Feminist Art - History and Concepts
Beginnings of Feminist Art
Feminist art production began in the late 1960s, during the "second-wave" of feminism in the United States and England, but was preceded by a long history of feminist activism. The "first wave" of feminism began in the mid-19th century with the women's suffrage movements and continued until women received the right to vote, in 1920. No feminist art was produced during this early period, but it laid the groundwork for the activism, and thus the art, of the 1960s and 1970s. Organized feminist activism effectively ceased between 1920 and the late 1960s, but women's concern about their role in society remained.
Some artists expressed this in their work and have been posthumously identified as proto-feminist. For example, Eva Hesse and Louise Bourgeois created works that contained imagery dealing with the female body, personal experience, and ideas of domesticity, even if the artists did not explicitly identify with feminism. These subjects were later embraced by the Feminist art movement that began producing work during the resurgence of the larger women's movement in the late 1960s, also referred to as the "second-wave" of feminism. The Feminist artists of the "second-wave" expanded on the themes of the proto-feminist artists by linking their artwork explicitly to the fight for gender equality and including a wider visual vocabulary to help describe their goals.
In New York City, which had a firmly established gallery and museum system, women artists were largely concerned with equal representation in art institutions. They formed a variety of women's art organizations, like the Art Worker's Coalition, Women Artists in Revolution (WAR) and the AIR Gallery, to specifically address Feminist artists' rights and issues in the art community. These organizations protested museums like The Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney, which exhibited few, if any, women artists. Protests of the Whitney Annual led to a rise in the number of women artists presented, from ten percent in 1969 to twenty-three percent in 1970.
In California, women artists focused on creating a new and separate space for women's art, rather than fighting an established system. In 1972, artists Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro, who were co-founders of the California Institute of the Arts' Feminist Art Program, organized the project Womanhouse, which encompassed an entire property in Los Angeles at which various female artists contributed on-site installations. In 1973, Chicago along with graphic designer Sheila Levrant de Bretteville, and art historian Arlene Raven created the Feminist Studio Workshop (FSW) - a two-year program for women in the arts that covered Feminist studio practice as well as theory and criticism. The FSW was a part of the Woman's Building in Los Angeles, which was created by Feminist artists as an inclusive space for all women in the community, and contained gallery space, a cafe, a bookstore, and offices for a feminist magazine, among other resources.
Art critics also played a large role in the 1970s Feminist art movement by calling attention to the fact that women artists had been completely omitted from the canon of Western art. They were important advocates who sought to rewrite male-established criteria of art criticism and aesthetics. In 1971, ARTnews published critic Linda Nochlin's provocatively titled an essay, "Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?" The essay critically examined the category of "greatness" (as it had largely been defined in male-dominated terms) and initiated the Feminist revision of art history that led to the inclusion of more women artists in art history books. In 1973, England's art critics Rozsika Parker and Griselda Pollock founded the Women's Art History Collective to further address the omission of women from the Western art historical canon. In 1976, Nochlin and fellow art historian Ann Sutherland Harris organized the first international female-only exhibition "Women Artists: 1550-1950" to familiarize the public with 400 years worth of work that had gone largely unrecognized.
With the end of the 1970s, an era of radical idealism in the arts came to a close with the new conservatism of the Reagan and Thatcher administrations. The Feminist artists of the 1980s focused more on psychoanalysis and Postmodern theory, which examined the body in a more intellectually removed manner than the embodied female experience that dominated the art of the 1970s. Artists continued to expand the definition of feminist art and although they were not always aligned with a coherent social movement, their works still expressed the need for women's equality. The Feminist artists of the 1970s made many advances, but women were still not close to equal representation.
This continued discrepancy spawned the Guerrilla Girls, a group formed in 1985, best known for fighting against sexism and racism in the art world by protesting, speaking, and performing at various venues while wearing gorilla masks and adopting pseudonyms to hide their identity to avoid real-world repercussions for speaking out against powerful institutions. The Guerrilla Girls took Feminist art in a new direction by plastering posters all over New York and eventually buying advertising space for their images. Their posters used humor and clean design to express a pointed, political message. Other 1980s Feminist artists such as Jenny Holzer and Barbara Kruger also focused on mass communication that drew on the visual vocabulary of advertising in both use of graphics and the distillation of complex political statements into catchy slogans. These artists sought the destruction of male-dominant social precepts, and focused less on the differences between men and women associated with 1970s Feminist art.
Feminist Art: Concepts, Styles, and Trends
A Multi-Disciplinary Movement
There is no singular medium or style that unites Feminist artists, as they often combined aspects from various movements including Conceptual art, Body art, and Video art into works that presented a message about women's experience and the need for gender equality.
Feminist art and Performance art often crossed paths during the 1970s and beyond, as performance was a direct way for women artists to communicate a physical, visceral message. It had the impact of being face-to-face with the viewer, which made it more difficult to disregard. Performance kept the work on a highly personal level, as there was no separation between the artists and the work itself.
Body art was another medium that was conducive to Feminist artistic concerns, as it provided a means to convey an immediate message to the viewer that was unequivocally connected to the personal space of the artist. Often Body and Performance art overlapped in Feminist art.
Video art emerged in the art world just a few years before Feminist art, and provided a medium, unlike painting or sculpture, that did not have a historic precedent set by male artists. Video was viewed as a catalyst that could initiate a media revolution, placing the tools for television broadcasting in the hands of the public, and thus providing the Feminist art movement with vast potential to reach a broader audience. The Woman's Building housed the Los Angeles Women's Video Center (LAWVC), which provided women artists with unprecedented access to the expensive new equipment required for making video art.
