[This is the fourth part of a bibliography in five parts on feminist aesthetics. The bibliography is number 65 in the series “Wisconsin Bibliographies in Women’s Studies” published by the University of Wisconsin System Women’s Studies Librarian’s Office, 430 Memorial Library, 728 State Street, Madison, WI 53706.]
Alloway, Lawrence. “Women’s Art in the 1970’s.” ART IN AMERICA 64 (1976): 64-72.
Alloway lauds the politics and social engagement of feminist art practice–in women’s exhibitions, organizations, and co-ops–but he describes feminist art theory as woefully behind the practice. Limited by a narrow definition of feminism as collective action, he criticizes feminist art theory–from concepts of “central imagery” to reevaluations of women’s “crafts”–for focusing on elements that are not exclusive to women’s art. Thus he excludes shifts in representation and interpretation as a means of political change.
Alpers, Svetlana. “Art History and Its Exclusions: The Example of Dutch Art.” Broude and Garrard 183-199.
Alpers argues that we must rewrite art history, not to include women, but to analyze the historical construction of meaning that affects concepts of women. Alpers compares Italian painting to Dutch painting, describing the fifteenth-century Italian aesthetic, which she considers the basis of current Western aesthetics, as one of mastery and possession, and the Dutch as one of presence and process.
Barry, Judith, and Sandy Flitterman. “Textual Strategies: The Politics of Art-Making.” SCREEN 21 (1980): 35-48.
Barry and Flitterman discuss four categories of women’s art: art that glorifies an essential female power, art that celebrates an alternative woman’s tradition, art that considers women’s cultural activity as excluded from a monolithic patriarchal culture, and art that analyzes the social representations of women. Favoring the last category, they argue that this art exploits existing social contradictions and actively engages the viewer in the construction of social meanings, thus creating the possibility of representations and cultural change.
Berger, John. WAYS OF SEEING. London: British Broadcasting Corporation, 1972.
In this complex but highly accessible work, Berger connects the commodification of art to the commodification of women and of representations of women. Berger exposes the social underpinnings of aesthetic judgments by analyzing visual representations as a means of conferring status and conveying a sense of power to the viewer.
Betterton, Rosemary, ed. LOOKING ON: IMAGES OF FEMININITY IN THE VISUAL ARTS AND MEDIA. London: Pandora, 1987.
In this anthology, Betterton has gathered articles that analyze the still image in advertisements, news media, fine art, and pornography, bringing feminist theories to issues of representation and the social construction of femininity.
Bonney, Claire. “The Nude Photograph: Some Female Perspectives.” WAJ 6.2 (1985/86): 9-14.
Bonney discusses nude photography in terms of its revision of the concepts of femininity as represented by pose, activity, and erotic energy.
Broude, Norma. “Miriam Schapiro and `Femmage’: Reflections on the Conflict Between Decoration and Abstraction in Twentieth-Century Art.” Broude and Garrard 315-329. Schapiro’s “femmage”–her “collage” of and collaboration with traditional women’s arts–is, according to Broude, a challenge to the distinction between the “merely” decorative “low” arts, usually associated with women, and the more “meaningful” abstract “high” art of (usually) male artists. Broude notes the irony that makes the “content” of Schapiro’s decorative arts important as a statement about the need to include art forms without “content.”
Broude, Norma and Mary D. Garrard, eds. FEMINISM AND ART HISTORY: QUESTIONING THE LITANY. New York: Harper & Row, 1982.
The editors of this book of essays consider feminism in art history “an adjustment of historical perspective.” The essays explore the impact of feminism on art history by reassessing values and historical contexts from the classical to the contemporary periods in Western art. See Alpers, Broude, Comini, Duncan, and Mainardi.
Brunet, Monique. “Le banquet au feminin: THE DINNER PARTY.” CWS 1.3 (1979): 9-10.
Brunet critiques Judy Chicago’s work on THE DINNER PARTY, arguing that Chicago undermines the implicit objective of raising “feminine” art forms to the level of “high” art by leaving the 400 men and women who worked on the project unheralded, regaling the “conceptual artist” as “Goddess” and creator while the “artisans” or workers are merely tools. This places the physical craft below the conceptual, as well as offending the feminist ethic/aesthetic of attribution.
