Conversations in Contemporary Feminism and Art

Danielle Durchslag, Artist/Art Educator

On Saturday, March 27, 2010, I sat down with Danielle Durchslag, New York-based emerging artist and art educator and discussed her art, feminism, and social justice art education.  Danielle is in her second semester at New York University’s Master’s program in Art Education.

So Danielle, I know that your relationship to feminism has changed significantly over the last few years.

That’s true.

And I think your previous work was very much about feminist issues, more directly than it is now. What was that transition like for you, from early work to where you are now?

Well, I would say that I initially understood feminism through the lens of what I was against,  which is also a very classic young person’s way of crafting identity—that you craft yourself against things to know who you are—and my feminism was very much in that niche.  I remember telling people I was a feminist when I was ten years old. I have no idea where I got it from, not from my mom; I know that for sure.  She never bandied that word around, and I’m not even sure she would have identified as it when I was kid. But I’ve always felt that was a label for me.  What it’s meant has shifted a lot.  My feminism in college in particular came from a very rageful deprived place, which I think in any justice movement is an understandable beginning but not a very sustainable method of continuing.  So the work I made in college was very much a direct result of the kinds of feminist work I looked at and the kind of feminist work my teachers made. It was a highly sexualized, it seemed to not count unless I was naked, or someone was, and it was deeply rageful. I did performance pieces and I was always naked in them, I was always doing something unappealing to my body in front of others, and there was a sense in my mind at the time, and maybe it was the simplicity of my own links, not an issue with the movement at the time, I’m not sure, but in my mind at the time, feminist art meant a kind of grueling endurance test for the viewer that specifically had to with issues of sexuality and lack, that you were lacking something that you deserved, with a capital “D.” When I started making paintings a few years ago when I got a studio in Long Island City. I really devoted myself to making non-photographs for the first time since art school, which had always really appealed to me but also really scared me. My first paintings had to do with pin-up imagery and I thought about them very much in a classic feminist art lens.  The words “co-opting,” and “reclaiming,” was really present for me, so they were pinup images and my focus at the time was that I was reclaiming those images as a source of empowerment. So I made those paintings on and off for about a year. And to date, they’re by far my most successful work, although I would not make them work.

Glare, 2007, Danielle Durchslag

You mean commercially successful.

[Laughs] Yes, meaning they sold. They weren’t expensive but they sold well.  Hilariously, I sold one last month.

People like to look at them.

People do, which is funny. I don’t particularly anymore.  They were all based on this portrait of me as a six-year-old, the head of me as a six year old looking very serious and concerned, combined with these pinup bodies that were 1950s era, very sexualized bodies.  And that was my first crack at non-photographic feminist art.  Since I’ve started meditating and I’ve become a Buddhist practitioner, my life has changed in all areas. And feminism is just one of those areas. But I’m much more interested now in healing and whets shared and what I can celebrate from a feminist point of view than I am in exclusively a critical lens.  I think there is a mistake that’s made in contemporary art and art school programs where content can suffocate this transcendent, beautiful, impossible-to-verbalize quality about images.  I was definitely taught in art school in a very academic way, to sit down, figure out my content, figure out my agenda, and then start making.  And now I make, and the rest of it doesn’t really feel like my job.  You know, it feels like someone else’s job. This is partly because I don’t believe that objects are static, that they continue to only have the meaning that I ascribe to them, and I also don’t believe that they’re within my control.  Once I’ve made them, it’s really not mine to control anymore, including the narrative about what they mean.  Do I consider my art feminist art? Of course, because I consider myself a feminist, the same way I consider it Jewish art, even if there’s no Jewish content, or Human art, even if there are no humans in it, because I’m the one making it and I am these things.

Interestingly though, my recent portraits that I’m most excited by are of my friend Eunice and my sister, who are two of the most incredible feminist heroes in my life.  My sister professionally works around issues of human trafficking and sexual exploitation, and she runs a not-for-profit [Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation], and my friend Eunice is a feminist art historian and memoirist who writes very much from a feminist perspective.  So it is interesting that I happen to be making work about feminists, but I would be lying if I said that I sat down and said I’m going to make portraits of important feminists in my life—not at all.  I sat down and thought, I want to make portraits of people I love.  This actually drives Eunice a little nutso because she wants me to tell her about what its really about or have a narrative beyond that.  She comes from a different wave of feminism and the notion that I can be naïve about these matters is unusual for her.  And I think it’s unusual for a lot of feminists of that generation because my feminism is in there but its not explicit, or even explicitly thought about by me.

