Ordinary/Extraordinary: narratives, politics, history

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The artpolitics of May Stevens, as ‘the invention of sensible forms and material structures for a life to come’ – identified by Jacques Rancière as a kind of  ‘aesthetic anticipation of the future’.

Maria Tamboukou
7 December 2012

This article is part of an occasional series on ‘The Political Aesthetics of Power and Protest,’ the subject of a one-day workshop held at the University of Warwick this September. Democracy, since it does not function through command or coercion, requires instead a constant renewal of sets of symbols - symbols which appeal to people and instil in them a sense of belonging and identification. Increasing disenchantment and disillusion with the state, with political institutions, their practices and performance, makes it more important to explore the place of this aestheticisation of political language, the aesthetics of protest as well as of power.

I am looking into the life and art of May Stevens, an American working class artist, feminist and committed political activist. Stevens was born in Dorchester MA in 1924 and grew up in Quincy. She studied art at the Massachusetts Art School in Boston and later on in the Académie Julian in Paris, where she lived for 3 years (1948-1951) with her husband just after the second World War. On returning to New York, she became actively involved in the social movements of the turbulent 60s, fighting against racism, imperialism, war and sexism. It was through these movements that she came of age as an artist. Her art and politics have been inextricably interwoven.

Her work actually creates a kind of möbius strip with her politics, you are never sure which is the inside or outside. However if we were to create a chronology of what I will call Steven’s artpolitics, her early ‘Big Daddy Series’ expressed her involvement in the civil rights movement and the anti-Vietnam war protests. The dominant figure of this series is her patriotic working class father, depicted as both powerful—draped in the American flag, or impersonated as Holly Trinidad—and impotent—he is after all, a paper doll. We have in this early work the emergence of a motif of couplets, dualisms and antitheses that will recur in her work, particularly with the Ordinary/Extraordinary series. There are two other themes in her ‘Big Daddy Series’ work to note: first, the mingling of the personal and the political; it is her daddy after all, whose caricature she draws, as a patriarchal symbol of nationalism, religiosity, patriotism, oppression and violence, and second an early intersectional approach to gender issues that went through her artwork and politics like a red thread.

Indeed Stevens became actively involved in several women’s groups and these activities ended up in two important interventions: the establishment of an art school, The Feminist Art Institute, and the publication of the feminist journal Heresies: a Feminist Publication on Art and Politics. Her active involvement in the women’s movement, notwithstanding, Stevens was from the beginning sceptical of its essentialist trends. As she put it in a series of conversations with Patricial Hills in 2005:

“Schapiro had been out in California working with Judy Chicago, and the two of them were developing a theory that women’s work, if it’s truly women’s work has round or oval forms in it, which had been suppressed in the male art world. But I’m thinking I don’t like round forms necessarily… I was furious and I thought, I don’t want these women putting me in a bind, telling me what to do. Men were telling us what to do. Are women also going to tell us what to do?”

Stevens, by contrast, would highlight the fact that social class and race were part and parcel of women’s oppression in ways that were often subtle and barely discernible. In this light, in 1982 she invited the black artist Vivian Browne to join Heresies and together they edited a special issue on race, called Racism is the Issue. Stevens’ feminist politics are most starkly expressed in her series of [counter] historical paintings, as her famous Soho Women Artists (1978), Mystery and Politics (1978) and Artemisia (1979). This was a project of re-imagining women as historical subjects through an intervention in the high genre of historical paintings, which was initiated by The Artist’s studio, after Courbet (1974).

In following these trails of Stevens’ artwork, we reach the 80s, the decade marked by her interest in Rosa Luxemburg as depicted in the Ordinary/Extraordinary Series:

“Ordinary. Extraordinary. A collage of words and images of Rosa Luxemburg, Polish/German revolutionary leader and theoretician, murder victim (1871-1919), juxtaposed with images and words of Alice Stevens (born 1895) housewife, mother, washer and ironer, inmate of hospitals and nursing homes. A filmic sequence of darks and lights moving through close-up to long-view and back. Oblique. Direct. Fragments of Rosa’s thought from intimate notes sent from prison to her comrade and lover, Leo Jogiches, and to her friends; from agit-prop published in Die Rote Fächne; and from her serious scientific writings. Images from her girlhood, her middle life, and the final photograph of her murdered head. Alice’s words from the memory of and letters to her daughter. An artist’s book examining and documenting the mark of a political woman whose life would otherwise be unmarked. Ordinary. Extraordinary."

