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Marilyn Minter’s Pretty/Dirty
"Vapor"All images courtesy of the artist and Salon 94

Why Marilyn Minter is more relevant now than ever before

Once dubbed an ‘anti-feminist’, since the late 60s Minter’s art has challenged our fetishes, secrets, and the impulses we repress. Here she talks frankly about censorship, sex, art, and fashion

Self-proclaimed “bad bitch” activist artist, Marilyn Minter has had one hell of a year. Fresh from touring her retrospective around the US to Texas and California, her exhibition Pretty/Dirty culminates at home in New York, at its final stop at the Brooklyn Museum.

For four decades Minter has shaken up the art world and become known for her hyperrealistic portrayal of the excesses of glamour, decadence, and sexuality. Her artworks look at the superficialities of fashion and beauty culture through a sociological lens - taking a deeper dive into aesthetics. Minter's art zooms in close, enabling microscopic introspection at the physicality of materialism while conjuring an ethnographic perspective of our modern-day “Garden of Earthly Delights”.

Historically championing women’s rights and censorship in her work, Minter has always been something of an art world maverick. She made waves early in her career for depicting the sex industry and was consequently accused of glorifying misogyny through her work. Although she was rejected by her community at large and called an “anti-feminist”, Minter’s art continues to rebel against the system and fight the media’s underlying agenda of “policing women’s bodies.” Existing in something of a paradox, she’s used misanthropes to ignite her crusade and turn these so-called labels into a reputation notorious for ignoring the status quo.

Pretty/Dirty is Minter’s first retrospective, exploring our fetishes, our secrets, and the impulses we repress – ultimately manifesting themselves in deeper, darker ways. Taking us on a journey through the faults of misogyny, as an artist, she remains fearless against the omnipresent patriarchy. Minter’s moisture-laden images flip the male gaze on its head, reclaiming the female gaze by shifting perspective onto the minutia of intimacy. Ahead of the show’s opening on 4 November, we phoned her up to talk frankly about censorship, sex, art, and fashion.

Your work explores these themes of abundance, glamour and female identity under the male gaze. How do you feel about also addressing subject matter that is typically labeled as “superficial?”

Marilyn Minter: There’s a lot to do with that. I’ve always been interested in things that are considered shallow or debased or not important. I say this a lot, but I think these are things of the culture that we pretend aren’t important. There would be no internet without pornography. There’s so much hatred for fashion and glamour, and it’s considered so shallow, yet this is one area that gives so many people pleasure and power.

The collective consciousness exists in a state of dichotomy – your work ranges from commentary on beauty (“Rouge Baiser”, 1994) to stylised female nudes (“Thigh Gap”, 2016). Should society be able to dictate what is “important” in terms of high or low culture?

Marilyn Minter: It’s all aesthetics. We’ve pretended that we dismiss it. It’s somehow such an important part of the culture. It causes a lot of pain and it causes a lot of pleasure. That’s where I’ve always worked with paradox. Women are meaner to each other in fashion than any other place, but at the same time, it’s a power base. They have very powerful women designers and editors. This is a power place for women. It’s a way to describe your tribe, you know exactly who you’re dealing with by the way they present themselves. These are critical parts of being a human. We give so much contempt for it because it’s “shallow”. I just think that’s crazy. 

How does it feel to finally have a retrospective of your work?

Marilyn Minter: I love working with the Brooklyn Museum – they really are a dream. I did billboards at the other museums and for Brooklyn, I’m doing the Jumbotron at Barclay’s Center. We’re doing a really cool talk in January with Madonna. She’s a collector of my work, that’s how we got to know each other. She’s got work going back to the 80s from Basquiat and Keith Haring. Madonna’s always been an activist. Same with Miley Cyrus, that’s why I love her. There are so few celebrities that are willing to be activists – I’m an artist who’s always been an activist. I was always just another marcher, only in the last ten years have I had any public presence. I’ve always been doing defense of abortion clinics and marching for civil rights.

“I have a real problem with censorship. Unless it concerns children or animals, I feel like if you want to fight bad speech or hate speech, fight it with good speech” – Marilyn Minter

Do you try and address social or political issues in your work?

Marilyn Minter: I make a picture of the life and times I live in my work. I’ve been making a big support statement for Planned Parenthood and raising money for them as much as I can. I’ve done whatever I can since I’ve been able to generate any money from my work, I will donate it for causes I believe in. I can’t donate $150,000, but I can donate work which generates that income.

What do you think is going to happen in the election?

Marilyn Minter: If we’re lucky, the Democrats will win the House and the Senate and get some things done that the Republicans have been opposing for the last eight years. They opposed the economic recovery because that would mean they were supporting Obama – and that was for the whole country! Isn’t that amazing? Where is your citizenship? You go into politics supposedly to do good. It’s supposed to be a “give back” job and now it’s in opposition. It’s made everyone crazy. I don’t believe in a two-party system. I have no sympathy for the Republican party.

What do you think of the current state of arts and the current support in America? Do we still have a long way to go?

Marilyn Minter: I think it’s the same. I know everyone says the art world’s changed. The only way I can see it’s changed is that it’s much bigger. There are a lot more artists and galleries. It always comes down to the same thing – some people buy art because they love it, but most people buy art because it’s a way to generate income later – and that’s always going to bite you in the ass. That’s just never going to work and people have to learn every generation.

A lot of your work explores themes of sexuality, feminism, and censorship. Do you think that we are in a state of over-censorship?

Marilyn Minter: I have a real problem with censorship. Unless it concerns children or animals, I feel like if you want to fight bad speech or hate speech, fight it with good speech. I think we are only as sick as our secrets, censoring people just represses them and then there’s a huge return of the repressed; it causes distortion, it turns whatever your fetish is, against you. I believe that information is good. If it’s factual, it’s all healthy.