The Most Beautiful Girl in the World, 2010, Danielle Durchslag

I know that you’re not devoted to actively entering the commercial art world anymore

That’s true.

And if you are entering that world, you’re supposed to have a talk about your work.  I wonder what yours would be.

What an interesting question.  Well, when you say that, my immediate thought is I’m trying to picture what Van Gogh’s would be. If you take any artist who predates this academic system of presenting art within a gallery space, what would theirs be?  Would Van Gogh stand there and say, I’m really interested in my postman and issues of postal juxtaposition with more atavistic means of communication? I think he might find that whole thing a little ridiculous.

[Both laugh]

So, what would I say? I’d like to think that I’d stay really true to what I believe and not talk about my work that way.  I used to really believe in talking about your work from a place of conscious intention, and I know how frustrating it can be for the viewer when an artist refuses to do that.

Eunice, 2010, Danielle Durchslag

We used to hate that.

We used to hate that! [Jovially] I remember when Tina Barney came to talk at MassArt and we all went over from the Museum School to see her. She refused to talk about issues of class and race, and that was ALL we wanted to talk about.  We found that to be totally unacceptable and we were mad about it because we had formed a narrative of what that work was about, and she wanted to talk about form and color and line. And we were really judgmental of her choices; we thought it was evasive.

The Ancestor, 2001, Tina Barney

I also remember when Nikki Lee came to speak at Wellesley and we were all woefully disappointed because she said outright at the beginning, “I’m not interested in some kind of social critique about what these groups get or don’t get in society.” She honestly said, “I really like making different kinds of friends, I really like meeting new people, and I found a way to do that through my work.” And we were appalled!

The Hispanic Project, 1998, Nikki S. Lee

I remember when you first told me about that and my response was very skeptical—I thought, that is completely not true.  But I wonder—

And they’re two feminist artists! Or are they? Who the hell knows?

Well, I think the issue of what is feminist art is really interesting because it absolutely lies in the viewer. But maybe there is something to not thinking about this stuff first.  I mean, these are two of the best photographers of the last 30 years, they’re incredible, and maybe they couldn’t have made such good work if they’d had such a strict agenda set before making the work.

I think that maybe the best thing for Tina Barney is to not go and speak at art school [laughs]. You know what I mean? Because if her agenda is not to fit into that narrative, then it’s very hard for her to give a presentation that students find edifying, because that’s what art school is contrived to do: further that narrative.

I wonder if it’s helpful though. This is why I keep trying to get Bill Burke to come speak to my graduate class, because he’s not interested in any of that critical discourse; he wants to talk making images that capture an uncommon moment and that are beautiful and moving. He told me a story that Graciela Iturbide came to speak to his school’s grad program and she is older now and has no concept of talking about these academic issues, and this really upset some students.  One of them asked her a very pointed question about, “Where does your work lie?” or something like that, and her response was something like, “Well, I photograph in Mexico, so that’s where I have my studio.” I think this is really important for us to hear about because we can get so wrapped up in they why that we lose sight of making something that actually moves the viewer and moves us while we’re making it.

image by Graciela Iturbide

It’s an interesting point because I remember so many of those question and answer sessions in art school had that defiant tone.  We were about trying to catch the artists on a social justice or critique issue to prove that the student had thought it through in a more advanced way than the artist had.  For myself, when you’re in any kind of social movement, be it feminism or anything else, and the model is one exclusively of defiance, that way of interacting bleeds into all your interactions so that when you’re in the presence of anyone, a peer, a brother or sister, in the process of art making, which is not an easy field to be in and god knows we need all the friends we can get, your immediate response is to try to find a way to knock them down one. I’ve seen now that my feminism has shifted from being about defying to being much more about bridging with people, about a process of compassion and listening, as that’s shifted, so has the way I regard someone coming to speak to me. The point isn’t to knock them down or to show Nikki Lee that she’s wrong about her work, that I’m right about her work. Speaking of feminism, there’s this amazing Joan Didion essay, called Goodbye To All That, where’s she talking about coming to New York as a young person and I always think of it because she says that at the age of 21, 22, 23, we’re all convinced that nothing exactly like this has ever happened before, that we alone know this experience. And I sort of feel that way about how we think about art when we’re in art school.  You think, I’m the first person to use my naked body in a way that really puts these feminist messages across.  So when someone comes to speak to you, it’s almost like a threat to your supremacy, so you say, let me explain to YOU why you’re wrong.  [Laughs] It’s a very insecure time, you know?

