Art Monsters

Lauren Elkin

Art Monsters
Vintage Publishing
United Kingdom
25 July 2023

Art Monsters

Lauren Elkin

A dazzlingly original reassessment of women's stories, bodies and art - and how we think about them.

For decades, feminist artists have confronted the problem of how to tell the truth about their experiences as bodies. Queer bodies, sick bodies, racialised bodies, female bodies, what is their language, what are the materials we need to transcribe it?

Exploring the ways in which feminist artists have taken up this challenge, Art Monsters is a landmark intervention in how we think about art and the body, calling attention to a radical heritage of feminist work that not only reacts against patriarchy but redefines its own aesthetic aims.

Writing in the tradition of Susan Sontag, Hel ne Cixous and Maggie Nelson, Lauren Elkin demonstrates her power as a cultural critic, weaving daring links between disparate artists and writers - from Julia Margaret Cameron's photography to Kara Walker's silhouettes, Vanessa Bell's portraits to Eva Hesse's rope sculptures, Carolee Schneemann's body art to Theresa Hak Kyung Cha's trilingual masterpiece DICTEE - and shows that their work offers a potent celebration of beauty and excess, sentiment and touch, the personal and the political.


When I was an undergraduate in the early 1990s, I took a course in women’s art history that ran over multiple semesters and offered a historical survey. I encountered art made by Artemisia Gentileschi, Leonora Carrington, Alice Neel, Louise Bourgeois, and Carolee Schneemann, and writing from Linda Nochlin, bell hooks, Susan Sontag, and Laura Mulvey, all for the first time. My eyes were opened wide to the gaps in the history of art – and the world – that I had absorbed to this point. It’s not hyperbole to say this course reshaped my mind.

It was a pleasure, then, to revisit with older eyes some of this terrain in Lauren Elkin’s exploration of feminist art and the unruly women who have made it. Art Monsters – a phrase from Jenny Offill’s novel Dept. of Speculation – refers to women, defined by Elkin in the broadest sense of the word, who bust the boundaries of what are considered acceptable ways to behave and look. Art monsters reach for the truth of their own bodies, outside the patriarchal language that has traditionally defined, idealised and desired them.

Art Monsters is a major work, thoroughly researched, beautifully executed, and frequently surprising. Like so much of the boundary-busting art Elkin references, it is uncontainable and uncategorisable – part art history, part memoir, often conversing with the mechanics of its own creation, serious and searching. Written in fragments, it is concerned with aesthetics and affect, in opening up engagement and meaning, not closing it down in absolutes.

Conversations about feminist art, Elkin decides, have outgrown the declaration that the personal is political. This is now such a truism as to be almost meaningless. What Elkin prefers is art that surprises, providing an experience that is rooted in sensation, like life itself. Art is feminist not because of what it is but because of what it does – the political position it produces in the body of the viewer. A radical reminder of a radical way to engage with and think about women’s art, bodies and stories.

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