What’s the big deal?
Art is everywhere & it is political. For centuries, aggressors have been using art to propagate hate & hierarchy, while the aggrieved have been using it as a means of protest.
Political art often becomes a rare outlet for minorities, an opportunity to demand change loud & clear. But art in the hands of oppressors is often wielded to maintain status quos rather than bring about egalitarian change. And because such context changes everything, political art must be understood within the circumstances in which it was created.
Many critics refuse to see artworks as anything outside themselves. They believe art must be looked at, experienced, & that’s it — not studied or understood or judged based on its artist or environment.
Fair enough for art that doesn’t have a political purpose. It is perfectly rational to look through a kaleidoscope & enjoy the symmetry for what it is.
But when art wants to speak to us, we — The Audience — have a duty to listen. To simply enjoy menstrual art without understanding the artist’s messages — intended and otherwise — would be to dismiss the story they are telling.
So here’s a simple guide to reading menstrual (or any political) art! The nuances here are innumerable, so this is not an exhaustive to-do list. But it’s a good start, so let’s get started…
Step 1: Who paid for it?
There’s no such thing as a free lunch. Funding always comes with obligations & restrictions. What does this mean for art centered around social issues? Corporations often come under fire for using political art to sell their products. They commercialize causes like freedom of speech & RTE as & when these issues are appealing to their consumers.
Art for social causes with corporate sponsorship always has one underlying motive — to sell. It might seem purely political, wholesome even. But how true to a cause can such art be? Can activism and advertisement co-exist?
To answer such questions while reading menstrual art, it is important to know who profits off the art — Was this art made with the intention to make money off menstruators’ lived experiences?
Of course, not all sponsors are illegitimate. For example, we take this rap to raise awareness for Menstrual Hygine Day (28th May). It features Dee MC & is sponsored by WASH United in collaboration with The Dharavi Project.
WASH is an NGO that promotes health & sanitation in South-Asia & Africa. The Dharavi Project is a platform to promote hip-hop dance, grafitti art, & rap / beat-boxing crews that focus on Mumbai’s least privileged spaces. It can hardly be argued that either of these organisations have an ulterior motive in reminding the world about Menstrual Hygiene Day.
But this cannot be said for all…
Many songs on menstruation & women’s empowerment are sponsored by pad manufacturers, more often than not by Whisper. Whisper Philippines collaborated with pop star Nadine Lustre for a video promoting their ‘Curvalicious’ line of pads. “Just like Nadine, be strong, be fearless & be your best self with New soft cottony Whisper!”, the description assures.
Whisper’s campaigns around menstruation usually have a similar message:
1. Pads are empowering to menstruating women because they allow them to do regular activities while bleeding.
2. Even beyond menstruation, pads will give you the confidence to pretty much do anything in life.
This message doesn’t take into account the millions of menstruators who are in fact restricted by their period symptoms, who can’t just “Say yes all day!”. Disorders like PCOD and severe PMS symptoms, to which pads are not the solution, are marginalized in this message.
Conversely, it implies that women who are restricted by their periods are somehow not as likely to be happy & successful as women with pain-free periods. Rather than addressing menstruation as a complex & diverse experience, it presents the audience with a standard — as though there is one correct way to menstruate in order to be fulfilled in life. This relegates menstruators with disorders to the realm of the ‘lesser’ & ‘dysfunctional’.
Unfortunately, Whisper’s parent company Procter & Gamble (P&G) isn’t as concerned with inclusivity. P&G also manufactures SK-II anti-aging products & Venus razors, reminding women that just as Whisper pads help them gain confidence & succeed in life, looking younger & hairless with their products is also a key to feeling good & being functional. The website for Secret anti-perspirant opens with the words “ALL STRENGTH, NO SWEAT / When life gets tough, women get tougher.” Logically, this makes no sense, because women were being tough even before anti-persipirants, & perspiring women today are tough all the time. But it’s profitable for P&G to make their audience feel like they need these products to succeed.
Thus, we find that this message of functionality through consumerism is not new to P&G. So while it is near impossible that videos sponsored by WASH can be accused of appropriating a social cause for profit, it is up to the audience to decide if companies like P&G can be given the same leeway.
Thus, Step 1: Ask, ‘Does the producer care first about the cause or their wallet? And does this matter?’
Side Note: Here’s an interesting video about P&G targeting female audiences to sell men’s products.
Step 2: Who is the artist?
