Politics and Art: Feminism and some humble pie

The Brooklyn Museum hit the headlines several years ago playing its role in the wonderful piece of political theater set in motion when it exhibited Chris Ofili’s The Holy Virgin Mary . Growing up as a provincial Manhattanite of the classic sort, I had never made it to the BM until this weekend, when we were visiting friends who live across the street. This ignorance was a mistake, as it’s a very nice museum, manageable in size, with a tradition of doing yeasty, edgy stuff that keeps it salient in the very competitive New York art world. And Brooklyn is certainly a happening place.

In this line, it is the home of The Dinner Party, around which it has established several galleries of a Center for Feminist Art . Currently showing: a large survey of Ghada Amer (sexy, feminist, inventive stuff with Islamic roots and a thoughtful political tilt); I love wandering into a museum and finding something I wouldn’t know to look for, and have to mull over because I don’t have a quick take on it.

This was the first time my wife or I had seen The Dinner Party and it was quite affecting. The piece includes a wall with a little information about each of the 999 historical women who didn’t make it to the table but are remembered on the tile floor under it. I don’t have any new artistic insight about this well-known and amply documented project, but on the way out I was struck by something I’m sure I would never have noticed before I moved to California: except for the goddess Kali, there’s not a single woman at the table from Asia east of the Levant, and while I may have missed someone, not among the 999 either! Some of us are more enlightened than others, or more enlightened than we used to be, but this is a good reminder that enlightenment and sophistication are processes without end, not states one can attain.

There’s also an exhibit about the women’s suffrage movement that fits nicely with the national back-and-forth about race and sex stirred up by the Democratic primary campaign. I was surprised to realize how little any of my education had attended to that history (and women’s rights more generally), compared to how much time we spent on racial equality and discrimination, and how little I know about it. I have a better idea why the prospect that the first black president will be elected at the expense of the first woman president is such a poignant prospect for some of my feminist blogger colleagues (and others I haven’t heard from). I also have a better idea why it’s so infuriating (because it should be!) that such a large percentage of feminists are women, who are actually no more likely to have daughters, nieces, aunts, sisters, and mothers, and much less likely to be married to women, than anyone else.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.