Elevate Difference

Leaving Art: Writings on Performance, Politics, and Publics, 1974-2007

A student of Judy Chicago and Allan Kaprow, Suzanne Lacy’s collection of essays about her performance art pieces showcases not only Lacy’s development as a powerhouse feminist artist of her time but also the changing landscape of political art throughout the past four decades. Following a thoughtful introduction by her friend Moira Roth, Leaving Art traces Lacy’s self-criticism, the intended meaning behind her pieces, and reflections about the effectiveness of her work, at times in journal form (e.g., “While I was working on this piece I figured out why it has been so hard for me to consider myself grown up”) and at times as she reflects about the meaning of art more broadly. As an introduction to Lacy’s work, or as an in-depth look at Lacy’s artistic process, the book will appeal both to those newly familiar with Lacy or with those who have long followed her career.

Cleverly titled, Lacy intends Leaving Art as a meditation on the various objects and stories she and her colleagues have left behind; still more, the title implies that their collective departure from the art world—through retirement or even death—looms imminently. Aside from considering what it means to leave art, the volume addresses a startling array of subjects: rape, violence, gender, race, speaking across identities, sexuality, power, injustice, challenging institutions, solitude, connection, friendship, speech acts, performance, and community. Lacy’s impact on feminist art reveals itself throughout the book not by loud proclamations of her importance, but via a layered portrait of how her work chipped away at the injustices she saw happening around her and to her.

During the early days of feminist consciousness raising, Lacy tackled such difficult topics as the role of prostitution in a feminist politics, the dismemberment of women’s bodies (metaphorically and literally), and the process of witnessing a rape narrative. She followed these pieces with sweeping tableau vivant performances where she drew together over 400 performers to converse and dialogue in public view along the shores of La Jolla, CA. Her later pieces, drawing together such disparate subjects as Buddhist philosophy and police brutality, engaged people in performance demonstrations where they confronted each other in order to challenge powerful social ills like racism and sexism. In each decade, Lacy reinvented herself as artist and social critic.

Pushing art as a mechanism for social change, she admitted in the 1990s to questioning “whether it was possible for artists to exert a substantial impact on communities…; whether civic institutions could be significantly recruited for social and aesthetic claims; and how to transform hundreds, even thousands of personal attitudes that might, in turn, be measured through policy outcomes.” Certainly, Lacy’s work responded to these questions by adamantly demanding that art (and artists) continually re-imagine themselves in relation to their political usefulness. In particular, Lacy’s work prioritizes the urgency of listening to marginalized voices just as it delves into content that lies beneath the surface of our lives. Lacy provokes us to consider what has become forcibly out of sight (e.g., stories of cancer, narratives of rape, privilege of Whiteness), and what we drive underground because of fear, shame, and the difficulty of seeing ourselves.

Written by: Breanne Fahs, October 24th 2010