Since my last discussion of this topic over a month ago the anger over Trump’s misogyny has not subsided. While few likely voters were swayed and probably no opponent convinced by his derogatory views on women, some have channeled their anger into something more than a tweet.
Independent journalist, activist, and artist Sarah Levy has reached a new level in the creative response to Trump. While we have seen pinatas, an internet paint set I find disturbing, and lots and lots and lots of memes, this is probably the first menstrual art about Trump.
In her Etsy store, Levy sells prints of the viral painting for $20 each. In her description, she states:
Trump thinks he can bring up the healthy functioning of women’s reproductive systems to insult women’s intelligence. Bloody Trump thinks different.
11” by 17” print of the original painting “Whatever” on Nekoosa Dull poster paper of original menstrual blood painting.
All proceeds will go to an immigrants’ rights organization in the U.S.
Let’s make America great again–for women, immigrants, working people, and everyone else Trump fears when he’s home alone at night crying beneath the bed sheets.
The title of the original piece was announced as “Wherever,” alluding to Trump’s comment about Megyn Kelly (“blood coming out of her wherever“), though Levy seems to have renamed it “Whatever,” a punny dismissal of Trump’s way of talking, his attitude, and his later attempt at reversing the statement.
The piece is quite striking, not only in its color and material (more on that below). The layering of different shades, the crossing of lines, the lines on the hair, the wrinkles, the nose, the teeth, the blurry, bulbous neck together with the sliver of a gaze make for impressive dynamics. I am not an art expert, but I think I see some New Objectivity and expressionism, Otto Dix or perhaps Edvard Munch. The teeth and one eye spring out, and the whole painting conveys a literally and metaphorically sanguine heat, an urgency, a fleshy violence.
While we are speaking of the color and impression, I want to take the opportunity and promote one of my favorite art movements, menstrual art. Long an under-appreciated scene, menstrual artists recently got a boost by the wonderful and active community that brought you the exhibit Widening the Cycle: A Menstrual Cycle & Reproductive Justice Art Show. Under the fearless leadership of Jen Lewis, the exhibit “threads together global voices to raise consciousness about menstruation and reproductive justice through feminist art. The mission of Widening the Cycle is to energize the public menstrual dialogue by making the menstrual cycle visible through thought-provoking visual imagery. Illuminating our monthly blood inserts menstruation into the broader gender equality discussion; empowers us to neutralize stigma; normalizes our bodies; and revolutionizes the way society sees bodies that menstruate.” (Here is a link for a pdf with some wonderful pictures from the Boston exhibit. I hope to return and discuss more of the pieces. Or perhaps you would like to write a guest entry?)
Sure, many women are less than thrilled by menstrual fluid. However, Menstrual art is not a recent development, but has long been a component of human cultural expression. In the Museum of Menstruation, for example, we find a cup from the Nasca culture (Perú, c. 200BCE-600CE). But contemporary menstrual art often explicitly considers the estrangement of body from society, the break between women’s bodies and their cultural roles. Judy Chicago’s 1971 “Red Flag” could be regarded as a mile marker in the development of contemporary feminist menstrual art. Her piece used high art lithography to depict a female bodily reality rendered invisible by established art conventions.
But for all its engagements with taboos, it does not consist of menstrual fluid. Levy in particular aligns herself with more radical feminist artists who use their own menstrual fluid to make art.
Artists have found menstrual fluid to be a useful medium and use it as paint like Levy, in performances like Carlota Berard and Isa Sanchez, or in installations like Carina Úbeda’s famous “Cloths” (2013), which consists of ninety pieces of fluid-stained fabric in embroidery hoops, suspended from the ceiling, paired with apples marking the ovulation cycles, and with “Production,” “Discard,” and “Destroyed” stitched on the fabric.
The implications Úbeda aims at are far broader than Levy’s, I’d argue, emphasizing questions of biological reproduction, heterosexuality, and the meaning of biological time.
But menstrual art often bridges the abstract and material dimension of art. Austrian artist Petra Paul has been working to end the taboo of menstruation for over a decade. Her drip pieces illustrate well the simultaneously abstract and concrete work of menstrual drip art.
Like Levy, Paul also responded to Trump. (It is encouraging that in the digital age the blood flows of menstrual art span the globe.) Her “FOR DONALD” alludes to the traditional depictions of depersonalized human bodies in anatomy textbooks, playfully over-determining the picture with the subtitle “ANATOMY.” The fragmented outlines of body parts should make us pause, hesitate at our own willingness to play into fictions of bodily depictions. This is not a body, and yet we want to think it is, we fill in the gaps. And just like Trump left it to his audience to fill in the gaps as to “Wherever” might be, the picture draws a straight, phallic line right at the genital area, soaked in blood, at once complementing and defying the anatomical outline. This is a fact, while the rest of the body is fare more ambiguous.
Both Paul’s “FOR DONALD” and Levy’s “Whatever” are more than an occasion piece. The artists bring the often broad and trans-human discussions of menstrual art into the breathless frenzy of the 2015 Republican nomination debates. Paul points to reference works and textbooks, undermining the self-evidence of Trump’s misogyny. Levy avoids making a sweeping statement that aims at the history of humanity and instead insists that the interpretation of women’s bodies happen in the here and now, through the smallest of gestures as well as through the loudest example of intellectual flatulence.
This play with menstruation as a cyclical event that is for the most part nevertheless temporary carries the risk that the feminist gesture of broad coalition building by way of women’s shared biological experiences. Increasingly, though, the conflation of gender and sexuality has come under scrutiny, and rightly so. So to insist on the menstrual moment is perhaps less about speaking for all women everywhere and locking arms with sisters, but about pushing back against the simplified notion of who and what women are now. And, of course, against the notion that women just leak from, like, wherever, to put it in the verbiage of Trump.
[Note: Our friend Diotima pointed out Petra Paul’s “FOR DONALD” to me, and I was happy to include a paragraph on her work in this edited version. I am happy that we capillaries are beginning to connect and exchange the…nutrients..that… oh whatever, this metaphor just collapsed.]