“Performativity of Gender” on Show

We tend to think that the drive to abolish distinctions between the sexes is a relatively recent phenomenon. Asked to date its beginnngs, most of us would likely pick the 1970s, coinciding with the first undergraduate gay and lesbian studies classes at UC Berkeley. But no. The impulse goes back further. It was championed by the British Marxist Christopher St.
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John Sprigg, writing under the pseudonym Christopher Caudwell.
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In the 1930s, he defended a vision of advanced society’s ultimate freedom from biological necessity.

Yasumasa Morimura, Daughter of Art History (1990).
Yasumasa Morimura, Daughter of Art History (1990).

Caudwell was only thirty when he was killed in action in the Spanish Civil War. He had already produced five books, each one flush with jumping off points for subsequent Marxist thinkers. His influential Studies and Further Studies in a Dying Culture remains a must-read for students of Marxist aesthetics.

Caudwell’s vision of the ultimate necessity of the collapse of sexual differences is aggressively on show in the work of Yasumasa Morimura, an international crowd-pleaser living in Osaka. His well-known appropriations of iconic paintings—here Manet’s The Bar at the Folies Bergère— illustrate perfectly Judith Butler’s term “performativity of gender.” By transforming himself into Manet’s barmaid, he declines the gender assigned to him, so the thinking goes, by society because of his sex.

Camp theatre has never been as blithe as it appeared. Insidious from the get-go, its surface entertainment value is ingratiating. Loosen up, folks. Only a total dork would spoil good fun. That is charm enough to disable the faculties of a well-meaning and complacent audience. Morimura, in beautifully crafted burlesques, puts himself on exhibit as the fruit of the old guard’s cultural decline. Behind its apparent whimsy, the work is deadly serious.

Yasumasa Morimura. Self Portrait After Jodie Foster (1996).
Yasumasa Morimura. Self Portrait After Jodie Foster (1996).

In the word-game world of gender studies, male sexuality— phallic power , in the literature—is benign if it is directed toward other men. A straight man is a class enemy; a gay man is . . . well, probably a size 14 or larger.

Guise and Dolls en femme at the millennium.