A feminist critique of capitalism: Class, gender, work and unrest in women's art after 2008

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Abstract

This article considers the shift from ‘patriarchy’ to ‘capitalism’ in the work of contemporary artists who engage feminist critique. This shift, it is argued, is expressed in a politics of representation that centers on labour, and in particular how gender’s articulation - in terms of bodies or values - informs the inscription of class. The four artworks on which I will focus come from 2010, that is, as the impact of the 2008 global financial crisis was just beginning to be grasped: Mika Rottenberg’s Squeeze, Marge Monko’s Shaken, Not Stirred, Olivia Plender’s Google Office, and Melanie Gilligan’s Popular Unrest offered memorable depictions of capital as a social relation as the status quo was about to be redefined as a transversal crisis under constant management. The article seeks to articulate the complexity of contemporary feminist interventions in art as an enquiry that is 'about so much more than gender' (in the words of Angela Davis). Here, the implicit or explicit social relation of class mediates any possible figuration of gender.

Squeeze was a surreal enquiry into a regime of production distributed across the globe and re-assembled as spectacle (not least, through the artwork) where women workers’ bodies play a complex role as the sites of brutal extraction but also the illusion of self-valorisation. Shaken, Not Stirred, on the other hand, places its working women in a concrete historical post-Soviet context where the accelerated ‘return’ to class negates any prospect for gender solidarity; Google Office stylises the promise of upward social mobility made by cognitive capitalism in office environments that promise ‘replenishment’, thus claiming to break the production/reproduction divide; and Popular Unrest is the nightmarish, yet eerily familiar as present, future where the abstraction ‘capital’ dominates completely life (and not just work) having become spiritualised - notably through a technological apparatus not unlike the one that mega-corporations such as Google currently represent, and this is a society where women are not privileged subjects of community-building or even ‘the subversion of community’. In this future, such subversion belongs to capital, which is able to thwart the articulation of class struggle.

Taken together, these four works from 2010 represent some of the ways in which feminist critique informed a critical artistic imaginary addressing the capitalist lifeworld at the moment of its crisis, and involving in particular the visualisation of class through ideological articulations of labour. Gender is crucial to such ideological ‘beliefs’ about labour, pertaining to the ‘exceptional’ labouring subject (Squeeze), the class ranking of desirable jobs (Shaken, Not Stirred), the spatial-affective design of the workspace (Google Office), the inability to oppose the accelerated expulsion of labour in advanced capitalism (Popular Unrest). The four works are notably ‘claustrophobic’ and defy the dream of exodus, despite all of them engaging a class imaginary. The militant hopefulness animating the incipient feminist art movement in the late 1960s, where the politicisation of the term ‘woman artist’ took hold, is nowhere visible in these works by four women artists - which becomes painfully apparent if one watches Lynn Hershman Leeson’s !Women Art Revolution (!WAR) documentary, released also in 2010. Rather, the four works, I will suggest, signal the inescapable actuality of capital as a totalising social relation in which gendered bodies and values are necessary for crafting the illusions that reproduce us as ‘willing slaves’. In this respect, the works are tentative expressions of a lost measure of distance between radical critique and revolutionary opposition - and which, this author argues, must be urgently reviewed for a contemporary emancipatory politics.
Original languageEnglish
Article numberkcac022
Number of pages20
JournalOxford Art Journal
Early online date7 Nov 2022
DOIs
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 7 Nov 2022

Keywords

  • gender class contemporary art feminism

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