GenderArt

Crossdressing, drag and transsexualism: making a mockery of authenticity in art and gender

Lettie Zeste

 

Art was the philosophy of the twentieth century. So who won? And in gender terms, did the century decide for or against gender uncertainty?

 

Here I want to compare two men with gender issues, and one woman, significant artists of the 20th century. This is not art history or art criticism. This is about the castration of the male concept of authenticity. This is opened the path to the 21st century concept of transgenderism. These three artists opened a path out of the woods, even if we aren’t quite there yet.

 

Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol were men who still give insight into what gender-deviation means, through personal creativity. Let’s not be uncertain. These are men, not women, engaging in the brutal cage-fighting sport known as art for supremacy while most women try to succeed in that lifetime conceptual art experience known as family, sharing and trusting in love and emotionally supporting those you love. To understand womanhood, one should study women, not men. I don’t see either of these artists as feminine. What these artists reveal is the experience of inner identity conflict. Life lived overwriting life imagined. That topic, which after all is part of the general human experience, may be one on which these men have something to say.

Greer Lankton was a transsexual artist who had sex change surgery paid for by her minister father’s congregation, at 21. She was best known for her dolls. Obvious replicas of people and people who might be. Even religion may prefer a constructed, inauthentic woman to the  cognitive dissonance of a boy who acts like a girl. Since Lankton was public about her inauthenticity as a woman (and her occasional regrets over surgery) she represents, in ways the embodiment of Duchamp’s and Warhol’s gender play. For her, it was not play. She did not lie or conceal or pun about gender. If she wasn’t exactly a woman, her tragedy was that she was edging in the direction without a way to retreat.

Marcel Duchamp was a heterosexual cross-dresser. His femme alternate was Rose Selavy (a pun in several languages; some sentimental, some pornographic). Andy Warhol was a gay crossdresser. His femme alternate was Drella (the underling Cinderella, who rises from ashes to wreck revenge, by getting the man). The two ‘men’ admired each other immensely. All three were comfortable with their idiosyncrasy and public presentation. All put their musings on their own gender into merciless art.  One notices that none of the three was concerned with the issue of change. Rather they were concerned with layers, masks, and external perception. Being vs. representation. The unreliability of the gaze that objectifies and idealizes women

 

. Marcel in Drag

Rose Selavy

Do women even exist if they are not seen as women? Duchamp drew attention to the way that the distinction between art and human-created beauty of mere artifice had dissolved in the early 20th century. He was an assassin of authenticity. He lied constantly and cheerfully, in ways that pointed out truth. For instance, one of his most noted paintings is apparently a cheap copy of the Mona Lisa, with a beard and mustache added by a defacer and an annotation suggesting that she is sexually aroused.

The problem here is that the cheap Mona Lisa imitation is really a copy of a painting of Rosy Selavy in Mona Lisa drag. The defacing turns her into an aroused man palimpsested on an aroused woman. Autogynophila avant la lettre. I won’t begin to try to explain this work. But most heterosexual cross-dressers lack the insight to mock their own existential position like this. They could use the humor, and the ability to accept themselves as they are, without shame that Duchamp exposed so publically.

Andy Warhol, unlike Duchamp, liked men. But he too, could accept and laugh at his mixed gender. He funded a series of money-losing films that stretched gender boundaries as they made androgyny mundane.  Again, the issue is not change from male to female, but acceptance of the confusing life experience of mixed gender. The gender binary is accepted, because it exists. It is an organizing principle of the society we are born into and will die in. This is the world we are constrained to be in, have lived within.

Andy Warhol in drag

Drella

In the film ‘Trash’ Holly Woodlawn is seen wearing a long tee-shirt with the markings 36-24-36, Marilyn Monroe’s body measurements. Holly, clearly is transgender, and doesn’t measure up to Marilyn Monroe but asks us to accept her lie. In the film she repeatedly attempts to get her hunky ‘boyfriend’ to make love to her unsuccessfully. He later has sex with her natal-female sister. Her situation couldn’t be clearer. In fact, the man playing her hunky boyfriend was actually a gay hustler; a widely known fact. He wouldn’t have had sex with her not because of her maleness, but because of her femininity. The film is a lie, is a deception. Holly is art as a consciously bad imitation of life. Or is gender a bad imitation of itself?

