Mother, Martyr, Art Monster

Photograph of Elkins Art Monster
Bring more trans artists into the transgressive cannon

By Grace Byron

Art by Sharanya Durvasula

In the ’80s and into the ’90s, the artist Greer Lankton created her own dolls, strange little children who were fat and thin, tall and old, wrinkled and trans. One intersex doll gives birth to another. Lankton named her exhibits provocations like “LOVE ME” or “It’s All About ME, not you” and wrote a searing political artist statement that included lurid details like “I was fucked up the ass by my grandfather since age 5, been brutally raped twice, and have had almost every major organ in my body fail at some point.” This is an artist statement through undoing the artist statement. This is a monster artist statement. 

For years, trans artists have alchemized disgust, rage, and monstrosity to give birth to cybernetic and primordial work. Rarely are they enshrined in the canon of transgressive women artists. It’s a shame that in her new book, Art Monsters: Unruly Bodies in Feminist Art, critic Lauren Elkin continues the trend, exploring nearly every hot girl artist except Lankton. Trans artists don’t own monstrosity, but damn do we harness its potential.

For Elkin, an art monster is a woman artist who transgresses the taboo of the body without descending into debasement. Elkin is in keeping with a tradition of feminist art writing that centers the relationship between woman and monstrosity on motherhood, the most accepted way for cis women to modify and test the limits of their bodies. The mother must abandon her children to make art. The power of the art monster relies on this binary: “Mother or artist, never both,” Elkin writes.

True monstrosity requires disgust. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; it can give us back our agency.

This diabolical female art monster is a shadow of the typical male artist in the cultural imaginary: willing to do anything for their art, the monster relies on the labor of others to sustain their own creative life. “My plan was to never get married. I was going to be an art monster instead,” Jenny Offill wrote in the voice of her protagonist in Dept. of Speculation, launching a thousand Tumblr posts. Ditching care-work, of course, makes the female artist — or monster — much more monstrous than her male counterpart.

Elkin wants to move away from this reactive conjuring: “the art monster as I conjure her is not simply a female version of a male figure.” She looks at female artists whose bodily art disrupts taboo, focusing on women who don’t censor themselves and create art out of their lived experiences. This is not, she is clear to say, only art that involves bodies in a representational way. “If Offill’s term has resonated so strongly in recent years, I think it is in part because it points to the ways in which the culture punishes women for being something other than small and silent,” Elkin writes. 

Art Monsters focuses on the usual suspects of the feminist art canon: Virginia Woolf, Carolee Schneemann, Kara Walker, Ana Mendieta, Eva Hesse, Hannah Wilke, and Kathy Acker. Elkin asks what the art monster can do for us instead of against us. What can she unleash? What are her contours, limitations, and joys? Elkin’s fragmentary style and referential prose invites readers to draw their own conclusions without her having to make strong claims, revealing the limited purchase of the term. 

For Elkin, the art monster seeks an erotics of bodily freedom. The monster is not so much a frightening figure as it is a tendency in feminist art to break the taboo of representing the woman’s body, to embrace disjuncture and decreation.

But monsters don’t merely transgress. They eat us alive. In other words, monsters are abject. The abject, as defined by critical theorist Julia Kristeva, is something that disturbs our sense of conventional identity. The abject is filthy. It degrades us when we come in contact with it. As with vomit or corpses, it disturbs the boundary between the body and outside objects.

Elkin doesn’t dirty herself. She has said in interviews that her “contrarian spirit” is part of why she does not focus on abjection, which she feels feminists are already comfortable with. Patriarchy sees women’s bodies as abject in and of themselves: “Anything that is too female, that hand-touch sensibility, that diaristic indulgence,” she writes. But then: “When we uphold this pretty/ugly binary, we condemn ourselves to remaining the Second Sex. This version of monstrosity is a trap.” By failing to consider abjection in feminist terms, she misses its creative potential in work made by women and queer people — the same people whose bodies are so often seen as disgusting. I want feminist writing about art monsters to liberate these artists’ work from being judged on moral metrics, or on the basis of who their makers are and what they did, rather than what the work itself is asking of us. 

Photograph of Elkins Art Monster

It would be interesting to see Elkin spend more time with such monsters in the midst of a cultural panic over the morality of artists. When will someone tell cis white women that writing like Kathy Acker is not the only way to be transgressive? What about the ways we’ve dealt with art monsters who have done harm? There’s Patricia Highsmith, whose recently republished  journals reveal a lesbian art monster who loved snails and was vehemently racist. Feminist reappraisals of Susan Sontag have contended with her bad temper — which Catherine Lacey fictionalized in her recent novel about a lesbian art monster, Biography of X. (Yes, Lacey quotes Offill.) And then there’s that other fictional lesbian art monster, Lydia Tár. 

