Maternal Embarrassment: Feminist Art and Maternal Affects
Rosemary Betterton is Reader Emeritus in Women's Studies at Lancaster University and has published widely on women's historical and contemporary art practices, feminist cultural theory and practices, gender, sexuality and representation, and including An Intimate Distance: Women, Artists and the Body, Routledge, 1996, Unframed: Practices and Politics of Women's Contemporary Painting, (ed.) I.B. Tauris Ltd. 2004, and The Maternal Body in Visual Culture (Manchester University Press forthcoming). Her recent publications on the maternal include the articles: 'Promising Monsters: Pregnant Bodies, Artistic Subjectivity and Maternal Imagination', Hypatia: A Journal of Feminist Philosophy (2006), and 'Louise Bourgeois, ageing, and maternal bodies', Feminist Review 93 Birth issue.
In this paper I explore a specific historical moment in the cultural politics of feminism between 1973 and 1984, a decade that saw the emergence of feminist arts practice, exhibition and art-writing in Britain and, not incidentally, shaped my own attachment to the women’s movement. How were maternal bodies represented within feminist arts practice? Whose bodies, and in which places? What did maternal artworks try to make visible, and what maternal affects did they invoke? I examine three bodies of work that expose the tensions involved in making the maternal visible in the context of feminism: Hackney Flashers, Who’s holding the Baby? (1978), Mary Kelly, Antepartum, (1973), and Post-Partum Document (1973-79), and Catherine Elwes, With Child, (1983). Each of these works opened up an important space in the exploration of the politics of reproduction, although it should be recognised that this was still primarily the white maternal body. I shall argue that they were framed and contested in particular ways: in left wing publications that still prioritised class over gender; in institutions of art exhibition and criticism that were hostile to maternal art, particularly by feminist artists, and in feminist critiques of essentialism that rejected direct imaging of the maternal body.