I was quite moved when I first read this powerful blurb from May Steven’s Artist’s Book, which appeared in 1980 in the process of the artist’s long preoccupation with Rosa Luxemburg that lasted for over ten years (1977-1991) and again returned as a theme in her work in 2001. Ordinary/Extraordinary is a poetic way of bringing two very different women together: the artist’s mother and a celebrated political theorist and activist. However as Stevens has remarked in her conversation with Hills, Ordinary/Extraordinary should not be taken as a dualistic opposition between the two women, configuring her mother Alice Stevens as ‘ordinary’ and Rosa Luxemburg as ‘extraordinary’:

“It was important to me that people realize that both words, ‘ordinary’ and ‘extraordinary’, referred to both women. I wanted to make Alice Stevens understood as a woman of a certain character, who was quite unique and impressive in her own way. Rosa Luxemburg, the brilliant theoretician was also a very ordinary human being. I worked with those ideas.”

Both women were for Stevens simultaneously ordinary and extraordinary, a thought whose philosophical line can be traced back to Hannah Arendt’s argument about the uniqueness of the human condition, the importance of ‘who’ one is, as juxtaposed to the inevitable and politically dangerous reduction of ‘what’ one is, that has historically fuelled totalitarian classifications and in turn resulted in gross human rights violations. (Arendt, 1985)  In this light, narratives are particularly instrumental in revealing the ‘who’ and what the artist’s book in the Ordinary/Extraordinary series creates, is an assemblage of visual and textual narratives revealing the unrepeatable uniqueness of human beings:

“The text in the book consisted of extracts from Rosa Luxemburg’s letters and a few lines from her political writings, and the text for Alice was also lines from letters she wrote and postcards she wrote to me, plus a tissue of narrative that was necessary because I didn’t have rich written material from my mother.”

Epistolary narratives and the force of human communication through writing thus become important compositional elements of the Ordinary/Extraordinary series.  Having read many articles from exhibition catalogues of the Ordinary/Extraordinary series I was intrigued by the way the use of letters in the texts of the collages and the artist’s book was of course mentioned, but never really commented, analysed or discussed. Although art critics have not analysed the use of letters in the Ordinary/Extraordinary series, in her recorded conversations with Patricia Hills, Stevens has referred extensively to how she was drawn to Rosa Luxemburg by reading her correspondence to her lover Leo Jogiches.

Luxemburg’s letters seem to have triggered the very ambiguity of the Ordinary/Extraordinary distinction that Stevens was playing with in the artist’s book and the subsequent art series: Rosa Luxemburg and Alice Stevens as both ordinary and extraordinary women, exposing themselves through their epistolary fragments as unique and unrepeatable, but also vulnerable, relational and dependent on significant others.  

Although written ‘to the moment’, as all letters are, in crystallising the moment and spirit of its creation, the letter intervenes in our perception of linear time and finite life and shows that the force of human life, if rendered into a story, transcends the limitations of the life-span and enters the discourse of history, which ‘ultimately becomes ‘the storybook of mankind with many actors and speakers and yet without any tangible author’ (Arendt, 1998, 184). Not only do individual human lives enter the discourse of history, Arendt argues, but actually their life stories are creating conditions of possibility for history itself: ‘That every individual life between birth and death can eventually be told as a story with beginning and end is the prepolitical and prehistorical condition of history, the great story without beginning and end.

Stevens was particularly preoccupied with this idea of the unfinished story, forcefully and dramatically encapsulated in the famous ending line from Luxemburg’s last known piece of writing, Order Prevails in Berlin, “I was, I am, I shall be!” has become for Stevens the phrase that dominates Voices—her painting of Luxemburg’s funeralthus transforming her death from an end to an event creating possibilities for new beginnings.

