note by Harold, August 2005:

Catching up on old (!) e-mail, I found that Amy had sent me this 14-page essay, written for an anthology in which it was ultimately not included.

biographical info on Serrano,

From Societal Subversives to Cultural Creatives:
The Emerging and Integral Voice of the Female Artist-Activist in the Documentation and Transformation of a New Global Society

essay by Amy Serrano, March 2002

To: Unpublished Papers page of the Official Herbert Marcuse website,
page created Aug. 30, 2005; updated 8/31/05

Evolution of
Women in Art
The Artist as
Mosaic of Feminist
Works Consulted

In March 2002 Amy wrote the following in an e-mail:

In my alternate role as filmmaker/writer, I was asked to publish a paper in an upcoming anthology entitled: "September 11, 2001: Women Writers on Global Citizenship in a Diverse Society." The proceeds of such are being donated to Amnesty International's Women's Program.

Because the planned anthology took a different direction, this essay was ultimately not included in it. See: Susan Hawthorne (ed.), After Shock: September 11, 2001: Global Feminist Perspectives (Raincoast Books, 2003), 528 pages ($13 at amazon).

Acknowledgements (back to top)

This paper was inspired by events of September 11, 2001 and the female artists to be featured in the upcoming "Of Hope, Courage and Justice: A Global Mosaic of Women in Human Rights." Fusing compelling personal testimonies with poetry, art and music of global female artists, the multimedia project involves a documentary film, companion book and musical compilation exploring the dual roles of women in human rights; not just the victims of harsh societal legacies but courageous agents of social change.

There I learned how faces fall apart,
how fear looks out from under the eyelids,
how deep are the hieroglyphics cut by suffering on people�s cheeks�

�Again, the hands of the clock are nearing the unforgettable hour.
I see, hear, touch all of you:
the cripple they had to support painfully to the end of the line,
the moribund and the girl who would shake her beautiful head and say:
"I come here as if it were home."

I should call you all by name, but they have lost the lists�

I have woven for them a great shroud, out of the poor words
I overheard them speak.

-Anna Akhmatova, Russia (1889-1966)

Introduction: September 11, 2001--Behind the Veil (back to top)

She recalled the veil being so dark and thick even breathing was difficult and the netted cloth over her eyes made it difficult to see. If by accident she should reveal her face or even ankles an arrest would certainly be imminent. A woman sharing her vehicle became carsick but even so, was not allowed to expose her face to relieve her trembling body. Others had endured endless whippings, beatings, broken legs and even death for similar transgressions. What began as an attempt to capture a slice-of-life in this obscured part of the world, resulted in the documentation and diffusion of horrifying images of female persecution, hunger, poverty, torture and public executions.

Suddenly, she realized she ceased being merely a reporter. "I was someone actually participating in this," she said. BBC news described it as "Female Resistance in Disguise" and through storytelling, filmmaking and great personal risk, Saira Shah journalist, was able to "gain unique access to women's lives and record the horrendous conditions"[1] under which they have lived.

On September 11, 2001, an unsuspecting world was briefly on the receiving end of life under the religiously fundamentalist Taliban government of Afghanistan. This devastating encounter left a wounding legacy of fear under terrorism and an emerging culture of war. Amidst intoxicating global madness and fragmented revelry, it also opened a window onto the veiled lives of women under stifling oppression. In the paradoxical comfort of complicit silence and misogynistic global views, their plight had long been ignored. Like the women in Afghanistan, there are those for whom freedom is only a seed of distant possibility, and so many stories remain to be recorded and told.

* * *

Maya Angelou, artist-activist and Renaissance woman proclaimed, "A bird doesn't sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song." In general, this brief presentation explores the natural fusion of female art and activism and attempts to point to its emerging and integral space in a new global society. It looks at her evolution from object to creator of art. Using Marcusean social theory, it analyzes the climate and psyche of the once isolated "alienated artist" as a "societal subversive," as well the modern day role as a "cultural creative" with a predominantly female population. Finally, it highlights a number of female artist-activists using their artistic voices in documenting and transforming views of our world.

The Evolution of Women in Art: From Object to Creator (back to top)

When I was born�I know the air was calm
and the sun shone on the sea.
In the midst of this calm, I was launched into the world,
already with my stigma.
and I cried and I screamed,
I don't know why.

