What are we but meat?
Dorothy Mead and Donna Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto
Borough Road Gallery, March 8, 2019
In this talk I am going to briefly propose some answers to the question at hand, “What are we but meat?” which was posed by Ruth Busby in her essay on Dorothy Mead’s self-portrait of 1959, questioning what is left when physical signs of humanity are stripped away in the act of painting. To do this I am going to use ideas put forward by Donna Haraway in her 1985 Cyborg Manifesto to discuss the artwork of Dorothy Mead. Part of the beauty and continued significance of these paintings lies in their visual resonance with Haraway’s vision of polyvalent identity outside patriarchal structures, involving women, machines and animals. I therefore feel that Haraway’s terminology might be used productively to describe Mead’s contribution to feminist art history, particularly in rejecting essentialism.
As we know, women remained peripheral figures in the post-war British art-world, and only relevantly recently has their work been revisited and reassessed by art historians. Linda Nochlin wrote at length on the historical subjugation of women’s art in her seminal text “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?”, first published in 1971, just four years before Mead’s death. To remind us of the thrust of this first work of feminist art history and to give some context to Mead’s achievements, I will read an oft-quoted passage from Nochlin. She says:
“There are no women equivalents for Michelangelo or Rembrandt, Delacroix or Cézanne, Picasso or Matisse, or even in very recent times, for de Kooning or Warhol, any more than there are black American equivalents for the same. If there actually were large numbers of “hidden” great women artists, or if there really should be different standards for women’s art as opposed to men’s — and one can’t have it both ways — then what are feminists fighting for? If women have in fact achieved the same status as men in the arts, then the status quo is fine as it is.”
“But in actuality, as we all know, things as they are and as they have been, in the arts as in a hundred other areas, are stultifying, oppressive, and discouraging to all those, women among them, who did not have the good fortune to be born white, preferably middle class and above all, male. The fault lies not in our stars, our hormones, our menstrual cycles, or our empty internal spaces, but in our institutions and our education.”
Now Mead did receive an above average education in the arts, benefitting particularly from the teaching of David Bomberg at the original Borough Polytechnic between 1945 and 1951 at a time when the teaching of art in England was being moulded by ideological currents emerging after WWII. She went on to study at the Slade in the late 1950s and became a teacher at Chelsea College and Goldsmiths where she worked alongside her own practice. However, despite being a founding member of the influential Borough Road Group and an accomplished, expressive artist, she did not become a prominent part of the zeitgeist. She rubbed shoulders with household names of the 60s such as Bridget Riley and David Hockney, and won numerous prizes yet was not canonised as one of the 20th century’s major women artists. The juxtaposition between the aforementioned artists and Mead is admittedly stark, and perhaps the moodiness and ambiguity of her paintings resisted easy assimilation into the bright contemporary landscape. It is difficult to say.
Libraries, galleries and the internet are all brimming with research focused on heroic male artists such as Bacon, Hockney or Moore, but there is still very little information available about Mead and other female artists working during and beyond this period, and as noted by Katy Deepwell, this leaves them vulnerable to being remembered through anecdotes alone. But reading art through the biography of its author is not necessarily the best mode of engagement anyway.
We cannot change the fact that Dorothy Mead never had a solo show in her lifetime, or that she was active slightly too early to have joined the ranks of radical feminism in the 60s and 70s, but we can continue to contextualise and interpret her work, and to reanimate it through projects like this one which represent (in Haraway’s conception) a cyborg-like disassembling and reassembling of self, a self which feminists must use to move beyond the traditional limitations imposed by gender and society. This is how I propose we read and understand the work of Dorothy Mead going forward.
I cannot do justice to the magnitude of Haraway’s Manifesto (originally intended as a feminist critique) in this short talk, so will focus directly on the figure of the Cyborg. Writing in 1985 Haraways stated:
“By the late twentieth century, our time, a mythic time, we are all chimeras, theorized and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism; in short, we are cyborgs.”
In summary, the Cyborg is a polymorphous, conceptual hybrid that maps social and bodily reality and can be used to reveal a path out of the oppressive cycle of patriarchy. Thinking with Cyborgs is about transgressing risky boundaries – this included Haraway’s takin aim at the search for the ‘roots’ of patriarchy prioritised by radical white feminism of the 70s. Haraway suggested writing by women of colour to be the “pre-eminent technology of cyborgs” and viewed women enmeshed in a technologized world as “cyborgs, hybrids, mosaics, chimeras.” She envisages a “powerful infidel heteroglossia”, not just one universal feminist language for all. The cyborg has been drawn on in the humanities as an interpretative tool in a variety of ways, sometimes taken literally in the feminist analysis of sci-fi, and at times more in the abstract, but in the main is applied to discussions of posthumanism and gender. While writing this I realised that Mead’s portraits actually have a slightly sci-fi feel to them, most notably her self-portrait of 1960 where she seems to have a metallic sheen to her, and her face looks to have been built out of different pieces of material. But I am not saying that Mead’s figures were intended by the artist as literal Cyborgs. I would argue though that her women are non-mimetic, often- monstrous creatures of fiction. Monstrous creatures have always defined the limits of community in Western imaginations and Cyborg monsters announce alternative limits of what has been traditionally designated ‘woman’.
