Neo-Dada and Anti-Art in Japan During the 1960s


The twentieth century saw the formation of new avant-garde artistic movements in Japan by artists and art groups who were largely inspired by (and exchange with) concurrent European art movements. These radical, experimental art groups challenged the status quo, both politically and artistically. Tracing back to the 1920s with the Dada art group Mavo, new experimental art movements built on one another to become more and more radical. By the 1960s these groups and movements were pushing the boundaries of art and social engagement as we know it. The 1960s can be characterized by two movements in the Japanese avant-garde art scene: Neo-Dada and Anti-Art. Both can be framed as reactions to the sociopolitical climate of Japan in the 1950s and 60s. Neo-Dada is characterized by radical deviation from conventional art standards, with high levels of importance placed on the body as an expressive tool; Anti-Art attempted to re-conceptualize the definition of art, aiming for a “descent to the mundane” 1 in which the line between art and non-art was blurred or destroyed altogether. Artists Takamatsu Jiro, Nakanishi Natsuyuki, and Akasegawa Genpei were three Japanese artists whose works exemplify the Neo-Dada and Anti-Art movements of Tokyo in the 1960s. Their performances or ‘happenings’ as the group Hi Red Center, and Akasegawa Genpei’s “1000-Yen Note Incident” provide excellent examples of events that lay out the intentions behind these movements, as well as the methods employed by artists to bring the ideas to life.

The Neo-Dada and Anti-Art movements of the 1960s are widely viewed as responses to historical events. In the fallout of World War II, Japan entered “a period of shock, tragedy, and a struggle for survival […] by 1951, the goals of the Occupation had been achieved: Japan’s military machine had been dismantled, her war-torn economy revived, and a democratic form of government established” 2. The United States still desired to station troops in Japan as a front against the USSR during the Cold War, so the US-Japan Security Treaty was signed. All of the anxiety and animosity of the period generated leftist sentiments in the form of communist, anti-militarist, and anti-imperialist movements, which gained popular traction. One common goal of these leftist movements was to stop the re-ratification of the US-Japan Security Alliance in 1960. Leftists rejected its furthering of US militarism and imperialism; their sentiments taking the form of protests and demonstrations that culminated in a massive riot between demonstrators and police in front of the Diet Building on June 15, 1960. Regardless of public opposition to ratification, the treaty was indeed re-signed. The failure of these leftist movements to achieve their goal contributed to “a collapse of faith in liberal humanism and communism to penetrate the authoritarian and conservative structures of Japanese society” 3 and forms of artistic expression that “dismissed political ideology altogether and celebrated anarchistic revel” 4.

A great example of this artistic response is the avant-garde art group Hi Red Center founded by artists Akasegawa Genpei, Takamatsu Jiro, and Nakanishi Natsuyuki. The group emerged from the art scene at the Yomiuri Independent Exhibition, a place with “optimistic disregard for any cultural authority whatsoever” that embraced “the euphoria of apathy” 5. Many Yomiuri artists “advocated making junk art and violent demonstrations to protest the conventional practice of art. In a messy and anarchistic riot, they experimented with forms of art and performance that parodied and critiqued the social establishment” 6. What set Hi Red Center apart was the artists’ shared interests in “objet as the focus of events that would go beyond the walls of the museum or gallery as well as their informed leftist concern for the inequities of modern Japan” 7 . A work that exemplifies these traits of Hi Red Center is The Yamanote Line Event, a ‘happening’ performed on October 18, 1962. Nakanishi, with his face painted white, crouched on a train station platform and emphatically licked an egg made of clear polymer resin filled with everyday objects such as “wristwatches, bits of rope, sunglasses, bottlecaps, and human hair” 8 . Takematsu stood behind Nakanishi, nonchalantly reading a newspaper with holes burnt in it while holding one of his own objects, a long rope attached to everyday objects. Akasegawa acted as the photographer while Nakanishi boarded the train, hung his egg on the strap hanging from the ceiling meant to be a handhold, and shined a flashlight upon onlooker’s faces to observe their reactions.

What was the point of such an absurd performance, and how does it illustrate a collapse of faith in leftist political movements to dismantle conservativism in Japan? First, Hi Red Center was interested in how space influenced viewers’ interpretations of art. They aimed to “destroy the hierarchical status of art by bringing it into the ‘space of daily activities’” 9 .They had suspicions about the constraints of traditional art exhibition spaces: “what is offered to the public, at which venue, by whom, under what circumstances, resulting in what reception?” 10 . They believed art exhibitions and the institutions that promoted them were constraining, which would be counterproductive for a group trying to engage in anarchistic revel. Furthermore, they were concerned that art spaces could be inaccessible or alienating to much of the public—which would be elitist, and would make art complicit in the “mechanical banality and covert authoritarianism underlying Japan’s mass capitalist society” 11 , and the very social establishment the artists were attempting to critique. The decision to perform in a public space is a clear attempt to disrupt the banality of everyday life that tells citizens to conform to social roles that benefit the state—like, be productive for the economy, which is what most businesspeople on the Yamanote Line were likely thinking about before they saw the event. Second, Anti-Art shows that the context of a designated art space constrains the meaning of something displayed within that space as ‘art,’ which goes against the goal of blurring the lines between art and everyday life. If Nakanishi had licked an egg object at an art exhibition, it would immediately be recognized and consumed as art; though, when he did it on the train platform, the act truly bewildered onlookers, who were merely living their day-to-day lives. Onlookers outside of the exhibition space were able to consume the objects, performance, and artist in new, unpredictable ways. Taro Okamoto said, “utter nonsense might have more power to change social reality than seriousness”12. If riots and demonstrations against the militaristic and imperialist Anpo treaty failed, then perhaps politics had to be engaged with “not only on the social and spatial strata, but also on the subjective level of the individual and the body itself”13 via public performance art that purposefully embodies non-normative, non-productive practices.

Perhaps the clash between the goals of Anti-Art and institutional power is even more evident in the 1000 Yen Note Incident, that occurred when police impounded Akasegawa Genpei’s artworks that utilized copies of 1000 yen note bills such as “Morphology of Revenge,” and charged the artist with counterfeiting. The artist cited money as “most familiar yet forgotten object”14 and by making sculptures out of copies of money, Akasegawa “stripped the authority of the object […] the premise of the money system makes us believe the original money is far more real and valuable than the simulated model,”15 even though the materials themselves were virtually the same. The trial began in 1966, and Akasegawa and other artists turned the courtroom into an exhibition space, where they gave lectures on contemporary art movements and displayed their absurd objets. Akasegawa’s defense was that his work was a model, and not a counterfeit, and the two differed due to intention. He therefore defended his work as art, which reified the boundary between art and non-art, thus not adhering to the premise of Anti-Art. Though he did achieve his goal of garnering an increased audience size, for the event was a sensation in Japan and is now heavily recorded both in art and social history. This brings us to “the riddle of the avant-garde: the eventual institutionalization of even the most radically iconoclastic, vanguard practices within public culture […] the avant-garde, will sooner or later, be separated from the sphere of life and preserved in the realm of art in a historicized, academicized, or otherwise institutionalized form”16.

In conclusion, artworks like “Morphology of Revenge” and The Yamanote Line Event illustrate how social reality can be engaged with and transformed via art; however, they also demonstrate the limit of art to challenge dominant modes of social reality promoted by institutions like the state. Neo-Dada artists can celebrate anarchistic revel and absurdity in their groups and spaces, they are not separate from the sociopolitical environment around them; Anti-Art practitioners can try to eliminate the boundary between art and the rest of life, but when confronted with legal forces, the two categories might have to be upheld as separate. These two artistic movements were two of many developments in the 20th Century avant-garde, and like prior artistic movements like Mavo, Neo-Dada and Anti-Art ran their course before transforming into new movements that continued to challenge the artistic and social status quo.




  1. Tomii, Reiko. “State v. (Anti-)Art: Model 1,000-Yen Note Incident by Akasegawa Genpei and

Company.” Positions: east asia cultures critique 10, no. 1 (2002): 147.

  1. Munroe, Alexandra. “Morphology of Revenge: The Yomiuri Independant Artists and Social

Protest Tendencies in the 1960s.” Japanese Art After 1945, 150.

  1. Munroe, Alexandra. “Morphology of Revenge: The Yomiuri Independant Artists and Social

Protest Tendencies in the 1960s.” Japanese Art After 1945, 151.