What social causes can an artist use? What political topics do they have agency over?
Here, we may take the case of Anish Kapoor. Art enthusiasts may know him as the guy who patented Ventablack & is the poorer for it. Kapoor’s recent series presented at the Lisson Gallery in London & elsewhere, explored the themes of blood & ritual. Amongst representations of meat & bloodied mirrors lie paintings of bleeding vaginas. Known to be dismissive of cultural appropriation in art, Kapoor came under fire here for appropriating the female voice, as this series invokes the female body to discuss more abstract understandings of art itself.
This would not be a first for him. One of his pieces is titled ‘When I am Pregnant’ compares the process of making art to gestation. Kapoor has rubbished the idea that artists can only discuss experiences they haven’t themselves had. He has asserted that using the experiences of another demographic is what keeps “the artistic imagination” active.
The question here is not whether men can talk responsibly about “women’s issues”. They can, since no one has a monopoly on feminism. The question is whether men can use “women’s issues” for
(1) their own self-expression &
(2) profit. I don’t believe so & you needn’t agree.
That’s Step 2: Identify the artist & their locus standi. Then ask, ‘Does this matter?’
Step 3: Is the audience important?
This one is a lil tricky, so let’s break it down before we look at any art.
Some art is just supposed to be experienced, to be make the audience think or feel in the abstract. As critics say for Mark Rothko, some art requires you to “feel something, to encounter the undefinable, to stare into the void, to confront universal human tragedy”.
Political art is different. It usually expects the audience to be able to understand a more direct & less abstract message. It needs to put its message across more simply for a wide audience to understand. But of course, no art can be so universal that everyone can access the message within it. By virtue of being of a certain medium, a certain language, on a certain platform, an artwork will always end up excluding many social groups.
Thus, a political artist must always consider their audience. We differentiate between 3 kinds of audiences:
The Target Audience, those who need to hear the message being given. Usually this is those who disagree with the artist’s message, whom the art is meant to transform. For example, a legislator with the power to make lasting change but wants to use it against menstrual sustainability.
The Intended Audience, those whom the artist wishes to send their message to. This could be the same as the Target Audience but often isn’t. For example, an artist may choose to focus on garnering public support to influence the legislator. Thus, instead of making art that is available primarily to legislators, they make art for the public.
The Actual Audience, those whom the art reaches. This should be the same as the intended audience but unfortunately very often isn’t. Due to perhaps lack of strategy / resources or miscalculations, political messages don’t always reach where the artist may have wanted.
This brings us to Step 3: Is the Intended Audience an important stakeholder? Are the Actual & Intended Audiences the same?
The reason this question is important is because political art doesn’t serve its purpose if it doesn’t reach an important stakeholder in the matter.
The artist must decide whether they wish to expand their support base or maintain it. Expanding requires that the Audiences be those who disagree, while maintaining requires only like-minded individuals.
Test this yardstick! Watch this aptly-named song about periods…
“Everybody says talking about (a) vagina is wrong. / That’s exactly why I wrote this Period Song.
Let’s make this year a year of change, / When talking about your body will no longer be strange.”
The song is clearly about normalising conversations around menstruation. So we can assume the Target Audience is everyone who believes that period-talk should be hushed.
Peach never really addresses her Intended Audience, thus we cannot say for sure. Menstruators or non-menstruators? We can only guess. The only hint we have comes at the end of the song, “Submit your period stories…”, which points to a menstruating audience.
The aesthetic is largely what your mother might call “girly”. Peach sings about crying & missing her ex & watching cheesy rom-coms & leaking pads. Thus, her story is relatable to the Actual Audience of menstruators who (a) can watch YouTube, (b) understand English, (c) & can afford pads. Given India’s economic distribution, this points to a narrow higher-income urban bracket.
The video has been viewed just under 17,000 times.
It’s now up to you to fulfill Step 3 & decide whether or not this is an effective political art piece.
What is the medium?
This is ‘£306’ by Amanda Atkinson for The Homeless Period, Liverpool. In silver & copper coins, £306 is the average amount a woman in the UK spends on period & pain reliefs products.
What’s unique about this piece is its focus on the economics of menstruation. Often, menstrual art focuses on the stigma alone. Large swathes of red, explicitly yonic motifs, & even real blood — period art often loudly invokes the themes of pain & bleeding or freedom from social bondage.
