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The Narrow Bridge of Art and Politics

Suzanne Bellamy

(This essay was originally published in Radically Speaking:Feminism reclaimed. Diane Bell and Renate Klein (eds) Spinifex 1996)

The political weaponry of linguistics has dominated the 20th century, and the naming battles of the 1990s for radical feminists are neither new nor shocking. We have swum in a sea of names, within the broad range of feminism, of Women Liberation, of the whole phenomenon of the Women's Movement. This movement itself is only a piece of a whole, with a historic pedigree defying measurement, of voices, names, images, all equally problematic to language. Naming Is part of the game. From whose tongue flows the sound, for what strategic purpose, in whose interests? If I can be named into being, can I be named out? I think not. The key is the agency of naming. Naming myself gives me extended being. Another person un-naming me just makes me mad.

I'm fussy about naming, about the relationships between dynamic changing forms and their labels. As an artist I work also in the world of the non­verbal. I know the limpness and inadequacy of descriptions by words of complex forms, thoughts and deeds in time, from sculptures to political movements to individuals. I'm fussy about my political and philosophical commitments too, re­negotiating my liberty within the whole as part of the deal. The whole process of re-negotiation is at the core of radical feminism itself, and is the principle reason why I have chosen to swim in that company for so long.

Twenty-five years is a short time to map a multi-faceted political philosophy, but a fair slice of my individual lifetime. How goes this partnership, and how would I tell its story from this place in this life? The young anarchistic artist/intellectual of twenty has become a mid-career professional artist/writer. In the myriad changes which made that happen, none feels bigger than the one I am feeling now

There is a shift happening in the Women's Movement, a process of shedding, an emptying out and preparing new ground. I resist the premature urge to label this which abounds in the reactionary critical theories of recent times. They seem to clutter the foreground noisily, with intellectually unsatisfying glibness and pompous judgement - a kind of boutique thinking, using fashion and cynicism and hands too clean for the battles of actual women.

All the philosophical systems of the planet are in a shake-down time, across all the interlocking systems of patriarchy. For a radical feminist, an archaeologist of patriarchal forms, this is a unique period of study. Fragmentation, resurgence, nostalgia, fin de siecle nihilism, recanting, rehashing, malaise, millenar­ianism, fundamentalism, various forms of cultural criticism mocking political radicalism, especially feminism - like 1930s aesthetes claiming all is narrative, nothing matters. Short memories and bad history abound in the competition to reorder the recent past, even in the Women's Movement. Turbulence of this nature touches all things, and can be creatively grasped. I choose this time to renegotiate, to find new clarity, and give full attention. What do I keep, what do I leave behind?

Women's Liberation burst into our lives, as the 60s ended, as if unique. But we quickly had to acknowledge its antecedents, to learn to recognise the core ingredients of a sporadic autonomous philosophical feminism as old as recorded history. There was rarely unity of goals, methods or language between the sectarian groups, but a great deal of invention in that fusion. Within a couple of years a coherent philosophical position emerged which sought no alliances with male ideologies or existing parties, no grafts with Marxism or socialism or liberalism, no goals of success within the dominant culture - an independent core philosophy giving primacy to woman's experience, participation and visions. It was always a minority position, an irritant for many, a source point of great originality in ideas and methods. This movement came to be called radical feminism, and it became for me an expanding universe.

It is a truism in the Women's Movement that radical feminism has been "defined" mainly by its opponents, rarely by its adherents. From the outset the boundaries of this newly released energy defied pinning down. This is the principle reason why radical feminism attracted and nourished artists, creative writers and poets, radical philosophers, independent scholars. Unlike the dogmatic and doctrinaire belief systems and hierarchies of the old left, it seemed to embrace the eccentric, the experimental, anarchistic boundary breaking ideas and projects. And being much maligned and caricatured, it had few fellow travellers, which necessarily created great bonds of trust among us. To this movement I brought youth and optimism, hunger for a passionate struggle which demanded response from all of my senses and faculties. My baggage, even at twenty, was full of paradox: a working-class family and a middle-class education, zealous new left student tics, a fine classical education in revolutionary theory and practice, historical es in co-operative anarchism, a distaste for socialist sectarianism and party e, an artist's wariness of ideologies and verbal dominance. I had an educated desire for something new, and the youthful arrogance to find it.