  1. Munroe, Alexandra. “Morphology of Revenge: The Yomiuri Independant Artists and Social

Protest Tendencies in the 1960s.” Japanese Art After 1945, 151.

  1. Munroe, Alexandra. “Morphology of Revenge: The Yomiuri Independant Artists and Social

Protest Tendencies in the 1960s.” Japanese Art After 1945, 156.

  1. Munroe, Alexandra. “Morphology of Revenge: The Yomiuri Independant Artists and Social

Protest Tendencies in the 1960s.” Japanese Art After 1945, 151.

  1. Munroe, Alexandra. “Morphology of Revenge: The Yomiuri Independant Artists and Social

Protest Tendencies in the 1960s.” Japanese Art After 1945, 159.

  1. Chong, Doryun. “Tokyo 1955-1970: A New Avant-Garde.” Art Anti-Art Non-Art:

Experimentations in the Public Sphere in Postwar Japan 1950-1970. Los Angeles: Getty

Research Institute, 2007: 27.

  1. Munroe, Alexandra. “Morphology of Revenge: The Yomiuri Independant Artists and Social

Protest Tendencies in the 1960s.” Japanese Art After 1945, 159.

  1. Tomii, Reiko. “State v. (Anti-)Art: Model 1,000-Yen Note Incident by Akasegawa Genpei

and Company.” Positions: east asia cultures critique 10, no. 1 (2002): 142.

  1. Munroe, Alexandra. “Morphology of Revenge: The Yomiuri Independant Artists and Social

Protest Tendencies in the 1960s.” Japanese Art After 1945, 159.

  1. Munroe, Alexandra. “Morphology of Revenge: The Yomiuri Independant Artists and Social

Protest Tendencies in the 1960s.” Japanese Art After 1945, 159.


  1. Chong, Doryun. “Tokyo 1955-1970: A New Avant-Garde.” Art Anti-Art Non-Art:

Experimentations in the Public Sphere in Postwar Japan 1950-1970. Los Angeles: Getty

Research Institute, 2007: 27.

  1. Tomii, Reiko. “State v. (Anti-)Art: Model 1,000-Yen Note Incident by Akasegawa Genpei

and Company.” Positions: east asia cultures critique 10, no. 1 (2002): 147.

  1. Tomii, Reiko. “State v. (Anti-)Art: Model 1,000-Yen Note Incident by Akasegawa Genpei

and Company.” Positions: east asia cultures critique 10, no. 1 (2002): 150.

  1. Tomii, Reiko. “State v. (Anti-)Art: Model 1,000-Yen Note Incident by Akasegawa Genpei

and Company.” Positions: east asia cultures critique 10, no. 1 (2002): 162.





Chong, Doryun. “Tokyo 1955-1970: A New Avant-Garde.” Art Anti-Art Non-Art:

Experimentations in the Public Sphere in Postwar Japan 1950-1970. Los Angeles: Getty

Research Institute, 2007.


Munroe, Alexandra. “Morphology of Revenge: The Yomiuri Independant Artists and Social

Protest Tendencies in the 1960s.” Japanese Art After 1945, 149-187.


Tomii, Reiko. “State v. (Anti-)Art: Model 1,000-Yen Note Incident by Akasegawa Genpei and

Company.” Positions: east asia cultures critique 10, no. 1 (2002): 141-72.



i went outside

here is a small portfolio of poems i made for a workshop course i took over the spring semester at ku with megan kaminski and some cool helpful classmates. the collection is called i went outside because i wrote many of the poems while i was outside. i had a statement of poetics with it but idk where it went? shruuuugs anyway i hope u enjoy it.

some queer shit

here’s a link to a manuscript i made called some queer shit. it’s mostly about queer anarchism and queer ecology.

here’s my statement about it:

I think my manuscript “Some Queer Shit” best reflects my creativity because it is the most interdisciplinary work I have to offer. It’s an assemblage of poetry, critical and philosophical musings, personal accounts, and visual art. Most of the content was produced by me, and I did all the work compiling it, but it also contains work from my sister and closest friends and, as well as cooperative work done with colleagues originally produced for other spaces and events like the Manhattan Experimental Theatre Workshop. I’ll try to provide a concise list of everyone who contributed to the project and would love to share recognition for the award if it comes to that! Beyond that though, I think the work questions dominant notions of authorhood and originality, and subverts the trope of artist as an individual genius that exists outside of encounter with others and social and political systems.

Furthermore, I think the work’s tactility – which is why I am submitting it in person – is important because it makes the work more personal and intimate when read by an audience. I love the manuscript as an object, a sculpture, and ways it can interact with readers beyond merely being read. I like how it looks when it sits on a table, I’ve been reading about the material sublime and a potential resurgence of ‘the real’ through the corporeal and so maybe you can see how queerness and ecology and anarchism manifest in my life personally (as a pansexual polyamorous gender-nonconforming lil thang) by touching the things that I have touched and getting glitter and chalk on your fingers and messing with the iPhone cord I bound some of the book with. It’s super fun, and I learned a lot while making it, so it blurs lines between academic and creative, process and content, form and content, public and private spaces, and the line between work and play, which is all critical to moving towards a more queer-friendly conceptualization of nature that embraces difference as a point of unity—which is important because nature is sort of a stand-in for our broader ontological orientation toward others, a la the ‘human nature’ debate. But really I just think it’s cool and funny so I hope you like it too!

People who contributed:

Hobby Lobby, sadly

Reid Beer, my old roommate who let me use his printer

Sarah Ngoh, it was for her class

Melody Peacock Barnett, my grandma who gave me the calendar I cut up

National Geographic

A bunch of professors at the Queer Ecology Summit 2015

Flora Riley, who gave me many art supplies

Whoever wrote the anonymous anti-copyright zine “Queer Anarchism”

Olivia Bashaw, my sis

Jenny Saville

Kazimir Malevich

Mona Hatoum

Antonin Artaud

Gustave Courbet

Dakota Santiago

Daniel Aramouni

Emma Brase

Evan Hager

Isabelle Diller

Ashley Flinn

Shay Burmeister


Creator of many anon memes

Egon Schiele

Hot Pockets

Tomie Futakuchi

FT Marinetti

Annie Spence

Cherokee Hayden

Alex Brase

Lauren Fischer

Alexander Rodchinko


Hank Willis


And here’s some other releases about my work!

Corporate Pride Makes Us Cry: Anti-hegemony, Queer Anarchism and Gay Shame


Being queer in America in 2016 is a precarious position. Queerness is more visible than ever in American society—the Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v Hodges upheld the right for same-sex couples to marry, the White House installed its first gender-neutral bathroom, more and more celebrities are coming out as queer, and both mainstream and social media outlets are zealous to cover it all! Who has not scrolled past a Buzzfeed or Huff Post article on Facebook regarding transwomen Laverne Cox or Caitlin Jenner? Did you hear? Obama said the word transgender in his State of the Union address! Representation has greatly increased for gender and sexuality-non conforming people these past few years, which is so important— just like the people they see on TV and read about on the Internet, more and more people (especially youth) are recognizing and embracing their own queerness. It is becoming much more difficult for society at large to ignore its growing queer population. However, while visibility surely counts as progress, it does not come without repercussion. According to a report published by the Human Rights Campaign in February 2016, over 40 anti-trans* laws are on the docket across 16 states, double the number from last year. Frightening, since 2015 saw the highest ever number of anti-transgender laws on US dockets in the form of restrictions on medical practice, bathroom and locker-room usage in public venues like schools, bars on housing and employment, and more (7). Even restrictions on the lifestyles of cisgender, same-sex couples continue to exist in the form of local sodomy laws (state-wide criminalization of homosexual sex was not taken up by the Supreme Court until 2003) and adoption rights.

Anti-queer sentiment obviously still persists in America, and increasing visibility of queer folk makes them easier targets. Marginalized groups desperately need to be recognized by the structures that marginalize them so steps can be taken to alter those structures to make them more inclusive; paradoxically, by becoming more visible, marginalized groups open themselves up for more discrimination from a system that inherently resists change. There exists an ever-increasing tension between the getting-queerer American population and the still-very-straight power structures that govern over them. And the question remains—what can we, as queer folk or social activists, do to resolve that tension?

For the purpose of this paper, I intend to investigate this question. I will begin by exploring definitions of queer as accepted by hegemonic American society, and by queer scholars and activists in an effort to situate the queer experience within the present-day framework of neoliberal politics and state power. I will then explore some past and present responses to queer inequality. Finally, I will offer queer anarchy as the best possible solution to not only the tension between the queer experience and the power structures that govern over queer people, but to creating a more just American society for all people.