You see it in every country. I really think it is all about policing women, everything is – repression is. We own sexuality too, and we’re just too powerful. One of my girlfriends (Aida Ruilova) just made a t-shirt that reads “Pussy stronger than god.”

Censorship for art is disastrous. I’ve never met anybody that hasn’t been sexually abused in a sense – male or female. Why is that? I think you can’t create safe spaces in terms of art. Art isn’t about creating safe spaces. Art is about making a picture of everything.

I think it’s up to each artist individually and their duty to portray their idea of reality.

Marilyn Minter: They have to create their vision. And if it’s offending somebody then walk away. I can’t stand that guy Milo Yiannopoulos, who writes for Breitbart. He attacked Leslie Jones, the comedian and got all the Breitbart people to torment her because she wasn’t his idea of “what a comedian should look like” or whatever his reasoning was – that she was black and outspoken and funny. He did a politically offensive show in Chelsea – I wouldn’t stop that. Let him do it, just don’t buy it, don’t go in it or look at it and laugh at it.

It’s wrong for society to dictate what is baseline “normal,” when there are millions of individuals with just as many tendencies.

Marilyn Minter: Or what is morally correct, exactly. Everybody is different. I learned this when I started working with sexual imagery in the 1980s. I saw that if you try and program sexuality, you’re going to get ass-kicked. There are so many variations, it’s not even close to simple. There’s a self-hatred from the popular culture telling you you’re wrong and bad.

Do you think we’re moving in the right direction towards a more open and democratic landscape of equality and acceptance?

Marilyn Minter: Just the fact that there were all these trans people out there, there was no word “trans” ten years ago in the vernacular. And now there are all different sexual identifications. This is all healthy and good. There were two genders a minute ago, and then there were three.

That’s why when I did the work I did back in the 80s, I thought everyone thought like I did. And at one time, what I was doing seemed to be unfeminist and that I was glorifying misogyny. The whole idea I guess was that they were frightened. I know where it comes from – there was a really abusive history (of pornography) and there became this idea of what was a good feminist or a bad feminist. And that’s just wrong. Refer to this in intro

It goes back to society attempting to dictate the “norm,” whatever that may be.

Marilyn Minter: And policing women’s bodies, which is a form of ownership and power. You can’t dictate or police women’s bodies. You can’t police their agency either. You can try, that’s what the whole Republican party is about policing women, as far as I can tell. They want to say it’s about money and taxes, but really it’s about policing women. All the evangelicals are voting for Trump like crazy. “Don’t let them (women) get abortions for God’s sake and how dare they become president!”

“I like to think that I’m an outlier and I’m one of those people who gets rediscovered all the time because that’s what seems to be happening. I’ve noticed that the work I did in the 70s seems to resonate much more today than it did in the 70s. Same with the 60s” – Marilyn Minter

Does your art have a mission to put women at the forefront and break through the glass ceiling?

Marilyn Minter: I think that art can’t have mission statements. Art has to be about the artist’s vision. As soon as you have mission statements, you make illustrations. Art’s really about multiple readings, as far as I’m concerned. There are certain people that are visionaries, that are poets, that should be making art, that have a message. Like Barbara Kruger or Jenny Holzer, they’re gifted – they’re poets. I think it has to be your organic vision as an artist. Artists are real good at translating the world, shining a light on life, basically. That’s all art can do.

What do you think of the fashion industry?

Marilyn Minter: It’s much harder to be a fashion photographer than an art photographer because they have to come up with an idea in a week. Everyone gets thrown away so fast. Art has a bit more staying power. And people constantly get rediscovered in art. It’s hard for artists to hear this, but it’s something that moves the dial and gets seen even if the artist is dead. Artists have a really tough time during their lifetime, the ones that are important.

Do you subscribe to the “15 year rule” where aesthetics trends and mindset become relevant again every 15 years or so? Do you think we adopt trends again in a new way and recontextualise them?

Marilyn Minter: Yeah, I know about it, I’m a culture vulture. It makes a lot of sense. I like to think that I’m an outlier and I’m one of those people who gets rediscovered all the time because that’s what seems to be happening. I’ve noticed that the work I did in the 70s seems to resonate much more today than it did in the 70s. Same with the 60s.

Does the revival of the decadence and glamour of the 90s strike a chord with millenial interest in your work?  

Marilyn Minter: Your generation can see me. My generation really dismissed me. I’m not bitter about it, but it’s really lovely to be accepted. You guys have so much information. What I do doesn’t seem out of the ordinary. When I was showing it, it seemed shocking to people, even though I had no idea that was going to be the response.

How can females succeed in the art world? Is it possible to ever reach the success level of males?

Marilyn Minter: I’m lucky that I live long enough as a female artist. Joan Mitchell was gifted, but who gets all the credit? Willem De Kooning. Women artists always get their due late in life. But that might change because the millenials are so much nicer to each other. I have these “Bad Bitch” parties that I host in my studio. The last one I had, the youngest person was 13 and the oldest was 45. It was just a place to network and get to know one another and work as a team. You see how women turn against one another. We all know that girl who’s so much cuter and so much smarter and so much more brilliant than us. We have to fight that instinct. Instead of acting on that, I go up to them and say, you’re such a good artist, let’s keep in touch. Even going up to another person and saying, “I really admire your work” takes the poison out, because we’re all so jealous. And then you actually become friends.

It’s really hard to stay nice to each other. I’ve watched the male artists work as a team until they get to the top. We don’t even get to the top.

What would your tagline be?

Marilyn Minter: “Nobody has politically correct fantasies” I’ve been saying that for years!

Pretty/Dirty opens at Brooklyn Museum runs 4 November 2016 – 2 April 2017