The only names this older man knew belonged to men. When I tried to interject with my own — Elaine May, Ida Lupino, Farida Pacha — they didn’t register. His names were already learned, recorded in a mental database of “cinema” to which there were obvious entry requirements. As he listed at me, I realized that he was not only displaying his education in film but deploying these names as a means of showing me who he was. Discussions in which we talk about our own personal canon of art often seem to hinge on an understanding that, in naming the artist, we become associates in some way, part of a gang. We collect these names as a way of signaling our taste, which we hope is idiosyncratic and wholly distinct from anyone else’s, and our personal lists read like declarations of character. These discussions can also become a tiresome swapping and doling out of names. Though we may start by wanting to show our dedication to culture through the names we know, we also risk compiling them into a catalog whose primary use is as a means of reflecting ourselves. The artworks we purport to love get lost amid the tedium of listing.
In recent times, I’ve often felt as if this form of naming has gained another dimension, in that it is now accompanied by the performative need to show one’s dedication to discovery. This “discovery,” as I see it, is another aspect of the aforementioned self-blazoning, only with a new emphasis on names that people do not know or are unlikely to have heard of. In this narrative of discovery, the end goal becomes finding new names. In the current political climate, these names have the most cachet when they are those of women. She may be a neglected writer, whose works have been out of print until recently, or an unknown filmmaker, who made very few works or devoted herself to the less respected form of the short or experimental film, or an artist overshadowed by the career of her swaggering husband. In any case, she is the producer of the “unread text,” ripe for rediscovery, republishing, repackaging, or writing about on Twitter.
What does this “unread text” look like? There are hundreds of examples I could give. In recent months, reprinted novels by writers such as Ingeborg Bachmann, Yūko Tsushima, Sigrid Nunez, and Kamala Markandaya have all been framed through this lens of loss, and in 2020, I have seen on Twitter that the “new” writer to look out for is Bette Howland. In film, the formula is repeated: a cursory Google search of early filmmaker Alice Guy-Blaché will show the waves of “rediscovery” her career has undergone, most recently in the last few months — her name now emblazoned on her own Girls on Tops T-shirt. In The New York Times, Manohla Dargis writes that, “[l]ike other trailblazing women from cinema’s formative years, Blaché has been discovered, somehow overlooked and rediscovered anew.” The article is titled “Overlooked No More.” Another critic on Artnet writes that a new documentary, narrated by Jodie Foster, is “determined to rescue Guy-Blaché from oblivion.”
In the contemporary art world (or at least in London, where I am based), there has been a slew of exhibitions that pitch themselves in a similar way, using the same language each time. Two recent exhibitions, the Barbican’s showing of works by Lee Krasner and the more thematic Pre-Raphaelite Sisters show at National Portrait Gallery, for example, tend toward a very narrow explanation of the woman artist as always in the shadow of her famous partner or husband. Ashton Cooper archly summarizes this narrative in art criticism: “At long last, a senior (or deceased) female artist gets the recognition she has deserved all along. Overlooked by the establishment for her entire life, she never stopped prodigiously toiling in obscurity and is finally being given her due.”
One could read these waves of rediscovery positively, as a continuation of feminist projects started years ago, in which diligent scholars, archivists, activists, and writers looked into the past and tried to rectify the conspicuous lack of women’s names in the public consciousness. But what started out as a politics has become anything but. Although we may celebrate the increased visibility of women artists, writers, and filmmakers in national and international media, there is something tiresome about these limited modes of engagement, and something even more tiresome about the way these artists are discussed. When art critics, reviewers, and writers start parroting the language of marketing, can we really think that the motives behind this rediscovery are feminist?