Steven’s portrayal of Luxemburg’s death as an unfinished story, foregrounds three interrelated themes in her approach to life and art: the incessant cycle of life and death, the importance of history painting and the salience of new beginnings, that is also fundamental in Arendt’s philosophy: ‘the fact that man is capable of action means that the unexpected can be expected from him, that [he] is able to perform what is infinitely improbable.’ (1998, 178)  A different conceptualization of time runs through these three themes highlighted above. As Stevens has noted :

“One of the things that interests me a great deal is simply the idea of time—the approaches to time and the uses of time. You spoke about my showing Alice, my mother and Rosa Luxemburg at different periods in their lives, and I think one of the most interesting things that I’ve tried to work with is crossing time—by using women of different times and showing their commonalities.”

In doing this, Stevens creates ‘visual biographies’ and in presenting different women of different times’, it is not just ‘significant’ events that her artwork captures and recasts. Luxemburg’s figure, her political writings, her well-known portraits and her eloquent letters, are repetitively connected to and juxtaposed with Alice Steven’s postcards, family photographs, reflections of her daughter and reminiscences of conversations with her, but mostly with her silences:

“Sometimes she held me, rocked me. But she had no words to give. What she wanted to say became too big to be sayable. And the habit of not speaking too fixed. Or, as she said, much later: too big to put your tongue around … They put her away in a place for people who can’t speak, or speak in tongues. After many years she stopped being angry … She had gained the ability to speak, but lost a life to speak of …”

In this light, the Ordinary/Extraordinary series creates a very specific version of the grand genre of History Painting, to which of course women artists have had limited access. Lisa Tickner has suggested that ‘it is possible to argue for Ordinary/Extraordinary as a kind of history painting transposed to the modern vernacular’, while Stevens has included Ordinary/Extraordinary ‘in my ‘history paintings’ [wherein] official versions of history are deconstructed in favour of hearing silenced voices and unrecorded lives.’ 

Disrupting the distribution of the sensible

In presenting three phases of Stevens’ artpolitics I have traced five strands of aesthetic interventions that clearly mingle and overlap throughout her work:

  1. Creating assemblages of visual images, stories and words
  2. Using epistolary texts as signs that surprise and wound the viewer, rather than as captions or illustrations, the letter as ‘punctum’ in Barthes’ conceptual vocabulary
  3. Working on the interface of paintings and photographs
  4. Creating visual biographies of parallel lives
  5. Visualising temporality in the form of series of repetitions and small differences

Stevens’ artistic practices work as what I want to call, anti-rhythms in the distribution of the sensible. I draw here of course on Jacques Rancière’s notion: ‘I call the distribution of the sensible the system of self-evident facts of sense perception that simultaneously discloses the existence of something in common and the delimitations that define the respective parts and positions within it.’ The ‘distribution of the sensible’ is therefore a system where inclusion and exclusion work hand in hand - defining the grounds, subjects and implicit laws of certain communities of practice and thought. It has to be noted here that the ‘sensible’ should not be understood as something that makes sense, but as something that can be perceived by the senses, ‘what is visible and audible as well as what can be said, thought, made or done’. As Rancière suggests, ‘the distribution of the sensible reveals who can have a share in what is common to the community based on what they do and on the time and space in which this activity is performed.’ This is the point where he rigorously argues that ‘there is “an aesthetics” at the core of politics’.

Having intervened in the aesthetics of the distribution of the sensible, Stevens’ practices have sided with what Rancière has identified as the crucial link between ‘the “aesthetic” avant-garde and the “political” avant-garde: ‘the invention of sensible forms and material structures for a life to come’, a kind of  ‘aesthetic anticipation of the future’. Art as critique is therefore extended to politics, art and politics becoming constitutive of each other, artpolitics as I have argued.


This article forms part of an editorial partnership, funded by the Gendered Ceremony and Ritual in Parliament research programme at the University of Warwick and the Leverhulme Trust.


Further reading

Arendt, H. 1985. [1951] The Origins of Totalitarianism.New York: A Harvest  Book.

Arendt, H. 1998. [1958] The Human Condition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Barthes, R. 2000 [1980] Camera Lucida. Trans. R. Howard. London: Vintage.

Hills, P. 2005. May Stevens. San Francisco: Pomegranate, 2005

Rancière, J. 2009. The Politics of Aesthetics.Trans.  G. Rochill. London: Continuum.

Tickner, L. 1984. ‘May Stevens’ in Ordinary/Extraordinary, A Summation 1977-1984.

Witzling, M. R. 1994. Ed. Voicing Today’s Visions: writings by contemporary women artists. New York: Universe Publishing.

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