Ah, but for the life outside,
my tears dried in the light of my revolt.
And the sun never again shone as in the first days
of my existence.

-Noemia da Sousa, Mozambique

Leonardo da Vinci, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, William Shakespeare and Vincent Van Gogh; visual, musical and literary artists whose works have enjoyed an immortal place within the cultural and artistic chronicles of the world. History and society however, have failed to render the same space for their contemporary female counterparts. Yet contrary to this social reality, the human spirit--irreverent of gender--has sought feminine artistic expression. In "A Dream of Light and Shadow,"-- a literary portrait of Latin American women writers--Marjorie Agosin reminds us of Virginia Woolf's proposal for a "room of one's own." This chamber, a pseudo-sacred creative space where a woman is free to give reign to her "dreams and visualizations," is a "seat of honour from which to exercise the privilege of unrestricted time."

Based on an ideology of pluralistic evolution for humanity, the concept of artistic identity and space is artistically and individually agreeable. However from the context of the exclusionary framework surrounding the limited yet contemporarily evolving presence of women in the arts, recognition of the drive and ability to forge an artistic identity within a confined and disenfranchised space is not only justifiably merited, it becomes necessary. For a society's deliberate, historical exclusion of one sector of its population creates an unwarranted contemporary space for that very same sector to be recognized through revisionist documentation�a retrospective, reframing of an inclusive female culture and historic identity.

Identity as a concept, is a determining factor in the production of art in its multiple images and forms. In great part, the collective artistic female identity has been marked by a unifying sense of historicity and the need to give women a face and her experiences a name. Prior to the 19th century, most women had been denied a formal education and artistic training. Equated to a woman's loss of other feminine virtues, on a global level a woman's place in the arts or the development of her intellect had not been traditionally lauded by society. Education and art tended to be male, and white. Compounding this was the historical ideology of the artist as genius�the mythical "creator" role assigned to a superior male being; in other words, a "God."[2] In our visual musical and literary histories, women had therefore been relegated to figures of representation as the silent object or muse of the art form�not the spirited producers of the craft.

Emboldened by the social revolutions of the late 18th century, a need for progressive change and a reflective social identity, women of intellect and artistic leaning slowly assumed space. To better understand the journey of the female artist as activist, awareness of global socio-historic conditions in relation to the female artist's integration into the arts and her identification with other excluded minorities must be underscored. Comprehension of this becomes highly relevant in achieving the deeper meaning of her work, and the outwardly directed focus of her drive.

The Artist as Activist: Societal Subversives and Cultural Creatives (back to top)

Sunday by Sunday
�for the right to work
free speech,
equality of race,
sheer survival�
this vital cause
or that�

-Pat Arrowsmith, United Kingdom

For the greater part of our collective histories, the roles of women have been relegated to the dutiful sidekick of man and the reproductive propagator of the human species. The French and American Revolutions are considered precursors to a paradigm shift that gave birth to varied images of a potentially emancipated woman assembling publicly, creating a political voice, and gradually affecting the overturning of a prevailing subjugational social order. The beginning of the nineteenth century revealed slivers of these new opportunities:

The nineteenth century was the moment in history when the lives of women changed, or more precisely, when the perspective of women's lives changed. The advent of modernity made it possible to posit the female as subject, woman as a full-fledged individual and participant in political life and ultimately, a citizen. Despite the constraints of a strict code of rules governing women's daily lives, the range of possibilities had begun to expand and bold new prospects lay ahead.[3]

A monarchist and theoretician, Louis de Bonald credited the public space for political discourse�a byproduct of the French Revolution--as the responsible agency for the subversive destruction of this natural social order in which woman was regarded as the "subject" of man's "power."