Mierle Laderman Ukeles explored the idea of women's work with her Maintenance Work series (1973), in which she eliminated the separation between art and life by performing typical household chores within the museum. Viewers had to walk around her while she cleaned the steps of the entrance, and common tasks were made into art that could not be ignored. Carolee Schneemann pulled a scroll from her vagina in public, a shocking attempt to reclaim the vagina to its rightful place as sacred source and birth passage. Yoko Ono revealed her own vulnerability in a performance where she sat submissively on stage as audience members were invited to cut off her clothes. By sharing gender specific experiences with audiences, these artists were using the "knowledge is power" model to influence new ways of thinking about traditional female stereotypes and to inspire empathy and compassion for the female condition.
Body as Medium
Artists often distorted images of their bodies, changed their bodies with other materials or performed self-mutilation not only to shock, but to convey a deeply felt experience in the most visceral manner. Artist Ana Mendieta used blood and her own body in her performances, creating a primal, but not violent, connection between the artist's body, blood, and the audience (and nature). Mendieta and many other Feminist artists saw blood as an important symbol of life and fertility directly connected to women's bodies.
Sexual Equality and De-Objectification
Many Feminist artists illuminated an imperative to end sexism and oppression with works that went against the traditional ideas of women as merely beautiful objects to be visually enjoyed. As Lucy Lippard stated, "When women use their own bodies in their art work, they are using their selves; a significant psychological factor converts these bodies or faces from object to subject." These works compelled viewers to question society's social and political norms.
For example, Dara Birnbaum used video art to deconstruct women's representation in mass media by appropriating images from television broadcasts into her video-collages, re-presenting them in a new context. In her most prominent piece, the 1978-79 video Technology/Transformation: Wonder Woman, she used images from the popular hit television show to expose its sexist subtexts. Birnbaum's peer Judith Bernstein was known for using sexually explicit images, many drawing reference from the male phallus and reminiscent of signs that might be found in a graffiti-scrawled men's restroom. Her monumental drawing Horizontal (1973) consists of a domineering, swirling screw - a metaphorical jab at male domination.
Domesticity and Family Life
Miriam Schapiro coined the term "femmage" to describe works she began to make in the 1970s that combined fabric, paint, and other materials through "traditional women's techniques - sewing, piercing, hooking, cutting, appliqueing, cooking and the like..." This put a spotlight on "women's work" as a viable contribution to the category of traditional "high art." Artists Faith Wilding and Harmony Hammond, among others, used fabric in their work to interrogate the deletion of feminine crafts from the arts.
Martha Rosler explored the various facets of female and domestic life. In her A Budding Gourmet (1974), we see a video of a woman describing efforts to improve herself and her family through gourmet cooking. Her dialogue is randomly interrupted with slides showing glossy images from food and travel magazines meant to depict consumerism's baiting of the everyday housewife.
Making and Reshaping Art History
Many feminist artists made work intended to show the inequity in the absence of women from historical cultural texts and documentation. In Judy Chicago's seminal Dinner Party, 1974-1979, credit is given toward the influence of women such as Frida Kahlo, Lee Krasner, Gertrude Stein, and many others on contemporary female artists. One artist particularly concerned with toppling unfair male domination was Nancy Spero. Her Notes in Time (1979) is a long scroll-like work that explores the place of women throughout history, traveling across epochs, continents, time and space, lending them overdue documentation and significance.
Later Developments - After Feminist Art
Perhaps Kiki Smith said it best, when describing the major impact the Feminist art movement had on the art world of its time: "I would say that without the feminist movement I wouldn't exist; and an enormous amount of the artwork that we take for granted wouldn't exist; and a lot of the subject matter that we assume can be encompassed by art wouldn't exist. The feminist movement exponentially expanded what art is, and how we look at art, and who is considered to be included in the discourse of art making. I think that it caused a tremendous, radical change. You don't want to have a cultural notion that one specific gender embodies creativity. All humanity - and all aspects of gender and sexuality and how people define themselves -are inherently creative. It's against the interests of the culture at large not to embrace feminism as a model, just like many other models of liberation, because they don't only liberate women, they liberate everybody."
Because of the progress made by previous generations of Feminist artists, many contemporary female artists no longer necessarily feel the responsibility to identify as "women artists" or to explicitly address the "women's perspective." Building on the precedent of the 1980s, many women artists began to produce work that focused on their individual concerns and less on a general feminist message.
Cindy Sherman, for instance, photographed herself in the roles of different iconic stereotypes portrayed in film and history and by doing so she reclaimed those stereotypes while at the same time questioning the male gaze so prevalent in cinematic theory and popular culture. In the 1990s artists such as Tracey Emin showed the influence of Feminist art by focusing on personal narratives and using non-traditional materials, such as the famous piece My Bed (1998), which consisted of her own slept-in bed strewn with used condoms and blood-stained underwear. These varied practices, even if not directly identified as feminist, grew from and are connected to the first and second generation Feminist artists and critics in the variety of materials, roles, and perspectives they exhibit.
In 2008, the Feminist art movement was given its proper due in the annals of art history through its first major retrospective titled WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution. The seminal exhibition, which originated at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles featured works from 120 artists and artists' groups from around the world.
The representation of the woman's body and of female sexuality continues to be politically charged and to express the tension between personal and public identity. Today's generation of women artists, like Kara Walker and Jennifer Linton, continue to speak directly about sexism and equality in their works. The topic persistently shows up in works as diverse as Mary Schelpsi's Beauty Interrupted, 2001, which shows a model walking down a runway covered in a blur of the artist's white brush strokes that obscure both her eyes and her rail thin ideal, and Mickalene Thomas' paintings that reframe the identity of African American women while dismantling historical beauty memes. Whereas the Feminist Art movement opened doors for these very important dialogues, female artists continue to pinpoint the exhaustive and never-ending presence of its issues.