Published  04/12/2023

Art Monsters: Unruly Bodies in Feminist Art – book review

Art Monsters: Unruly Bodies in Feminist Art – book review

Lauren Elkin draws on female ‘art monsters’ who have broken taboos around society’s expectations of womanhood, to reveal the complexities of living in a world where women are expected to appear pure and unsullied

Art Monsters: Unruly Bodies in Feminist Art by Lauren Elkin, published by Chatto & Windus.


In Genevieve Figgis’s Blue Eyeliner (2020), the cover image chosen for Art Monsters, the woman’s eye makeup is smeared, distorting her whole face, her eyes dilated and her lips full and red, and she seems stunned as the blue makeup runs down her cheek. It looks as if someone has taken a swipe at her wet eyes, or she has done it herself; either way, she is in a state of falling apart, of interacting with the world, and perhaps a particular person, and bleeding colour. It is exhilarating and erotic in that sense of sudden release; in falling apart, she is in sharp motion, she is free. Her outward identity has become a deluge of wet eyeliner and smudged flesh, a visceral smearing of how she was once supposed to look.  

Rebellion is central to Elkin’s new treatise on feminist art and “unruly bodies”, and the question of how to make art and break taboos in the same swipe. Elkin refers to the anthropologist Mary Douglas’s seminal work Purity and Danger (1966), which explores the ways in which society orders people and their behaviour into categories associated with cleanliness and dirt, aligning moral, political and sexual concerns with these classifications. Monstrosity emerges from the breaking of these social rules, the muddying of the fresh waters, the toxins in the stream. The performance of gender treads these lines, organising femininity according to ideas of purity and dirtiness, which correspond with security and danger. To be safe, one must stay pure or, at least, seem pure. One must not break rules, be stained, step in dirt, be dirt. Makeup must not be smudged and sullied, the fluids must not mix. 

But feminist artists such as Kathy Acker, Carolee Schneemann, Vanessa Bell, Sutapa Biswas, Ana Mendieta and Virginia Woolf, as Elkin reveals in depth, have been doing just this for many decades, shocking and repelling many viewers in the process. This has not been the safe thing to do, but these artists valued something else more than safety, or a sense of purity; they preferred the exhilaration of self-expression, self-discovery and the freedom to transform and be transformed. This intentional breaking down and experimenting with one’s body, and how we communicate that experience of being to others, is necessarily messy, but the artists Elkin writes of do not shy away. Rather, they embrace it. They resist and subvert practices of shame and concealment, attempting to bring to the fore that which has been repressed. They resist what they have been expected to be, to look like, to wear, to want. They crush their femininity or let it drip from their faces obscenely – and they persist in this careful, joyful degradation.

Elkin calls these women “art monsters”, borrowing the term from Jenny Offill, who wrote in her novel Dept. of Speculation: “My plan was to never get married [but] be an art monster instead… Women almost never become art monsters because art monsters only concern themselves with art, never mundane things. Nabokov didn’t even fold his umbrella. Véra licked his stamps for him.” Though Elkin points out that the term monstre de l’art existed previously in French, the English version is fairly recent and has struck a nerve in its association with women’s desire to be something only men have traditionally been allowed to be – free, flagrant, brazen – and not just to be an artist but to be a feminist one, embracing a degree of disgust, chaos and excess.

These ideas of monstrosity recall Gothic novels about hidden selves, erotic desires and sicknesses – the woman in the attic in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and so on. These ideas about dualism, inner splintering and tussles for both submission and domination are woven into the political, whether specifically feminist or other rebellions, and point to the idea of destruction for the sake of progression, iconoclastic and Romantic transformation. In Art Monsters, Elkin reveals the complexities of living with this dualism inherent in repressing a part of oneself, of having to be one thing to the world and another within. The work created by the art monsters is the messy consequence of living in this state, in being in a female body expected to be feminine, to present and to conceal. The feminist aesthetic that emerges from their practice builds a new reality – revealing and lingering in obscenity and provocation, showing what is not usually seen, what is expected to be hidden. The repressed and carnal feelings, the leaking and the sick. A deluge of rage, a cascade of banned transgressions. The terror and fascination of the erotic. Motherhood, sex and human frailty – and the marks they leave on us.  

What I loved about this book was its camaraderie, a palpable joy in the transgressions of feminist artists over the years, and how those individual works and careers have been so interconnected and important for each other. Art Monsters tenderly reveals all manner of rebellions and deconstructions in an embodied way, moreover, through Elkin’s interweaving of her own story of pregnancy, motherhood, research and writing, and that testimony grounds this story of feminist art. It presents the narrative of one body as connected to these other bodies, and reveals the ways in which artistic expression, which is in these cases particularly political, really does transform and inform other lives and bodies.  

There is also a sense of assembly, in the interconnected and clever way that Elkin puts together these key figures, but also in the way that she focuses on their experience and expression of their bodies alongside her own physical experience. The result is a sense of solidarity and mutual resistance, a call to arms. Art Monsters brings together stories and experiences from recent art history, articulating therein a treatise of feminist art, a shared aesthetic that is also a political vision.

Blue Eyeliner invokes a form of iconoclasm, in which Figgis smudges away a typical made-up feminine face, and in this destruction reveals a radical moment, standing over the precipice of change – a messy, unpredictable battlefield. Art Monsters provides the manifesto to accompany this action, this face bleeding colour a careful, clever statement of intent, a beautifully radical vision.

Art Monsters: Unruly Bodies in Feminist Art by Lauren Elkin is published by Chatto & Windus, price £25 (hardback).

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