Feminist art

Feminist art is a category of art associated with the late 1960s and 1970s feminist movement. The goal and expectations a feminist artist tends to create, is to convey a conversation that is linked from the viewer of the work to the artist themselves. By highlighting the societal and political differences women and those of other gender identity experience within their lives. The hopeful gain from this form of art is to bring a positive and understanding change to the world, in hope to lead to equality. Media used range from traditional art forms such as painting to more unorthodox methods such as performance art, conceptual art, body art, craftivism, video, film, and fiber art. Feminist art has served as an innovative driving force towards expanding the definition of art through the incorporation of new media and a new perspective.

Historically speaking, female artists, when they existed, have largely faded into obscurity: there is no female Michelangelo or Da Vinci equivalent. In Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists Linda Nochlin wrote, “The fault lies not in our stars, our hormones, our menstrual cycles, or our empty internal spaces, but in our institutions and our education”. Because of women’s historical role as caregiver, most women were unable to devote time to creating art. In addition women were rarely allowed entry into schools of art, and almost never allowed into live nude drawings classes for fear of impropriety. Therefore, women who were artists were largely wealthy women with leisure time who were trained by their fathers or uncles and produced still lives, landscapes, or portrait work. Examples include Anna Claypoole Peale and Mary Cassatt.

Feminist art can be contentious to define. Is all art made by a feminist then feminist art? Can art that is not made by a feminist be feminist art? Lucy R. Lippard stated in 1980 that feminist art was “neither a style nor a movement but instead a value system, a revolutionary strategy, a way of life.” Emerging at the end of the 1960s, the feminist art movement was inspired by the 1960s student protests, the civil rights movement, and Second-wave feminism. By critiquing institutions that promote sexism and racism students, people of color, and women were able to identify and attempt to fix inequity. Women artists used their artwork, protests, collectives, and women’s art registries to shed light on inequities in the art-world.

Before the 1960s the majority of woman-made artwork did not portray feminist content, in the sense that it neither addressed nor criticized the conditions that women have historically faced. Women were more often the subjects of art, rather than artists themselves. Historically, the female body was regarded as an object of desire existing for the pleasure of men. In the early 20th century, works that flaunted female sexuality – the pin-up girl being a prime example – began to be produced. By the late 1960s there was a plethora of feminine artwork that broke away from the tradition of depicting women in an exclusively sexualized fashion.

In order to gain recognition, many female artists struggled to “de-gender” their work in order to compete in a dominantly male art world. If a work did not “look” like it was made by a woman, then the stigma associated with women would not cling to the work itself, thus giving the work its own integrity. In 1963 Yayoi Kusama created Oven-Pan – part of a larger collection of works she referred to as the aggregation sculptures. As with other works from that collection, Oven-Pan takes an object associated with women’s work – in this case a metal pan – and completely covers it with bulbous lumps of the same material. This is an early feminist example of female artists finding ways to break from the traditional role of women in society. Having the lumps made from the same color and material as the metal pan completely takes away the pan’s functionality, and – in a metaphorical sense – its association with women.[according to whom?] The protrusions remove the item’s gender by not only removing its function of being a metal pan women would use in the kitchen, but by also making it ugly. Before this era, common female work consisted of pretty and decorative things like landscapes and quilts, whereas more contemporary artwork by women was becoming bold or even rebellious.[according to whom?]

Towards the end of the decade, progressive ideas criticizing social values began to appear in which the mainstream ideology that had come to be accepted was denounced as not being neutral. It was also suggested[according to whom?] that the art world as a whole had managed to institutionalize within itself the notion of sexism. During this time there was a rebirth of various media that had been placed at the bottom of the aesthetic hierarchy by art history, such as quilting. To put it simply, this rebellion against the socially constructed ideology of a woman’s role in art sparked the birth of a new standard of the female subject. Where once the female body was seen as an object for the male gaze, it then became regarded as a weapon against socially constructed ideologies of gender.

With Yoko Ono’s 1965 work, Cut Piece, performance art began to gain popularity in feminist artwork as a form of critical analysis on societal values on gender. In this work, Yoko Ono is seen kneeling on the ground with a pair of scissors in front of her. One by one, she invited the audience to cut a piece of her clothing off until she was eventually left kneeling in the tattered remains of her clothing and her underwear. This intimate relationship created between the subject (Ono) and the audience addressed the notion of gender in the sense that Ono has become the sexual object. By remaining motionless as more and more pieces of her clothing are cut away, she reveals a woman’s social standing where she is regarded as an object as the audience escalates to the point where her bra is being cut away.