Here the terms man and woman are understood to be opposites and the female "subject" is said to be subservient, incapable of independent action, and therefore properly devoid of legal rights. Everything is in order, Bonald argues "so long as man, "power" in this society, remains in the place its nature assigns him; if out of weakness he descends from that place, if he obeys her whom he ought to command, he disobeys him who he ought to obey." In other words, the man who allows a woman to have her way, fails in his natural duties to God and King. Worse yet, he signals the commencement of generalized subversion. [4]

De Bonald further claimed:

"what lessons the deplorable consequences of the weakness of power--and pride of the subject-- teach the universe! By making the deceptive glimmer of freedom and equality shine in the eyes of the weakest segments of society, an evil genius induces people to rise up against legitimate authority."[5]

Despite some gain in the public arena by the 19th century, by her very existence a woman who contemplated, questioned, or attempted a life outside the traditional roles proscribed by history and society was prone to identification as subversive to social, economic and political hierarchies. As such, a woman who publicly exercised her calling as an artist was subject to societal alienation.

* * *

Originally published in 1964 and yet contemporarily relevant, "One Dimensional Man," is Herbert Marcuse's scathing critique of an increasingly conformist Western society. He cautiously identifies the vital role of the "alienated artist"�marginalized and regarded a "societal subversive"�as a catalystic force driving creative and conscious social change. Through art, he felt society had the potential to access the "conscience of humanity" and considered that it was the only "expression that could take up where religion and philosophy left off." A neo-Marxist, he described Western society�both capitalist and communist systems�as entities affecting the increasing dehumanization of the individual through the cooperative infiltration upon daily life by the hegemonic presence of social, political and economic mechanisms. Together, this triumvirate superimposes a system of false needs and social control that deviate the individual from a core essence desirous of pluralistic freedom, authenticity, creativity and happiness. In its place reside states of complacency and mental drudgery resulting in a harrowing, repressive existence in accordance with the status quo.

To profoundly comprehend Marcusean social theory, it is critically important to first understand Marxist views on the individual in society. Marx regarded each person as an innately creative agent, desiring to strive towards self-fulfillment and authenticity. Political, social and economic dictates however, soon encroach upon the possibilities of realizing a full, human potential. The aspiring individual then obliterates creative nature and thought, and becomes another depersonalized yet functional cog in the mechanized wheels of industrialized society. In Marxist lexicon, this was characterized as the "destruction of the soul."

As opposed to the transformative nature of two-dimensional Hegelian theory where "what exists" is in process of development into "what can be," Marcuse claimed that the individual in modern society becomes so enmeshed into the mechanical aspects of the system that all opportunity for alternative ways of thinking, instinctive feeling and creative living are nullified; thus resulting in a limited "One Dimensional" being. He agitated for alternative ways of living where human freedom and happiness might be achieved through conscious ruptures with oppressive, one-dimensional structures and modes of thought. His revolutionary theories of the "great refusal" were further analyzed in his final tome, 1979's "The Aesthetic Dimension." In specific, this summarized the "emancipatory potential of aesthetic form" and the possibility for social criticism and change through art; a prism through which social realities might be portrayed through a veneer of non-reality allowing a greater degree of diffusion--and in turn--awareness and acceptance. Here it is important to specify Marcuse's differentiation of acceptable, entertaining art produced for the masses-- complicitously maintaining the social order--and the discursive art created by the alienated artist through which a window for social change was made open.

Like the persecuted dissident writer Anna Ahkmatova (1889-1966) who through daunting poetry gave voice to the terror of the Russian people under oppressive rule, the "societally subversive" alienated artist courageously faced hardship, marginalization, and even danger in order to challenge the confining, yet defining boxes created by society. Though often characterized by a lonely existence, the alienated artist was the individual embracing a free and wild essence in a quest to create alternatives through which to meaningfully explore, critically analyze, and politically dissect timeless ideas and humanitarian issues.

Contemporarily, the protoype of the "alienated artist" as a "societal subversive" has evolved into a growing community of "cultural creatives" that include "artist-activists". They represent a rising population of 50 million[6] multi-dimensional, culturally sensitive, and socially active individuals. Furthermore as identified and analyzed in the landmark book "The Cultural Creatives" by sociologist Paul H. Ray and psychologist Sherry Ruth Anderson, this subculture--invisibly emerging over the last generation--is silently transforming the world through active, yet creative discourse. Highlights of their characteristics and ideals as studied by Ray and Anderson consist of the following:

