Trust Me: "Radical Women" Is No-Bullshit Feminism Straight from the Icons Themselves
Writer Lydia Davis once said that you should stop reading so much modern literature and get your fill of the classics. I’m paraphrasing, but her argument went something like this: You already know how modern folks talk — don’t forget to listen to the oldies, too! This also happens to be the perfect attitude for a balanced podcast diet. Sure, listen to all the hard news and coronavirus updates you want, as well as the reality TV recap pods you love, but don’t overindulge and forget to give your brain some respite. A Davis-inspired search for just that (along with the fact that, yes, someone who I think is cool on Instagram was listening to it, too) has led me to Recording Artists, a new podcast by Getty that features archival recordings of six women artists. And I'm absolutely obsessed.
I didn’t start listening to Recording Artists because I was interested in rebuffing the patriarchy, but this is sort of what happened whenever I hit play. Using archival audio from the Getty Research Institute, the first season, aptly titled “Radical Women,” does more than just walk us through the lives of artists we already know and love, rattling off facts from their Wikipedia pages; it hands them the mic. The interviews tackle issues that feel familiar, mostly because we're still tackling them today. Through these conversations — which, in 2020, have a renewed sense of urgency — we hear straight from women like Lee Krasner, who was told, “This is so good, you wouldn’t know it was done by a woman,” and Alice Neel, whose mother made her expectations clear from the get-go: “I don’t know what you expect to do, you’re only a girl.”
It probably goes without saying: the Getty is not your average feel-good content machine. And these episodes aren’t simply recycling material sans context in order to sell popular liberal ideologies to a new generation of women. A more appropriate description would be a much shorter, unembellished one: No bullshit feminism, straight from the icons themselves.
Perhaps most importantly, host Helen Molesworth (above) took it upon herself to disprove (once and for all, here’s hoping) a laundry list of tired labels and rumors: That Alice Neel was an “absent mother;” that Yoko Ono was “the woman who broke up the Beatles;” that Lee Krasner was nothing more than “Jackson Pollock’s wife.”
Each episode gets straight to the point, diving head first into the particulars of each artists’ ideology, no matter how prickly. Yoko Ono, in particular, does not waste time mincing words. She’s gentle, yet firm, in her convictions — which should come as no surprise, after she spent her entire marriage fighting for recognition as an artist, while Lennon’s fame overshadowed everything in its wake. She rejects our contemporary impulse to overshare and sell selfhood-as-brand by embracing, instead, ambiguity and mysticism. She believes in stripping ourselves of the lazy comfort of nostalgia in favor of looking forward to newness. She hates any hint of pretension or exclusivity.
I am struck by how much Ono’s brand of feminism differs from the commercial one that we’re being fed today. It is not commodified, or packaged, or pandering, or pink; it is personal, political, and completely void of fluff. And I can’t help but compare her propensity for reinvention for the sake of her art to our modern-day propensity for reinvention for the sake of Instagram. There is no talk of Goop-endorsed crystals, self-help how-tos, or Girlboss-inspired business tips; there is simply her art, and a commitment to defending it.
Alice Neel maintained that art was something to be judged separately from the inequities produced by gender. She spent her entire career repeating herself, demanding fair critique of her work. And Lee Krasner refused to have any “modifier” be attached to her art; she didn’t want to be infantilized or minimized as a woman artist, but simply regarded as an artist. No adjectives necessary.
These women are similar in their disdain for being siloed as “female artists,” and I think we can learn something from their frustration with boxes (hint: think outside of them). Would Alice Neel balk at a feminist T-shirt? Probably. Does that mean I should too? Perhaps. I don’t think this podcast is aiming to prescribe a new — or even worse, “better” — way to be a feminist, but I do believe that these women have something important to say on the note of what we hear — and what we record — when women speak. Just give it a listen (trust me!).