This piece is different because it has none of the visual invocations of typical menstrual art. It’s a pile of coins, which are more evocative of economic hardship in general rather than menstrual hardship in particular.
Bee Hughes points out that issue-specific art often becomes monotonous in its themes & messages. Stigma & taboo are important themes, but audiences may have to come expect pain & social isolation in menstrual art.
Hence, Atkinson’s piece stands out — it delivers its take on menstruation in a less loud, less red, less explicitly female image. Not to say this is better; just that it is noticeable because it is different. Through this medium, an exclusively “female” issue is brought into the space of economic issues in general.
In such a manner, upon encountering any political art, it adds an interesting dimension to our understanding if we ask as
Step 4: What is the scope & what are the restrictions of this medium?
How is menstruation presented?
Political art — by extension, menstrual art — is essentially a claim of truth. The artist is saying, “This is what I have made. Look at the perspective from which it talks about menstruation. That is menstruation.” Thus, it matters what perspective is being brought to the audience.
For example, artists tend to go one of two ways in the attempt to de-stigmatize menstruation:
Normalising This would entail presenting menstruation as no more than a normal, necessary function of the human body. Here, femininity, fertility, & other associated aspects of menstruation are also made scientific & explicable. What such an artist would be saying is,
“Menstruation is routine. My body is functional. There is nothing mysterious about this, hence nothing to fear.”
Essentialising This would entail presenting menstruation as beyond human power, magical even. Here, femininity is a gift, a spiritual tool. Women’s bodies are made mystical & powerful in ways they may not be conscious of. Such an artist would be saying,
“Menstruation is not my curse but what makes me special. My femininity endows me with a spiritual power that is beyond your understanding.”
Let’s take an example of either:
In the Normalising category we have a video by Allure titled ‘100 Years of Periods’. It provides a fairly comprehensive history of period products — their designs, their popularity, & the road to sustainability. It also includes the fight for inclusivity for non-cis-female menstruators, as well as much information on the dominant medical narratives around menstruation & female pain across the last century.
The advantages of such representation is that it is based on facts. Unlike Essentialisation, there is little scope for opinions. Scientific evidence is used to debunk stigmatic myths about menstruation; this gives Normalising art the legitimacy of empiricism.
Stigma exists also because of a lack of understanding. When something is unfamiliar, it is feared. Thus, Normalising allows menstruators to step out of this identity of ‘mysterious’ & to say, “I am regular.”
The disadvantage is that it’s not as impactful as Essentialising narratives. People are drawn to mystery, & essentialising the female body draws attention to the art. Such as with Diana Fabianova’s award-winning documentary ‘Moon Inside You’ (a DVD of the film can be bought here). The film doesn’t explicitly condone Essentialisation. It does present many experts who call on psychology & medicine i.e. science to destigmatise menstruation. But the film does emphasize mythical & magical narratives around menstruation — for example, jade eggs from ancient chinese tradition — to a considerable extent.
Essentialisation doesn’t have the advantage of fact like Normalization does. It cannot be claimed as fact that the uterus is any sort of spiritual centre of the body, that motherhood is the actualization of every woman’s natural destiny, or any other mystical assertions. This invocation of myth & magic keep menstruators within the realm of all things that cannot be understood. Keeping femininity mysterious doesn’t defeat the foundation of stigma, which is the ‘unknown’.
This gives into the male gaze because menstruation & femininity are only unfamiliar to them. They are wholly understandable to those who experience it.
In sum, Normalization takes female bodies out of the space of mystery & into the space of reality. Essentialising female bodies only transforms them from misunderstood & ostracized to misunderstood & revered.
Which path to destigmatisation do you prefer?
Step 5: How has this piece presented menstruation? What are the pros & cons of this representation? Are female bodies better off mystified & revered or demystified & understood?
And that’s the deal.
You don’t have to agree with this list. The art-world is split on nearly every question: If it wasn’t made with an artistic intention, is it still art? Should art be explained or experienced? Is the artist a creator or simply a medium?
Nothing in art is objective, & this diversity of interpretation is what gives art its power as a political tool. It makes you think &, often, shows you something you otherwise were blind to. Political art doesn’t just talk, it explains the artist’s life-world.
Of course this list is not exhaustive. There can be identified countless factors that go into influencing an art piece. But start somewhere. All art is political, & understanding the politics can better help us appreciate the art.
Originally published for http://boondh.co/ on October, 2019.