In her 2018 book Empowered: Popular Feminism and Popular Misogyny, Sarah Banet-Weiser identifies the boom of feminist messaging in advertising as beginning in 2012, when companies like Dove, Always, and CoverGirl started to target their ads at a female market with language that emphasized positivity, beauty, and confidence. In recent years, this strategy has made its way into arts marketing: films, for example, are brought out with shiny feminist messages suggesting that they are essential viewing for any self-proclaimed feminist. The 2015 film Suffragette, for example, actively played up its feminist credentials (both its all-female production crew and its female-led cast) but was rightly criticized for its whitewashing of British feminist history, epitomized by a promotional shoot in which the cast wore T-shirts that read “I’d rather be a rebel than a slave.” Penguin UK echoed this marketing strategy, accompanying the release of the film with a promotional article recommending five books “that have taken up the feminist sword and carried the battle forward” (the fairly uncontroversial — and white — reading list included well-known texts by Virginia Woolf and Simone de Beauvoir).
This trend has continued in the United Kingdom, with other large publishing houses reprinting material from their catalogs in new feminist series and with accompanying branding. Small, specialized presses such as Persephone Books also use the “neglected” author narrative as the basis for their output, in beautifully patterned and uniform bindings. We can even splash our cash at places like Second Shelf, where we can buy collectors’ and first editions of work by women authors. Because it is hard to live a feminist life under a system that punishes those who attempt to escape it, these opportunities to buy our politics can be a welcome distraction. Every purchase we make can be a feminist one.
There are huge differences among the various examples I have given above, of course. Some small companies actually want to make a difference by highlighting women’s work through specific showings, or articles, or even merchandise, but then there are the large corporate monsters who suck up any artist they can find and spit them out as mass-produced products. Nevertheless, the end goal is the same — a kind of virtuous consumption based on the saving or treasuring of feminist narratives. Whether publisher, gallery, or studio, all of them seek an easy and uncomplicated feminism that allows for a sufficiently straightforward route into people’s pockets.
It might seem unfair to accuse people sharing JPEGs of Leonora Carrington paintings, or posting passages of Lucia Berlin on Instagram, of being part and parcel of this corporate machinery, but there’s a way in which they definitely are. By discovering for themselves what has yet to be sufficiently “rediscovered,” they can suggest that their particular engagement with culture is more virtuous than those who choose what to read, see, or watch from more clearly marked bookshelves or heavily advertised movie houses. Such intrepid explorers are spared any criticism of conspicuous consumption because the individuals whose lives and careers they are celebrating have yet to be sufficiently raided for profit. As I’ve said, it is difficult, perhaps even impossible, to ascertain the motives that lie behind each specific deployment of the rediscovery narrative, making it hard to condemn the process entirely. Genuinely championing the work of women artists can be an antidote to the kind of male cinephilia I encountered on that train. And even when we learn these names through the posturing of certain companies with impure motives, we are still learning them — perhaps it is better that we “discover” lost artists through these tainted means rather than not at all.
I sometimes wonder, though, how many times “rediscovery” can happen before we begin to grow tired of being constantly reacquainted with the figure of the neglected woman artist. But the narrative seems unlikely to wear itself out: it is already ubiquitous, continuing to find purchase across social media, newspaper columns, essays, and blogs, as well as a home in the mouths of well-meaning individuals. As Sara Ahmed writes, “the more a path is used the more a path is used.” The more we repeat the same narratives, the more they solidify into the only ways of thinking and speaking about particular issues — issues that lose their complexity as a result. A T-shirt, after all, is always a T-shirt, regardless of its origins. The central problem with this narrative is its very clear limitations. As Cooper’s sarcasm suggests, the language in which rediscovery is couched is often about reorienting the individual artist, assimilating her into the canon of greatness, rather than actually dismantling the structures of power that have led to such women being ignored in the first place. As Joanna Scutts observes:
[I]t’s an approach that risks tethering women too forcefully to their biographies, at the risk of diminishing their artistic achievements. It risks limiting our recovery efforts to the women who fit a certain outlook, a certain style, a certain politics. It also tempts us to find the reason for obscurity in a woman’s individual work, in her voice, her actions, her failures — rather than in the power structures at work in the literary world, in the culture at large.