  • Being ecologically minded--global warming, overpopulation, destruction of rainforests, exploitation of populations of developing countries, reverence for nature
  • Wanting more equality for women in the workplace, desiring more women leaders in the economic and political spheres
  • Bringing women's issues into the public eye
  • Concerned with violence and abuse of women and children globally
  • Wanting increased public spending on rebuilding communities and education
  • Believing in empowering others
  • Concerned with psychological and spiritual development
  • Mostly getting to where they are "alone" � views didn't seem acceptable to mass society
  • Lacking awareness of themselves as a whole population
  • Distrustful of the media and its messages
  • Strongly believing in alternate futures
  • Nurturing an authentic life where actions are consistent with what is thought and said
  • Rejecting materialism and disliking emphasis on modern "success culture" and "making it"
  • Concerned with what big corporations are doing in the name of more profits: downsizing, environmental problems, exploiting resources and people in developing countries
  • Altruistic and optimistic, they volunteer or work for non-profits
  • Believing in multiculturalism and embracing diversity
  • Desiring deep, integral change in industrialized nations--making life more livable for all under existing socio-economic order
  • Wanting direct participation in the creation of a new culture, a better world

Composed of 2 groups measured by the degree to which values are consistent with actions, it is the Core Group of highly educated "cutting edge" thinkers and leaders, to which the female artist-activist[7] belongs. Not surprisingly out of the Core Group of 24 million whose professions include published writers, artists, musicians, teachers, feminists, psychotherapists, environmentalists, and alternative healthcare practitioners, 67% are women.

"What politicians refer to as women's issues, are a key to understanding Cultural Creatives. They see women's ways of knowing as valid: feeling empathy and sympathy for others, taking the viewpoint of the one who speaks, seeing personal experiences and first-person stories as important ways of learning, and embracing an ethic of caring. They are distressed about violence and the abuse of women and children�. In all of the Cultural Creatives' concerns, women are leading the way. They are taking what were once considered personal issues, issues to be discussed at home and in friendship groups, and bringing them directly into public view. "[8]

A Mosaic of Female Artist-Activists: The Pursuit of Hope, Courage and Justice
(back to top)

I reach for the sky,
Yet the Earth Grounds Me.
I am not Free,
Yet a prison could not contain me.
Without a Light I see
And without a Voice

-Gertrudis Gomez de Avellaneda, Cuba (1814-1873)

It is not that women are biologically predisposed over her male counterparts to promote concepts of peace, justice and truth. In fact, it is essential that women and men become co-creative partners in an egalitarian and sustainable transformation of global society. It is rather her historical experience in the role of nurturer and peacemaker in the private sphere, and a collective struggle to heal parts of a fragmented sense of self in the public arena that engender solidarity with those under the pummeling hammer of abuse, discrimination, exclusion and oppression. What grows, is a global culture of socially conscious women whose commonalities include being deprived of a collective public history, and robbed of an integrating personal identity. What endures, is a haunting search for meaning, a sacred need for a voice, a visceral desire to document what has been forgotten and transform social injustice. The way it happens is through various forms of individual or collaborative storytelling that include writing, music, weaving, sculpting, filmmaking, dancing, painting and other forms of creative expression.

* * *

In Peru, a state of 23 million predominantly of Spanish and Indigenous origins, Blacks or "Morenos" compose a mere one percent of the population. Peruvian society highly divided along elitist lines, segregates labor racially by reserving menial jobs for the black sector. In the upper socioeconomic strata, it is considered a sign of wealth to have a black driver, doorman or maid�reminiscent of the prestige of slave ownership during the nation's tenure with slavery. Contemporarily considered the voice of Black Peru, the alchemical lyrics and velvety vocals of songstress Susana Baca, acquaint the world with the plight of this disenfranchised population.

Tracy Chapman, a North American contemporary, sings of respect for the ecology, women and children's rights, peace and transformation. Tracy can frequently be found on tour with Amnesty International promoting and raising money for human rights globally along with other artist-activist women and men. From the United Kingdom, Des'ree sings of "heralding the day when the hungry ain't hungry no more" and of the untimely death of children due to global, socioeconomic inequality.

A virulent foe in the struggle to eliminate female genital mutilation, Egypt's Nawal el Saadawi has authored over thirty books on political injustice and issues affecting women. Having received various death threats in her native country, she is often a visiting professor in the United States where she teaches courses on the relationship between creativity and dissidence. Some of her well known writings include the novel "Woman at Point Zero," a non-fiction work "The Hidden Face of Eve," and her compelling autobiography "Daughter of Isis."