Yes.  You know, what you’re describing is very much what early 1970s feminist art was about. I just spoke with Martha Wilson about how she got started and she said she didn’t know what feminism was until she had something to work against. It was about being against something, for her, and I think that’s true for a lot of women of that era.  It was about endurance, it was about pushing your body to these limits…

And you always have to be naked! Why do you always have to be naked? Naked and uncomfortable.

And the point remains that this work had never been done before, it was really important for these women to do at the time, so when we repeat these actions now we see this as not particularly interesting or even necessary.  As an educator, what do you think about teaching or talking about this particular movement?

Well, first of all, I think it’s important to state that I’m probably going to be teaching elementary school children. There are probably two answers.  One is, I don’t connect to that work very much; it feels like the 1970s stuff, I appreciate why it rose up, but I don’t really connect with it.  I used to connect with it much more.  I think there is definitely a way to say, let’s look at how feminist art has shifted over time, why do you think that is? Show this work and ask what about this feels distinct to you? What remnants of it do you see today? Etc. I definitely think there’s a value in looking at that. But I have to say, in my classroom, I doubt I’d bring it in, I really do, because I want students to see—and this is my personal bias—that there’s a method of art making that comes from a place of joy and compassion and social awareness and a critical lens, but that visual art doesn’t have to be about what is shocking, what is new, what is confrontational. Part of why I want to do that is because anyone who engages with a contemporary art gallery or museum will get so much of that.  It’s so much harder to find the stuff that comes from a different place. Critical critique that’s about covering yourself in menstrual blood is a dime a dozen. It just is! I mean, sticking stuff up myself, taking it out of myself, covering myself in my own stuff that comes out of me—you can find that at every corner.  But to have a classroom that really focuses on and celebrates and revels in an art making that comes from what is personal and tangible and magical and kooky and all those things aren’t necessarily hip words—I mean, even in my art education program, I get stuff for using words like magical and kooky because they aren’t serious enough.

It’s funny that it’s same dialogue as in an MFA program, but you’re learning how to teach kindergarteners.

Absolutely.  Although, it’s so interesting to see the difference between being taught how to teach art from someone who’s mostly an academic vs. someone who is mostly an active elementary school art teacher but also teaches at NYU.  They’re radically different; we will actually get oppositional methods. I think, once again, the relationship between feminist art and the academicization of art making practice.  For my more academic teachers, it’s very important that everything is about theory and the head.  But for those who are teaching me who are active participants, they talk about love and teaching from the heart—terms that are not academically popular.  And with feminist art, too, it feels like I have to use a certain set of academic words, they come from a head place, not a heart place.  I would say that my work is joyfully un-academic.  I have very little say to about it, period, but I have very little to say about it from that discourse.

But it’s beautiful and it’s moving.

What’s really interesting is that the work I made in art school that was so theoretically based, no one particularly liked that much. Number one, because it was boring, and number two, because I’d already figured it all out.

It doesn’t leave anything for the viewer to figure out, and that’s one of the beautiful things about art—the mystery that allows each of us to put our own meaning to it.

Absolutely.  The other thing I wonder about so much is, can an object move beyond its context and its intention.  Because if we judge art exclusively let’s say through the lens of whether or not it was intended for a feminist purpose or the person who made it was a misogynist, if we considered all those objects made by those kind of characters sexist objects, you know there are a lot of pieces I would not give up for the world. And there are a lot of pieces I know were made with an intention I don’t agree with but that I have a relationship to that’s different.  The Origin of the World, by Courbet, is one my favorite paintings.  I think it is sexy and beautiful; when I look at it I feel excited and in awe, and it was made to be viewed exclusively by men behind a curtain.  It’s all about the male gaze. You can look at that painting and see it as pure evil.  But I love that painting. Its original context of being in a room with a curtain that only specific men were allowed to see, that’s not my relationship to it, and I think that in today’s contemporary museum, that painting actually has radical feminist implications. So that wasn’t his intention—I don’t care.

The Origin of the World, Gustave Courbet

That’s a pretty big idea, that art can move beyond it’s own birthplace. I agree with you, we’re in agreement, but I’m just starting to do this. It’s new for me to make work without thinking it all the way through first.