Any discussion of the queer experience requires that we first spend some time defining terms. Of whom is America’s queer population composed? Similarly, what qualifies an individual as queer versus not queer? Most obviously, society says that if we engage in homosexual sex, then we are queer. That definition is extremely narrow and arbitrary, and later brands of feminism and the contemporary LGBT+ movement expanded the term to include other non-heterosexual orientations (bisexual, pansexual, asexual, etc.) as well as gender-non conforming people. In an even broader sense, queer scholars and activists have defined ‘queer’ as a mode of subjectivity that seeks to deviate itself from hegemony. Hegemony can best be understood as a set of beliefs taken by society as ultimate ‘truths’ that we may not even think to question.  Take the cliché of the American dream which boils down to getting a well-paying job, finding a spouse (typically of the opposite gender), then fulfilling your God-given biological determinist duty by popping out two and half Coke-drinking, sports-playing kids who have their mother’s eyes and father’s playful sense of humor. As Americans, we are exposed to these ideas at such a young age, by so many outlets, so many times over and over again, that these values become valorized, almost unquestionable—they become hegemonic. Ironically, however, for the majority of Americans these ideals are unattainable; race, gender, sexuality, class, and ability present daunting obstacles to success in a rigged system meant to favor white, masculine, straight, upper-class able bodied individuals. Regardless, many marginalized people opt to strive towards those ideals anyway—the ones who do not, those who rebel against hegemonic notions of value and success, could be labelled as queer. The queer are those who, as an act of rejection, attempt separate themselves from the hegemony by opposing dominant values.

If such a wide variety of people could potentially fall under the umbrella term of ‘queer,’ we may then wonder what single system exists that can oppress such a diverse group. The answer is complex—we must first recognize that identity is intersectional, meaning factors of race, gender, sex and sexuality, class, and ability are all intricately intertwined. If one is identified as not-white, the system of racism will oppress them. If one is identified as not-straight, the system of heteronormativity will oppress them. If one is not a man, or does not identify as such even though they have a penis, the transphobic patriarchy will most definitely oppress them, and so on. All of these systems and their interactions are summed up by the term ‘kyriarchy,’ used to refer to intersectional systems of oppression enforced by domination—sexism, racism, homophobia, classism, economic injustice, colonialism, ethnocentrism, and militarism all playing important roles. Under the kyriarchy, power is consolidated in entities like modern nation-states, transnational corporations, and other non-governmental organizations (NGOs) which all operate together under western democracies, epitomized by American neoliberalism.

If we conceptualize the kyriarchy as the social state of the status quo, neoliberalism is the economic means through which the kyriarchy is upheld. According to cultural anthropologist Margot Weiss, neoliberalism can be defined as an economic school of thought that

‘proposes that human well-being can best be advanced […] by strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade.’ There are cultural components […] that in the United States map onto social configurations […] as well as onto particularly American cultural values: privatization, personal responsibility, agentic individualism, autonomy, and personal freedom. As an ideology, the supposedly free, unfettered market is understood as the resolution to social problems, and individual freedom becomes market choice. […] Politics has retreated from the public sphere into the domestic, the intimate. In this newly privatized setting, it is the relationship within families, structured through consumption, rather than a civic relationship between individuals and the state, that serves as the locus for engagement: consumer citizenship. (4)

Under neoliberalism, the line between private entities like corporations and public entities like state agencies becomes blurred, and the individual becomes the locus point for politics. While none of that might sound particularly oppressive, problems arise because neoliberal individualism assumes all individuals to have equal standing in society, which they do not due to kyriarchal issues of identity like race, gender, sexuality, class, et cetera. Neoliberalism is what causes oppression to become cyclical—in a way, it explains how America’s number of queer people and anti-queer legislation are both growing at the same time.

Queer populations are excluded and subjugated in a multitude of ways by the institutions that make up the neoliberal state. Most plainly, the state has the power to pass laws that restrict queer people’s agency, laws like the ones currently sitting on numerous state dockets that allow companies to fire (or not hire) employees based on their perceived sexuality or gender. Furthermore, the neoliberal state resists change because it functions hierarchically, its institutions operated not-so-coincidentally by the mega-privileged. These are the people which had the capacity to climb the socioeconomic ladder of meritocracy in the first place, the same one that is built to prefer white, cisgender, able-bodied men with a plethora of capital. Until marginalized people hold high-up positions within institutions that have the power to create widespread social change, society will remain stagnant. Unfortunately, the odds of marginalized people climbing the hierarchical social ladder under neoliberalism are statistically stacked against them in a kyriarchal society whose neoliberal doctrine claims that all are equal in the eyes of the free market. While one may point to marginalized figures which have succeeded in garnering social power under neoliberalism regardless of identity like Hillary Clinton, these token figures have had to sacrifice much of their identities to get where they are today. Think about it—how feminine of a politic did Hillary Clinton get to execute as Secretary of State? How queer of a politic could a queer person execute as a high-ranking actor within institutions like the United States government or a private corporation?

Clearly, traditional avenues of social change offered by the state are not working well enough. While we cannot deny the harms avoided thanks to milestone legislation like the Civil Rights Act of 1964 or Hate Crime Prevention Act of 2009, when we think about how long it took such acts to pass and how much longer it took such acts to be enforced, holes begin to appear in the logic of state reformism. State law can have enormous power, but no law has the power to elevate the social status of marginalized people to that of the privileged. Rather, laws place restrictions or punishments on individual acts of oppression that are often limited to the most flagrant and extreme violations, like racially segregating a restaurant or physically assaulting someone for being gay. Many acts of oppression, violent and otherwise, go unreported, and many more are disregarded in a court system that empirically favors white, straight, cisgender males. The situation can seem hopeless at first, but one only needs to look at the history of queer social activism to find potential avenues of change that lie outside of the rigged neoliberal state apparatus.

In 1970, during the midst of the Gay Liberation movement, social activist Carl Wittman published “A Gay Manifesto: Refugees from Amerika,” a short but groundbreaking piece of writing that meditates on queerness, focusing predominantly on male homosexuality. Wittman’s discourse is surprisingly self-reflexive and presented guidelines concerning the social roles gay people tend to play within their straight-dominated society, warning against attempts by queer people be merely ‘accepted’ by straight people. He brings to light four forms of anti-gay oppression: high rates of physical violence; the ‘psychological warfare’ heternormativity imposes on queer youth by invalidating non-heterosexuality as deviant; internalized oppression within the gay community (specifically, he urges ‘closet queens,’ or men who discreetly have sex with other men but pass as straight, to come out in order to become a visible symbol of resistance to straight culture); and he even critiqued the state by mentioning the criminalization of homosexual sex and systemic privileging of straight, cisgender, upper-class white men within institutions like the United States government. While the manifesto is celebrated as a cornerstone of gay activism, few scholars have noted just how critical the author can be of the gay community—much of the text celebrates the sexual aspects of male homosexuality and queer resilience, but the author spends even more time critiquing problematic behaviors within the queer community.

Wittman decries the escapism evident in mass relocation of gay individuals to ‘queer-friendly’ communities such as San Francisco, opening his piece with, “San Francisco is a refugee camp for homosexuals. We have fled here from every part of the nation, and like refugees elsewhere, we came not because it is so great here, but because it was so bad there” (5).  The rainbow crosswalks of the San Francisco’s gay district, the Castro, are even today crammed full of men comfortably holding hands with other men—they are from all over the country, on the run from their gay-bashing or gay-less origins. Burroughs like the Castro are constructed by Wittman in his literature not as secluded paradises, but as symbolic gay ghettos—while the Castro has certainly historically been more accepting than much of the country, and while it offers a high population of hypothetically like-minded queer individuals, Wittman points out that these “… ghettos breed self-hatred. We stagnate here, accepting the status quo. The status quo is rotten. We are all warped by our oppression […] Capitalists make money off of us, cops patrol us, government tolerates us as long as we shut up…” (5). Writing off the suffering caused by the social norms propagated by the state as issues of locality, queer individuals since long before the 1960s have flocked to cities that pride themselves on acceptance and tolerance (San Francisco, New York, Seattle, et cetera) to find solidarity with fellow queers.

