The Empty Dress

John Haber
in New York City

Erzstbet Baerveldt

Erzstbet Baerveldt is an incurable romantic. She nurses her connections to the world as gingerly as first love. Can a shy romantic be a feminist, and what would it even mean? I shall argue that it is worth finding out.

Dress Code

On one wall, the Dutch artist inserts herself into a full-length portrait of a queen. She adapts both her paintings, all but life size, from the Spanish Baroque and Baroque portraiture. She must have liked the Spanish mix of aristocratic bearing and comic stiffness, near to folk art. Erzstbet Baerveldt's Spanish Princess (I-20 Gallery, 1998)It suggests a woman's awkwardness in taking on that delicate, decorative dress.

An actual dress, suspended from the ceiling, hovers in front of each painting. Seemingly literal compared to a painting, so easily shorn of its illusions, no doubt it documents the creative process. It must have served Baerveldt as a model—and yet also as a disguise and a revelation. Seen from a few steps back, the dress aligns with her figure as fragilely and perfectly as desire.

Baerveldt may have enjoyed reversing history. Back in the seventeenth century, Holland freed itself from Spain's empire. I imagine her thinking, shyly but slyly too, that the great age of Dutch painting, with those capacious church interiors, suited braver spirits than herself.

Her theme of willed isolation sounds a lot like self-involvement, but she knows to turn her sense of humor on herself, too. She looks at herself as a woman and an artist, and she asks about the roles that others have created for her. She sees outdated styles, professional commitments, a dress hanging by a thin wire.

James McNeill Whistler fashioned clothing for his sitters, and Cindy Sherman has staged some wild outfits for herself, even a clown suit. This dress remains empty. The fabric and the painting still will never coincide, and neither contains the artist. For any painting, in fact, pigment and canvas, like art and the imagination, can hold out only an image. Baerveldt is asking how images fit her—and how she can fit the images. At her best, she creates an honest, reticent, and funny take on feminist art.

Holding on to art

Her outline drawings do not work half so well. Neither do a few other paintings, this time toying with Italian art. Still other canvases, however, draw their images from the show's finest work, a video in the back room.

Forget the old clothes. Pietà shows her in jeans, the proper modern artist. For all I know, the ratty factory yard sits outside her real studio. She stands there behind a work table, holding a white, clay mannequin. It too probably belongs in an artist's studio, as a prop for the traditional drapery studies. Maybe that dress really fit it.

For maybe twenty minutes, she does her level best to keep it from falling off—and falling apart for good. She cradles it in her arms. She struggles with its mass and bulk. She slowly lifts it back off the ground after it breaks, piece by piece, head and body.

Like the dress in the other room, the video at first looks painfully literal. It takes the ugly location for what it is. It calls attention to the weight of her props or, for that matter, of a human body. The camera jiggles about amateurishly, its dolly screeching beneath the sound track.

Before long, however, she starts to look curiously old-fashioned. As she bends over the mannequin early in the video, the tableau does recall a Pietà. I was moved despite myself.

Picking up the pieces

At some point, at last, I knew better. I cannot even say when I started laughing. Maybe it was as the body fell with a dull thud, forward, right into the frame. Her fragile humor said to watch out. If only Fernand Léger's mannequins pretended so well to represent humanity!

Literalism again? Like all those videos obsessed with the machine? Oh, come on. She did not really have to jiggle the camera so obviously. She did not have to work so hard. Or did she? Artists have a lot of problems. So do women in the art world.

Art and feminism alike are about confronting and unmasking roles, knowing full well that no one can live without them. They are about turning platitudes into conscious choices. That is why art has to do with both formalism and expression, and that is why it matters so much. That is also yet one more reason that feminism makes so much sense in a sexist, postmodern culture.

Of course, as a male making that argument, I may exhibit unconscious sexism myself. When I joke about shyness, I may be reading my own presumptions into a bold artist. I had seen enough poses in Pietà, from religious painting of the 1600s to the literalism of video art in its early days. I had seen motherly role play and the pose of a liberated woman in a tough art world. They looked like old roles one may not even want to shake off, the way people in snapshots try to play themselves.

I thought again about her lifting those pieces off the ground. Head comes back up before body. She could be asserting reason over dull matter and forced emotions. She could be settling for an act of resignation and irritation. Who am I to say? She has gone for the lighter piece first. If the mannequin stands in for a man like me, hoping to be a lover or a feminist, any way of dealing with it may have to do.

I had laughed, but the video went on anyhow. It even gave me time to be touched again, perhaps in the end for real.

The pursuit of feminist art

I can hardly promise the emergence of a great artist. I just liked this once Baerveldt's care, modesty, and humor. I could wonder about what it means for a woman artist to be artist and woman. In politics and art alike, feminism means finally not having to choose between creativity and gender.

Feminism also raises choices that art may just have to leave open. I include the choice of at least two kinds of feminism, and they bear on the uncertainties of that empty dress. One often hears them called traditional and difference feminism. Let me explain. It helps to start with what both kinds have in common.

Pretty much every feminist agrees on the point of it all: in every society that I can name, women are second-class citizens. The nineteenth century offers a revealing example, back when women sought "voluntary motherhood." In other words, they wanted to be allowed to turn their husbands down in bed. Men had rights, "conjugal privileges"; they were sexual beings, not just proper, future parents; they were doers. Women were denied self-fulfillment, including the rights, activities, roles, and desires that would make it possible.