During the 1970s, feminist art continued to provide a means of challenging women’s position in the social hierarchy. The aim was for women to reach a state of equilibrium with their male counterparts. Judy Chicago’s work, The Dinner Party, emphasizes this idea of a newfound female empowerment through the use of turning a dinner table – an association to the traditional female role – into an equilateral triangle. Each side has an equal number of plate settings dedicated to a specific woman in history. Each plate contains a dish. This served as a way of breaking the idea of women being subjugated by society. Looking at the historical context, the 1960s and 1970s served as a prominent era where women began to celebrate new forms of freedom. More women joining the work force, legalization of birth control, fight towards equal pay, civil rights, and the Roe v. Wade decision to legalize abortion, were reflected in artwork. Such freedoms, however, were not limited to politics.

Traditionally, being able to expertly capture the nude on canvas or in a sculpture reflected a high level of achievement in the arts. In order to reach that level, access to nude models was required. While male artists were given this privilege, it was considered improper for a woman to see a naked body. As a result, women were forced to focus their attention to the less professionally acclaimed “decorative” art. With the 1970s, however, the fight towards equality extended to the arts. Eventually more and more women began to enroll in art academies. For most of these artists, the goal was not to paint like the traditional male masters, but instead to learn their techniques and manipulate them in a way that challenged traditional views of women.

Photography became a common medium used by feminist artists. It was used, in many ways, to show the “real” woman. For instance, in 1979 Judith Black took a self-portrait depicting her body in such a light. It showed the artist’s aging body and all her flaws in an attempt to portray herself as a human being rather than an idealized sex symbol. Hannah Wilke also used photography as her way of expressing a non-traditional representation of the female body. In her 1974 collection called S.O.S – Stratification Object Series, Wilke used herself as the subject. She portrayed herself topless with various pieces of chewed gum in the shape of vulvas arranged throughout her body, metaphorically demonstrating how women in society are chewed up and then spit out.

At this time, there was a large focus on rebelling against the “traditional woman”. With this came the backlash of both men and women who felt their tradition was being threatened. To go from showing women as glamorous icons to showing the disturbing silhouettes of women (an artistic demonstration of the ‘imprint’ left behind by the victims of rape) in the case of Ana Mendieta, underscored certain forms of degradation that popular culture failed to fully acknowledge.

While Ana Mendieta’s work focused on a serious issue, other artists, like Lynda Benglis, took a more satirical stance in the fight towards equality. In one of her photographs published in Artforum, she is depicted naked with a short haircut, sunglasses, and a dildo positioned in her pubic region. Some saw this radical photo as “vulgar” and “disturbing”. Others, however, saw an expression of the uneven balance between the genders in the sense that her photo was critiqued more harshly than a male counterpart, Robert Morris, who posed shirtless with chains around his neck as a sign of submission. At this time, the depiction of a dominant woman was highly criticized and in some cases, any female art depicting sexuality was perceived as pornographic.

Unlike Bengalis’ depiction of dominance to expose inequality in gender, Marina Abramovic used subjugation as a form of exposing the position of women in society that horrified rather than disturbed the audience. In her performance work Rhythm 0 (1974), Ambramovic pushes not only her limits, but her audience’s limits as well, by presenting the public with 72 different objects ranging from a feathers and perfume to a rifle and a bullet. Her instructions are simple; She is the object and the audience may do whatever they want with her body for the next six hours. Her audience has complete control while she lays motionless. Eventually they become wilder and begin violating her body – at one point a man threatens her with a rifle – yet when the piece ends the audience gets into a frenzy and run away in fear, as if they cannot come to terms with what just happened. In this emotional performance piece, Ambramovic depicts the powerful message of the objectification of the female body while at the same time unraveling the complexity of human nature.

In 1975, Barbara Deming founded The Money for Women Fund to support the work of feminist artists. Deming helped administer the Fund, with support from artist Mary Meigs. After Deming’s death in 1984, the organization was renamed as The Barbara Deming Memorial Fund. Today, the foundation is the “oldest ongoing feminist granting agency” which “gives encouragement and grants to individual feminists in the arts (writers, and visual artists)”.

Although feminist art is fundamentally any field that strives towards equality among the genders, it is not static. It is a constantly changing project that “is itself constantly shaped and remodeled in relation to the living processes of women’s struggles”. It not a platform but rather a “dynamic and self-critical response”. The feminist spark from the 1960s and 1970s helped to carve a path for the activist and identity art of the 1980s. In fact, The meaning of feminist art evolved so quickly that by 1980 Lucy Lippard curated a show where “all the participants exhibited work that belonged to ‘the full panorama of social-change art,’ though in a variety of ways that undercut any sense that ‘feminism’ meant either a single political message or a single kind of artwork. This openness was a key element to the future creative social development of feminism as political and cultural intervention.”

