily based in the European Paleolithic period rather than out of Africa. If there was one place where the feminist spirituality movement failed, at least partially, it was in their ability to include nonwhite women in a way that was meaningful without being patronizing. What is interesting is the degree to which this lacuna was recognized and acknowledged, if not ever completely ameliorated. The editorial board of Chrysalis constantly chastised themselves (and allowed themselves to be chastised in letters to the editor) for their lack of racial sensitivity, although they were in no way as oppressive and racist as contemporary society.
Ironically, postmodern feminist criticism, particularly in the mid-to-late 1980s, did not address racial, ethnic, or gender difference to any great degree either. In “The Discourse of Others,” Owens only discussed the work of white women. The language of postmodern theory is not particularly accessible to the nonacademic reader (a group that is largely white, highly educated, and middle class). The inaccessibility of the language has been noted by none other than bell hooks, who has decried the failure of postmodern theory to address the constituency that it supposedly served: “As a discursive practice it [postmodernity] is dominated primarily by the voices of white male intellectuals and/or academic elites who speak to and about one another with coded familiarity.”
Perhaps because of the backlash of the Reagan years, popular feminist magazines such as Chrysalis grappled with declining resources and by the 1990s had all but disappeared. Feminist academic journals fared better and actually expanded in number. It was among feminist academics therefore that the lasting reputation of the feminist Goddess movement was forged. Reading the academic rebuttals of cultural feminism written by feminist faculty from a variety of disciplines, one gets the sense that feminist spirituality was viewed by these authors as an anti-intellectual movement that could potentially undermine the gains they had made in the academy. Discussing the reaction of the feminist archaeological community to Gimbutas’s work, Rountree has suggested that “while the male archaeological establishment can afford to hold its tongue to some extent, since … Gimbutas does not threaten the archaeological status quo, feminist archaeologists feel they risk being seen as tarred with the same brush as Gimbutas.” The same could be said for the feminist artists and critics who espoused a more theory-driven approach to the making of art. According to critics such as Flitterman-Lewis and Barry, art influenced by feminist spirituality risked undermining the serious critique of representation and language that feminist artists undertook in the 1980s. Thus, although much of the art of the 1970s was reevaluated anew in the 1990s, feminist/Goddess spirituality was often ignored. As recently as 2007, Wack! The Art of the Feminist Revolution, sidestepped the issue of the Goddess by including work in the “Goddess” section that was more tongue-incheek than serious about feminist spirituality. The colorful giant birthing figure, Hon, by Niki de Saint Phalle, Jean Tinguely, and Per Olof Utvedt (1956) and Lorraine O’Grady’s Mlle Bourgeoise Noire (1981) were included. Edelson, meanwhile, was absented from the “Goddess” section, although her collage, Some Living American Women Artists (1972), was featured prominently in “Making Art History.”
Mother, Are You There?
The simultaneous hope and resignation of Peter Ucko’s 1996 appeal for archaeological evidence of a matriarchal prehistory sums up the problems faced today by anyone who wishes to defend the use of 1970s-style feminist Goddess spirituality. It is quite likely that the archaeological evidence from the Paleolithic and Neolithic periods was misread by Gimbutas. However, as Rountree has argued, there was and is no particular reason why Goddess feminists need to adopt a rigorously scientific approach to artifacts from the past. Goddess feminists, Rountree has suggested, “want something different from the past and feel quite at liberty to take or make it … Fleshing out the bones of the past to give substance to a vision of the future is seen as a justifiable and unproblematic means to achieving the all-important end of transforming society.” The point is not to show how “wrong” feminist spiritual writers and artists were, as did Cynthia Eller in the Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory: Why an Invented Past Won’t Give Women a Future, but to understand how and why these feminists used the artifacts from the past to make work that is profoundly unsettling in the present. In spite of all the shortcomings of feminist/Goddess spirituality, the fact remains that it was the single most important idea to inform the radical politics of a number of artists working in the 1970s. It is imperative that we as feminists not jettison a collection of writing and visual work that to this day remains threatening to the patriarchal status quo. As I think about the Woman’s Building, the people who ran it, and the feminist spirituality that gave them sustenance, I am reminded of Peggy Phelan’s belief in the Utopian possibility of hope: “It is in the attempt to walk (and live) on the rackety bridge between self and other- and not the attempt to arrive at one side or the other- that we discover real hope.”
For better or worse, the feminist art movement in Southern California in the 1970s viewed Goddess spirituality as “the rackety bridge” that would unite a group of individual feminist subjects into a collective other. In reading over Cecelia Dougherty’s account of a video interview with the late Arlene Raven, made by the students of the Woman’s Building, I find myself, along with Dougherty, moved by the feminist commitment, sacrifice, and hope that went into founding and maintaining the institution- a commitment that was supported by embracing feminist spirituality. Dougherty makes note of “Raven’s clear intelligence and powerful determination to define the spirit of the time” and suggests that Raven delineated “the connections from lived experience to theory, and from theory to community, all leading to a new understanding of art practice based in feminism.” From Dougherty’s description, it would seem that the Mother was there after all- not in the prehistoric past nor even in the matriarchal utopia of which Raven dreamed, but in the women artists who were willing to risk everything in order to challenge the injustice of a male-dominated system.