Surrealist Doodle

Surrealist Doodle
This was used as the cover of Karawane in 2006 and I have included it in on a number of bags and postcards over the years. Someone on the subway asked me if it was a Miro. I was very flattered!

Monday, December 28, 2015

“I Must Be Boring Someone: Women in Warhol’s Films” from Sex Objects by Jennifer Doyle

This is a review/summary of Chapter 4, on the Films of Andy Warhol, from Jennifer Doyle's Sex Objects.


The Queer, the Pornographic, and the Boring

In Sex Objects, Jennifer Doyle asks us to rethink several things, including queer theory, feminism, the relationship of pornography to art, and what it means to be bored by a work of art or literature. She relies on many of the seminal figures in each field, including Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Jose Munoz, Wayne Koestenbaum, and Douglas Crimp from queer theory. She also turns to a variety of critical and academic sources including art critic Michael Fried, performance theorist Amelia Jones and literary theorist Roland Barthes for examples of how the various media are received and created as visual art, performance and literature.

Using several artists as points of study, including Herman Melville’s epic work Moby Dick, artist Thomas Eakins’ The Gross Clinic, the visual art and films of Andy Warhol, the drawings of Tracy Emin, and the performances of Vaginal Davis as Vanessa Beecroft, killing two birds with one stone, she explores the way that queer theory and feminism can work together to, if not erase, lessen the impact of the “male gaze” in art by decentering women in the picture as well as the way that claims of “pornography” can be mitigated by boredom in “art” and “literature,” those “highbrow” terms that are used to defend texts of all kinds against the charge of pornography. In fact, Andy Warhol a seminal figure in this regard, is so queer, so pornographic, and so boring, that he merits two chapters: one for his painting and visual art and one for his films.

Chapter Four of Doyle’s work, “I Must Be Boring Someone: Women in Warhol’s Films” is the second of her chapters on Warhol. In it, she talks about such Factory staples as Edie Sedgwick, Brigid Berlin, Nico, Ingrid Superstar, and Valerie Solanas, whose main claims to fame are that she published the SCUM Manifesto and that she shot Andy Warhol around the same time. Solanas had also given a copy of her own play, Up Your Ass¸ to Warhol and also appeared in Andy Warhol’s film I, a Man (73). Warhol’s films were “frequently shut down by the police for obscenity” and Solanas’ play was even shocking in the Factory context, leading Warhol to suspect that her play might have been a form of police entrapment. Warhol did, however, give Solanas a role in his film I, a Man.

I, a Man, according to Doyle, “was loosely inspired by a Swedish sexploitation film, I, a Woman.” Solanas plays a woman who is sexually aggressive towards the male character, played by Tom Baker, and one who has total control. In fact, she reminds Baker of this when she says “Look, I got the upper hand, let’s not forget that.” To which Baker responds, “I haven’t forgotten it for a moment” (77). She is the sexual aggressor in the film, grabbing Baker in an elevator, but refusing to take it any further than that, despite his assumption that they are going to go home together. There is a good Later on in the dialogue, Solanas and Baker have an exchange about instinct, with Solanas asking what Baker’s instincts tell him to do. “Your instincts tell you to chase chicks, right? My instincts tell me to do the same thing [so] why should my standards be any lower than yours” (qtd. in Doyle 79). What makes scenes like this feminist or at least pro-feminist in Doyle’s view, is not the overt way that Solanas takes control of the situation. In fact, Doyle recognizes that to some, “there is no place for feminism in Warhol’s films because their dominant erotic economy is gay (authored by gay men, aimed at largely gay male audiences” (72). However, in her queer feminist analysis, Doyle points out that in many of these films, it is precisely “because she is framed by a gay male context, she gets to be something other than the straight sex object” (72).

Doyle compares Solanas’ performance in I, a Man to that of Katherine Hepburn, “whose quick tongue could turn Spencer Tracy or Cary Grant inside out, bringing him to the limit of frustration and desire” but, as Doyle further points out, Solanas is an out lesbian with no interest in Baker, and without any of the glamour of Hollywood (80). There is no danger that she will be taken for a sexual object in this film, despite the sexual situation and despite Baker’s assumptions within the film. Solanas is in fact, framed as a sexual predator in I, a Man, saying that she is “a sucker for a squishy ass” (qtd. in Doyle 80). She and other women in Warhol’s films are able to “literalize, halt, and sabotage the heterosexual imperative” (80).
Doyle takes on Wayne Koestenbaum’s reading of Valerie Solanas and her attack on Andy Warhol. Koestenbaum “equates a feminist reading of Solanas with an attack on [Warhol]” (74). She goes on to describe Koestenbaum as implying “that to think as a feminist is not to think at all but to emotionally and uncritically identify with whatever female counterpart is on the screen” (74). Doyle describes this as indicative of the “anxieties raised by the specter of women (lesbian or not, crazy or not) in gay places” (75). Here she is able to talk about some of the points of abjection and negation between queer theory and feminist theory and about how, despite the homophobia inherent in it, many gay men still participate in a patriarchal culture as well that “might make women crazy” (75).