Today, too, society offers a woman her pleasures, from sex to shopping, but not the right to acknowledge to the fullest her own needs and desires. Today, too, she gets a few roles to play, some burdensome and some immensely gratifying (and some both). She is not, however, allowed traditionally to pursue her own self-definition.

In short, she needs what the Declaration of Independence calls the pursuit of happiness. It almost bears out Aristotle, who used the word happiness to mean an activity rather than a state of gratification. The pursuit of art is like that, too. Passive viewers just do not get it.

Role play

Feminists also agree on why: society defines its roles by men and for men. The by men is simple to explain: who calls the shots. The for, though, is double edged. It means that the roles of men and women exist for the sake of men. It means that roles are defined by what men are.

Take the women demanding entry into military academies. The problem is not exactly that women are expected to look after things so that men can play soldier. It is that the whole idea of a soldier excludes women. The Citadel's defenders keep saying that women just cannot take it—the cursing, the abuse. Maybe grown-ups should not.

Or take those nineteenth-century women again. The problem was not entirely that women served male needs. Women just were not supposed to be sexual beings. I still remember vividly a moment with the woman I have most loved in my whole life. As she gave me a copy of the Hite report, I could see my life slipping out of my grasp. Presumably I was not getting it either.

Difference feminists focus on that second meaning of for. The point, they argue, is hardly just to loosen up what everyone thinks about men, women, and social roles. The point is to tailor social roles and even social values for what women are. Women, this story goes, are different. In fact, they are better, and their special character could contribute to everyone's expectations.

Difference feminists typically trace the differences to biology, to woman as nurturer. If women were in charge, the solution to disputes at the Citadel would be easy—abolish war. The solution to the nineteenth-century question would be to understand the marital and parental bonds as supportive, not using another person for sex.

Where role distinctions remain, the story goes on, men and women can learn to value what women do as highly as what men do. That means giving single mothers new respect and financial support. It means resolving disputes with new communication skills, since men and women speak almost differently languages. Becoming a woman is like art interpretation.

The ends of pleasure

Difference feminists criticize traditional feminism as sexist: it amounts to making society over in men's image, merely letting women play a part. It forces women into roles they might not—or should not—desire. It assumes that the ideal, ungendered society is just around the corner. It overlooks biology, tradition, and plain old intuition.

No wonder traditional feminists often come with those silly strings of hyphens, as Marxist-feminist-deconstructionists. They have to fall back on ideologies to overturn values, because their brand of feminism cannot.

Other feminists argue back violently. Difference feminists, they claim, uphold an old sexist society and a woman's frustrations, just as men and women were outgrowing it. Stay home and mind the kids. Women are meant to. Sure, men sound like assholes, but once everyone learns to communicate across the language barrier, women can understand and forgive. Sounds awful!

Difference feminists, they continue, avoid the tough questions about what the differences are. Today psychologists and philosophers are finding everything, even biology, subject to human culture, human perception, and human interpretation. Artists are turning human nature inside-out, and a good thing, too. Difference feminists think they know better?

This "difference" sounds at best unscientific, at worst awfully like the "laws of nature" that let Victorians put women in their place. It can even be gibberish. Some difference feminists elevate mystics and saints to early feminists. Sorry, but Hildegaard's mysticism is squarely in church traditions, and it asks men and women to escape from complaining about oppression.

In the process, it reduces women to stereotypes as badly as ever. Nancy Chodorow wrote about The Reproduction of Mothering. I like to call it "the reduction of mothering"! Or how can some supposed feminists treat pornography in and of itself as oppression? That seems once again to define sexual pleasure as remote from women. With desire, art vanishes all over again.

The flip side

Perhaps the whole conflict is unresolvable. No one can know the nature of mind that well. Some disputes do not truly exist. Both sides want women to be judged on their merits at school and on the job. Both sides agree that men have built into morality some harsh assumptions. When they let women do the parenting, they say something ugly about caring and growing up.

Or maybe the choice is between two pioneering feminists. Like anything half so valuable, feminism was never born, only repeatedly reborn. Difference feminism is another rebirth, but look at two other births, both in turn-of-the-century America.

Susan B. Anthony demanded the right to vote, while other women smashed distilleries of "demon rum" in the name of the family. Both were asserting women's place outside of the home. The teetotalers were even taking up axes.

The first movement was looking toward a more democratic society, in which women can have a voice. Yet it could not solve the question of what their voice should say. The second was about a woman's most intimate relationships. Yet it also looked toward a more puritan society, in which women could repress pleasure.

Obviously I stand pretty firmly on one side, toward openness. I know, however, that art can speak of a different kind of openness, one that refuses talk about sides.

One side looks past roles; the other begs for them. The power of art is to see all roles as empty, even the ones most essential to living, and to ask how desire might one day fill them. Art tells both sides of the story, contradictions and all, and still asks for more sides that others could never have seen. Art's mix of humor, intensity, and emotion is always the flip side. Its dress is always at least half empty.

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Erzstbet Baerveldt ran at I-20 through January 10, 1998.


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