Cutting Performances demonstrates that feminist performances can, and should, play a crucial role in our understanding of the American avant-garde. James Harding's aims here are twofold. First, to the extent that he endeavors to rescue the feminist artists in his case studies from historical disregard, he does so not merely to reinsert their works into the canon, but to prove that there is, in fact, a lineage of feminist avant-garde performance of which more recent female artists remain ignorant. And second, and perhaps more important, is the prescriptive aspect of the book: Harding proposes a feminist historiography of the avant-garde, in which the avant-garde itself is redefined in relation to feminist performances. [End Page 672]
Harding's project focuses primarily on collage. Seen as an aesthetic, rather than strictly a graphic-art medium, collage is a juxtaposition of texts, bodies, voices, and objects that asserts a multiplicity of meaning. For Harding, these juxtapositions call "attention to that which remains unaccounted for in conventional representation and logic" (25), and thus offer a model for feminist historiography, where feminist performance neither replaces male innovation nor constitutes a separate artistic sphere, but is instead inherent to a history of the avant-garde that this book aims to tell.
Harding's five case studies feature artists from throughout the twentieth century whose iconoclasm resisted the patriarchal assumptions of the mainstream and went further than their supposedly more challenging male peers. One of the strengths of the book is the way in which Harding not only positions these performances as historically important, but grounds his feminist historiography in concrete details that show that these women were explicitly responding to both the work and the behavior of the male artists surrounding them, in addition to broader patriarchal social institutions.
In the first chapter, Harding analyzes Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven's skin-baring costumes of detritus as a rejoinder to the timid gender blurring of her contemporaries, such as Marcel Duchamp's female alter-ego Rrose Sélavy. While Duchamp dressed up within the safety of Man Ray's studio (and, Harding speculates, only from the waist up), the baroness paraded through New York City streets, inviting and enduring repeated instances of police repression. Harding argues for von Freytag-Loringhoven's status as the "mother" of American Dada, as both her body and apartment—two "female" realms—became canvasses for a living collage of sexual and artistic transgression.
The second chapter, which lays out much of Harding's theory of collage, examines Gertrude Stein's 1946 The Mother of Us All as an example of how performance undermines the authority of texts. According to Harding, the opera's layering of history and fiction destabilizes both forms of narrative, thereby escaping constrictive, unified meaning in favor of nonlinear, heterogeneous representations of experience.
Harding next analyzes Yoko Ono's Cut Piece as a violent "unmaking of collage" that challenged the rhetoric of immediacy and authenticity of contemporaneous happenings artists like Allan Kaprow and Claus Oldenburg. Cut Piece (performed five times between 1964 and 1966) makes clear that such immediacy was still governed by patriarchal practices, because the activities audience members chose to carry out reiterated norms of sexual and racial dominance. Further, Harding's analysis of Cut Piece highlights the fact that collage is part of an artistic tradition that is implicated in the institutions of patriarchy, but it also foregrounds the historicity of collage, opening up the possibility for its recovery as a feminist aesthetic.
In his fourth chapter, Harding again takes up performance's challenge to textual authority through Carolee Schneemann's participation in the 1967 Dialectics of Liberation Congress in London. Her physical performance of "found behaviors" and fragments read aloud from the keynote addresses, paired with a screening of her erotic film Fuses, contested the conference organizers' plan for decorous academic papers on the topic of liberation. Harding argues that, while the emerging academic practice of canonical deconstruction was similarly responding to hegemonic structures, Schneemann's insistently...