Through the transcendent medium of film, Iran's Shirin Neshat and Nicaragua's Ana Coyne Alonso respectively shed light on geographical chambers of darkness. Through Ana's revelatory docudramas, the viewer comes up close and personal with raw aspects of despondent lives in a developing world. A former photojournalist, her haunting narratives and poignant images reveal Nicaraguan society's forgotten underside through stories of teen prostitution and drug use. Using socio-religious symbolism, these themes are set against a backdrop that reveals the harsh imprint of the colonial experience and its indirect effect upon quotidian life.

Trained as a painter, Neshat produces experiential "real-life" silent pieces revealing emotional aspects of women's lives under Islamic rule in Iran. Though staged, the women in her films are usually portrayed in states of defiance and desperation and are usually leaving something or someone. She claims she "loves the sort of willful, ominous moments when a woman does something that can wreck her life in 10 seconds."

Claudia Bernardi left Argentina at the height of the brutal military dictatorship of 1976 to 1983. In the United States her work as a sculptor, painter and human rights activist is based on the scars of memory--visual eulogies in remembrance of the absence of "Los Desaparecidos" (the disappeared). Her connection to other exiles sharing similar tendencies encouraged her to create an art collective TAMOANCHAN whose members include political refugees and survivors of torture. In response to participation in the group and memory validation through art one member exclaimed, "Memory is what we use in order to forget. But we can't. Memory stays. All this happened to us."

Portraits of the artist as activist can be found in history as well. Published eleven years prior to Harriet Beecher Stowe's "Uncle Tom's Cabin," it was an aristocratic Cuban woman by the name of Gertrudis Gomez de Avellaneda (1814-1873) that in 1841 wrote a revolutionary abolitionist account of a mulatto slave's fatal love for the daughter of his white owner. Her hallmark writings spoke of themes illustrating a correlation between the powerlessness and desire for emancipation of the black slave, and the economic and matrimonial enslavement of women. Despite social alienation, for Gertrudis "Sab" was a testimony to human dignity and the right to freedom. [9]

Closing: September 11, 2002--New Beginnings (back to top)

Artists frequently interpret and reflect--through an act of poetic beauty--
the concerns and demands of a large majority.
Art and artists become,
the voice of the voiceless.

-Claudia Bernardi, Argentina

The chaotic language of war makes one think. The poetic language of art makes one feel. For too long our global garden has been overrun with the ubiquitous weeds of violence and silence, division and oppression, history and exclusion. Let's look to September 11, 2002 and imagine that like the seasons, the year between was a long, dark, wintry soul-searching period promising a Spring of infinite gardens of creative possibilities for humanity. Despite historical alienation as a "societal subversive," when the "cultural creative" female artist-activist looks out into her world, these are the seeds she nurtures, and the messages for alternatives are the flowers she grows.

The role of art in a global society--from her vision--then takes on an added dimension with much higher global relevance than "art for art's sake."[10] Art in its multiple forms, is the vehicle through which humanity expresses itself. Art is the channel that exposes a harsher side of the human condition, but also, tender aspects of the human experience. Art is the space where the oppressive boxes constructed by society are documented and challenged--so that they never happen again. Art is the forum for cultural, ethnic, racial and gender based pluralism. Art is the stage on which humanity voices its quest for truth, its longing for hope, and its desire for freedom.

In a fragmented world where the historic wounds of power breathe lingeringly, art is the path, on which a fragile vision of a new global culture with a universal language of peace, compassion, and solidarity is re-encountered.

The whole world's broke, it ain't worth the fixing
I think it's time to start all over, and make a new beginning.
Too much fighting, too little understanding--
I think it's time to start all over, and make a new beginning.
Start all over�. Start all over�.
We can break the cycle, and we can break the chain,
we can start all over in the new beginning.
we can learn, we can teach, we can share
the myths, the dreams, the prayers,
the notion we can do better, and change our lives and paths,
and create a new world!