However, Wittman reasons that upon arrival, social reality turns out not to be a glittery paradise free of sexual strife and anti-queerness; rather, ‘refugees’ find themselves in minuscule accommodating pockets of larger cities governed by the same heteronormative structures that caused ‘refugees’ to leave their hometowns in the first place—the state is geographically inescapable. The Castro exemplifies his point: it does not exist in some sociopolitical vacuum, rather it must legally operate under the heteropatriarchal systems functioning above it. Even if a queer person relocates to San Francisco from their God-fearing, pansy-punching, probably-Southern hometown to save themselves from damaging physical or emotional harm in the short term, their action does nothing to change the wider, accepted hegemonic beliefs that create the precondition for the existence of their oppressive hometowns in the first place. Even in progressive cities like San Francisco, organizations with power retain that power based off of subjugation of the queer working class.

To truly escape the anti-queer violence of America, Wittman contends that queer people “[…] need to define a pluralistic, role-free social structure for ourselves” (5). Unfortunately, Wittman’s analysis on queer escapism does not take into account the impracticality of completely escaping state politics, thus demonstrating how infeasible it would be to create the new-and-improved societal structure he discusses. So, while Wittman does set an imperative precedent for self-reflexivity within gay activist communities by offering some critiques of larger oppressive systems at play, he leaves us without an effective call to action because he does explain in detail what a new social structure outside of heteronormative state politics would look like—or how we might make one possible. Wittman outlines how that structure would optimally be free of heteropatriarchal dogma, but otherwise, when viewed through a contemporary intersectional lens, many of the ideas Wittman presents as solutions in his manifesto are blatantly problematic because his solution steps are laced inextricably with the identity politics of privileged cisgender gay men—the essay only tangentially mentions the struggles of queer women, and completely disregards transgender people, people of color, and the disabled.

The shortcomings of Wittman’s “Refugees from Amerika” echo the wider inadequacies of the Gay Liberation movement of the late 20th Century—that is, intersectionalism is not stressed enough, and no concrete solutions for effective social change are put forth. Ideologically, a movement truly pursuing egalitarianism must recognize that class, race, gender, and ability all interrelate; yet Gay Liberation has habitually underplayed how these identities intersect with sexual identity. Their radical focus on sexuality only concurrently obfuscates and entrenches other forms of oppression. Additionally, the lack of peaceful proposed alternatives to state politics only creates tension that resolves itself through violent protests like the Stonewall Riots. Regardless of the situational violence committed, Stonewall was an integral moment in queer history, and arguably led to many positive societal changes, furthering the goals of the Gay Liberation Movement.

As the GLM and other grassroots movements continued to battle for queer equality into the 21st Century, traces of sexist, racist, classist, and ableist behaviors still lingered in the forms of phenomena like racialized depictions of HIV and AIDS during the scare of the 1980s. Even within the contemporary reformist-centered LGBTQ+ equality movement these problems arise—for example, the recent movie Stonewall was meant to celebrate the roots of the LGBTQ+ equality movement and Gay Pride, but instead presented a revisionist account of the riots that failed to mention that a transwoman was the one to catalyze the event, replacing her role with a cisgender gay man.

Paralleling the shortcomings of Wittman’s “A Gay Manifesto,” the contemporary struggle for queer equality has also reverted back to focusing on state reformism—American society has taken the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and the Supreme Court ruling in favor of same-sex marriage as indicators that gay is officially OK, and queer folk are no longer marginalized. Even many queer people (particularly male, cisgender, gay youth—the queer people with the most privilege and the most power, therefore those who are the most visible to straight society) seem to have irresponsibly ignored the cries of their lesbian, non-gender conforming, non-white allies, and accepted the status quo as good enough.

The shift in focus away from direct political action and towards state reformism can be noted in movements like Gay Pride, which ironically started in New York as a remembrance of the Stonewall riots. The modern LGBTQ+ equality movement hinges on these festivals, but, viewed critically, Gay Pride events are often mere consumerist extravaganzas that only engender neoliberal violence by promoting legal reformism. Disavowing the strategies of direct political action practiced by movements like Gay Liberation, today’s Gay Pride events concern themselves with shallow, symptomatic levels of gay oppression, the end-goal typically being to reform unfair laws. Frequently, the laws targeted are only the ones that affect cisgender homosexuals, furthering a violent form of identity politics that excludes wide swathes of the overall queer population. Even worse, Gay Pride attendees often unwittingly support anti-queerness, since many of the corporations that sponsor (AKA, profit off of) these events engender anti-queerness themselves whether directly (such as using profits for anti-queer lobbying) or indirectly (such as promoting neo-colonial representations of anti-queerness that isolate heteronormative violence in, say, the Middle East).

Despite flaws, Gay Pride events are being embraced by many privileged queer communities as well as straight society. The contemporary LGBTQ+ equality movement seems to be falling into a similar rut as Wittman—but luckily, with each unique form of oppression uncovered by activists, multiple forms of resistance spring up as a reaction. Queer theorist Jack Halberstam, in a 2014 lecture entitled “The Wild: The Aesthetics of Queer Anarchism,” has at last outlined an alternative to oppressive state-bound, legal reformist approaches to equality in the form of queer anarchism.

For us to understand what this particular strand of anarchism looks like, it is helpful to first connect the queer identity to anarchism.  Much like how we as Americans are socialized into upholding the hegemonic notion of the American dream, and in doing so accept the underlying kyriarchal notions that uphold it, Halberstam argues that America’s children are socialized to think and act like miniature heteropatriarchal states, whether they consciously want to or not. Citizens of the modern, western nation state prioritize notions of symmetry and order over chaos and disorder, they fear the unknown and flock to the certain, not necessarily because those ideals are better, but simply because those ideals are what they have learned (3). The logic of the state and the decision-making processes behind it have become hegemonic—so who is better equipped to combat state rationale than the queer?  According to Halberstam, the queer’s mode of subjectivity allows for an interjection in the foundations that structure our collective ways of knowing and existing; the queer is able to remove themselves from hegemony, is able to question hegemony, and is able to reject hegemony entirely. The ability to reject universally accepted ‘truths’ is why queerness melds so well with anarchy.

In terms of defining queer anarchism, the beauty of the school of thought lies in the fact that no one truly knows, exactly. Halberstam implores, “I ask you to hold onto the idea of anarchy. Not as a clear tradition that we all know, but hold onto it as something other than business than usual” (3). Popular visions of anarchism view the system as a sort of glorified libertarianism, a violent world of lawlessness ruled by roaming gangs of hypermasculine terrorists, an undeniably pessimistic view. The dystopic mythos of anarchy is possibly a result of the anxiety one feels when attempting to conceptualize thought outside of what hegemony tells society to be true—it requires embracing the same sense of radical freedom that comes with, say, accepting the gender binary as a cultural construction. Halberstam counters negative depictions of anarchism by queering the definition: the theorist formulates queer anarchy as an unexplored area of potential operating outside of the state apparatus. This realm of thought and being, one outside of state logic and politics, has been deemed the Wild, or the unknown.

Queer anarchy and the Wild are beneficial in that they offer the opportunity to formulate new strands of political thought that avoid hegemonic state logic, which is inherently violent. The sovereign state pulls individuals into its own violent mode of being in what Halberstam identifies as a ‘violence of inclusion’ (3) that manifests itself in innumerable ways, most of them seemingly unavoidable. After all, as Americans we are born into citizenship and told that we are Americans from the day we are born. It may seem harmless to identify as an American, but by identifying as a part of a state (whether done consciously or not) we are also tied to the actions and discourse of that state—including harms like imperialism and kyriarchal oppression. Disavowing our relationship to the state can be tricky, however. If we speak out against the state, we are otherized by those who continue to operate within state structures—queer anarchists are subject to being lumped with reactionary groups like the Tea Party or religious fundamentalists. While social repercussions may seem severe, Halberstam maintains that we should embrace the exclusion that is the result of resisting state logic, since it could generate momentum for a grassroots movement—after all, why seek to be included in a violent system?

Halberstam offers a long history of anti-state and anti-capitalist resistance as evidence for the possibility of new and unexplored political frameworks, and she also takes note of the general growing discontent with the legal system that could fuel queer anarchist momentum. Movements are happening now—Halberstam points out, “people are so sick and tired of state politics that […]It’s not something you have to call for, it’s something you have to notice” (3). Social movements of the 20th Century like Gay Liberation long ago sewed seeds of doubt in state logic, and today discontent with the legal system, especially with regards to how it treats the oppressed, has been growing steadily in the past few years. For example, one might think of the failure of the Grand Jury to indict Officer Darren Wilson after he murdered Mike Brown, an unarmed black man. Would he have been shot if it were possible for him to consent to the hegemony by being white? The conflict garnered international media attention and helped the Black Lives Matter movement gain momentum, an undertaking that is still generating considerable quantities of discourse focused on systemic racism, police militarization, and the legal system as a whole.

