Rebecca J. DeRoo (2006)
From 1971 to 1974, Annette Messager created over one hundred notebooks and collection albums in which she pretended to document her daily life. Inside the notebooks, which constituted her first major series, Messager claimed to describe her daily activities and chores, such as caring for children, cooking, shopping and knitting. She drew diagrams with pen and ink and coloured pencils, sometimes pasting in clippings from magazines that she labelled in pen. Beginning in 1973, Messager exhibited her notebooks in horizontal display cases or hung their individual pages on walls of museums. [ … ] The notebooks [ … ] did not emerge from her own private experience or represent an ‘individual mythology’ of her own creation. Instead, these works had their sources in the home economics and childcare lessons taught to girls in the 1950s and 1960s when they attended primary and secondary school – lessons that have since largely been relegated to the national education archives after decades of struggle by feminist critics of education. [ … ]
Indeed, Messager’s notebooks directly engaged contemporary feminist debates over the teaching of women’s domestic tasks, an engagement that explored the problems and possibilities represented by both sides. For example, the page titled ‘Le Lavage’ (‘Laundry’) from her 1974 notebook Ma Vie pratique (My Practical Life) repeated detailed and didactic textbook instructions on doinglaundry properly. It read: ‘To wash a wool garment, I use warm water and a bit of soap. I squeeze the wool but don’t scrub it. I rinse it several times, always with water the same temperature. I squeeze the wool and ring it out by hand and lay it flat to dry.’ Messager’s mechanical repetition of the tasks implied utter immersion in daily routine and clearly related to the strand of feminist thinking that denounced the ways the curriculum trained women into domestic roles. At the same time, the elaboration of the detailed skills and processes learned made visible the value – the intensity of the labour, the care and skill – of the domestic aspects of many women’s daily life.
In its more critical mode, Messager’s repetition of tasks from the home economics curriculum can be compared to ideas being explored concurrently by the sociologist Luc Boltanski [brother of her partner, the artist Christian Boltanski].1 Luc Boltanski, like his contemporaries Michel Foucault and Louis Althusser, saw the curriculum as a means for dominant social classes to structure and control students’ lives by regulating daily practices.2 I want to examine this connection at some length here, for it helps to make clearer how her work formed a critique of the ways the curriculum regulated students’ daily activities.
Since its inception in the 1880s, the housekeeping curriculum had been promoted by the state as a means for bringing happiness and health to all homes. In his 1969 study, Prime Education et morale de classe, Boltanski sought to expose the ideology underlying this codification of housekeeping practices. He argued that the housekeeping curriculum had formed part of a systematic project to regulate the habits of the working classes. In the late nineteenth century, popular opinion characterized the working class as immoral, disorderly and free from collective constraints. In response, educational programmes were organized to teach moral lessons, housekeeping and hygiene, in order to acculturate the working class to the middle-class values of order, work and economy. The schools instilled enseignement menager and puericulture, housekeeping and childcare lessons, by teaching rationalized attitudes and practices to be adopted in daily life. Because the familial sphere was considered ‘women’s domain’, these housekeeping courses for girls supplied a means to control the private life of the working classes. The factory and office workday had been timed, organized and rationalized since the nineteenth century, and the housekeeping classes provided a corresponding way to structure the private life of the working classes by regulating domestic labours:
Not public life which occurs in factories, offices and administration, which for a long time, since the beginning or middle of the [nineteenth] century, has been made uniform, standardized, constricted in space and time, confined in workplaces, delimited by work schedules. What needed to be regulated henceforth was private life, the multiple activities that are done in the privacy of the home, done behind the walls of individual houses. The ‘habitual manners of behaving’, [which were] governed by custom, passed on by tradition, had to be replaced by rules.’
This structuring of private life was manifest in home economic textbooks, which provided rationally organized chronologies of daily activities, with precise amounts of time allotted for each child-rearing and housekeeping task. Beyond teaching rules of housekeeping, hygiene and childcare, the lessons encouraged students to adopt methods of order and discipline in their daily life. Most importantly, the lessons compelled students to regulate their own behaviour, accomplishing what Boltanski called ‘a total transformation of spirit, a peaceful and internal revolution:•
Boltanski’s analysis of the home economics and childcare curriculum provides an important perspective on the class-component of education, yet his analysis of women’s role in the curriculum is limited. For him, women as homemakers enter into his model simply as the means for transmitting middleclass values to the working class. He does not consider how the home economics classes – because they were taught to and carried out by women – shaped the subjectivity of women in particular.