Caldwell, Susan Havens. “Experiencing THE DINNER PARTY.” WAJ 1.2 (1980/81): 35-37.
Caldwell responds primarily to the religious symbolism–Christian symbolism suggesting the sacrificial nourishment provided by women–and the “religiosity” in the work’s emotional appeal, which together with the collaborative effort, suggest to Caldwell a parallel with the construction of a cathedral in the middle ages, the creation of an art form “meaningful” to the entire community.
Chadwick, Whitney. WOMEN, ART, AND SOCIETY. London: Thames and Hudson, 1990.
In this feminist reevaluation of art history, Chadwick infuses her overview of Western women’s art with considerations of social contexts, aesthetic expectations, and concepts of “femininity,” concluding with discussions of feminism, postmodernism, and political change in women’s art.
Chicago, Judy. THROUGH THE FLOWER: MY STRUGGLE AS A WOMAN ARTIST. Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1977.
Representing herself as exemplar, Chicago traces her growth from an awareness of her individual womanhood to her comprehension of social gender structures, in the art world and in heterosexual relationships. She avers that as a teacher and artist, she has a social responsibility to depict women’s values and world view through the form and imagery of her art and by choosing to work outside of the male institutions of art.
Comini, Alessandra. “Gender or Genius? The Woman Artists of German Expressionism.” Broude and Garrard 271-291.
Comini reassesses the German expressionist movement by bringing into its history and definition the works of three women artists–Kathe Kollwitz, Paula Modersohn-Becker, and Gabriele Munter. She argues that the exclusion of these women misrepresents the movement, and that Kollwitz in particular expresses a more socially conscious side of expressionism.
de Bretteville, Sheila Levrant. “A Reexaminination of Some Aspects of the Design Arts from the Perspective of a Woman Designer.” ARTS IN SOCIETY 11 (1974): 114-123.
De Bretteville argues that complexity and the use of fragmentary elements in design evoke the participation of the viewer and thereby undermine authoritarian control. She suggests that these, and other, “female” values presented in visual and physical forms can break down socially constructed divisions between male and female, work and leisure, public and private.
Duncan, Carol. “When Greatness Is a Box of Wheaties.” ARTFORUM 14 (1975): 60-64.
Duncan describes Nemser’s book of interviews, ART TALK, as an act of exploitation of the artists that forces their voices into Nemser’s social discourse and art history agenda. She argues that Nemser uses the interviews to attempt to prove her thesis that women are as “great” as men–and greatness is inherent and universal–but that men have tried to suppress their importance.
—. “Happy Mothers and Other New Ideas in Eighteenth-Century French Art.” Broude and Garrard 201-219.
Duncan incorporates the writing and painting of eighteenth-century France to reckon with the economic and social development of the family and its representations in paintings, thus delineating the processes by which representation is interwoven with historical forces.
Feinberg, Jean, Lenore Goldberg, Julie Gross, Bella Lieberman, and Elizabeth Sacre. “Political Fabrications: Women’s Textiles in 5 Cultures.” HERESIES 4 (1978): 28-37.
Interested in “the politics of art and aesthetics” the five authors analyze works in different cultures within the contexts, “both real and ideological,” of the work’s production, while avoiding assessments of quality and the imposition of contemporary Western notions of oppression on the women discussed.
Friedlander, Judith. “The Aesthetics of Oppression: Traditional Arts of Women in Mexico.” HERESIES 4 (1978): 3-9.
Commenting on the feminist aesthetic that wishes to reevaluate folk and women’s arts, Friedlander warns that we must be aware of the real consequences in women’s lives of preserving traditional arts (her example is cooking). While traditional arts may exemplify the undervalued artistry of women, they may also carry with them the traditional overburdening of women as workers in the home and must not be idealized as “timeless, authentic female culture.”
Garrard, Mary D. “Feminism: Has It Changed Art History?” HERESIES 4 (1978): 59-60.
Garrard argues that feminism should do more than attend to previously ignored women’s achievements. Feminist art history must expose the politics of female exclusion and conceptions of femininity that have shaped the entire discourse on art.