While less prevalent than Black Lives Matter, a collective that better embodies queer anarchist thought (especially with regards to anti-state politics) is the organization Gay Shame. A radical queer protest group founded in New York in the late 1990s, Gay Shame was initially formed as a reaction to the perceived commercialization of the gay identity, particularly evident in the corporate sponsorship that sustains Gay Pride events. The organization prospered for a while with chapters springing up internationally, but after a decade the movement lost momentum and seemed to fizzle out. However, in 2013, Gay Shame reemerged in none other than America’s queer refugee camp, San Francisco. Currently the largest and most active chapter, Gay Shame San Francisco’s political agenda has expanded, using non-conventional direct political action to achieve broader queer anti-assimilationist goals. The “About Us” section of Gay Shame San Francisco’s website reads as follows:

GAY SHAME is a Virus in the System. We are committed to a queer extravaganza that brings direct action to astounding levels of theatricality. We will not be satisfied with a commercialized gay identity that denies the intrinsic links between queer struggle and challenging power. We seek nothing less than a new queer activism that foregrounds race, class, gender and sexuality, to counter the self-serving “values” of gay consumerism and the increasingly hypocritical left. We are dedicated to fighting the rabid assimilationist monster with a devastating mobilization of queer brilliance. GAY SHAME is a celebration of resistance: all are welcome (1).

Gay Shame attempts to adhere to queer anarchist thought by operating on the spectrum opposite state politics. Embracing notions like those discussed in Halberstam’s lecture, the group is organized non-hierarchically and decisions are made by consensus—every individual has to agree on an action before it is undertaken—a radical departure from the supposed democratic republicanism of the modern neoliberal state, in which majority rule has become a means to silence those without power. The means by which the organization engages in direct political action also challenges the state. Through spectacle, camp-ness and theatricality, Gay Shame combats hegemony by injecting politics into public spaces through street performance and protest (4).

Gay Shame’s brand of theatrical, over-the-top direct political engagement through street performance is an alternative that jolts citizens out of their day-to-day thoughts and actions, and can promote thinking outside of the hegemonic and state politics box. Margot Weiss, in her article “Gay Shame and BDSM Pride: Neoliberalism, Privacy, and Sexual Politics” highlights the importance of performance in Gay Shame’s ideology.

Gay Shame’s performative campaign draws attention to the coconstruction of sexual

citizenship with racialized, gendered, and classed positionality. The celebration of

effeminate flamboyance—femininity in the face of “male power”—is precisely what

is excluded from homonormative gay activisms. By spectacularizing the intersections

of gender, race, class, and sexuality, this campaign showcases Gay Shame’s strategy

of “turning it out”: building a loud sexual culture that is inclusive of and responsive

to these vectors of difference (4).

By combining intersectional political goals with public spectacle that disrupts everyday life and encourages non-hegemonic thinking in a feminine, evocative, fun and gay way, Gay Shame’s protests challenge state neoliberalism and broader assimilationist politics. Their methodologies confront traditional masculine, respectable forms of protest often spearheaded by white cisgender men seeking institutional change. Gay Shame’s protests offer a glimpse into Halberstam’s Wild; the unknown political framework that lies outside the state apparatus: queer anarchism.

A helpful illustration of Gay Shame’s doctrine in work can be found in their protest of the 2014 San Francisco Pride event “Prison of Love.” The event was plainly sexual in nature, co-sponsored by—it “mockingly invite[d] people to ‘get arrested’ and enjoy ‘solitary confinement, showers, jailbreak, love and lust, freedom and confinement” (2). The gathering was condemned by Gay Shame, which argued that it trivialized very real state violence committed non-proportionally against gender non-conforming people. Specifically, it belittled the harmful effects of the prison-industrial complex, a state byproduct of kyriarchy and neoliberalism, which disproportionately subjects incarcerated groups like transgender people of color to rape and brutalization. Gay Shame also condemned the fact that San Francisco Pride was doing so in the name of profit. The event was the epitome of privilege—safe gay men and women were paying money to live out their exotic sexual fantasies of  being ‘dominated’ by ‘prison guards,’ while outside the orgy countless queer prisoners had to face the horrific realities of sexual abuse. So, Gay Shame arranged a protest called “Prison of Love”—“On June 28th as hordes of white gays dance the night away to the deep thump of domination, GAY SHAME calls on every one to pull the fire alarms and shut this shit down; because PRIDE is a nightmare, prisons are not sexy, and boycotting is not enough” (2).


On the night of the protest, after organizing, Gay Shame activists were (ironically) met with police violence—seven protestors were arrested and dozens more attacked. According to witnesses, well after the protest had transpired, a security guard pursued protestors down the street to a BART station, then harassed the protestors, who at this point were simply waiting to go home (1, 2). did not comment on the confrontation—occasions such as this one illustrate how the companies which sponsor Gay Pride events have motives consisting almost entirely of money and power, not the lavender façade of social progress their advertisements promote.

While the “Prison of Love” protest demonstrates Gay Shame’s intersectional politics, its anti-assimilationist politics are typified by the organization’s stance against gay marriage. In June of 2015, the federal Supreme Court ruled in favor of allowing same-sex couples to marry. While pockets of resistance still persists (symbolized on polar ends by Gay Shame, and by Kim Davis, the shrew-like Kentucky legal clerk who refused to marry a same-sex couple despite legal precedent), the overall societal opinion towards the ruling hailed it as beneficial social progress. After all, if two straight people are able to get married have always been able to marry, is it not only fair, is it not only time, that two gay people can get married, as well?

According to Gay Shame, the answer is, “Wrong!” Even the question is fraught with problematic assumptions: it assumes that state-sanctioned straight marriage was fair in the first place, it assumes that queer people want to be a part of heteropatriarchal institutions, and it assumes state reformism is the best means for social progress. Besides acting as an external form of validation for love, Gay Shame asks, what is the point behind marriage? Put under scrutiny, marriage is simply a legal and financial contract that consolidates power into the family unit, something widely acknowledged as the very base of heteropatriarchal society. Plus, the institution of marriage further excludes marginalized peoples economically—it props up neoliberalism by bringing the public into the private sphere and consolidating wealth through inheritance funds and unfair tax policies. Under the American legal system, opposite-sex marriage also means that the woman is ceding some of her power and agency in the transaction since divorce court is patriarchal and favors men over women in situations such as divvying up financial assets. One member of Gay Shame, identified as Samantha Saxaphone, produced the figure below in response to dominant rhetoric surrounding gay marriage; the cartoon highlights just how unfair marriage as a legal institution can be.


While reformists may insist that allowing for the state-sanctioned joining of same-sex couples could change the way the legal system operates, historically accommodation has not worked well for any oppressed group. Black people cannot attain the privilege whiteness allocates white bodies by conforming to white standards—attempting to do so through the legal system still has not worked, and while slavery and racial segregation are no technically no longer legal, systemic anti-black racism is alive and well regardless of any legislation. Similarly, gay people cannot attain the privilege of straightness by adhering to homophobic institutions like marriage and the state. Gay Shame San Francisco’s website puts it like this: “Don’t get us wrong—we support everyone’s right to fuck whomever they want—we’re just not in favor of supporting the imperialist, bloodthirsty status quo” (1). The anarchistic, anti-assimilationist, anti-hegemonic goals of queer anarchism prioritizes dismantling state systems—not reforming them. Gay Shame entirely rejects marriage, and in doing so avoids the violence of inclusion that upholds normative systems that will always privilege certain groups over others. Engaging with the imperialistic United States government only leads to error replication because it instills the same state-poisoned logic that reproduces the oppression of those which the state deems replaceable second-class citizens (women, people with disabilities, and people of color, for example). Marriage reformism is at best a pander for the privileged gay vote, giving a small number of queer people (the monogamous, straight-ethic conforming individuals who would wish to be married) a teeny taste of the straight privilege provided by marriage. But a married gay couple is still not straight, no matter how bad they may want to be, and they still have to combat the violence of heteronormativity. Gay Shame’s answer is that neither gay nor straight couples should get married—they advocate for a removal of state influence altogether (1, 6).