I read Robin Morgan's collection of poems Monster (ND) in early 1973. It was electrifying. "I want a women's revolution like a lover" (p. 82). "May we comprehend that we cannot be stopped" (p. 86). "... We must all become guilty of attempted apocalypse" (p. 67).

Here was a language new yet utterly familiar, here was a poet/activist working on the boundary of art and politics. It transformed my life. Artists are traditionally an "endangered species" in political movements, and I have never forgotten this in all my years of activism. Revolutionary movements historically mistrust, misuse and often murder their artists - unable otherwise to control the creative spirit, valuing poor graphics more than new forms. And while the Women's Movement charted new territory, we were all carrying old ways. I was a passionate participant, a hard-working activist, but I was also my own authority, committed ultimately to my own spirits and demons, my own story. If there was no breathing space for that process, it did not work for me. This was the first meaning of the personal is political. For radical feminism, this is still the first principle. What do I keep, what do I leave behind?

On reflection, I see I have required a number of other core ethical principles for my participation. "Freedom from unreal loyalties", Virginia Woolf's theme in Three Guineas (1938/1966), helped to free me from excessive devotion to the work and ideas of others - to maintain some detachment - and alerted me to the subtle evils of zealotry and idolatry. We used heady language, words that could send you, dreams that could knock you off your feet, passions that could fling your brains up a tree, visceral dynamite. Idealism floated on lust, jealousy, rage. The lid had been taken off an imposed patriarchal rationalism, and the jewels tumbled from the chest. Again Virginia Woolf helped me. She described her madness as her brains exploding like fireworks. In the ashes were her core ideas. But first it was necessary to survive the explosion. Could this long repressed and controlled desire in women be let out without casualties? It seemed not. I learned a sense of balance through hard work and difficult experience, and managed to balance a great capacity for devotion with equal mistrust for elites, and an old old wariness of betrayal. An independent mind had to be worked for vigilantly, as much within radical feminism as anywhere. This I also keep.

An enduring principle flowing from this was the insistence that we are peers, equals. Diversity, freedom to experiment, life-affirming flexibility, self-mockery, heresy, humour. The genius of Mary Daly exemplifies this principle. I still remember the thrill of reading the last section of Beyond God the Father (1973), when it was published, my heart shifting. In all her works to date I know I am in the presence of someone so cerebrally original that I can only try to meet the work halfway - like coming to a great painting, and returning to see new depths. I would say that a lot of my art work has been deeply influenced by Mary Daly's works, but in inexplicable ways to me, as yet. I came to the work not from a Catholic background, nor even a philosophic background, and I came with self-confidence. While Gyn/Ecology (1978) was most widely read and fought about, it was her great work Pure Lust (1984) which astounded me. Here was creative and intellectual liberty on the most exotic journey. I could not conceive that there were women alive in the time of this kind of writing and thinking who did not read her. Her work heightened my sense of perfect timing, being in, of, and for my time.

There was a sense of abundance, of choice, of a kaleidoscope for the imagination, not locked away in some eccentric abbey of illumination, but side by side with our work on the ground - of economic struggle, birth control, sexual slavery, genetic manipulation, child abuse, refuges, rape, domestic violence, racism, genocidal rape, war. Real women, real lives, real struggles - radical feminists do not go off into an elusive theory and forget their activism, but balance action with the exploration of new ideas and forms wherever we are drawn. There were no limits to the new territories. And this was another core principle, being prepared to risk going to unlikely places to find what you needed to know, and making the process visible.

I came to realise this was very important, seeing the process, seeing the journey, keeping only the best - a creative shake-out. This emphasised again the theme of experiment, shedding, letting things go, inventing while going along, visible movement in thought. This is the key to lasting, to recreating the self. This may be my most precious tool, and I keep that too.

It was around the time of the end of the 70s when I settled more consciously on a personal way of being in the Women's Movement, which max­imised my pleasure, my education and my room to move. It occurred to me that we were on an epic/comic journey not unlike The Canterbury Tales (1951), and that I was not only of the party but able to watch it, move about within it, and picture it in my work. Having had the great benefit of a classical historical education and a rich imagination, my brain effortlessly releases images of other times and places, real and ridiculous. It's like a tap. I began in earnest my enjoyable career watching my peers and associates, body language, posturings, idiosyncrasies, reading through lenses of other imagined periods, past and future. Some of this went into clay figures and salon studies, lots into my journals for future work.