Gouma-Peterson, Thalia, and Patricia Mathews. “The Feminist Critique of Art History.” THE ART BULLETIN 69 (1987): 326-357.
Gouma-Peterson and Mathews’ article is both a historical overview and an incisive analysis of methodology, valuable for its scope, in the writers treated, and for its extensive footnotes. The authors argue that from the first to the second generation of feminist art criticism and history, the question of aesthetics has moved from one of a “female sensibility” to considerations of “representation and gender difference.” They favor deconstructive approaches, since they see the “unfixing” of the category of femininity, in its relations to class and race, as the most progressive means to undermine the ideological constructions that fix social categories and social roles.
Hammond, Harmony. “Horseblinders.” HERESIES 9 (1980): 45-47.
Hammond writes that “feminism is not an aesthetic,” arguing that a “feminist visual rhetoric” that associates a particular style with feminism, is restrictive and divisive, rather than a stimulation to feminist art and women’s creativity.
Hess, Thomas B., and Elizabeth Baker, eds. ART AND SEXUAL POLITICS: WOMEN’S LIBERATION, WOMEN ARTISTS, AND ART HISTORY. New York: Macmillan, 1973.
This book begins with Linda Nochlin’s signal essay, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?,” an essay important both for its assertion that art history must examine social and institutional practices that shape artistic opportunity and conceptions of the artist, and for its central role in redirecting debate in feminist art history. The essays in the rest of this book, various responses to Nochlin’s essay or her title’s question, rarely carry the debate out of a liberal, ahistorical analysis.
Hudson, Christine. “Pour une approache feministe de l’histoire de l’art.” CWS 1.3 (1979): 4-5.
Hudson suggests that to find a feminist approach to art history, the historical reasons for women’s exclusion from art production and from the historical annals of art should be a part of the art historical analysis, while at the same time the current material conditions that continue such exclusions should be addressed.
Jaudon, Valerie, and Joyce Kozloff. “`Art Hysterical Notions’ of Progress and Culture.” HERESIES 4 (1978): 38-42.
To expose assumptions of art history and to pinpoint the importance of language in shaping the concepts of the discipline, Jaudon and Kozloff compile quotations from art historians revealing the sexist basis of their judgments.
Kahr, Madlyn Millner. “Women as Artists and `Women’s Art.'” WAJ 3.2 (1982/83): 28-31.
Kahr is against creating a category of “women’s art,” decrying the “special pleading and extravagant claims” she feels have been made under its rubric. She feels that women should fight for “equal but not preferential treatment” rather than ghettoize themselves and relegate themselves to “women’s work.”
Kampen, Natalie B. “Women’s Art: Beginnings of a Methodology.” FAJ 1.2 (1972): 10+.
Kampen argues that female artists are like female workers, and aesthetic standards and definitions of quality must move from purely formal to social, historical, and psychological considerations to deal adequately with women’s art.
Kraft, Selma. “Cognitive Function and Women’s Art.” WAJ 4.2 (1983/84): 5-9.
Using scientific data Kraft argues that “there is a particularly female way of processing information and that this sensibility reveals itself in art which emphasizes intervals and arrangements of repeated motifs.” Despite her caution, she implies that this phenomenon is transcultural and transhistorical.
Kramer, Marjorie. “Some Thoughts on Feminist Art.” WOMEN AND ART 1.1 (1971): 3.
Kramer argues against any inherent qualities of femininity, and against any assertions of a feminine aesthetic, sensibility, or form. She writes that feminist art is a result of a feminist consciousness, it is figurative rather than abstract, and it is recognizable as a social statement.
Krauss, Rosalind E. L’AMOUR FOU: PHOTOGRAPHY AND SURREALISM. New York: Abbeville Press, Publishers, 1985.
Krauss calls surrealist photography a scandal and a contradiction, since it tampered with the conception of photography as a direct witness of the real, and it revealed that the object of photography is always manipulated. Using texts by Lacan, Freud, and Barthes, along with numerous photographs, Krauss poses the canonized surrealism of Breton against that of Bataille, showing how the female body as the “form” of formalist aesthetics is used by surrealists to interrogate representation.
Kuspit, Donald B. “Betraying the Feminist Intention.” ARTS MAGAZINE 54 (1979): 124-126.