As evidenced by gay marriage, queer anarchism is all about rejecting the options offered by existing state-sanctioned avenues for political change in favor of creating new ones. The political strategy of queer anarchism rejects the game of picking the lesser of two evils and embraces the notion that there will always be unexplored means of change like the Wild just waiting to be discovered and utilized. While queer anarchism is so widely removed from the status quo that many view it as almost too radical, Jack Halberstam reminds us that outspoken radicalism is exactly what society needs to create fissures in extant modes or thinking and action that rely on the state apparatus. As queer performance artist Vaginal Davis puts it, “I’m all about keeping it radical […] the Revolution is my boyfriend!”  Queer people must avoid the temptation of ‘inclusion’ that heteronormativity advertises as liberation. This “liberation” in reality a reduction to sameness—it is masked oppression. Queer people and social activists must remain self-reflexive—we must band together collectively in order to move towards a more equitable society. Doing so will certainly result in radical, effective, and long-lasting change, but it also offers the chance to be fun, too—through flamboyant street performance and protest a la Gay Shame, and through spectacle and extravaganza that draws viewers out of their everyday routine and makes them think in new ways. There is so much for us to explore—all that is necessary is a leap into the Wild to move toward a better, more queer, world.





  1. N/A, Mary. “About Us.” Gay Shame San Francisco. Gay Shame, 2014. Web.

22 Nov. 2015.

  1. N/A, Mary. Prison Breaks, Not Prison Parties. Digital image. Gay Shame San Francisco. Gay

Shame, 2014. Web. 22 Nov. 2015.


  1. Halberstam, Jack. “The Wild: The Aesthetics of Queer Anarchy.”

Goldsmiths Art, 10 June 2014. Web Lecture. 16 Nov. 2015.

  1. Weiss, Margot. “Gay Shame and BDSM Pride: Neoliberalism, Privacy, and Sexual Politics.”

Radical History Review. Duke University Press, 2008. Web. 16 Nov. 2015.

  1. Wittman, Carl. “Refugees From Amerika.” American Protest Literature. By Zoe Trodd. 5 Cambridge, MA: Belknap of Harvard UP, 2006. Print.
  2. Saxaphone, Samantha. “Are YOU Out To Destroy Marriage?” Gay Shame San Francisco.

Gay Shame, 2014. Web. 22 Nov. 2015. <;.


Human Rights Campaign, 19 Feb. 2016. Web. <;.

Cut Off Your Head and Arms: An Analysis of Nina Athanassoglou-Kallmyer’s Analysis of Théodore Géricault’s Paintings of Severed Heads and Limbs



Nina Athanassoglou-Kallmyer, in her essay “Gericault’s Severed Heads and Limbs: The Politics and Aesthetics of the Scaffold,” (1992) argues that the intention behind Théodore Géricault’s artworks which depict disembodied heads and limbs was to critique early 19th-century policies surrounding capital punishment. Through analysis of Théodore Géricault’s Guillotined Heads (1818-1819) and his Severed Limbs (1818-1819), Athanassoglou-Kallmyer advocates for an interpretation of the works that considers the context and content of the images, as well as the intent behind the painter. Her reading is more warranted than traditional art historical interpretations of the works, which viewed the set of images as studies for Gericault’s The Raft of the Medusa (1818). Athanassoglou-Kallmyer does, however, make a few illogical leaps when it comes to making assertions about the intentions of Gericault himself—the art historian reaches unjustified conclusions with reference to the artist’s preparatory work, and also makes essentializing claims about Gericault’s political affiliations and the way they manifest in his art. Overall, however, Athanassoglou-Kallmyer presents a convincing, insightful argument that allows for a more wholesome reading of the works as well as an understanding of their significance in the greater scheme of art history.

In her essay, Athanassoglou-Kallmyer supports her thesis by highlighting three key areas surrounding the artworks which traditional art historians have neglected to explore. More specifically, she discusses the preparations Gericault made in order to produce the works, the political affiliations of the artist, and the greater sociopolitical context of early 19th-century France. Examination of Gericault’s process is critical to the way Athanassoglou-Kallmyer counters the traditional art-historical interpretation of Gericault’s severed heads and limbs, readings of the works as studies. Analysis of the artist’s process is a compelling argument in its ability to dismiss the reductionist interpretation of the paintings as mere studies—once she dispels that idea, it opens up room for her own thoughts which become difficult to dispute. However, one must remember that it is difficult to ever truly know the intent of any artist, especially one that has been dead for two hundred years. Much of Athanassoglou-Kallmyer’s analysis revolves around small methodological details that she ascribes heavy meaning to. For example, she points to the fact that a live model was used for the female figure in Guillotined Heads. To Athanassoglou-Kallmyer, that detail is enough to warrant her argument that the paintings represent more than ghastly still-lifes, and instead the psychological horror of decapitation. The author writes, “Trivial as it may sound, this detail is nevertheless significant. For it demonstrates a particular intent on the part of the artist, and, conversely, a particular theme in the painting” (603). While small decisions made by the artist might seem unimportant at first, the artistic is critical because each preliminary decision Gericault made when preparing for the final artwork is reflected in the theme of the artwork. Since Gericault did not leave a written declaration of the intent behind his works, Athanassoglou-Kallmyer resorts to analyzing the record of his artistic process. Every action has an intention, so in order to fully understand the artwork’s theme, analysis has to begin before the final painting was even completed.

Her second point of pontification revolves around the political affiliations of Gericault. Athanassoglou-Kallmyer follows his travels to Rome and London, locations where the artist witnessed and recorded public executions. These anecdotes set up the artist’s alleged political interest in and opposition to capital punishment, which Athanassoglou-Kallmyer uses as evidence for the paintings’ contents. The art historian argues, “Calling forth the social and cultural dimensions of Gericault’s works, therefore, seems not only inevitable but also necessary for a fuller understanding of their meaning and of the strategies by which they convey it” (603).  Artistic process does not exist in a vacuum—personal political opinion might very well influence Gericault’s hand while painting. Regardless, it is an essentializing claim to state that, just because the artist attended public executions and produced artwork based off of them in past travel journals, the same message is contained in the paintings Guillotined Heads and Severed Limbs.

Athanassoglou-Kallmyer strengthens her claims about Gericault’s personal political stance by bringing in a wider consideration of the political and cultural climates within the artist’s environment, early 19th-Century France. Visits to public executions abroad may have not influenced Gericault’s work greatly, but something that would have were larger political institutions and cultural norms that operated around the artist, out of his realm of personal control. At the time, the penal code of the monarchy that ruled over post-revolution France mandated the death penalty as punishment to a litany of crimes—offenses from petty theft to political dissent, debt dodging to murder. The Reign of Terror created the macabre mythos of the guillotine, and that mythos outlived the reign. The guillotine remained a symbol of political terror—do not disobey, or heads will roll. Executions were public spectacles, and popular culture (backed up by popular science) at the time hypothesized that victims of the machine remained conscious for whole minutes post-decapitation. Post-revolution social anxiety, amplified by fear of the ruling ultra-royalist regime, culminated in an aesthetic style known as Horrorschool. Athanassoglou-Kallmyer writes, “Mingling echoes from contemporary social horrors—murders, suicides, rapes, or incests—with touches of the fantastic and the supernatural—ghosts, vampires, and devils—noir themes reaches a paroxysmic height in novels and popular entertainment prior to 1830” (610). The superstition, dread, and fascination with the guillotine is a paragon of the wider cultural aesthetic which celebrated malevolent themes both fantastical and all-to-real. Wider cultural phenomena coupled with social anxiety (if not direct political opposition) toward the contemporary ruling power, easily could have influenced Gericault to the extent that they manifested in his artworks.

Athanassoglou-Kallmyer isolates textual and visual evidence to support the three overarching arguments she makes in her article. The historian backs her claim that the artist did not intend the paintings as studies by asserting that there were preliminary sketches done for the paintings of heads and limbs themselves, which suggests that the images are finished products. Furthermore, there are formal affinities within the paintings that show that Gericault was constructing the compositions very carefully, as if they were their own works. Athanassoglou-Kallmyer’s visual analysis on Severed Limbs showcases the fineness of the composition.

