Art Inspection

Marilyn Minter Works in the Gray Area

When we set out to cultivate our activist acumen, one person we knew we wanted to speak to was painter, photographer, and video artist Marilyn Minter. Minter has a unique place among artists due to her activism, her engagement with popular culture, and her endlessly fascinating entwinement of the political with the personal. In recent years, she has emerged as a leader for feminists and feminist artists of multiple generations in trying times. Today, the day of the Women’s Strike across the world, we are thrilled to present that conversation, which we hope will provide you with as much inspiration and insight as it did for us.


To say that artist Marilyn Minter is a political artist is not entirely correct. Pornography, advertising, fashion—Minter was instrumental in bringing the imagery and underlying issues embedded in these mediums into the art world, delivering a payload of dirt, glamour, and sex into the realm of high art. However, as Minter sees it, her sole task as an artist is to make “a picture of what we know is true, but no one has ever made that image before.”
            Of course, the iconic images she’s made over 40-plus years are teeming with social issues, but what makes these images powerful and felt is that they are the product of her lived experience and shrewd observation, not just a commentary on those subjects. Minter’s images present to the viewer what is in the world, offering wisdom and insight on the culture in which we live.
            Throughout her career, Minter has also used her visibility as an artist to speak up for (and against) issues that have shaped her life, allying herself with causes that affect women and advocating for the visibility of others who are so often excluded from the conversation. As she discussed with The Standard, for her, the issues are deeply personal, dating back to her relationship with her mother, who was the subject of the photographs that put Minter on the art world map.
            Minter recently emerged from a blockbuster year with her touring retrospective Pretty/Dirty landing at the Brooklyn Museum, a recent show of new work at her New York gallery Salon 94, a collaboration with Miley Cyrus and Marc Jacobs to benefit Planned Parenthood, and a packed conversation with Madonna about feminist politics and making a life as an artist.
            The day we dropped by her studio, Minter and her team were hard at work on a new video that will be premiered with the Halt Action Group, also known as Dear Ivanka, the artist/activist group that seeks to do everything in its power to reject the normalization of the Trump administration. The excitement in Minter’s studio was palpable, and this expressly activist work was surrounded and framed by a series of paintings in progress. It was clear that questions of community engagement and aesthetics were equally important and, indeed, sister processes.
            We discussed women who voted for Trump, the pervasiveness of the patriarchy, her commitment to teaching, and her perennial desire to support other female artists.
THE STANDARD: What changes have you seen throughout this election and its aftermath?
MARILYN MINTER: The millennials have woken up. Gay people, women, and people of color have always felt this way.
Sure, but it feels like even we have a long way to go. I’m thinking about something like gay misogyny.
It’s true. There’s so much. It’s self-hating.
We think we’re immune from being sexist, but as a gay man, I certainly benefit from the patriarchy.
We all do. All men do. And what’s painful for me is that so many women also want to be taken care of. Gloria Steinem talked about these women being “colonized.” I think women really believe that the patriarchy will take care of them. They really want that strong presence—somebody who will let them nest. It may be cultural, or it may be intuitive. But what I know from life is that nobody can take care of anybody. You have to take care of yourself.
When did you learn that?
Maybe by watching my mother, who was a Southern belle, get left by my father for a friend of hers. Her world fell apart, and she became a drug addict. That might have been it, but I’ve seen it over and over again in my life—people who want to think that as long as they cater to the patriarchy and take second fiddle, they will be cherished and treated well. You get cherished and treated well when you do estimable things, not when you’re a doormat.
Not to apologize for women who voted for Trump, but that almost seems like a central human desire—to find some way to get validation.
That’s a good way to put it. I was stunned by it, though. So I probably am living in a bubble. I felt betrayed. How could anyone hear that pussy-grabbing comment and think that’s alright, and then wear signs saying “You can grab my pussy any time”?
Did people really do that?
Yes, and not just one or two. After Jesus, there’s Trump—this is who is going to take care of me. Millennials somehow know better. You have seen women in power. My generation—and people like Trump—never saw women in power. All the women in their lives are mothers or teachers or nurses. It’s stunning for them to see women run top corporations and become lawyers and surgeons. There wasn’t even any acknowledgment of trans people 10 years ago. Now “gay” is part of the vernacular. There has been so much nuance, and that is where my work has always been—in the nuance, in the grey areas. I am often sidelined for not being critical, but that’s not my job. My job is to make a picture—to have both points of view in the same image, and you come to your own conclusions. I hate didacticism. I hate it.
"Little Girls #1", 1986, enamel on canvas (three panels) 

It’s a reluctance to accept things that are in the grey area, especially by art historians.
They miss everything. The academy never saw Warhol. They never saw Haring. They never saw anything that was accepted by popular culture. It’s embarrassing! Matisse didn’t sell a painting in France until he was old!
I’m interested in you saying your job is to make a picture. There’s so much posturing by contemporary artists, and the simplicity of your statement seems profound.
That’s how I see my job, and the artists I’m interested in do that as well.

I wonder also if people are afraid of artists becoming successful. Does everyone just want to be miserable?
It could be that art history is predicated on critique. You have to find something wrong with everybody, and that’s how you make your name. I’m always questioning that. Why would we dismiss glamour and fashion when they are giant cultural engines? Why would we dismiss pornography as shallow and debased? There would be no internet without pornography—wake up! The fashion industry does so much destruction, and it gives so much pleasure. It creates body dysmorphia. It creates a robotic, nonhuman ideal, which is so destructive. But it also gives people so much pleasure. Why can’t we have both? Why can’t we examine that? It’s easy to kick fashion and pornography in the teeth.

"You get cherished and treated well when you do estimable things, not when you’re a doormat."

There’s still a prudishness. We want to keep women and women artists away from these issues, even though they are most directly affected.
And if they’re young and beautiful and have any sexual agency, they are attacked by everybody. Well, at least when you’re young! Once you’re past menopause, people just think you’re cute. I always remember the picture Robert Mapplethorpe took of Louise Bourgeois with her sculpture of a penis, and she’s so adorable. Whereas Miley Cyrus had that big finger, and she’s slut-shamed all over the country. She owns it, and suddenly it’s like, how dare she own the power of her own sexuality? They say, “No, your sexuality exists to serve us.” The most sacred thing in the world is that women have to be objects, rather than owning their objecthood. They certainly can’t use their sexuality to make money. But you can always be a victim like Marilyn Monroe or Anna Nicole Smith or Amy Winehouse. Then they’re saints when they die, after they have been destroyed by misogyny.
Well, I guess what we have seen is that activism does work.
I know that! I’ve been around for a long time. We can’t stop for a second. We can’t normalize Trump for a second. His base is more fervent than ever. We have to pay attention. Weimar Germany didn’t have the internet. The difference is that we can stop another Crystal Night before it happens.
It’s interesting that art always plays a role in fascism, too. At what point does art flip into a propaganda machine?
Right. Steve Bannon is an artist! Kellyanne Conway is an artist! Art is meant to be non-linear. It comes from people’s visions. I think we will probably see some terrific art when we look back in 20 years. But, you know, illustration doesn’t work. The best art is always the simplest and most profound, and it’s not art about art.
The last thing I wanted to touch on is how you inspire and support young artists.
I love to teach. It gives me incredible energy. I get much more out of it than they do! Everyone already has that voice that tells you that you’re a piece of shit. I make a point to tell my students that it is okay to not know what you’re doing yet: “This is where you take risks!” I also want to empower women to stick together more. Boy artists stick together and help each other get to the top. I want women to start acting as a team. I decided in the ’90s that I would start saying, “I don’t care who it is, but I won’t be the only woman in this show.”


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