There’s a guy in my program, this wonderful guy, Keith, who’s going to be such an amazing teacher, and he always uses the Sistine Chapel as an example as to why this approach to art doesn’t work. You can stand under the Sistine Chapel and talk about gender and class and race and come up with all the answers of it being a work of evil, you really can. It’s also majestic; something happens in there that is so transcendent beyond human understanding or verbalization that has nothing to do with any of that stuff.  Which is why millions and millions of people schlep to see it.

And why it’s one of the first things you learn about in art history.  Most artists learned about it on day one.

Right. And you could sit here and knock it to pieces: God is a white male with a beard; patriarchy is all over the place; the notion of Heaven is this gilded place which implies that you have to wealthy to be righteous. I mean, we can go down the list, but it just seems like such a stupid, thin way to experience something that is so much more powerful than that.  And it also, for me, this is a feminist question I grapple with all the time, when I walk into a room, sometimes it feels like contemporary theory would dictate that I walk in exclusively as my race, class, and gender. And there’s nothing else I’m walking in as, there’s no human component that comes with me; I’m only those three things. I find that really problematic.

So how do you reconcile needing to talk about those things? Because I think they are important conversations to have when looking at art, talking about art, especially early on when you’re starting to make these things. So how do you talk about it without losing that majestic quality?

I think you view it as one component of what an objects about, but not the only component. I don’t know about you but I would say that 90% of the conversation is about gender, class, and race stuff. It definitely feels like that’s one component, but not all of it.  Just recently we had a class where we were talking about Disney.  You know, I’m going to be teaching little kids and little kids LOVE Disney movies. And we would all agree, myself included, that Disney sends some really problematic messages about, let’s say, women, as an example, but pick any category.

In college, I took an entire course called Deconstructing Disney, which I loved.

Right. And you can deconstruct Disney along all those lines, and that’s valid and important.  But the question then becomes, as an educator who has kids in the class who love Disney movies, do you explain TO them, and the word “to” is very important here, that the material they’re watching is racist, sexist, and classist and therefore they should stop? Which not only is a top-down approach, but also denies, as academic discourse often does, the pleasureful elements of Disney. Or do you celebrate what’s pleasureful and use that as a bridge to talk about these other things so that the other stuff they’re going to continue watching anyway, they watch with a more critical lens but they don’t give up what’s pleasureful.  For me, singing “I wanna be where the people are” from The Little Mermaid is not diminished by the fact that there’s some really problematic stuff in that movie.  I want to be able to hold both.

You know, I think a lot of this stuff boils down to whether or not we’re comfortable as human beings accepting that life is complicated; it’s not black and white.  Disney’s not pure evil; it’s not perfect. Kids know that. Kids are open to exploring that.  So you bring that discourse in, but in my experience, critical analysis was about shutting down the worth of something.  You know, you should not teach Degas to children because he was an anti-Dreyfus and an anti-Semite. I don’t quite know how to explain this, but I don’t want to co-opt or reclaim anything. Does that make sense?  I don’t want to reclaim any word that is a curse word about me, and I don’t want to co-opt anything.

Doing that doesn’t feel like moving forward.

No, it doesn’t.

It feels like getting stuck in something that already doesn’t work and that causes us pain and stagnation.  I loved your description of feminist art: this is feminist art because I’m a feminist. This is something I’ve been asking others, and one person said her work had a feminist voice but it’s not part of her artist statement.

Do you think my work is feminist work?

Hmm, I guess it’s hard because I know you so well. I might say that it’s in it, but I don’t think it’s about that.

And the other question is, does it matter?

This is what I get from it, but it’s so personal.

This is important for me to say.  Because I don’t feel like it’s my job or within my control really, if someone who’s Jehovah’s Witness looks at my work and says this is Jehovah’s Witness art, I’m cool with that. Great! I’m glad it’s that for you.

Well, another person I spoke to said there is no longer feminist art. She thinks there was but isn’t anymore. I think she’s referring to a specific type of work and a movement.

But also, if it is referring to that 70s movement, that work abounds today, it just isn’t taken that seriously because its very repetitive.

Do you think that’s because it’s not necessary in the same way anymore, it doesn’t play the same role?

I mean, it certainly doesn’t pack a punch like it used to. I hope it’s not necessary anymore.  It seems like any movement that feels disenfranchised starts by screaming at the top of its lungs, regardless of the movement. Politically, you start from a sort of rageful, I-demand-to-be-heard place.

It’s like being a little kid.  When you’re young, you act out when you don’t get what you need or want, but as you grow older you, hopefully, learn to work through conflict calmly.