“The severed limbs look healthy and fleshy, and indisputably lifelike. Piled on top of one another, they gruesomely parody an erotic entwining, male legs tenderly enfolded by female arms, to which Gericault […]adds a bloodstained rag to suggest a woman’s camisole strap sensuously slipping down her bare shoulder. […] Morbid reality and morbid fantasy merge. Black terror and black humor rub shoulders ambivalently.”

So much thought went into the paintings as individual artworks that surely Gericault intended them as more than simple studies. The art historian also uses convincing textual analysis of Georges Clement’s biographical discourse on Gericault, which noted that in Severed Heads he had hired a live model to represent the female head. Clement was one of the earliest biographers to write about Gericault. Inclusion of such an early source lends ethos to the scholar’s argument that Gericault was portraying more than gory still-life paintings, and that the subject of the works was psychological terror.

Athanassoglou-Kallmyer evidences her claims about Gericault’s personal political affiliation with similarly convincing visual evidence, but is sparingly lacking in textual evidence—she cites no direct personal claims made by Gericault at all. Her visual analysis of Gericault’s Execution in Rome (1822) reveals similarities between the image and the severed heads and limbs, not only in regards to the visual language he uses but also to the content of anti-capital punishment. She notices:

“The executioner is planted frontally in the very center of the scene holding the victim’s head out to an invisible crowd. Foreshadowing the severed heads of the paintings, the decapitated head reappears by itself floating against the neutral ground of the right margin, its eyes staring wide open, its feature distorted with what seems to be unspeakable terror and pain” (605)

Stylistic parallels are notable, with the floating, terrorized head in Execution in Rome perhaps representing some pre-formulation of the cranium in Severed Heads. Athanassoglou-Kallmyer also connects Execution in Rome to the common practice of projecting criticism of the state (especially one’s own country) into the classical past to mitigate animosity and avoid social backlash. While the art historian effectively utilizes the evidence she presents, a direct statement from Gericault could have functioned more aptly.

Athanassoglou-Kallmyer’s analysis respecting dominant sociopolitical practices in early 19th-century France is braced by a compare and contrast between Gericault’s Severed Heads and Villeneuve’s Ecce Custine (1793), a political engraving created during the Reign of Terror.  The images display two disparate representations of political beheadings. Gericault’s paintings humanize the subject and evoke empathy from viewers. He starkly presents two anonymous heads that could have been belonged anyone before they were violently hacked off. Villeneuve, on the other hand, depicts a hand clenching in victory a severed head by the hair, with emphasis placed on nationalistic text that frames the image. The decapitated head has closed eyes and appears peaceful.  Villeneuve’s engraving belonged to a series of propagandistic images that celebrated the defeat of “Enemies of the Revolution” (610), so one can deduct that Villeneuve made purposeful artistic decisions to focus his viewers in on the political significance of the beheading, rather than the element of personal tragedy at play. In direct contrast, Gericault in Severed Heads makes choices that render his heads in a somber, humanizing fashion. The heads of the man and woman rest on a white sheet as if the two are relaxing in bed together. The head of the woman is turned toward the man, and the man’s head is turned toward viewers. It almost gazes at viewers (though not quite directly) with a wide-eyed, open-mouthed expression that communicates the pain of death and the emptiness thereafter. The iconography of the images are obviously similar, and while the content of the works may appear to differ greatly upon first thought, both are expressing political messages. Villeneuve explicitly expresses a theme by identifying the beheaded as a political opponent, a roadblock to progress. Gericault’s message is more contrived—he leaves the subjects anonymous while overtly humanizing their severed heads to remind viewers that the subjects were once ordinary French people who, perhaps due to a small criminal slip-up, had their livelihood robbed away through state-sanctioned terrorism.

Visually, Gericault’s Severed Heads would fit in quite readily into the dominant artistic style of early 19th-Century France—if Horrorschool meant fascination with spookiness and social depravity was in vogue, then Gericault’s guillotined heads can be thought of as products of a wider aesthetic movement. To illustrate the prevalence of Horrorschool, Athanassoglou-Kallmyer draws from a wide body of cultural artifacts.

“From cheap horror novels, which Janin’s L’Ane mort parodied even as it capitalized on their devices, to sinister melodramas by Guilbert de Pixerecourt […] performed to packed theaters at the Boulevard du Temple (appropriately nicknamed Le Boulevard de Crime); and from the ‘horror chambers’ of wax museums, such as Madame Tussaud’s […] with its display of the blood-dripping wax heads of the revolutionary guillotine to crudely illustrated canards recounting grisly faits divers of bourgeois life, horror was in fashion and people unashamedly delighted in it” (611).

By citing such a wide variety of sources, the art historian illustrates how horror permeated French society during the early 19th-Century. Gericault could not have left his studio at the time without experiencing anxiety and morbidity. The man lived under rule of a newly-formed reactionary government known for its abuse of capital punishment as a means for maintaining order. Even if Gericault did not himself experience the risk of execution by guillotine for opposing governmental policy he had friends who did—undeniably, he had stakes in the matter. In fact, even if Gericault attempted to remove himself from politics altogether, he would inevitably run into some form the indirectly political Horrorschool cultural aesthetic that arose as a reaction to the social anxiety generated by the political climate.  After all, as Athanassoglou-Kallmyer explains, “…the morbid genre […] portrayed with unrelenting accuracy the dismal urban realities of industrial Paris and conveyed the helplessness of the individual in the grip of an implacable social mechanism” (600). Manifestation of Horrorschool within Gericault’s paintings are evident—Severed Heads naturalistically depicts a horrific event brought onto the subjects by immovable structures operating above their reach. The supernatural subjects of the painting become the living dead, visually due to their humanization and contextually due to the widespread superstition that victims hold onto consciousness after decapitation.

When reading Athanassoglou-Kallmyer’s interpretation of Gericault’s paintings, one must keep in mind any ideological commitments the author had when constructing her essay. By grounding most of her analysis with socio-historical contextual analysis, the art historian allows for insightful interpretations of Gericault’s Severed Heads and Severed Limbs—so much was going on during the early 19th Century that could have influenced Gericault! Athanassoglou-Kallmyer’s consideration of Gericault’s process, political affiliations, and sociopolitical environment, combined with astute visual analysis, demolishes the traditional art historical interpretation of the paintings as studies. The grisly paintings take on expanded meaning, becoming more than shocking still-lifes. A social-historical lens limits bias since the author is constrained by historical data—had the author adopted some ideological lens, such as feminism or Marxism, the article would have been more subjective and therefore easier to critique. Regardless, essentializing claims are made concerning the identity of Gericault, and perhaps the author overestimates the amount of sway that Gericault’s society had over the artist, who was a known practitioner of the avant-garde.

Athanassoglou-Kallmyer analyzes the artistic process behind Gericault’s Severed Heads, the artist’s personal political beliefs, and larger 19th-Century French sociopolitical and artistic trends to engage with the artwork. Athanassoglou-Kallmyer argues that the subjects of the paintings are not the heads and limbs themselves, but rather the psychological horror of decapitation and autopsy, a reflection of the greater post-Revolutionary social anxieties that plagued France at the turn of the 19th century. While the art historian makes a convincing argument, her claims are not without problems. For example, she claims political significance of anti-capital punishment for the severed heads, and uses evidence from Gericault’s trips to England and Rome to back up the claim, since he witnessed and recorded executions there. Nonetheless, no direct quotes or evidence from the artist appears in the entire essay, and it is very difficult to know the intent of an artist without direct quotes from the artist himself. Furthermore, some of the visual analysis that Athanassoglou-Kallmyer uses is shaky. For example, she mentions that, by hiring a live model to portray one of the severed heads, that Gericault is attempting to conjure human emotions that resemble the fear of being decapitated. The writer’s visual analysis that backs the claim up points to bloody gashes on the neck of a figure in an entirely different painting—her analysis would have been more poignant had she done visual analysis on the specific painting she was bringing up contextual information for. Overall, Athanassoglou-Kallmyer usage of a social-historical lens provides an intuitive interpretation of artworks otherwise glossed over by art history.



