Magazine article Dissent

Women and Other Art Objects

Magazine article Dissent

Women and Other Art Objects

Article excerpt

Women and Other Art Objects The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner Scribner, 2013. 383 pp.

At the National Book Awards ceremony this past November, Rachel Kushner read a section from her second novel, The Flamethrowers, a finalist in the fiction category. She chose a scene set at a New York dinner party in 1976, in which a middle-aged artist named Stanley Kastle plays his guests a tape in which he muses about language and real estate: "A good realtor says 'home.' Never 'house.' Always 'cellar' and never 'basement.' Basements are where cats crap on old Santa costumes. Where men drink themselves to death. Where children learn firsthand about sexual molestation. But cellar. A cellar is where you keep root vegetables and wine." Kushner's reading lasted five minutes, but she didn't get through half of Stanley's recorded speech. She got a lot of laughs for her performance; in the book, however, Stanley and friends listen to his recorded voice in silence, until he shuts off the tape player and another man offers a theory about the meaning behind the tape recording. "I, uh, don't know what my point was, except that men over fifty can't stop talking," Stanley responds. "It's an illness."

Kushner's novel, in many ways, is about men talking and making art, and about the ways that women experience men's art, or become the object of it. In Kushner's novel, the reader witnesses this scene through the eyes of a young woman nicknamed "Reno," after her home city in Nevada, by a man she sleeps with once. We never learn her real name, but "Reno," who moved to the city to pursue an art career, is not invited to the downtown art parties because of her work, but because of her boyfriend, Sandro Valera. Sandro is older, an established minimalist artist, who comes from powerful stock-his father was a wealthy Italian motorcycle manufacturer. Before Reno met Sandro, she knew the Valera name because of the motorcycles. She grew up working class and rode bikes when she was younger. On their first date Reno notices Sandro's confidence: "I saw how easy everything was for Sandro. I felt it, all at once. That he simply found a girl he liked and incorporated her. And because I was attracted to him, his charisma, his looks, and his knowledge, if I didn't form an attachment it would be my loss."

Without Sandro, there wouldn't be much of a novel, even if Reno is our protagonist. Reno narrates, but the world she describes is Sandro's-he takes her around to dinner parties and gallery openings, movies and museums-and it's a world with fewer female artists than male. Reno occasionally makes films, and her friend Giddle describes her waitressing job as performance art. But in Sandro's New York, women facilitate the display of men's art or are the objects of their art-or, as in the case of Stanley's wife, Gloria Kastle, make their own body art (Gloria stands in a box with a cut-out window framing her pelvis and a sign that says "Place Hand in Window").

After a year in New York, Reno rides west to take part in a motorcycle race with the intention of photographing her track marks. ("It was an irony but a fact that a person had to move to New York City first, to become an artist of the West," she notes.) She rides a Valera motorcycle, next year's model. Even on this journey, which she takes independently, Sandro provides her momentum.

Unlike Gloria, the male avant-garde artists in The Flamethrowers don't use their bodies to make their work. Stanley makes neon tubes arranged by his assistants according to an algorithm; Valera exhibits large aluminum boxes, and his assistants wear white cotton gloves to protect the metal from their fingerprints. Not all of the men have so much control over their work, or bodily detachment from their labor. Like in Kushner's first novel, Telex from Cuba, which was set in that country's revolutionary period, The Flamethrowers is a novel concerned more generally with exploitation. It narrates the ways in which men not only exploit the bodies of women but also other men, and the ways in which men exploit nature itself. …

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