I’m so glad you said that because it’s partly why when I’m going through an art fair or even a lot of the biennials I’ve been to I’m generally fairly disappointed that a certain type of artwork is still lauded and sold at really high prices that I think has not moved beyond that place.  It’s something that the contemporary art world is in kind of perpetual adolescent.  Look—I can make a stop-motion animation where people are having sex up the butt—I can do that and get away with it. It’s kind of like, great; let’s all go out behind the school and smoke cigarettes. It’s deflating to me as a viewer when I see that again and again and again.

I remember when George Bush was President the second time around, and the acts of heinousness that were occurring under this man’s leadership and there was so much to try and change and talk about as visual artists.  I went to Miami Basel and there was just piece after piece of someone wearing a Bush mask and masturbating, or someone making a drawing of Bush doing something filthy or in a video piece covered in feces.  I mean, is that as sophisticated as we’re going to get about really important matters? I was so deflated from that work. It felt like 13-year olds were talking about the president, and we’re not 13 year olds.  It’s connected to why I’m less and less involved in and goal-oriented around the commercial art world because it’s a world I feel very alienated from.

All of us are working out issues of some sort through our art. To sort of start winding down at this point…what do you hope for your kids to take from your classes later in life? You are in a social justice art education program, so these issues are clearly very important to you and your role as an educator.

All of that is true, but partly because of this program, my understanding of what social justice art education is has changed dramatically and I see it very differently than I did some time ago.  Before, I would have said that social justice art education is dealing explicitly and constantly with social justice issues in the art classroom.  Every lesson has to do with race, class, or gender.  I’m so not sitting there anymore. I feel like what I really want first and foremost, for my kids to walk away with, regardless of their behavior or their own stuff they walk into the classroom with, is they experience the art classroom as space where they feel deeply loved. When I look at the social justice movements that I’m in awe of and inspired by, they come from a place of love. The kind of classroom I want to create is about radical love.  And I think as a teacher, you have an amazing opportunity to impart kids with empathy.  That’s much more important to me than having a kid leave the classroom understanding exactly how a woman is paid less than a man for the same job.  That information matters, and I’m going to have it threaded in there, but that’s not, I think, what really creates change. And partly why I think that is because we’ve all seen in news outlets over time, heinous images again and again of the worst injustices you can imagine in all parts of the world. And our response most of the time is, wow, that is just the worst, and then we go on about our day and wonder where we’re going to get our latte and what our retirement is going to be like.  Building empathy and experiencing compassion is really how you make them an agent for social change.  So if they’re going to be an activist or a banker or an accountant or a lawyer or whatever, they have this empathy tool that enables them to love people and understand people’s perspective and not live in a world of good guys and bad guys. That, to me, is being a social justice educator.  I would say that some people in my program do not agree with that definition, but that’s what I’ve come to that makes sense to me.

I also want them to experience art making as a place that is about thinking and loving and joy and complication and a place where something like Disney can be celebrated and critically understood simultaneously.  And I really want them to fall in love with the act of unconscious decision-making.  Right? Because when you present kids with a problem and give them 45 minutes to solve it, like here’s colored paper, I want you to do X, make a collage about this, you’re asking them to make decisions that are so innate and organic and intuitive that there’s no time to get stuck in their heads.  I want them to know what that feels like because for me, it’s taken me years to give myself permission to do that in my studio. I want them to know that that counts.  So I would say all those things and, god-willing, through increased empathy through my teaching, I hope they’re also better citizens to each other as the years progress, because you’re not just prepping them to be citizens in the world; you’re also prepping them to be citizens in middle school and high school, times when empathy and compassion are at woefully low levels. That’s what I consider social justice.  I think any movement that, at its core, is based on empathy is more long-lasting and powerful. I have to say I’ve been really blessed in my friendships to have a feminism that is based on empathy, but that’s not the feminism I was taught in college and art school.  It’s almost like we felt we weren’t safe enough to empathize.  That if you somehow also perceived men as stuck, also as limited, and not just the aggressor, that you were somehow giving them an unfair advantage or letting them off the hook.  It’s a great way to feel like you’re right and end up completely isolated.  There’s something about the feminist movement that it hasn’t yet found its abundance.


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  1. * Monica Byrne says:

    I only just found this! What a fantastic conversation…I was deeply absorbed from beginning to end. Brava, loves!

    | Reply Posted 8 years, 3 months ago

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