In Zadie Smith’s cutting essay on the 2022 film Tár, she evokes the art monster to articulate a generational gap about the lone genius and monstrosity. “Every generation mistakes the limits of its own field of vision for the limits of the world,” Smith writes. But she, too, is less interested in the abject potential of the art monster than the ambient existential dread the film portrays — very Gen X of her. The idea of a woman being monstrous as a protofeminist martyr doesn’t interest Smith one way or the other. The art monster is about the limitations of each successive generation. “With Tár, it’s art for art’s sake until it isn’t. Until desire gets in the way.”

I’m not ready to let go of the abject monster. A monster collapses form. Monsters are not so easily tagged and cataloged with a few theoretical concepts or historical lenses. Without the abject, what’s the point of calling on the monster? 

What’s missing from Elkin’s art monster is rage. Her monsters are bloodless, rarely violent, and hardly ever outside the traditional feminist art canon. Susan Stryker, whom Elkin only cites twice, offers another way monstrosity can destroy norms: the amorphous body as a site of creative destruction. Stryker’s essay “My Words to Victor Frankenstein Above the Village of Chamounix” is often lifted by feminist scholars without context to describe the trans body as mutant, monstrous, or other. Elkin argues that Stryker urges trans people “to reclaim words like monster, creature, unnatural, to draw transformative and subversive energy from them.” But Elkin fails to offer a complex engagement with the essay’s subtitle: Performing Transgender Rage. “Rage gives me back my body as its own fluid medium,” Stryker chants. True monstrosity requires disgust. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; it can give us back our agency. When we reject oppressive environments with spit and bile we resist internalizing their harmful attitudes. 

Stryker strives to emulate Frankenstein’s monster, “who is quick-witted, agile, strong, and eloquent.” In other words, the monster is not all body. As she recounts the birth of her child in a room full of relatives and a non-nuclear family, she encounters a psychic opening. “I cried, and abandoned myself to abject despair over what gender had done to me.” But in this darkness, the pervert trapped in monstrous flesh falls apart and is reborn through rage. “I assert my worth as a monster in spite of the conditions my monstrosity requires me to face.” What if the art monster is not supposed to be a simple fallen angel narrative, but an ushering in of apocalypse? 

There is a price to pay for breaking the taboo of the female body, but the art monster has potential to do something with the resulting pieces. Flaunting social stigma can be transformative; the outcast has a new beginning. She can harness all her fiendish strength to burn down the white walls of the gallery, reject traditional value systems, and shred the binaries we’ve created.

When something is campy, filthy, difficult, or unwatchable, often our impulse is to evade engaging with artwork on its own terms. Black, queer, trans, and disabled artists are particularly vulnerable to having their work understood as merely politically representational. Nothing shuts down discussion of art faster than saying “That was so moving.” Abject art can open us to new experiences, the ability to integrate our own pasts, and not react to others with fear. 

Without the abject, what’s the point of calling on the monster?

I agree with Elkin that art must be allowed to transgress our moral imagination. So much of the discourse on Tár, for example, has been about liking or disliking the main character from a moral perspective rather than considering how the film portrays her. We don’t need to give art unlimited free reign, as Elkin’s chapter on Dana Schutz suggests. If we believed our limited viewpoint is the center of the world, many of us would never have gotten turned on by leftist politics in the first place. Not every first encounter with art is pleasurable. 

The loss of rage is also a loss of play. If Elkin is arguing for an erotics of art, against interpretation, we need new forms of art writing. Stryker’s reading of Frankenstein skids off the track of theory and breaks into a journal, a poem, and a nightmare. When Elkin intersperses more emotive readings of art the prose comes alive. Her own personal attachments to pieces, her daily life while pregnant, the feelings that bubbled when she stood in front of Dana Schutz’s art, or the way Covid-19 interrupted archival work, all produce a fascinating punctuation to the text. They break the groove.

Our best ideas can come from our nightmares. Kara Walker’s oeuvre is so powerful because it dares you to resist moralizing it. Greer Lankton’s work is so striking because it asks what words you can dream up to describe her dolls that aren’t “grotesque.” To engage with them as merely a comment on morality is to neuter them of their potential. The art monster could instead deliver a sermon, one marked not by fire and brimstone or pastel-colored pussy hats, but the vast unconscious ocean of feelings that swarm in women’s bodies. The form must fray, degrade, enrapture, and enrage. We may need to let the monsters under our bed guide us. They may just know how to build something new.

Grace Byron is a writer from Indianapolis based in Queens. She used to make films. Her writing has appeared in The Baffler, The Believer, LARB, and Pitchfork among other outlets. Find her @emotrophywife.