Notes on Queer Formalism

William Simmons ’14 is a History of Art and Architecture concentrator who can be followed on Twitter @WJ_Simmons. The author’s other posts on the Women’s Center blog can be found here and here.

This post appeared originally here in the Boston art journal Big Red & Shiny.

In a recent conversation with Amy Sillman at the opening of Leidy Churchman’s provocative solo show, Lazy River, at the Boston University Art Gallery, I asked Sillman about the state of painting. In 2011, Artforum considered the “The Ab-Ex Effect,” thereby attempting to take the pulse of a simultaneously revered and reviled hallmark of modernism in the visual arts. Where had painting come since then? It was a question that had plagued me ever since my first encounter with Nicole Eisenman’s paintings, prints, and sculptures.1 Eisenman’s investment in art history, when combined with her penchant for absurdity and subversion, seemed to upend everything I knew about contemporary art. The same shock occurred when I thought about Sillman and her inscrutable mixture of pigment and perversion—and iPhones. With Amy Sillman: one lump or two opening at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, Boston, and Nicole Eisenman appearing in both the 2013 Carnegie International and Nicole Eisenman: In Love with My Nemesis at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis in 2014, it seems that we are on the verge of a new definition of artistic practice.

I had attempted for a while to characterize this charged moment, but it was not until Sillman answered, “It’s almost a queer formalism” that I found the necessary words.2 The phrase captures something revolutionary, a sense of palpable anticipation for much-needed transition that is just around the corner. The move toward queer formalism prefigured by Sillman and Eisenman, as well as artists Elise Adibi and Leidy Churchman, cannot be fully explained in a single article or with one analytical lens. It is my hope here to offer a set of disjointed thoughts that will coalesce into a question or a basis for further investigation, but never an answer.

Continue reading “Notes on Queer Formalism”


Gender, Convention, and the Power of Meaningful Choices

By Matthew Stolz

I usually try to avoid getting sucked into the lower depths of internet political debates, but a close friend of mine sent me this article at the beginning of winter break, and I have been thinking about it ever since.  On the surface, the article is a response to some responses to an earlier post by the same author regarding some sociological findings about the vague correlation between the gender of one’s children and one’s political leanings that supposedly speaks to pervasive expectations and fears regarding female sexuality.  The author, Ross Douthat, is The New York Times’ token conservative op-ed columnist, so it’s unsurprising that his musings on the sexual mores of other people’s daughters caught the attention and ire of the greater feminist blogosphere (and justifiably so, in my opinion).  Still, I keep coming back to Douthat’s rather lengthy response to these criticisms for a couple of reasons.  First, I think it’s important to note that he and his thoughts are, at least in part, products of our campus and our culture (his columns are still archived on The Crimson’s website, if you want to peruse).  Second, I think that this article points toward some profoundly consequential issues in feminist theory, even if it does not address them explicitly.  Douthat’s argument is a good jumping off point for an exploration of some interesting questions about gender, social conventions, and freedom that I’ve been thinking a lot about recently, questions that I think are essential for understanding what it means to call oneself a feminist in our time.

Before I dive in, a brief but necessary recap of the debate.  On December 14, 2013, Douthat published a column about a recent sociological finding suggesting that having a daughter makes a parent more likely to vote Republican.  He interpreted this finding to reflect cross-generational discomfort with the pervading sexual mores of the millennial generation (characterized loosely by ubiquitous hookups, the decline of traditional courtship, etc. (I want to note that there are obvious problems with the terms “pervading sexual mores” and “millennial generation,” but for the sake of argument I will let them slide)).  The basic conclusion is that parents become more conservative because they’re afraid to set their daughters loose in the anarchic sexual landscape that currently blankets most major US urban areas.  For the most part, the responses from feminist bloggers take Douthat to task on the low-hanging fruit of his most blatant transgressions.  It is true, as they point out, that his use and contextualization of source material are highly suspicious, at least from an academic sociological perspective.  It is also true that that his unspecific recommendations for restructuring our generation’s sexual mores raise some bread-and-butter concerns about paternalism and otherwise unsavory conservative tendencies.  Douthat ignores most of these criticisms in his response, focusing instead on a quite prescient argument from Marc Tracy interviewing Adelle Waldman in the New Republic.  The two argue that Douthat’s main error is that he does not trust young people (especially women) to make their own sexual decisions, leaning instead on outdated social conventions with suspiciously patriarchal overtones.  Douthat responds by pointing out that sexual decisions are always, whether we like it or not, defined by social conventions, then he goes on to interpret other sociological findings in order to argue that a more conservative sexual culture could make everyone (but once again, especially women) happier and more fulfilled in their sexual relationships.

Continue reading “Gender, Convention, and the Power of Meaningful Choices”

Rape Culture is Alive and Well, Friends

*Trigger Warning* rape and sexual assault/abuse, victim blaming

by HCWC Intern Brianna Suslovic ’16

Rape culture is a term that’s been tossed around for a while now, especially on Harvard’s campus – does a campus culture of rape jokes, rape apologists, victim-blaming and blurred definitions of consent really allow for survivors of rape and sexual assault/abuse to feel safe?

Especially as recent revelations from Woody Allen’s adopted daughter emerge, it’s extremely important that we acknowledge the legitimacy of survivor narratives while also continuing to combat the pervasive belittlement of rape and sexual assault in our daily discourse. Rape jokes are unacceptable, as is victim-blaming. It’s shameful that as a collective culture, we are allowing people to receive positive attention (and retweets) for something as hurtful and alienating to survivors as this. It’s also shameful that after Dylan Farrow came forward to tell her story, members of the public continued to belittle her courageous narrative: “Who can know what really happened?”

Why is it that those who are not familiar with Farrow and Allen’s lives feel entitled to comment on whether Allen is guilty or not? The statistics on false accusations of rape and sexual assault are widely contested, but regardless of whether the statistics support Farrow, victim-blaming should never be the response when a survivor comes forward. It’s tough to think that someone we may know or love (like Allen) could be capable of such harm to another human being, but by refusing to acknowledge the actions (alleged or real) of an individual like Allen, we are perpetuating a system that works to silence the very real trauma of sexual assault survivors.

So what can be done to combat the culture that victimizes and ignores survivors and their needs? When one in four college women will survive a rape or attempted rape before graduating, this is a problem that can no longer be ignored. Through groups and collectives like Know Your IX, college students and recent graduates are collaborating to fight against a culture that sends the message that sexual assault and rape are okay. Know Your IX works specifically on pressuring colleges to change unfair or inadequate sexual assault policies with federal law on their side: Title IX and the Clery Act are both designed to promote safe campuses for all students of all genders, including survivors of rape and sexual assault, and Know Your IX empowers students to pressure campuses to abide by these laws. They do this by providing support and information, as well as assistance from legal experts on how to proceed. The Our Harvard Can Do Better campaign passed a referendum last year urging administration to reform the sexual assault policy, but there is still progress to be made – it’s time to translate student support into official policy change and implementation. It’s exciting to see peers working on affecting change at such a high level; to affect change at an on-the-ground level, it’s important to support survivors.

Rape culture is far-reaching and complex, but as individuals, we do have the power to transform our own campus culture. Beginning with ourselves and our friends, we can work to put an end to jokes and comments that disregard the very real trauma that survivors face, to support our friends who are survivors, and to implement change in policy at a higher level as well.