I decided to explore the idea of a women's culture as an imaginative
construct. Perhaps there had been one, perhaps not. That wasn't the point. A retrospective dream still has potency if it informs the actions of the present, and it was clear to me that this idea was welling up in women across cultures. I also knew the archaeological literature and the problematic reinterpretations which began to mesh with the dreams of a women's culture. In this imaginary culture I created for myself the imaginary role of an artist/scholar who could be witness, commentator,
motor of dynamic artefacts and stories, and most importantly traveller on the trade routes which crisscrossed the geography of this rich hypothetical Reality. At this point I have devoted several years of my life to this creative experiment. It differs from a play/performance only in that there are no seats and tickets, no script, and it cannot be repeated, being pure improvisation.

The gatherings of the 1970s (marches, conferences, meetings) gave way to the more absorbing experiments of the 80s and 90s. Festivals, craftings,

longmarches, peace camps, NGO forums, village setups where 24-hour-a-day living in groups allowed the new geography of women's culture to sprout and tantalise memory and imagination. I started making things for this culture (artefacts), and images of it (figures, journey sculptures, maps). Women appeared to adopt this work, feeling it authentically belonged in the wider world and had meaning for them. One thing led to another, one place led to another, oceans, deserts, cities, farms, other lands, other languages. Finally I worked for five years in a row as an artist at the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival as a long-crew worker. Eight hundred women work for five weeks preparing for the arrival of up to 10,000 women who come to the festival, the biggest village cultural gathering of mainly lesbians on the planet. My trade routes were expanding, my sails full.

It seemed to me that certain women on this planet were behaving in most remarkable ways, expressing in palpable forms the shapes and behaviour of independent women's culture, for short periods usually focussed on great projects or events. Not only great gatherings like Michigan, which has lasted twenty years, but smaller regional festivals and gatherings ring the planet, linking women in grids of common purpose, knowledge of which seems mysteriously not to bridge back to the world they leave and to which they return. I know there is a certain cynicism among some feminists that these events are goddess-cult-magic-lost-crazywomen backwaters, but this is a real misreading of the phenomenon, where diversity rules, and it is possible to explore and express a new potency. Not in themselves expressions of radical feminism per se, they nonetheless base themselves on the principle of women's space, creative invention of new ways, and pleasure in community. It was within these new spaces that I began to experiment further, running workshops to collect stories and images for my work.

My first observation about these gatherings of community was that they were transitory, that it seemed impossible to conceive of them going on without end, without a clear time-frame and focus. This was not "life" as it were, so much as an experimental space from which women returned to the battles, the issues, the campaigns. Nor were these experiments in culture to be read as utopian. All the dilemmas were visible, and in fact made more available for investigation. Those issues not so easily named in the 1970s and early 80s could no longer be hidden, including violence between women, the promotion of sado-masochism in the lesbian community, profitmaking businesses trading off the free labour and idealism of women, the influence of New Age slick commercialism, battery, sexual abuse, disease, drugs, showbiz hypocrisy, cultural appropriation, and a pervading racism and class elitism. I have sat in huge democratic community meetings of women in which all of the above were named in some form, as well as the problems of paper plates, sewage and plumbing. If nothing is resolved, also nothing is ultimately unnamed. Such is the many-headed figure of a wounded people.

Paradox abounds; idealism shadowed by greed, great creative image-making and debased symbols and fetishes. I invented the term "house matriarchal" (as in house wine or house music) to describe the creation of an embarrassing array of simplified borrowed and repeated images - ultimately often clichés from a splendid archaeological heritage. The research of Marija Gimbutas (1974 and 1989) and other archaeologists, since the Catal Huyuk discoveries of the 1960s, covering many ancient cultures, have not only inspired many artists, but sometimes fed a commercial fetish market which has thrived in the Women's Movement. The new hunger for non-verbal symbols and images grew faster than the ability of artists to respond with integrity and authenticity. Bad taste and cultural theft exist in the same spaces as thrilling new music, new images, new words.