Haraway also insists in her manifesto on the cultivation of responsible relationships with machines. Although concerned primarily with reproductive technology, this sentiment actually harks back to the technological advances and experiments of the earlier 20th century, many of which of course centred around the new machinery of war. The cyborg is thus linked to this military industrial complex. The Vorticist movement, through which Mead’s teacher David Bomberg’s angular and spirited style evolved, was especially fixated on the dynamism and velocity unleashed by mechanisation, yet the horrors of the first world war dampened this virile spirit at work across Europe. Haraway’s concerns were undoubtedly present in the wake of WWII, which saw the almost total alienation of humanity from the violent earth-shattering machines they had created. As a student of Bomberg Mead was subsequently inspired to strive for a more organic and unified perception of the world, of which machines were necessarily a component part, but neither the dominant power nor primary source of action.
The ambiguous, angular and transgressive human form recurs throughout Mead’s work so that we might situate her painting in the fluid arena of breakdown Haraway describes between the physical and non-physical, the human and the non-human. Her women are in a constant state of potential ‘becoming’, their body parts seemingly at odds to one another but at the same time working together to form a functioning whole within the logic of the picture. They oscillate between different states before our very eyes.
Many of Mead’s paintings, such as her Reclining Nude in acrylic (c.1950), possess an earth-like quality, their bodies resembling sun-kissed hills receding into the distance, becoming interchangeable with rolling landscapes in colour, composition and tangible mass. The women in her paintings are multi-layered, imposing and potentially hostile landscapes rather than simply objects of desire. For her painting ‘Transvestite’, Mead erected the figure at the centre of the canvas, standing boldly against their nondescript environment, a bright landmark pushing forwards instead of receding backwards. The figure derives its strength from this high contrast, both within its immediate environment and in relation to Mead’s other life paintings.
The flesh of Dorothy Mead’s figures tends to be jagged and nonsensical, and as a result one struggles to imagine it being grasped, encircled and confined. Despite their variety, this disavowal of the sensuous, unified skin seems common to all Mead’s paintings of women. The bodies do not end at the skin and we might go so far as to consider them posthuman entities. The transvestite in Mead’s work is described by the artist in terms of their shifting, uncertain presence within the space, encouraging psychic identification rather than one based on physiological features, aligning both with modern attitudes towards the mutable nature of sex and gender and Haraway’s criticism of identity politics with regards to radical feminism.
In her manifesto, Haraway argues that in philosophical terms there is no real space between “lived social reality” and “fiction”, as one category is continually defining and redefining the other. Fiction has long functioned as a covert mode of expression when overt expression is suppressed by social norms and oppressive regimes. Evidently the trans subject is still ostracised by the latter while it is celebrated in the former. The Cyborg analogy allows us to place greater emphasis on the role that fictional representation plays in defining women’s experience, in this instance, where evidence of lived social reality is sorely lacking, and talking about women’s art is often reduced merely to comparisons with the men around them. This also helps us move beyond the anachronistic notion of there being a prototypically ‘feminine’ style of painting opposed to a ‘masculine’ one. Binarized gendered spaces are socially rather than naturally constructed, and as Ruth Busby pointed out in her analysis of Mead’s self-portrait, retrospectively we can now see Mead to have engaged with the masculine stronghold of existentialist painting by staging a blurring of features and gender. Mead’s visual language offers but one counter current to the dominant language of Western patriarchy, portraying women as multidimensional and capable.
To return to the original question “what are we but meat?” I want to focus on Mead’s ‘Acrobat’ for a moment. Amidst the fleshy browns, reds and whites of the painting we see a lone figure suspended in mid-air. On closer inspection they appear to juggle yellow objects and play with a diablo whilst balance one-legged on a tightrope, travelling from right to left across the canvas. The figure has no discernible gender and seems animatronic, its limbs held together by invisible nuts and bolts. It is a Frankenstein-esque, barely comprehensible creature pieced together by the female artist. The acrobat’s weight is indicated by the angle of the rope on which it stands, anchoring it to its abstracted surroundings. The substance of the body is unclear; flesh and fabric are suggested simultaneously, and the layers of the composition have to be unpicked and unpeeled before the subject comes more clearly into view. I am still unsure of the position of the acrobat’s head and there is plenty more to unpack, however I am keen to emphasise the sense of ‘otherness’ Mead creates here. The ambiguity of the figure’s performance gives it a superhuman quality, the act being performed by the human body verging on the impossible. The tools the acrobat uses seem synonymous with the body, the thick strokes of paint forming a homogenising fluid tying organic matter with the artificial. In another work, a pair of hands, Dorothy Mead’s primary tools, are laid out and offered up before the viewer. The painted hands are a boldly constructed collage of colour and texture. These are the very tools which Mead and other female artists have used, as Haraway puts is “to mark the world that marked them as ‘other’”.
Perhaps Mead’s works offer a glimpse of what Haraway calls “the utopian dream of the hope for a monstrous world without gender.” In more biographical terms, Mead also seems to have embodied Haraway’s wish for a society in which people are “not afraid of permanently partial identities and contradictory standpoints”. Anticipating Haraway and third wave feminism, there is no ‘essential woman’ to be found in Mead’s work, but instead a series of fractured and fragmentary identities, which arguably echo Mead’s own precarious status, juggling responsibilities in a profession dominated by men. Like Cyborgs, Mead’s feminism did not need a totality to work, but continual construction. Mead’s women are missing limbs and features and Mead herself lacks detailed documentation, requiring collective reconstitution. I hope I have communicated that imagery of the body functions politically and not just aesthetically, continuing to take on new meanings as it passes through history.