Art Monsters: Unruly Bodies in Feminist Art by Lauren Elkin - review by Tess Little

Tess Little

Weird Sisters

Art Monsters: Unruly Bodies in Feminist Art


Chatto & Windus 368pp £25

When Lauren Elkin’s Art Monsters: Unruly Bodies in Feminist Art reaches bookshops, it will, undoubtedly, be placed on a table between Katy Hessel’s The Story of Art without Men (which came out last summer) and Claire Dederer’s Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma (published in May this year). Hessel’s book does what it says on the tin, providing a feminist response to E H Gombrich’s art history classic The Story of Art. Dederer tackles cultural patriarchy from a different angle, dwelling on a question she first asked in a viral Paris Review essay, ‘What Do We Do with the Art of Monstrous Men?’ Like Hessel, Elkin chronicles art history from a feminist perspective. Like Dederer’s work, Elkin’s is a personal rumination on the art monster. And yet Art Monsters does not sit between the two books. It’s both and neither and something else altogether.

The term ‘art monster’ was coined by novelist Jenny Offill (in English, at least: Elkin notes the pre-existing monstre de l’art). An often-quoted passage from her Dept of Speculation asserts, ‘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.’

Art Monsters addresses this premise: that only men readily have the permission (in other words, respect) and the resources (wives) to be regarded as incomparable geniuses. Women wishing to become artists face difficulties, sacrifices and condemnation.

But this is just the starting point for Elkin. The barriers women artists face aren’t merely external. As Virginia Woolf noted, the female artist thwarts herself with self-censorship as well. She must overcome a fear of ‘going altogether too far’, a fear of speaking ‘the truth about her body’.

Who, then,

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