What also flourished was a therapeutic profession and healing industry with the same extremes of creative original work and also ill-trained profiteering. Just like The Canterbury Tales, we have it all - and all of it needs to be seen with clarity, and with critical generosity. There is no future in despairing or railing against this mix. Take the long view, find a point of personal balance, and weigh in.

I invented a series of information gathering and sharing workshops, which were intended to posit certain core constructs of my imaginary geography. They were presented with a lot of humour, in the pinch-of-salt tradition. "Sustainable Lesbian Culture in the Twenty-First Century" worked off the ecology-based notion of diversity as strength, and the efficient use of physical and spiritual resources. It addressed the damaging wound carried by many lesbians that we have no "natural" place in the ecology of our planet. What is our work, how can we work in community, how can we address our own wounding and that of our planet, as lesbians? In an imaginary journey format, we visited the Council of Old Laughing Women. "What is my job?" each woman sought an answer, based on the conviction that each woman has cultural/political work which can only be done by her. Humour and a little healthy scepticism were crucial ingredients. In the spirit of Mary Leakey, I named our people Lesbia Sapiens Magnificata. The report-back storytelling after these journeys, in big circles, hundreds of women over time, was amazing to me, rich diverse knowledge and revelation, poignant and hilarious.

The "Lesbian Passion Play" workshop worked from the old medieval miracle and passion plays, asking the core question, "What is the Lesbian Life Cycle?" Traditional passion plays, which move in actual landscape, invoke agri­cultural cycles to embody the magical year and stages of life from birth to death, and are invariably heterosexual and patriarchal. Again I wanted to put the lesbian and the woman in the sacred landscape, belonging to the planet, enduring a life cycle of great turning points, passion, pain and transformation, as lesbians, in an ontologically ethical sustainable landscape. The wounded link between the spiritual and the erotic in women, planetary agency was again the focus.

I moved my own studio to an Australian rural landscape in 1983. When
moving about among women, I spent long periods alone in the bush, thinking about land, animals and water. Animal workshops which flowed out of this included the series on "Ants", which were very funny to do. I have been studying ants and their sculptural mounds, journeys and communities for a long time. Thinking about them raises lots of useful themes for women - about ordered community, collective

work, repair, commitment to enormous journeys. It's amazing what grown women will do in the pursuit of knowledge and a good time. Ant sisterhood was born! Underlying all these experiments was my own deepest question, did we have memory of another way to live, another time frame? Was it possible to speak of neurological patterns of prior knowledge, could we imagine a transformation that our brains could make real?

It goes almost without saying that radical feminist experiments often require the risk of making a fool of yourself. In fact I have found the role of the Fool my mainstay in this work, and the political use of comic energy crucial to independent thinking. The path of the Fool can be perilous in a play without an audience. But by now I had crossed "the narrow bridge" of art and politics, myth and reality. I was in the imaginary culture as much as anyone, generating and generated by the released energy.

If radical feminism is a process of moving thought - not ideology, not fixed form, not static philosophy - was I in the flow? Could I claim that my sculptures and earth works, my workshops, stories, and observations were part of an emergent pattern of women knowledge, or eccentric individual expressions? This unanswerable question brings me again to the initial attempt in radical feminism to fuse art and politics, thought and feeling, and to imagine the possibility of women grasping our life force in our own two hands. Where Do Ideas Come From? is the name of a recent sculpture I made of my own hands, old land forms with my lifelines at 45, the fingertips transforming into figures of women in rapt connection with each other. Like the many huge boatloads of women I have also made over the years, I see here the attempt to invoke the company of women, and yet know that it only works, if each one is uniquely charged with difference. Theres the risk and the reward on the road to Canterbury or anywhere else.

Virginia Woolf, in "The Narrow Bridge of Art" (1927) faces the difficulty for artists, who, in trying to do their work, must invent a form which can hold all they have to pour out. "The mind is full of monstrous, hybrid, unmanageable emotions . . . It is in this atmosphere of doubt and conflict that writers have now to create." (p. 12)

She talks about "a vague mysterious thing called an attitude to life Artists can "stand at an uncomfortable angle whence they see everything askew", or they can "use their faculties to the full upon things that are of importance . . Those who do, "seem alive all over ... They grasp something hard; when they come into action they cut real ice." (p. 13)

Creative thought and ideas cut ice within radical feminism because the narrow bridge exists. I can do my work, we can do our work, alone, in studios, at desks, and there is still a fine thread of agreement, of peers and common purpose. The bridge has synaptic strength but, like individuals, needs constant renewal.

