the art of hannah wilke: ‘feminist narcissism’ and the reclamation of the erotic body

The politics of inclusion that shaped feminist discourse in the 1960s and 1970s spawned a legacy of body-based performance art, much of which was associated with women artists who used their own face as a subject of continual exploration. The self- imaging of women artists such as the provocative American artist Hannah Wilke was frequently attacked and dismissed by art critics as being indulgent exercises in narcissism that only served to reinforce the objectification of the female body. The charge of narcissism leveled on Wilke and her work may have been warranted, however, this should not be considered as a pejorative. Rather, the narcissism of Wilke can be viewed as a shrewd feminist tactic of self-objectification aimed at reclaiming the eroticized female body from the exclusive domain of male sexual desire. The ‘self-love’ of narcissism is a necessary component to this reclaiming of the body and the assertion of a female erotic will as being distinct from that of the male artist. Wilke wielded her narcissistic self-love as a powerful tool of critique, defiantly placing her own image into the hallowed halls of the male-dominated art institution.

The term “narcissism” derives from the ancient Greek myth of Narcissus, a beautiful but arrogant youth who cruelly spurned the love of his admirers. For his cruelty, he was cursed by the goddess Nemesis and fell in love with his own reflection in a pool of water. The doomed Narcissus pined away for his unattainable lover – the image of his own self – and literally died as a result of his amorous longing.

Sigmund Freud bestowed the name of this mythic Greek youth upon his psychoanalytic theory of narcissism, a theory that describes normal personality development. According to Freud, the self-love of narcissism is a normal complement to the development of a healthy ego. Whereas a certain amount of narcissism is desirable, an excess of self-love is considered dysfunctional and indicative of pathology. This latter definition of narcissism, the one of pathological self-absorption, has cast our current understanding of narcissism in a negative light and reinforced the use of the term as a pejorative.

The psychoanalytic theories of Freud suggest that negative or pathological narcissism is a specifically female perversion. Art critic Amelia Jones writes that “[d]rawing loosely on Freud’s definitions – which connect narcissism to both a stage of development and to a form of homosexual neurosis – narcissism has come in everyday parlance to mean simply a kind of “self-love” epitomized through woman’s obsession with her own appearance.” Hence, the charges of narcissism leveled on Hannah Wilke were attempts by the critics to summarily dismiss her work as mere manifestations of a woman’s obsessive self-love and infer, according to Jones, that Wilke’s art was not “successfully feminist.”

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2 thoughts on “the art of hannah wilke: ‘feminist narcissism’ and the reclamation of the erotic body

  1. feminist narcissism’ and the reclamation of the erotic body, hahahaha, dumbest statement in a long time, feminist dont know sexy, erotic, hell even playful banter, men,,men determine sexy erotic…..if we dont find it erotic we dont look, dont feel, thats like painting a “great picture”, that no one looks at, why is it great? why is it erotic, because a woman says so?
    note men dont find feminist sexy on average, see marriage rates, if it aint sexy or fun we dont marry “it”, the fem-men will kiss your ass and say wow, but the beta guy who works 40-50+ hrs a week says, no, no man wants to marry or sex-up a 40ish woman, that looks like a feminist narcissism who is reclamation of the erotic body, no joy no fun, feminist cant reclaim something they have never had “sexy” “erotic”.
    yeah yeah this is where you fem-men claim i love my wife(boss), and she is sexy because she says so, personally i think the fem-men are the real enemy and must be wiped out and there sons, gone. We have like a big superbowl week end where we feed them to the pigs, why such hate, they support women who think they have the right to tell us “men who think with our dicks” how to feel and find erotica….i am so tired of being told by some skirt, what is right and wrong. hopefully the feminist wins then there will be no more western white women, because all the men will find true love and erotica in the arms of every other color,
    Asian women want to be sexy, black women want to be sexy, in the eyes of males, but not white feminist’, they want to tell men what is sexy and how we should feel. women do what you want! but dont go crying when no male gives a flying F if you are alive or dead, we males determine erotic, sexy, mates, see the low birth rates, and how men are not marrying, you are not sexy, erotic, fun, or our masters.
    just as a side note see sex dolls, porn,etc…if we dont find you sexy,erotic, we will build something that is and replace you, see you in the future
    or not.

  2. Crikey. Maybe organise your thoughts next time before you vomit them out… you might come across slightly less stupid. But only slightly.

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