‘Recasting Sexual Politics’ (full text)

Commissioned by Transmission Gallery, Glasgow, in response to Jamie Crewe’s solo-exhibition ‘But What Was Most Awful Was The Girl Who Was Singing’

In 2014 I was one of a shifting constellation of readers who, over a period of some months, made our way through Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics, originally published in 1969. For many of our group this work of feminist literary criticism was already instilled in our political imaginary though rarely through formal learning. Addressing a single chapter at a time, we reconsidered a key text of the Women’s Liberation Movement that has remained absent from reading lists since the late 1980s, at a time when Women’s Studies programmes began to proliferate in the academy. Revisiting Sexual Politics meant navigating a space between the time of Millett’s writing and the present, in which second-wave feminism is held at a particular historic remove. Often this revealed our own cultural values, assumptions and misrememberings. We were surprised by lack of attention paid in the book to writing by women. The apparent elision worked against the very desires that had led us to return to the text. But what at first seemed a curious strategy on part of its author, turned out to be a strategic move. In its own moment of feminist revolution, Sexual Politics staked out the political possibilities for criticism as it took on the male authorities of 1960’s literature. Smartly, methodically, it assassinated each one of them.

Well, all but one.

In the final chapter of the book, Millett departs from the line of attack that has so-far characterised her discussion. Writing in the early years of women’s liberation, Millett turns not to the work of women but to Jean Genet in order to track femininity in relation to rebellion (through his early work) and revolution (his later). Doing so, she directs her attention to various characters from Genet’s novels and plays including Chantal in The Balcony (1956) who, by performing the role assigned to her by dominant culture, assists in the corruption of a revolution. Millett places Chantal alongside Divine, the prostitute in Our Lady of The Flowers (1943) who on Bastille Day decks herself out not in the colours of the Tricolour but all other colours that are “distained”. Then there is ‘old’ Kadidja “who screams out the first words of insurrection” in The Screens (1956). (When in the play the character of the Dignitary says to her “Go away, Kadidja. This isn’t the day.” She replies, furiously, “It is!”). Reworking Genet, Millett counterposes him to the canon assembled for the rest of her book in order to advance the revolutionary consciousness of second-wave feminism. Doing so, she warns of a revolution that does not contain a wholesale retooling of knowledge surrounding sexuality and gender. Against the nostalgia that eventually produces a counter-revolutionary force in many of Genet’s works, Millett puts him to work in the service of the “creation of new values”. But to act against nostalgia is not to turn away from the past. In her last passages, Millett has the character of Ommu, who in The Screens invokes a thousand year history of colonial and sexual oppression, rise up as a lasting image of deathless resistance.

I thought of Millett’s audacious instrumentalisation of Genet when I visited Jamie Crewe’s solo presentation But What Was Most Awful Was the Girl Who Was Singing (Transmission, 20 February – 26 March 2016). Taking its title from Genet’s play The Balcony, the exhibition forges an ambivalent inter-generational encounter along different lines to those mapped by Millett nearly five decades ago. Set in a brothel, against the backdrop of revolution, The Balcony evokes the strength of institutions to co-opt rebellion to counter-revolutionary ends. Where Millett reread The Balcony in the context of her own moment of revolution, Crewe’s exhibition is a less polemical affair, riffing off a revolutionary aesthetic in the gallery. The title of the show adorns the window, ineptly rendered in pink spray paint. Inside, two temporary walls, the kind often assembled for exhibitions, bisect the gallery. They are painted bright yellow on one side with their bare structure displayed on the other. Lodged between them is a sculpture. Its glittering base divides into elongated gauzy tendrils topped off by real yellow roses, nearly decomposed when I return again toward the end of the exhibition. A series of wheat-pasted texts are pinned against the back wall so that you have to squeeze yourself next to them to read. They recount a time when Crewe was a student at art school and describe three interlinked scenes: a revolutionary cocktail party organised with the students by Crewe’s then tutor, artist Sharon Kivland; a biographical text that tells of the artist as a young student attempting to ‘butch’ up so as to be legible (and attractive) within mainstream gay culture and passages referring to the events of May ’68, replayed in a didactic mode. Squeezed against a wall, these texts stage an intimate encounter between me, or you, the artist and a history of student uprising.

