Erotica Readers & Writers Association Blog

Saturday, February 27, 2016

The Politics of Obscurity

by Jean Roberta

I’ve been reading two related books about art in the cultural margins:

Memories of the Revolution: The First Ten Years of the WOW Café Theater, edited by Holly Hughes, Carmelita Tropicana, and Jill Dolan (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2015), a standard-sized paperback, and

The Only Way Home Is Through the Show: Performance Work of Lois Weaver
[one of the founders of WOW Café Theater], edited by Jen Harvie and Lois Weaver (published simultaneously in 2015 by Intellect Books in Bristol, UK, Live Art Development Agency, London, UK, and the University of Chicago Press). This is a large paperback coffee-table book, full of photos and illustrations.

I volunteered to review these books about the history of an amazing, grassroots women’s theater collective in New York City, which has survived despite the odds since 1980. I went to one of their performances in February 2003 when I was in New York for a reading from Best Women’s Erotica at Bluestockings Bookstore.

The WOW performance was topical and full of energy. (The official paranoia that followed the events of 9/11 was soundly ridiculed.) The performance space was not a conventional theater, but the intimate venue suited the subject-matter. I was able to find my way there alone because of the good directions provided by a local arts publication.

The acronym WOW originally stood for “Women One World,” and it stuck. There was clearly some overlap between the WOW collective and a more overtly political group formed in 1990s New York: the Lesbian Avengers. Kelly Cogswell, who wrote a book about the Avengers after the group’s demise, met and entered a long-term relationship with Cuban-born writer Ana Simo, who wrote a fairly structured, Checkovian play about painter Frida Kahlo and the assassination of Leon Trotsky in Mexico in 1940, which was performed by WOW. The versatile writer Sarah Schulman was also in both groups.

All these books about performance art with clear feminist and lesbian themes do a remarkable job of capturing something ephemeral: a zeitgeist, or the spirit of a particular time and place. Nonetheless, the women who were interviewed for the books claimed that their shows have rarely been reviewed in the Village Voice, let alone The New Yorker or The New York Times. Apparently, WOW stayed below the media radar for decades.

Both WOW and the Lesbian Avengers functioned as collectives with no government ties whatsoever. (This impresses me, as a Canadian.) The WOW women who were interviewed for the two books explained that they decided early on not to apply for government grants from funding bodies such as the National Endowment for the Arts because the application process would take up valuable time and energy, the applicants would probably be refused, and if they were accepted, they would have to conform to the funder’s rules. In other words, they would be forced to tone things down.

Can revolutionary art ever be accepted by the cultural mainstream? Much cultural history shows that this happens a lot, especially when the radical art is no longer cutting-edge (e.g. jazz, Impressionist paintings).

Here in Canada, every struggling writer/artist I know has applied for a grant from the Canada Council for the Arts (the Canadian equivalent of NEA). “Explorations” grants, in particular, seem intended for experimental art created by fledgling artists. (As a published writer, I’m not eligible for one of these.)

Is radical art more accepted in some countries than in others? There are mixed reports. The recent claim that African-American actors are not adequately represented in the list of Oscar Award winners raises the question of whether racism in Hollywood has persisted in subtler forms than in the era of Gone With the Wind. (Apart from the arts world, however, there is nothing subtle about unarmed civilians being gunned down by uniformed police officers, as documented by concerned bystanders with cellphone cameras.)

Here in Canada, the survival of the film industry is more overtly political, since Canadian filmmakers have traditionally relied on government support in various forms, including tax deductions. When the right-wing government of the province I live in abolished the Film Tax Credit here, the local film industry died.

Who becomes famous, where, and why? The claim has been made that lesbian fiction-writers are routinely ignored in the U.S. media, but not in England, where Sarah Waters and Jeanette Winterson are widely known, and where a lesbian poet, Carol Ann Duffy, was made Poet Laureate. Canadian culture, as distinct from U.S. culture, is rarely mentioned in these discussions, but I could point out that two lesbian novelists here, Ann-Marie MacDonald and Irish-born Emma Donoghue, currently seem as visible and well-reviewed as any of their straight male brothers in the field.

It would be interesting for someone to do a survey of “successful” writers (whom I would define as those who can live on their royalties) in various countries in terms of gender, race/ethnicity, and sexuality. Do gay-male writers (being men) have greater access to resources than do lesbian writers, all else being equal? If so, where?

Even if someone had the time, energy and funding to do this survey and publish the results, conservatives could object that talent has nothing to do with identity politics, and that artists without talent will always be rejected by the reading/viewing/listening public, or at least by the gatekeepers who represent the public’s best interests. Feh.

When I write my review of the books about WOW, I’ll be doing my part to alert readers to a performance-art scene that deserves to be better-known. But then, I'm probably below the radar myself.
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