Greer Lankton made dolls from an early age. At first because she wanted dolls she did not have, later to represent a life she did not have. Unlike Duchamp and Warhol who cover their unease with the higher defense of humor, Lankton’s life and work is difficult. Difficult and painful.

greer lankton and doll

Greer Lankton

Men, like Duchamp and Warhol often convert internal conflict into general philosophy. For Lankton the boundary between ideas and life blurred. Her last show was titled ‘It’s all about me…. Not you.’ Which seems to deliberately withdraw from generalization.  A doll is not a person. A doll is not a theory. A doll is solace. A doll cannot feel pain, a doll is not self.

The desire to be someone else, Mona Lisa, Marilyn Monroe, a doll, is an obvious response to having a place in society that does not match internal perceptions. Marcel Duchamp once displayed a bicycle wheel as art. He said, he liked how it looked. So it was art, he said. Critics were confused and felt challenged. How could an ordinary object easily found all around us be art? Only later did we find out that in fact it was not a bicycle wheel, but an object that Duchamp had constructed that looked like, and passed as, a bicycle wheel. So was it really art, after all? It passed. Did passing as ‘not art’ make it ‘not art’?

 

If a man ‘passes as’ a woman, is ‘she’ ‘really’ a ‘common’ uninteresting person, or is ‘she’ art? Women are, after all, not unusual. An ordinary woman is not art. Greer Lankton’s dolls are clearly ‘art’. Is Greer Lankton, surgically created, ‘art’? And what is ‘art’? What Duchamp and Warhol showed was that at a certain point we need to stop using quote marks around everything. A Cambell’s soup can or a bicycle wheel are part of modern life, fabricated by machine or artist. A man or a woman are part of our world whether fabricated in utero, or by surgeons. They are not the same object, but the urge to distinguish is false.

Classification is so 20th century, these artists tell us. In the end, the philosophical, gnostic urge to have certainty, is defective. Drella, Rose Selevy and Greer Lankton are people with an artistic side. People who long to be real. Or at least accepted facsimiles.

Some natal women may complain (quite reasonably, I believe) about this cleverness. After all, Duchamp’s fake bicycle wheel probably wouldn’t have supported a bicycle. Greer Lankton couldn’t have a baby. To which all of these artists would have said: ‘give us a chance to fail your authenticity test.’ Which begs the question, ‘which authenticity test?’ Quis  custodiet ispso custodes?

My personal test for womanhood is, ‘Can one imagine this person as a female character in a Jane Austen novel?’ But that is unfair, and would exclude most women.

Duchamp and Warhol walled off their gender issues and never challenged the world to see them as real women, and so they never failed. Greer Lankton, bravely and tragically took up the challenge and failed to quite make her doll come to life. That is the risk of being art.

Sex, the ability of some women to give birth, is real and binary, but gender, applied, liberally is an honorific to fertile and infertile woman and gir alike, ls is a cultural custom, easily subverted. Sex has a meaning, fertility; not chromosomes, not ovaries, but proven fertility. Even that is fleeting. A woman of 50 who has given birth in the past, is no longer biologically female if she does not produce viable eggs. A four year old girl is not biologically female. Many infertile women are never, biologically, female. Since biological sex, is absent for a majority of people, gender, as a concept, is politeness. Andy Warhol’s paintings of Marilyn Monroe are objects, not human. But in turn, Marilyn Monroe, who never gave birth, was no more female than ‘Drella’. We, just politely, called her female because of her similarity to women who were actually, biologically female. Gender is only weakly anchored to biology, but is convenient. Gender pronouns are politeness, not biology.

These three artists took on the bedrock of authenticity in gender, the certainty that a ‘real’ gender exists, and left us with a softer concept, a more malleable concept that is still radical and subject to debate in the regressive twenty first century. Can transgenderism exist if gender itself is only a convenience of culture to begin with?

Yet in bed, naked, in the dark, we grope for flesh. We hope our children will not awaken. And sex negotiates with gender.