-Tracy Chapman, The United States of America

Works Consulted (back to top)

  • Agosin, Marjorie. A Map of Hope: Women's Writings on Human Rights
    New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1999
  • Bernardi, Claudia. "Art Against Brutality"
    Amnesty International Human Rights Education, Vol. 10, No. 3. Fall 2000
  • Boulding, Elise. Cultures of Peace: The Hidden Side of Peacemaking
    Syracuse. Syracuse University Press, 2000
  • Carr, Caleb. The Lessons of Terror: A History of Warfare Against Civilians: Why it has Failed and Why it Will Fail Again.
    New York: Random House, 2002
  • Chadwick, Whitney. Women, Art and Society.
    London: Thames and Hudson Books, 1996
  • Ehrenreich, Barbara. "The Mystery of Misogyny: Why do Fundamentalists Hate Women?"
    The Utne Reader, April 2002
  • Fraser, Arvonne S. "Becoming Human: The Origins and Development of Women's Human Rights". In Women, Gender and Human Rights: A Global Perspective, edited by Marjorie Agosin. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2001
  • Gomez de Avellaneda, Gertrudis. Sab
    Austin: University of Texas Press. 1993
  • Marcuse, Herbert. One-Dimensional Man
    Boston: Beacon Press, 1964
  • Marcuse, Herbert. The Aesthetic Dimension.
    Boston: Beacon Press, 1979
  • Nazir, Sameena. Afghan Women do Hold Power
    The Miami Herald, November 12, 2001
  • Rashid, Ahmed. Taliban
    New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001
  • Ray, Paul H. and Sherry Ruth Anderson. The Cultural Creatives
    New York: Harmony Books, 2000
  • Sims, Calvin. Strapping Black Doormen in Elegant Colonial Uniforms Stand Guard at Most Luxury Hotels in Lima.
    New York Times, August 17, 1996
  • Solomon, Deborah. "Romance of the Chador"
    New York Times Magazine, March 25, 2001
  • Soros, George. On Globalization
    New York: Perseus Book Group, 2002
  • Teske, Robin L. and Mary Ann Tetreault. Conscious Acts and the Politics of Social Change: Feminist Approaches to Social Movements, Community and Power
    South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press, 2000
  • Witzling, Mara. Voicing our Visions: Writings by Women Artists
    New York: Universe Press, 1991

Notes (back to top)

  1. Based on an interview with Saira Shah by BBC News (June 27, 2001) and events surrounding the making of the documentary, "Behind the Veil" [back]
  2. "The myth of the artist as a heroic (male) figure who struggles to create, much as Hercules and Lancelot laboured to achieve their goals. This myth evolved during the Renaissance in a form that precluded women�s full participation. Giorgio Vasari in his "Lives of the Artists" reinforced at the time the new concept of the artist as a genius of mythic proportions; a titan whose life was dedicated to the creation of great art. The human creator was then defined as a reflection of God, the Ultimate Creator; therefore an artist was male by definition. Vasari described women artists according to Boccaccio�s 14th century precept that "women artists were atypical of their sex," reinforcing the idea that women and art are incompatible." (Mara Witzling, "Voicing our Visions: Writings by Women Artists" (New York, Universe Press, 1991) [back]
  3. Sledziewski, Elizabeth, The French Revolution as a the Turning Point, from "A History of Women: Emerging Feminism", edited by Genevieve Fraisse and Michelle Perriot (Cambridge, Harvard University Press. 1993) [back]
  4. ibid [back]
  5. Louis de Bonald. Theorie du Pouvoir Politique et Religieux, (Vol. 2, Paris. 1796) [back]
  6. 26% of adults in the United States or 50 million though as per Ray and Anderson, the movement is also strong in Europe [back]
  7. Though predominantly female, the characteristics and ideals of Cultural Creatives including deep concern with women and children�s issues are consistent with male "Cultural Creatives" worldviews. [back]
  8. Ray and Anderson. The Cultural Creatives, (2000) p. 12 [back]
  9. Because of its misgenistic content "Sab" was considered so controversial, it was published in her native Cuba in 1914, 73 after its initial 1841 publication in Spain. [back]
  10. A doctrine espoused by various artists including Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Oscar Wilde and Edgar Allan Poe arguing that art should be created for sheer beauty and pleasure independent of political, economic, religious or social connotation. [back]

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