15

– Spring/Summer 2007

What does it mean to say that feminism is back? A reaction to Riddles of the Sphinx

Charles Esche

Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen, Riddles of the Sphinx, 1977, 16mm film, 92min, still. Courtesy of Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen.

Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen, Riddles of the Sphinx, 1977, 16mm film, 92min, still. Courtesy of Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen.

The current rush to recall, and even re-stage, first-wave feminism in the art world is at least gratifying. Yet it is also somewhat tragic that it has taken until recently to remember what we chose to forget so deliberately over twenty years before.

To help to understand why feminism is again suddenly in vogue, it is probably essential to think through what caused it slip out of fashionable art discourse for the last decades. A common (male) assessment is that women themselves lost faith in feminism, or got bored with 'banging on' about their rights and oppression - and that legislation across the western world in the 1970s had ensured that sexism was illegal, so the battles were won. In this light, men could act as they wanted - secure that, whatever their behaviour, they had already been made fully aware of the oppressions of patriarchy and therefore could not possibly be guilty of the same offences as their fathers.

In thinking over this history, it is instructive to look at works from that time and discover their power to provoke questions about contemporary gender relations. Interesting too is to assess how these works might continue to provoke and seduce in the light of a different, contemporary relationship to the image - the image of woman certainly, but also images in general. Many of the feminist works of the 1970s and early 80s were made in the context of a dizzying vortex of critical and aesthetic engagements that brought together critical theory, structuralist reduction and an iconoclast tendency that suggested that images had to be, in the language of the time, 'put under erasure' - or

Footnotes
  1. Laura Mulvey, 'Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema' (written in 1973; published in 1975), Visual and Other Pleasures, New York: Palgrave, 1989, p.16.