Kuspit defines the “feminist intention” in art as an unmasking of the ideological character of art, apparently making art practice inseparable from feminist art criticism. He attacks feminist decorative art as an authoritarian art that posits a pure, absolute, and idealistic order, demanding uncritical submission by the viewer.
Lauter, Estella. WOMEN AS MYTHMAKERS: POETRY AND VISUAL ART BY TWENTIETH CENTURY WOMEN. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984.
Through analysis of six twentieth-century women artists, and overviews of works by many other women artists, Lauter argues that visual as well as verbal artists can change cultural codes by altering mythology and creating new mythic images.
—. “`Moving to the Ends of Our Own Rainbow’: Steps Toward a Feminist Aesthetic.” PHILOSOPHICAL ISSUES IN ART. Ed. Patricia H. Werhane. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1984. 537-543.
Lauter discusses Lippard’s essays as formulations of a new aesthetic theory that redefine art as gendered, inclusive, and part of a dialogue with its audience, breaking down the separation between the social and aesthetic aspects of art.
Linker, Kate. “Eluding Definition.” ARTFORUM 23.4 (1984): 61-67. Linker argues that theories of psychoanalysis and deconstruction can find rich applications to contemporary women’s art, since many artists depict the dismantling of the centered self and fixed categories of meaning, and the construction of gendered subjectivity within shifting social and ideological forces. [She concludes that “in this questioning of meaning’s autonomy we recognize a dagger directed at a tenet of Western esthetics that artworks are unified structures, enduring objects, expressions of the creative subject.”]
Lippard, Lucy R. FROM THE CENTER: FEMINIST ESSAYS ON WOMEN’S ART. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1976.
In one of the early works of feminist art criticism, Lippard intends “to help forge a separate feminist esthetic consciousness.” Her essays, written between 1970 and 1975, explore many exciting directions of feminist art in the 70s, from the creation of the L.A. Woman’s Building to the new conceptual art, from discussions of female imagery to the work of individual artists. Her approach includes many cultural and artistic evaluations while never forgetting the economic, material, and practical concerns of women artists.
—. GET THE MESSAGE? A DECADE OF ART FOR SOCIAL CHANGE. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1984.
In her most recent collection of essays, Lippard elaborates on the conjunction of art, feminism, and left politics. Especially interested in overtly political art, she writes about the Art Workers’ Coalition, street art, performance art, and murals, addressing the purposes of art and how art is deployed in the world, from the institutional commodification of art to the potential for art to stimulate social change.
Loeb, Judy, ed. FEMINIST COLLAGE: EDUCATING WOMEN IN THE VISUAL ARTS. New York: Teaching College Press, 1979.
The essays in this book cover a wide variety of topics and approaches, concentrating on examinations of the role of institutions in shaping aesthetics, both in art education and reception. For example, in the article, “The Male Artist as Stereotypical Female,” June Wayne concentrates on the ways that society uses aesthetic judgments–of women and art–to isolate and deny artists power, while in the article, “The Pink Glass Swan,” Lucy R. Lippard discusses the use of aesthetics to designate and separate by social class.
London, Julia, and Joan Howarth. “Evolution of a Feminist Art Working with WAVAW.” HERESIES 6 (1979): 86-88.
This article describes the shaping of a media event as a model for effective “radical intervention of artists in society.” The editorial statement that follows this article elaborates on the media’s power to shape representation and communicate social concepts, underlining the importance of controlling the representation of one’s ideas.
Mainardi, Patricia. “Quilts: The Great American Art.” Broude and Garrard 331-346.
Mainardi describes quilts as universal female art forms and part of women’s cultural heritage that have played a role in female creativity, community, cooperation, and communication. Although the mainstream art world still excludes them from the designation of Art, quilts address issues of originality and tradition, individuality and collectivity, content and values in art, and the feminine sensibility.
—. “Feminine Sensibility: An Analysis.” FAJ 1.2 (1972): 9+.
Mainardi reviews elements of a feminine sensibility as they were discussed in a conference. The heated debate over these issues is quieted in this inclusive and non-judgmental review.
Moss, Irene, and Lila Katzen. “Separatism: The New Rip-Off.” FAJ 2.2 (1973): 7+.