In 1985, the Museum of Modern Art in New York opened a gallery that claimed to exhibit the most-renowned works of contemporary art of the time. of the 169 artists chosen, only 13 were women. As a result of this, an anonymous group of women investigated the most-influential museums of art only to find out that they barely exhibited women’s art. With that came the birth of the Guerrilla Girls who devoted their time to fighting sexism and racism in the art world through the use of protest, posters, artwork and public speaking. Unlike the feminist art before the 1980s, the Guerrilla Girls introduced a bolder more in-your-face identity and both captured attention and exposed sexism. Their posters aim to strip the role that women played in the art world prior to the feminist movement. In one case, the painting La Grande Odalisque by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres was used in one of their posters where the female nude portrayed was given a gorilla mask. Beside it was written “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum? Less than 5% of the artists in the Modern Art Sections are women, but 85% of the nudes are female”. By taking a famous work and remodeling it to remove its intended purpose for the male gaze, the female nude is seen as something other than a desirable object.

The critique of the male gaze and the objectification of woman can also be seen in Barbara Kruger’s Your gaze Hits the side of my face. In this work we see a marble bust of a woman turned to its side. The lighting is harsh, creating sharp edges and shadows to emphasize the words “your gaze hits the side of my face” written in bold letters of black red and white down the left side of the work. In that one sentence, Kruger is able to communicate her protest on gender, society, and culture through language designed in a way that can be associated with a contemporary magazine, thus capturing the viewer’s attention.

Since then, there are women’s art movements in Sweden, Denmark and Norway, Russia, and Japan. Women artists from Asia, Africa and particularly Eastern Europe emerged in large numbers onto the international art scene in the late 1980s and 1990s as contemporary art became popular worldwide.

Major exhibitions of contemporary women artists include WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution curated by Connie Butler, SF MOMA, 2007, Global Feminisms curated by Linda Nochlin and Maura Reilly at the Brooklyn Museum, 2007, Rebelle, curated by Mirjam Westen at MMKA, Arnheim, 2009, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang! 45 Years of Art and Feminism curated by Xavier Arakistan at Bilbao Fine Arts Museum, 2007, Elles at Centre Pompidou in Paris (2009-2011), which also toured to Seattle Art Museum. have been increasingly international in their selection. This shift is also reflected in journals set up in the 1990s like n.paradoxa.

Promoting feminist art
In the 1970s, society started to become open to change and people started to realize that there was a problem with the stereotypes of each gender. Feminist art became a popular way of addressing the social concerns of feminism that surfaced in the late 1960s to 1970s. The creation and publication of the first feminist magazine was published in 1972. Ms. Magazine was the first national magazine to make feminist voices prominent, make feminist ideas and beliefs available to the public, and support the works of feminist artists. Like the art world, the magazine used the media to spread the messages of feminism and draw attention to the lack of total gender equality in society. The co-founder of the magazine, Gloria Steinem, coined the famous quote, “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle”, which demonstrates the power of independent women; this slogan was frequently used by activists.

Effect of feminist art on society
Lucy R. Lippard argued in 1980 that feminist art was “neither a style nor a movement but instead a value system, a revolutionary strategy, a way of life.” This quote supports that feminist art effected all aspects of life. The women of the nation were determined to have their voices heard above the din of discontent, and equality would enable them to obtain jobs equal to men. Art was a form of media that was used to get the message across; this was their platform. Feminist art would support this claim because the art began to challenge previously conceived notions of the roles of women. The message of gender equality in feminist artworks resonates with the viewers because the challenging of the social norms made people question, should it be socially acceptable for women to wear men’s clothing?

Example of feminist art
The magazine and the rise of feminism occurred during the same time feminist artists became more popular, and an example of a feminist artist is Judy Dater. Starting her artistic career in San Francisco, a cultural hub of different kinds of art and creative works, Dater displayed feminist photographs in museums and gained a fair amount of publicity for her work. Dater displayed art that focused on women challenging stereotypical gender roles, such as the expected way women would dress or pose for a photograph. To see a woman dressed in men’s clothing was rare and made the statement of supporting the feminist movement, and many people knew of Dater’s passionate belief of equal rights. Dater also photographed nude women, which was intended to show women’s bodies as strong, powerful, and as a celebration. The photographs grabbed the viewers attention because of the unusualness and never-before-seen images that do not necessarily fit into society.