Messager’s work, in contrast, not only enacted the ‘rationalization of behaviour’ that Boltanski noted, but also showed how women’s training shaped their subjectivity. Messager represented the ways in which the behaviours taught in school were internalized at the level of the individual woman and, despite the reality of class differences, became common to some degree to all French women.
Messager’s notebook Ma Vie pratique (1974) evoked the systematization of daily behaviours that Boltanski observed. [ … ]
In line with feminists who saw the teaching of home economics as a means of preparing girls for menial roles, Ma Vie pratique and Mes Travaux d’aiguille enacted ways that the social order was incorporated into individual behaviour. By selecting statements such as ‘I must take a shower each day’ or labels such as ‘my needlework’, Messager isolated the moments at which educational directives were absorbed and expressed in the behaviour of the individual. From this perspective, it appeared that women across social classes shared, though unevenly, quotidian experiences that had been perpetuated through the education system for their subjection. At the same time though, grouping together these documents of women’s daily hygiene practices, household labours and domestic arts, could be seen to produce a detailed catalogue of women’s work and traditional skills that gave them dignity and respect. Both readings are possible, and in the mid-1970s, both readings would be advanced.
The dual modes of forming a critique and displaying attachment in Messager’s work seem particularly crucial coming at a time when traditions were changing due to feminist challenges, and equally significantly, the encroachments of consumer culture. These changes were particularly noteworthy in relation to women’s housework. Messager documented this separate and currently modernizing women’s culture, which stood in opposition to the promotion of standards of national culture that had been the aim of the education system and the museum.[ … ]
In contrast to the ‘artisanship’ and ‘culture’ of traditional feminine household arts, the contemporary housekeeping techniques promoted by women’s magazines were based on acquiring housekeeping gadgets that required no specific skills to operate.
The critic Pascal Laine’s description of feminine culture as a ‘local culture’ (ironically, one created and perpetuated in part by the national school system) that was in the process of being liquidated by Western modernism, echoed the ethnographic approach to modernizing traditional cultures exemplified by Claude Levi-Strauss in Tristes Tropiques.5 And like Levi-Strauss and the ethnographers, anthropologists and museum curators influenced by him, Laine saw this local culture as a feature to be preserved. Within this framework, Messager’s albums can be seen as constructing the kind of archive that would preserve a vanishing women’s civilization, making visible the skilled and detailed labour in household work that had frequently gone unnoticed. [ … ]
One of her albums, Ma Vie pratique, for instance, was an encyclopaedic inventory of home economics lessons from the 1950s and 1960s. In the various notebook entries, Messager pretended to document her rigorous methods of housekeeping, health and hygiene, analysing her daily chores in handwritten instructions, and including textbook passages and textbook-style illustrations with bright, diagrammatic colours. For example, ‘La Cuisson des aliments’, one page from the album, described how to use a pressure cooker and how to cook meat, fish, dried and fresh fruits and vegetables, and represented each method schematically in diagrams. The notes described the health benefits of certain methods. For example: ‘Boiled meat is easy to digest. The heat makes the food either softer or harder, and it becomes more savoury and easier to digest, and further, it’s sterilized.’ In contrast, Mon Livre de cuisine (My Cookery Book), was filled with fiches cuisine, recipe cards published in women’s magazines such as Elle in the 1960s and 1970s. These clipped-out cards had a picture of the prepared dish on one side and the simple recipe on the back. Both Ma Vie pratique and Mon Livre de cuisine were based on the idea of women as housekeepers and cooks. Yet unlike Ma Vie pratique, the recipe cards in Mon Livre de cuisine did not promote principles of cooking in careful diagrams, but were simple recipes – often called ‘grandma’s recipes’ in an effort to lend them the aura of tradition – clipped out of magazines and glued into notebooks or copied over word for word. Whereas ‘La Cuisson des aliments’ illustrated the steps involved in each task, emphasizing the tradition and science of housekeeping, the recipe cards merely showed the final product, displaying the finished dish in an effort to entice the reader into purchasing the merchandise whose ads appeared on the pages of the magazine. The learning, the detail and the labour represented in Ma Vie pratique all vanished into a vision of a readyto-be-consumed meal. Whereas ‘La Cuisson des aliments’ described a number of techniques to be used at the discretion of the housekeeper, the fiches cuisine provided a simple, generic model leaving little room for the housekeeper’s discrimination, and thus little recognition of her skill. Viewed in this light, Messager’s albums would seem to reinforce Laine’s comment that homemaking skills were being effaced and transformed. Where the domestic arts had gained dignity from the rhetoric of health, order and moralistic progress that surrounded their skills, now, it seemed, ‘All that remains are “grandma’s recipes”, produced by the major food companies’ – mere publicity for brandname products.6 [ ••• ]
The role of women’s magazines and their advertising in saturating the everyday existence of their readers was not lost on Lefebvre, who noted the rapid influx of American-style commodities in the 1960s in Everyday Life in the Modern World.1 He believed that women’s magazines were the perfect object through which to study this transformation of the everyday, because of their intense focus on the new domestic commodities and their promulgation of the step-bystep behaviours needed to use them. The increased repetition and mechanization of household gestures that they displayed, Lefebvre believed, were a quintessential image of the broader restructuring of the everyday in which work and leisure had been so quantified and structured that no room remained for individual creativity, turning people into passive consumers. The consumerist ethic that Lefebvre noted would have profound effects on not only women’s practices in the home but also their subjectivities and bodies.
