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The Feminist art movement emerged in the late 1960s amidst the fervor of anti-war demonstrations as well as civil and queer rights movements. Hearkening back to the utopian ideals of early twentieth-century modernist movements, Feminist artists sought to change the world around them through their art, focusing on intervening in the established art world, the art historical canon, as well as everyday social interactions. As artist Suzanne Lacy declared, the goal of Feminist art was to “influence cultural attitudes and transform stereotypes.” There is no singular medium or style that unites Feminist artists, as they often combined aspects from various movements and media, 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 created opportunities and spaces that previously did not exist for women and minority artists, as well as paved the path for the identity art and activist art of the 1980s.
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-nineteenth century with the women’s suffrage movements and continued until women received the vote, shortly after the end of World War I. 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. Feminist organizing 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 in that theme because much of their artwork contained imagery that dealt 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 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 Women Artists in Revolution (WAR) and the AIR Gallery, to specifically address feminist artists’ rights and concerns in the art community. These organizations protested museums like 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, 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. Prime examples are the Feminist Studio Workshop (FSW) and the Woman’s Building. In 1973, artist Judy Chicago, graphic designer Sheila Levrant de Bretteville, and art historian Arlene Raven created the 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, calling attention to the fact that women artists had been completely omitted from the canon of Western art and seeking to re-write male-established criteria of art criticism and aesthetics. In 1971, ARTnewspublished critic Linda Nochlin’s provocatively titled 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 England art critics Rozsika Parker and Griselda Pollock founded the Women’s Art History Collective in 1973 to further address the omission of women from the Western art historical canon.
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 their 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.
Concepts and Styles
Feminism and Performance Art
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. For example, Mierle Laderman Ukeles explored the idea of domestic work with her Maintenance Work series: 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 maintenance work was made into art that could not be ignored. Carolee Schneemann and Yoko Ono created performance pieces during their careers to narrate personal messages.
Feminism and Body Art
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. 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.” 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. Mendieta and many other Feminist artists saw blood as an important symbol of life and fertility directly connected to women’s bodies.
Feminism and Video 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. Artists like Dara Birnbaum used it 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. Martha Rosler also used video to explore women’s relation to mass-media as well as the various facets of female and domestic life. 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.
Feminism and Textile Art
Following from many Feminists’ interest in gender and the domestic realm, many artists chose to adopt fiber and textiles in their art, intending to remove the division between “high art” and “craft.” 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…” to use “women’s work” as a means to complicate the category of traditional “high art.” Artists Faith Wilding and Harmony Hammond, among many others, used fabric in their works to interrogate and eliminate this division in the arts.
Currently a new generation of women artists, like Kara Walker and Jennifer Linton, continue to speak directly about sexism in their works. However, 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. 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.” (For example, while Cindy Sherman’s work has developed within and is heavily informed by the context of the Feminist movement, her intention is not to make a primarily political feminist statement.) 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, 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.