Feminist art criticism
Feminist art criticism emerged in the 1970s from the wider feminist movement as the critical examination of both visual representations of women in art and art produced by women. It continues to be a major field of art criticism.

Linda Nochlin’s 1971 groundbreaking essay, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?”, analyzes the embedded privilege in the predominantly white, male, Western art world and argued that women’s outsider status allowed them a unique viewpoint to not only critique women’s position in art, but to additionally examine the discipline’s underlying assumptions about gender and ability. Nochlin’s essay develops the argument that both formal and social education restricted artistic development to men, preventing women (with rare exception) from honing their talents and gaining entry into the art world. In the 1970s, feminist art criticism continued this critique of the institutionalized sexism of art history, art museums, and galleries, as well as questioning which genres of art were deemed museum-worthy. This position is articulated by artist Judy Chicago: “…it is crucial to understand that one of the ways in which the importance of male experience is conveyed is through the art objects that are exhibited and preserved in our museums. Whereas men experience presence in our art institutions, women experience primarily absence, except in images that do not necessarily reflect women’s own sense of themselves.”

Nochlin challenges the myth of the Great Artist as ‘Genius’ as an inherently problematic construct. ‘Genius’ “is thought of as an atemporal and mysterious power somehow embedded in the person of the Great Artist.” This ‘god-like’ conception of the artist’s role is due to “the entire romantic, elitist, individual-glorifying, and monograph-producing substructure upon which the profession of art history is based.” She develops this further by arguing that “if women had the golden nugget of artistic genius, it would reveal itself. But it has never revealed itself. Q.E.D. Women do not have the golden nugget of artistic genius.” Nochlin deconstructs the myth of the ‘Genius’ by highlighting the unjustness in which the Western art world inherently privileges certain predominantly white male artists. In Western art, ‘Genius’ is a title that is generally reserved for artists such as, van Gogh, Picasso, Raphael, and Pollock—all white men. As recently demonstrated by Alessandro Giardino, when the concept of artistic genius started collapsing, women and marginal groups emerged at the forefront of artistic creation.

Museum organizations
Similar to Nochlins’ assertions on women’s position in the art world, art historian Carol Duncan in the 1989 article, “The MoMA Hot Mamas”, examines the idea that institutions like the MoMA are masculinized. In MoMA’s collection, there is a disproportionate amount of sexualized female bodies by male artists on display compared to a low percentage of actual women artists included. According to data accumulated by the Guerrilla Girls, “less than 3% of the artists in the Modern Art section of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art are women, but 83% of the nudes are female”, even though “51% of visual artists today are women.” Duncan claims that, in regards to women artists:

In the MoMA and other museums, their numbers are kept well below the point where they might effectively dilute its masculinity. The female presence is necessary only in the form of imagery. Of course, men, too, are occasionally represented. Unlike women, who are seen primarily as sexually accessible bodies, men are portrayed as physically and mentally active beings who creatively shape their world and ponder its meanings.

This article narrows its focus on one institution to use as an example to draw from and expand on. Ultimately to illustrate the ways in which institutions are complicit in patriarchal and racist ideologies.

Women of color in the art world were often not addressed in earlier feminist art criticism. An intersectional analysis that includes not only gender but also race and other marginalized identities is essential.

Audre Lorde’s 1984 essay “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle The Master’s House,” briefly addresses a vital dilemma that artists who are women of color are often overlooked or tokenized in the visual arts. She argues that “in academic feminist circles, the answer to these questions is often, ‘We did not know who to ask.’ But that is the same evasion of responsibility, the same cop-out, that keeps Black women’s art out of women’s exhibitions, Black women’s work out of most feminist publications except for the occasional ‘Special Third World Women’s Issue,’ and Black women’s texts off your reading lists.” Lorde’s statement brings up how important it is to consider intersectionality in these feminist art discourses, as race is just as integral to any discussion on gender.

Furthermore, bell hooks expands on the discourse of black representation in the visual arts to include other factors. In her 1995 book, Art on My Mind, hooks positions her writings on the visual politics of both race and class in the art world. She states that the reason art is rendered meaningless in the lives of most black people is not solely due to the lack of representation, but also because of an entrenched colonization of the mind and imagination and how it is intertwined with the process of identification.:4 Thus she stresses for a “shift conventional ways of thinking about the function of art. There must be a revolution in the way we see, the way we look,”:4 emphasizing how visual art has the potential to be an empowering force within the black community. Especially if one can break free from “imperialist white-supremacist notions of the way art should look and function in society.”:5

Intersection with other schools of thought
Feminist art criticism is a smaller subgroup in the larger realm of feminist theory, because feminist theory seeks to explore the themes of discrimination, sexual objectification, oppression, patriarchy, and stereotyping, feminist art criticism attempts similar exploration.