As an example of the influence of this consumer society on subjectivity, Lefebvre described how one day his wife brought home a new laundry detergent and exclaimed, ‘This is an excellent product’, with her speech and behaviour unconsciously imitating the advertising for the product.8 The force of this unconscious immersion was a striking example of the difficulty women would
have in attaining a critical perspective on the everyday. Like Lefebvre, Messager explored the way women emulated everyday gestures from the media, but also took the idea further, in Mes Collections d’expressions et d’attitudes diverses (My Collection of Various Expressions and Attitudes) to show how even women’s emotions had become saturated with these representations. In this series, Messager collected mass-media representations of women and catalogued them by activities or emotional states – ‘on the telephone’, ‘at the beach’, ‘fatigue’, ‘sadness’, ‘fear’, ‘jealousy’, ‘happiness’, and so forth. The series ‘tears’, for example, contains highly staged representations of women in distress: one woman holds her head in her hands, another leans her head on folded arms, and another covers her face. In the centre of the page, Messager drew herself in a similarly cliche pose – with her eyes closed, her head thrust back, and one hand held to her forehead. Another series of her ‘expressions diverses’ presented photographs of couples embracing, which surrounded various sketches of Messager embracing a man, being kissed by him, and leaning against his shoulder. By portraying herself within these stereotypes, Messager acted out how advertising had influenced her.9 Yet her drawn activities appear exaggerated and highly unnatural, providing a parody of the stereotypes and rising above the media immersion, signalling a critical perspective that Lefebvre would have thought women could not attain. [ … )
footnote 16 in source] Luc Boltanski, Prime Education et morale de c/asse(Paris: Ecole Pratique
des Hautes Etudes and Mouton, 1969). Luc Boltanski’s book formed part of a larger study directed by Pierre Bourdieu and carried out by the Centre de Sociologie Europeenne. Boltanski’s approach to the educational establishment as a means of social control was indebted to Michel Foucault’s Birth of the Clinic. See Michel Foucault, Naissance de la c/inique (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1963). 1 … ]
2 117] The other renowned contemporary work on this subject was, of course, that of Louis Althusser, who saw school as one of the ideological state apparatuses that perpetuated the dominant ideology and class divisions; through forming the students’ subjectivities, school also accomplished their subjection. Louis Althusser, Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1971 !orig. 19691).
3 118] Boltanski, Prime Education et morale de c/asse, 21-2. 1 … ]
4 119] Ibid., 26. ! … ]
5 125] See Claude Levi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques(1955), trans.John and Doreen Weightman (New
York: Modern Library, 1997).
6 127] Pascal Laine, la Femme et ses images, 23. 1 … ]
7 130] Henri Lefebvre, Everyday life in the Modern World, 67, 72-4, 85-8.
8 131] Henri Lefebvre, Le Temps des meprises (Paris: Stock, 1975) 34.
9 132] Whereas Messager’s references to the French school curriculum remain more nationally specific, her explorations of the way mass media representations were internalized by women may be compared more broadly with the work of international artists active in the mid-1970s, such as Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills. For an account that emphasizes the similarities of French and American artwork of the 1970s, see Thomasine Haynes Bradford, The Relations of American and French Feminism as Seen in the Art of Annette Messager’, dissertation, State University of New York at Stony Brook, 2000.
Rebecca J. De Roo, extracts from ‘Annette Messager’s Images of the Everyday: The Feminist Recasting of ’68’, in The Museum Establishment and Contemporary Art: The Politics of Artistic Display in France after 1968 (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press 2006) 125; 130; 131-4; 140-2; 144-5; 146-50.