Koestenbaum’s critical lens notwithstanding, Doyle notes the number of women in work by gay male artists, citing Jack Smith, Gus Van Sant, and Werner Fassbinder and the way in which women represent “crucial allies” in the struggle to make a meaningful and “livable life out of a world organized against the minority sexual subject” (75). The women in these films are not incidental to the subject matter, but have an inherent place in them, a place where they don’t share in mainstream representations of gender and sexuality. In this way, Warhol’s films that include women “reveals that the sexual radicalism of Warhol’s work is pinned to the troubling presence” of women (75). The women are not merely fag hags or overbearing mothers, and they do not merely represent campy versions of women. Despite the fact that they are “unnecessary” to gay men sexually, that excess allows women like Solanas to stay outside the center of the frame and to consequently be decentered as sexual subjects.

In Bike Boy we encounter the idea of boredom in Warhol’s films. The title of this chapter as well as the book’s cover photo come from a potentially erotic but ultimately boring encounter between Joe Spencer and Ingrid Superstar. This scene comes in the middle of the film, after nearly an hour of homo (and it would seem possibly auto)erotic encounters with a naked Spencer stepping out of the shower and drying off, taking an extended look at the camera, and then going out to try on skimpy bathing suits “while two queeny shop clerks prattle on about their customers” (87). Doyle describes Spencer’s encounter with Ingrid Superstar as “sandwiched in between the happy homoerotics of the first half and the disastrous heterodynamics of the second . . . the first of the (failed) heterosexual seduction scenes” (90). Superstar sits topless, having slipped out of her bra and the top half of her dress, on a kitchen counter while Spencer stands looking away and leaning against the wall. In the middle of logorrhea, an excess of speech that does not amount to any kind of conversation, Superstar announces “I must be boring someone” (qtd. in Doyle 91). She does ask him once, “What do I have to do to get your attention? What are you, a faggot or something” (qtd. in Doyle 90). Then, unable to get his attention, she prattles on with recipes, some of them nonsensical, killing time “emptying out her speech until the viewer can hardly stand it because the dynamics of the scene have become so perverse” (91). Superstar asks Spencer if he likes roast beef and then receiving no answer, she continues. “Well, I don’t care if you like roast beef, because I like roast beef” (qtd. in Doyle 91). Both Spencer and Superstar have become superfluous in this scene. She is of no interest to him as a sex object and his presence as an interlocutor is not necessary to any of her dialogue. His indifference to her allows her attention and her speech to drift, to wander wherever it will without worrying about its effect on another. This, according to Doyle, is where “the postmodern readings of Warhol’s films converge with their potential as feminist texts” (93). Boredom here functions against the imperative to be interesting, as well as a refusal of the capitalist imperative to be productive.

Spencer’s lack of attention toward Superstar also decenters her as a sexual object and therefore, like Solanas and other women in Warhol’s films, she is free to be something else entirely. She sits outside of the frame of male desire, a frame which women usually occupy in films. According to Doyle, “the juxtaposition of Superstar’s nudity with her pointless speech traces the ludicrousness of the woman’s position on film—that she hold our interest without becoming narrative’s agent” (95). By not responding to the demand to be interesting, Superstar takes a subject, rather than an object position. She has to “entertain” only herself with her speech. If the audience takes a voyeuristic position to Spencer in the first half of the film, watching him step out of the shower and following him while he shops, they are also mere voyeurs to this scene, to Superstar’s unexcitable speech, as well.

Doyle’s take on Warhol and the other artists in this book seems to be a unique one, one that makes us rethink feminist and queer theory, which in art sometimes seem diametrically opposed and rethinking the very notion of boredom – both in life and in art. Warhol himself once said that they would figure out how much they thought the audience could take and then would go about 10 minutes beyond that. “Leave ‘em wanting less was always our motto.” Doyle seems to not only understand that, but in an odd twist, to make that interesting. 

Work Cited


Doyle, Jennifer. Sex Objects: Art and the Dialectics of Desire. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006.

Notes

Solanas' play was lost in Warhol’s factory, only to be found decades later among Warhol’s personal belongings. It was never performed in Valerie Solanas’ lifetime.

Having done much work on Solanas, including a recent conference paper, I know that in fact, many people do react negatively to reading Solanas’ work through a feminist lens, as if doing so weakens the movement or is an affront to “real” and “non-crazy” feminists. Solanas is a divisive figure for feminists.

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