First it was bossy, now it’s quirky. The list of words to be ruled out when describing women is growing. Recent reviews of the American artist/filmmaker Miranda July’s debut novel, The First Bad Man, sparked a backlash among those angry at repeated use of the q-word to describe it. Quirky, they said, is a dismissive, patronising, derogatory and unfair term used exclusively to critique the creative work of women. I have always regarded quirky as more of a descriptor than a judgement call. It means funny, off-beat, original and a little strange. Is it also always bad, and always female?
July works with skill and intelligence across various mediums. Last year, she created a mobile phone app that explores twenty-first century reliance on technology as a mediator for human emotions. The accompanying short film is peculiarly brilliant. It features a sexually frustrated, texting potted plant, which is kind of quirky. It really is.
Surely quirky is only bad if we agree it is an exclusively gendered term? I’ve been writing about art for this paper since 2003. In that time, according to a thorough search, I’ve used the q-word to describe the work of ten women and six men. Yes, more women, but some men too.
Last year, I said prints by the great French artist Louise Bourgeois evidenced her “quirky sense of humour”. I may have meant bawdy and unapologetic, two better words. In 2010, I wrote that the final room in an excellent Janet Mullarney show at The Taylor Galleries offered a “quirky flipside to the darker edge that pervades” her work. The art featured footage of Italian men demonstrating their bird calling abilities. Their actions were quirky, Mullarney caught that.
I don’t regard quirky as a put-down, or exclusively female. I’ve used it to describe Michael Quane’s sculptures (“warm and quirky”) and Justine Pearsall’s video works featuring synchronised swimmers; surely among the quirkiest of sports? Quirky can fail of course. I’ve called Caroline McCarthy’s Greetings video “quirky but lightweight” and a painting by Michéal O’Nualláin “quirky but forgettable.” In 2011, I said the photorealist John Doherty had made a bad, quirky joke with the title of one of his petrol pump paintings.
I’ve used it when reviewing the art of Linda Quinlan, Vanessa Donoso Lopez, Beth O’Halloran, Pauline Bewick, Patrick O’Reilly, Genieve Figgis and Gus Hughes. But let’s not be lazy, there are other words. July’s work is challenging, intriguing, exceptional, forceful, and yes, it has a strong element of quirk. Is it not possible for art to be quirky and brilliant? May its brilliance not lie partially in its quirkiness? Not everyone is a fan of quirky, but it is not an inherently bad quality, unless we think it always means female and have collectively decided female means lesser. Think about that. Let’s reclaim quirky by un-gendering it. There is a worse word: kooky. Irretrievably gendered and always negative, kooky implies a silly, dismissible girl. We should get rid of that one instead.
A version of this column was first published in The Sunday Times Ireland on 15 March 2015.