This exploration can be accomplished through a variety of means. Structuralist theories, deconstructionist thought, psychoanalysis, queer analysis, and semiotic interpretations can be used to further comprehend gender symbolism and representation in artistic works. The social structures regarding gender that influence a piece can be understood through interpretations based on stylistic influences and biographical interpretations.

Freudian Psychoanalytic Theory
Laura Mulvey’s 1975 essay, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” focuses on the gaze of the spectator from a Freudian perspective. Freud’s concept of scopophilia relates to the objectification of women in art works. The gaze of the viewer is, in essence, a sexually charged instinct. Because of the gender inequity that exists in the art sphere, the artist’s portrayal of a subject is generally a man’s portrayal of women. Other Freudian symbolism can be used to comprehend pieces of art from a feminist perspective—whether gender specific symbols are uncovered through psychoanalytic theory (such as phallic or yonic symbols) or specific symbols are used to represent women in a given piece.

Realism and Reflectionism
Are the women depicted in an artistic work realistic portrayals of women? Writer Toril Moi explained in her 1985 essay “‘Images of Women’ Criticism” that “reflectionism posits that the artist’s selective creation should be measured against ‘real life,’ thus assuming that the only constraint on the artist’s work is his or her perception of the ‘real world.'”

Journals and publication
The 1970s also saw the emergence of feminist art journals, including The Feminist Art Journal in 1972 and Heresies in 1977. The journal n.paradoxa has been dedicated to an international perspective on feminist art since 1996.

Important publications on feminist art criticism include:

Betterton, Rosemary An Intimate Distance: Women Artists and the Body London, Routledge, 1996.
Deepwell, Katy ed. New Feminist Art Criticism: Critical Strategies Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1995.
Ecker, Gisela ed. Feminist Aesthetics London: Women’s Press, 1985.
Frueh, Joanna and C. Langer, A. Raven eds. Feminist Art Criticism: An Anthology Icon and Harper Collins, 1992, 1995.
Lippard, Lucy From the Center: Feminist Essays on Women’s Art New York: Dutton, 1976.
Lippard, Lucy The Pink Glass Swan: Selected Feminist Essays on Art New York: New Press, 1996.
Meskimmon, Marsha Women Making Art: History, Subjectivity, Aesthetics (London: Routledge:2003).
Pollock, Griselda Encounters in the Virtual Feminist Museum: Time, Space and the Archive Routledge, 2007.
Raven, Arlene Crossing Over: Feminism and the Art of Social Concern USA: Ann Arbor,Michigan: U.M.I.:1988.
Robinson, Hilary (ed) Feminism – Art – Theory: An Anthology, 1968-2000 Oxford: Blackwells, 2001.

Beyond the academy
In 1989, the Guerilla Girls’ poster protest of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s gender imbalance brought this feminist critique out of the academy and into the public sphere.

In 2007, the exhibit “WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution” presented works of 120 international artists and artists’ groups at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. It was the first show of its kind that employed a comprehensive view of the intersection between feminism and art from the late 1960s to the early 1980s. WACK! “argues that feminism was perhaps the most influential of any postwar art movement-on an international level-in its impact on subsequent generations of artists.”

Rosemary Betteron’s 2003 essay, “Feminist Viewing: Viewing Feminism”, insists that older feminist art criticism must adapt to newer models, as our culture has shifted significantly since the late twentieth century. Betterton points out:

Feminist art criticism is no longer the marginalized discourse that it once was; indeed it had produced some brilliant and engaging writing over the last decade and in many ways has become a key site of academic production. But, as feminist writers and teachers, we need to address ways of thinking through new forms of social engagement between feminism and the visual, and of understanding the different ways in which visual culture is currently inhabited by our students.

According to Betterton, the models used to critique a Pre-Raphaelite painting are not likely to be applicable in the twenty-first century. She also expresses that we should explore ‘difference’ in position and knowledge, since in our contemporary visual culture we are more used to engaging with “multi-layered text and image complexes” (video, digital media, and the Internet). Our ways of viewing have changed considerably since the 1970s.

Source from Wikipedia