Works Cited

Athanassoglou-Kallmyer, Nina. “Gericault’s Severed Heads and Limbs: The Politics and Aesthetics of the Scaffold,” The Art Bulletin 74, no. 4 (December 1992): 599-618

Gender in Voltaire’s “Candide”

Born in the late 17th century in Paris, France, Francois-Marie Arouet was the last of five children born to his parents, members of the still-emerging middle class. Always outspoken, the young man pursued a writing career against the wishes of his father, who intended for his son to become a lawyer. By 1718, Arouet had become notorious under the name Voltaire for his biting, leftist criticisms of social traditions and the Catholic Church. He later became an integral component of the Enlightenment, a European intellectual movement stressing individuality and rationalism over the existing, dominant ideologue of tradition. The movement also functioned as a quest for equality between genders, allowing women to engage in, rather than be the objects of, intellectual exchanges held at salons and coffee houses. It was at one of these conferences where Voltaire met his lifelong mistress, Marquise de Chatelet, who also played the role of his confidant and intellectual partner, was the idyllic model of an Enlightenment woman— she wasn’t afraid to dignify herself as an individual, polymath, mother, lover, and strong woman in general. She held a striking, revolutionary role of Newtonian physicist and mathematician, notorious for meticulously hanging wooden spheres from her ceiling to observe the effects of gravity, all the while being buried up to her corset in notes and sketches. Voltaire once described his partner as, “A great man whose only fault was being a woman.” This unique combination of influences set the stage for Voltaire’s magnum opus Candide. Having been influenced so heavily—both personally and academically—by women, it is obvious all of the suffering experienced by women in Candide is thoughtfully placed criticism, rather than misogynistic humor. In his novel, Voltaire satirizes traditional notions of gender through complex, androgynous characterization which oftentimes relies on the reversal of traditional gender roles; inverted power dynamics and plot structures; and by juxtaposing a society full of misogyny with an egalitarian, labor based alternative.

The book’s criticism of traditional gender roles begins with the way Voltaire formulates his characters. His attentive characterization is androgynous and shatters gender norms, especially in context of the period in which the text was written, in 1759. This is evident from the exposition of the story. Voltaire immediately characterizes his protagonist, Candide, as effeminate— “A youth endowed by nature with the gentlest of characters. His soul was revealed in his face,” (17). Candide, throughout the entirety of the novel, exhibits countless qualities commonly attributed to femininity. He constantly faints when faced with imminent, pressing danger; he hides, rather than fights, when confronted by the massacring Bulgars; he weeps excessively and openly after learning of a Suriname slave’s tragedies; and he even displays weak moral resolve when seduced by a Parisian marquise, despite his inner determination to stay true to his love interest, Cunegonde. In fact, Candide seems especially feminine when compared to Cunegonde— at one point, he even expresses the desire to become her, stating “after the good fortune of being born Baron Thunder-ten-tronckh, the second greatest good fortune was to be Lady Cunegonde…” (18). Conversely, from her introduction, Cunegonde is affirmed as active, aggressive, and arguably more masculine than her male counterpart, being described as “buxom and rosy-cheeked,” (18). Ascription of heavily gendered character traits to the wrong gender is a motif in the novel. For example, Cunegonde is much more verbal about her physical attraction to the opposite sex than Candide, even though one would expect the opposite. This is evidenced by her commentary on the large build and beautiful complexion of her Jewish lover in Portugal, as well as her thoughts on Candide. Whenever her precious Candide is flogged at the Spanish auto-da-fe, Cunegonde’s first reaction surprisingly isn’t one of remorse or helplessness, but of sexual passion— she finds herself admiring the fine shape of his now exposed, muscular torso.

By contrasting the traits of characters with opposite genders, it becomes clear that the relationship between men and women has been turned on its head. Candide, unlike his love interest, finds himself unable to voice his attraction toward Cunegonde, “for he found Lady Cunegonde extremely beautiful, although he was never bold enough to tell her so.” (18) Voltaire even takes his statement to sexual role reversal. Whenever Cunegonde witnesses Pangloss and Paquette (described in the passage as docile, paralleling similar traits between Paquette and Candide) having sex in the bushes, she closely studies Pangloss’ sexual technique. Shortly thereafter, she seduces Candide— notably not the other way around, as traditional gender norms would uphold— by dropping her handkerchief coyly. This motif does not strictly apply to Candide and Cunegonde, as well. Arguably, the old woman is the character who has suffered the most in her lifetime, yet she still has a flaming passion for life. She explains it as the desire “to fondle the serpent which devours us till it has eaten out our heart” (49). This understanding of life is the same one shared by influential Enlightenment philosophers including David Hume and Voltaire himself. Since the old woman is, indeed, a woman, Voltaire’s characterization undermines the notion that men are wiser than the other gender, one prevalent at the time and still existent today. On the contrary, Voltaire portrays his male protagonist as weak and naïve, a portrait upheld by Candide’s relentless, headstrong personal philosophy of Panglossian optimism. Even after hearing the old woman’s recollection of her unsettling past, Candide simply states he may only raise a “few objections” to the idea that we live in the best possible of all worlds (50).

Voltaire takes his critique of gender a level deeper by not only examining individual character traits with relation to gender, but also by using women as the sole catalysts for positive change within the novel. He turns traditional power relations between genders on their heads, by having women play more dominant roles than men in both their personal relationships and the central narrative of the novel. Nowhere is this more evident than in the relationship between Candide and Cunegonde. The relationship is initiated by Cunegonde as she drops her handkerchief, coquettishly hoping for Candide to pick it up. Candide’s reaction displays a traditionally female coyness toward the situation. When caught kissing Cunegonde by the baron, Candide is exclusively blamed as the perpetrator regardless of the reality of the situation.  After her one brief fling with Candide, Cunegonde is shipped off to Spain, setting her lover off on an endless journey to recapture his now fetishized love. His struggle to marry Cunegonde is framed recurrently as an attempt to find his lost self, or his other half: this confirms Voltaire’s message that both genders are interdependent on one another. While the relationship begins based off of pure physical attraction, it ends with Candide upholding his ethical imperative to marry Cunegonde regardless of her now-revolting appearance. Cunegonde, in the meantime, “did not know that she had grown ugly, nobody had told her so: she reminded Candide of his promises in so peremptory a tone that the good Candide did not dare refuse her” (118). It is her ugliness that sets her free—no longer is she constantly objectified by men. This also makes a scathing argument against the trend in society for women to base their self-image off of the opinions of others, especially men.

While throughout the majority of the novel women function in a society created on a foundation of their suppression, their mistreatment is only overcome by life on Candide’s farm. All of the murders, beatings, and sexual assaults that women are subjected to in the novel should not be viewed simply as Voltaire poking fun at the society he lives in—he is showing his disgust at the mistreatment of women in the European, American, and Muslim cultures. The garden is his alternative, a metaphor for a society based off of labor, rather than birthright and gender. It was created by individuals belonging to groups which had been marginalized for hundreds of years— the old woman is the one who offers the advice to purchase the farm, critical to egalitarian treatment of both genders, and the money is spent by a religiously oppressed Jew. Once settled, Candide announces, “We must cultivate our garden.” (117) (This phrase becomes a parable meant to represent coexistence between the genders, where equality is based off of labor rather than gender.) Candide’s garden is an escape from the rest of the world which is full of rape, objectification and forced labor— gender becomes irrelevant as long as each member of the community does his or her job. Cunegonde bakes, the old woman knits. By basing value off of productivity, even the most ferocious of stereotypes can be overcome. This is exemplified by Paquette’s admittance to the colony, now a prostitute serving a client. Candide recognizes the prostitute, traditionally a timeless oppressive stereotype, as an individual forced into an unethical act. He willingly accepts Paquette and her pimp into the community where she then becomes a social equal. Candide recognizes that only through superseding gender stereotypes can a truly whole community ever be formed.

Throughout Candide, concepts reinforcing the idea of gender equality are found in the form of character traits which oppose notions of traditional gender roles, Cunegonde and the old woman being the most dignified and noble characters in the book while men such as Candide and Pangloss are represented as morally weak. This is fleshed out further by altering character relationships to represent women as dominant and men as submissive, as evidenced by the awkward sexual interactions between Candide and Cunegonde. Women act as catalysts not only within in their in-story relationships, but also in the plot structure of the book itself— what kind of a protagonist would Candide be without the old woman to guide him and Cunegonde to inspire him? Voltaire’s argument for gender equality even goes so far as to offer a solution to the problems satirized in the form of Candide’s farm, a sort of proto-Marxist community where social standing is designated explicitly via productivity. With reference to these points, Candide undeniably fits in with the overarching Enlightenment model of gender equality. Though at points dry and blunt, Candide’s scathing satire provides an excellent example of an early work used to further the still ongoing struggle for gender equality.

Cited Works:

Voltaire. Candide. New York: Bantam, 1959. Print.