In 1991, I made a series of clay figures called What Is This Thing We Keep Holding Up?, women in the habit of bearing a great weight, shaped by their burdens, but on the edge of wondering why. It could be read as the layer upon layer of habit supporting the weight of patriarchy, but it actually came from my own questions about feminism itself. I had been moving among a generation of feminists who were expressing resentful tiredness, about keeping newsletters going, courses running, keeping journals appearing, keeping projects afloat, struggling with a malaise of energy and vision. Duty and responsibility drove out passion and renewal

"I want a women's revolution like a lover" (Morgan: 1971), not a burned out affair. I started asking questions about this widespread feeling, and found common threads - a holding on to outmoded forms, structures, words and ideas, a fear that if projects were ended we would return to a bleak past of nothing for women - and in some women a sense of failure, a despair that some of the great experiments of the 70s and 80s had withered and died, failing to bridge to new generations of younger women. Like the baby and the bathwater, some parts of this mattered more than others. A generational shift can be fearful, and it is hard to cop some of the ageism, and intentionally wounding rhetoric of the wishful "post-feminism". But opposition is not new, and it is only internal dilemmas which create weakened will I know from my own journeys that women in their late teens and early twenties care passionately for radical change. Among my work crew at Michigan, I was, at only forty-five, the oldest woman, which was an exhilarating experience for me who had always been younger than my peers in the 1970s. When I was twenty I was allowed a hearing - now I find I am equally thrilled by the explorations of young radical women. As Virginia Woolf said, it has something to do "a vague mysterious thing called an attitude to life" (1927/1955, p. 12).

As an artist I had to learn a long time ago how to let go of what I made,
to empty out the space so that the next thing could emerge. It's a horrible business but its part of the deal. The dilemma of feminism historically is itself – forever being seemingly interrupted by cross-currents of hostile forces, just as we get started. Its the same in an individual life cycle. Never enough time.

There is however another point of view, in which we can read malaise as an unfamiliarity with the deeper processes of change, and of letting go. Here is an opportunity to learn to do this well What do I keep, what do I leave behind?

At the Nairobi Women's Conference in 1985, I felt a sudden sense of insignificance as 25,000 women from mainly Third World countries took on the questions of food, water, hunger, genital mutilation, genocide, racial oppression, illiteracy, sexual slavery, global biocide. This crushed sense of self was a real educational corrective, which renewed my commitments and my energy. I had witnessed women sit down to the business of the planet, women business. This business has not stopped, and I have my work within that, as we all do. It takes a great many ants a very long time to move a very large object even a very little way. There is no mileage in being daunted, in panic, or in cynicism and mockery

There have always been organised forms of opposition to feminism and the political expressions of women. The current labelling frenzy within some parts of post-modernism carry on the tradition of straw figure mockery, the cult of youth, the posturing of an old aestheticism. In fact artists have much to be concerned about here, as did Virginia Woolf in the 1930s when she wrote Three Guineas in a similar time of backlash cloaked in critic-driven theory. Critic-driven culture is like fast-food, it fails to nourish the creative spirit. Artists have become again an endangered species in the domain of the post-modern.

We are living in a time of great shift, perilous and thrilling.

What do I keep, what do I leave behind?

I keep my tools, my stories, my memory, my clarity. I keep the lives of actual women in clear view, keep my commitment to the idea of women spaces, women's business. I exercise the muscles of my brain, I expand my neurological patterns, I follow the fault lines of change, I hold divinity in my own life, I continue to integrate wounded and fractured parts of myself. I respect our elders and our young, recognising threads in the differences.

I leave all the work, all the projects, all the little points of certainty. I will always wonder who we are, as a gender, as a species, as a planet, going where? And as for that women's revolution? She is not for keeping or for leaving, she is for loving, which is another matter altogether.


The title refers to an essay by Virginia Woolf. (1927/1958). 'The Narrow Bridge of Art".