The mention of Kivland alongside the other references that percolate the show is touching. It was her who first introduced Crewe to The Balcony, which forms a starting point for a moving image work Chantal after James Bidgood and Jean Genet (2016). For Crewe, as for Millett, it is the feminine that works its way into Genet, threatening to disturb the hierarchies that establish themselves within such institutional formations as the prison, school or state. It does so precisely because articulated in its most oppressive form, the feminine supports each of these at their base. Crewe’s interest in Genet is as an authority who belongs both to the canon of gay male art and to the one of revolutionary thinkers. The reference to Genet is compounded by another, that of the heavyweight gay porn director James Bidgood. Bidgood expressed a wish to make his own version of Genet’s play and never did. Thankfully (or not), Crewe’s is not that film, though its use of drapes, lush colours and soft lens work is reminiscent of Bidgood’s distinctive aesthetic. Filmed and screened in the basement of Transmission, the video traces a faint line between the gallery and the brothel, which in The Balcony remains only the backdrop, never the scene, of revolution. Female characters play an instrumental role in the collusion with counter-revolutionary forces that eventually lead to defeat. Placed at the bottom of Genet’s intensely hierarchical social order, women are cast both as a potentially radical force and as those most likely to be corrupted by power. In Crewe’s adaptation, the character of Chantal is played by Sgàire Wood, a close friend of Crewe’s, who is shown moving through the set, setting light to it as she goes. These events never happen in The Balcony and Crewe’s reworking of Genet shows Chantal, who dies in the original play, live on to return to the brothel and burn it down. Like Genet’s work, or Millett’s, the video needles at the question of who might constitute a revolutionary subject. Attending to two canonical figures of gay culture, it intervenes in this canon in order to make a historic claim for trans-feminine subjectivity. In Chantal after James Bidgood and Jean Genet, Chantal survives, at least until we lose sight of her within the burning shell of the brothel-gallery. Even if what we are shown turns out to be an act of self-destruction, it is more crucially one of self-determination. These two things are connected: Chantal returns to burn down the institution most representative of her oppression. Though Crewe might disagree with me, there seems parity here with Genet’s interest in the moment of revolution rather then their programmes that bring with them the shadow of counter-revolutionary forms. Against this risk of the image solidifying, Chantal, both audacious and petulant, holds our gaze only once, as she sets fire to the camera. Available only at the moment that representation falters, the film ends as Chantal’s image is blown out into the inky blackness of the screen.

Crewe’s exhibition appears at a quite different historic conjuncture to those it references, in which the revolutionary uprising of May ’68 mix with the dissimilar cultural offerings of Genet and Bidgood. At this conjuncture, a great deal of attention is paid by artists (and indeed reading groups) to the radical projects that had their roots in the liberation movements of the 1950s and 60s. These contemporary returns often espouse the still radical role that history might play as it flashes up in our present. Yet even as history can serve to break open the terms of our own time, it is also always at risk of being reread on those very terms. Millett’s own critique, or at least the history of radical feminism that it belongs to, now services the imaginary of so-called Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminism. But Millett’s is a far more capacious politics than such dead-end essentialism allows, something we learn from her reading of Genet. Not through the work of women, but the most distained sign of homosexuality does she formulate her desire for a feminist future. Lodged neither in an essentialist articulation of womanhood nor of biological sex, Millett reads Genet to identify the social institutions that produce gender and the revolutionary subjects that might blow those institutions apart. Above all things, this allows her to call for solidarity between the most oppressed rather than further entrenching identity categories that were anyway carved out on the terms of the dominant power. Crewe’s invocation of Genet is a critical intervention that asserts the trans-feminine alongside an articulation of homosexuality, which has so often demeaned the feminine. This desire for more open, less programmatic formulations of subjectivity resonates at a time when the history of lesbian and gay liberation is, in the US and Western Europe, at risk of solidifying in the service of a particularly insidious kind of identity politics. As once revolutionary flags have been recast to enforce colonial regimes so once marginalised identities can be mobilised by states in their exercise of sovereign power. Against such sectarianism, returning to Millett’s reading of Genet emphasises the historically vital, politically necessary value of solidarity. For it is not only on 14 July, nor in France alone, that we might again deck ourselves out in all the colours that are not red, white, or blue.

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