By always relegating work by women to the forgotten zone, we risk only understanding them in this way. Of course, these women, living under heteropatriarchy, were subject to misogyny, racism, and homophobia, but to define their work solely in these terms is a gross mischaracterization. On another level, how can we guarantee that we will find all those artists worth saving? A presumption of meritocracy underpins the language of rediscovery; some see it as a given that the cream will rise to the top. But, as Ann Cvetkovich asks, “What happens if the histories you want to know have left no records?” If the history is not there, artists cannot be rediscovered, cannot be streamlined into manageable pieces ready for dissemination and publication. These “missing” artists, as we might want to think of them, might also be artists who are not easily reformed. The narrative of rediscovery often involves a rehabilitation of queer or nonnormative figures, to make them more palatable to those who consume the most culture. We might think of the legacy of Frida Kahlo, whose bisexuality and communism are always firmly shielded from public view. And in fact, many other female artists have had their communist or socialist politics diluted into a more vague “social consciousness.” It’s also worth remembering that the majority of these rediscovered artists are white. Explorations into the unread or unseen need to pull up sellable work, and so they inevitably reflect the concerns of the dominant culture or the most potent narratives. To “discover” does not necessarily disrupt but may merely reinforce the status quo.
Much of this speaks to deeper concerns about the culture industry and the problems inherent in the world of paid writing, freelancing, and intellectual labor. It is hard to keep coming up with interesting things to say for money; even harder to resist the directions of the commissioning editor. I myself have been guilty on occasion of falling into the rediscovery trap because, to be honest, pieces about women’s lack of representation or respect in culture are easy to write and, crucially, fairly uncontroversial: you aren’t getting paid very much for your work, you need to move on to another piece, so why not simply reduce the woman you are writing about to her obscurity? We accept the narrative because it is so obviously true, so one hardly rocks the boat by restating it.
There is also an ethical question underpinning this process: as Scutts explains, one version of this narrative documents a “now-familiar path of chance encounter, pursuit, and recovery,” in which a critic happens upon an out-of-print writer or one not known in English (raising even more questions about language, translation, and whiteness), becomes a die-hard fan, and then helps to champion her voice — sometimes even becoming a proxy for it. In some cases, this can be particularly fraught: a recent essay in LARB by Magdalena Edwards documents Benjamin Moser’s bullying of the author while she was translating Clarice Lispector’s 1946 novel The Chandelier, noting that, when the book appeared in print, he had added himself as co-translator. Most if not all of this behavior seems to have been forgotten in the critical savoring of Moser’s biography of a writer who does not need rescuing, Susan Sontag, but in Edwards’s narrative we see the more insidious aspects of a rediscovery that is credited to a single individual. By the value we give to these rediscoveries, we make women’s lives and stories fair game and thus run the risk that disingenuous individuals may vampirically use women’s careers as a way of boosting their own profiles and winning intellectual kudos. We also legitimatize this dubious process as a viable method of literary-historical scholarship.
When we take screenshots of work by women artists to post on Twitter or Instagram, we know, however implicitly, that we will get likes because people will recognize our commitment to feminism. But loosely wearing the names of dead women is not paying homage to them; rather, it is using them as props in a search for positive feedback, exposure, and sometimes money. What might have started out as a feminist narrative of recovery has now transformed into a free-for-all. By signaling our commitment to the narrative of lost women, we are really only flattering ourselves, reinforcing a form of consumerism that does not challenge structures of power. Rediscovery does not elevate the work but merely flattens it out into fodder for a narrative that can be duplicated and reduplicated, deployed with little or no thought, applicable to hundreds of other women artists who have yet to be rediscovered. No number of names we recite can mask this problem.
But how then can we authentically find and discuss new voices without slipping into this pernicious mode? It’s not simply a case of avoiding certain words or phrases but finding a whole new cultural language to engage with work we believe to be valuable but which is not widely known. The problem is that the language of discovery is seductive: it suggests that our culture is of our own making, and it presents us, the enlightened children of the millennium, as the ideal audience, knowledgeable enough to give this poor woman the readership or viewership or spectatorship she has always deserved.
Katie da Cunha Lewin’s writing and reviews have been published at the Times Literary Supplement, The White Review, Jezebel, and Prospect, among other places. See more of her work at kdclewin.com.