“The limits of my language,” Ludwig Wittgenstein famously declared, “are the limits of my world.” One of the most notorious limits of our language, and one that has done much to limit our world, is “man” being the embodiment of humanity. That the pronoun “he” can represent indifferently “he” or “she,” that “man” represents “man” or “woman”: these are grammatical traces of the phenomenon that Simone de Beauvoir made the starting point of The Second Sex more than sixty years ago: “humanity is male and defines woman not in herself but relative to him.” Seen in this light, when Nancy Spero began using only the female figure in her paintings in 1976—paintings that by this time were more like what most people would call drawings—she was doing more than simply adjusting her pictorial style or focusing her subject matter. As Spero explained a few years later, “I decided to view women and men by representing women, not just to reverse conventional history, but to see what it means to view the world through the depiction of women.” That is, she was trying, in the way that was open to her as an artist, to change language, to pictographically use “she” or “woman” as her universal term. Her goal was not to overturn the hierarchy and put women on top, because she knew from experience that the effort to make a particular term play the part of the universal could lead only to violent contradiction; rather, she was doing it speculatively, as a thought experiment, in order to see differently, to push back the limits of her world.
more from Barry Schwabsky at The Nation here.