The Personal As Political in Art

An all-female panel of artists discuss art as resistance at the Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality.

By Renee Wah

This past Thursday, the Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality (CSGS) hosted “Art and Care as Resistance and Love,” a panel discussion with female artists from the Chicago area. Moderated by Lauren Berlant, distinguished service professor of English and the director of the CSGS's LGBTQ Studies Project and Artists' Salon, the discussion centered around the ways that various artists interact with the political landscape. The event concluded the Care@Chicago lecture series.  

Professor Berlant began the discussion by asking how each panelist has put her personal self into her work to serve a larger theme or movement. She introduced the phrase “personal as political” to describe the way that the panelists’ art transposes their perspectives onto the broader public landscape. 

Karen Reimer, Director of Publications at the Renaissance Society, described herself as working mostly with craft, especially embroidery. “Don’t romanticize that,” she warned, dismissing the image of her learning embroidery over her mother’s knee. To Reimer, craft is the embodiment of practical art and women’s work, rather than a frivolous pursuit.  

“Historically craft has been associated with useful items in the private, domestic sphere, the woman’s domain,” Reimer said.  “And it’s a traditional feminist tactic to take stuff that belongs in the home and put it in the public world as a way to undo those divisions and that hierarchy.”  

This attitude set the stage for how Reimer has used embroidery and other forms of craft to bring anti-Modern ethics into her art—Modernism rejects decoration and feminized craft is the history of decoration.   

“I think that people who say ‘less is more’ tend to have a lot,” Reimer said to laughs from the audience. As cleverly as Reimer disparages Modernism, she notes that craft is no longer as absent from the art scene as it once was, just that it is less legitimate. 

She used one of her recent craft pieces to show her movement towards utility in her art. In a commission piece she did for a couple, she embroidered lists of 12 (for their 12-year age gap) on household items like pillowcases, blankets, and towels. This piece demonstrates how her art is meant to be touched and used: The viewer can relate to it more directly than to a piece in a museum.  

In contrast, Laura Letinsky of the visual arts program talked about how image-based media reach the viewer, in particular through her personal photography. She briefly discussed how image acts as a metonymy—a symbol for the image but not the thing itself—for materialist desires, in Dutch still life and modern advertising alike. She emphasized this property in one of her own still life collections, “To Want for Nothing”: Photographed arrangements of object photography that highlight the separation between the image and the material.   

The next artist, Visual Arts faculty lecturer Amber Ginsburg, focuses on ceramics in her work to explore the personal as political. She frames her art as a transformation in scale of domestic materials: FLO(we){u}R, for example, focuses on the World War I shift in U.S. ceramic production from home goods to Mark 5 test bombs. Ginsburg recreated a bomb-test factory for gallery visitors to participate in this process.   

Ginsburg views ceramics as the “conduit for the materials that are outside of us to become inside of us,” making it a useful medium to address the personal as political. This was exemplified in her work Tea Project where she served tea in faux-Styrofoam ceramic cups with the name and country of origin of a Guantanamo inmate. She believes that familiar rituals like serving tea prepare people for discussions on uncomfortable political topics.   

The final artist, Jennifer Scappettone, discussed the environment and permeability of the home and the self and how it applies to her work. She described care as “a political necessity and a radical act.” Her work addresses the porosity of cities and living space to water and air, drawn in part of her childhood home, which EPA identified as a toxic waste contamination site. She played a video of a performance she designed in New York City, in which trash was threaded on strings on top of a “capped” landfill outside Manhattan, a place where the garbage is no longer visible but the trauma, Scappettone argues, is still apparent.   

The panelists all found different ways to frame the problem of the personal as political, but one common thread ran throughout all of their work: that intentional internalization is required to address the implication of the larger political world. Addressing the political requires a transposition of the private to the public, especially in a culture where the woman’s sphere has long been insular, and a shift in scale that reflects how individual action affects the social atmosphere.