Moss argues that art and art standards are universal and that separatism is against the natural order in which both sexes participate equally. Katzen argues that separatism creates unrealistic expectations for women and causes them to lose their competitive role in the mainstream art world.
Nemser, Cindy. “Art Criticism and Gender Prejudice.” ARTS MAGAZINE 46.5 (1972): 44-46.
Nemser condemns gender-charged sexist language by male art reviewers, calling for new critical language. She cites psychological tests to argue that intellect and creativity are ungendered, and she concludes that only “reactionary female chauvinists” would claim that biology or cultural conditioning differentiate male and female art.
—. “Stereotypes and Women Artists.” FAJ 1.1 (1972): 1+.
Nemser decries stereotypical categories that male reviewers use to undermine the power of women’s art. Nemser concludes her article by denying a different feminine sensibility, based on the most egregious formulations of that sensibility delineated by hostile male reviewers.
—. “The Women Artists’ Movement.” FAJ 2.4 (1973-74): 8-10.
In her historical overview of women artists organizing in the years 1969 to 1973, Nemser challenges both the male establishment and the women working toward concepts of a female aesthetic. She limits the term feminist to those who are seeking to expose male sexism and are working to have women included in the male art structures.
—. “Towards a Feminist Sensibility: Contemporary Trends in Women’s Art.” FAJ 5.2 (1976): 19-23.
In this article, Nemser rejects the possibility of a “feminine” sensibility, concentrating instead on “feminist art as a doctrine of equal rights for women in the aesthetic area.” She argues that this “feminist” sensibility is evident in any art in which “women’s immediate personal experience” is expressed.
Nochlin, Linda. WOMEN, ART AND POWER AND OTHER ESSAYS. New York: Harper & Row, 1988.
Nochlin’s collected essays conclude with her pivotal 1971 essay, “Why Are There No Great Women Artists?” in which she challenges the notion of inherent genius by raising the many issues of social and institutional situations, such as the exclusion of women from studying the nude and social dictates of feminine behavior. In her later essays, Nochlin expands on her social and institutional analysis: in one essay, she describes Berthe Morisot’s depiction of a wet nurse as a deconstruction of the sacred mother-child dyad and, in her title essay, she reads the narrative and iconographic levels of paintings to reveal their ideological messages on the conjunction of women, art, and power.
Owens, Craig. “The Discourse of Others: Feminists and Postmodernism.” THE ANTI-AESTHETIC: ESSAYS IN POST MODERN CULTURE. Ed. Hal Foster. Port Townsend, WA: Bay Press, 1983. 57-82.
In exploring the intersection of the feminist critique of patriarchy and the postmodernist critique of representation, Owens finds psychoanalytic and deconstructive theories useful, but he cautions against the limitations of any single theoretical discourse. Owens argues that the exposure of invisible power structures is not an adequate explanation of many contemporary women visual artists, and he discusses their works as forms of representation that destabilize identity, refuse appropriation, and undermine authoritative subjectivity.
Parker, Rozsika. THE SUBVERSIVE STITCH: EMBROIDERY AND THE MAKING OF THE FEMININE. London: The Women’s Press, 1984.
Parker traces the history of embroidery as a sign of the shifting ideology of femininity from medieval to contemporary England. Through an economic and social perspective, she discusses how embroidery was depicted and what it depicted, how embroidery was used to train girls in femininity, and how it has been used to express rebellion against social definitions.
Parker, Rozsika, and Griselda Pollock. OLD MISTRESSES: WOMEN, ART AND IDEOLOGY. New York: Pantheon Books, 1981.
In their book, Pollock and Parker analyze the ideological forces that shape the discourse of art history to discover “Why modern art history ignores the existence of women artists.” Through a historical and structural analysis of the representation of women and artists from the nineteenth century to the present, the authors find that artists are increasingly associated with social and intellectual independence and genius attributed to masculinity, while women are represented as homebound, dependent, and mentally fixed. The authors conclude that in women’s relation to traditional institutions, as well as in their own art practice, women artists can expose and deconstruct these ideological constructions by changing, to quote Lippard, “the way art is seen, bought, sold, and used in our culture.”
—. FRAMING FEMINISM: ART AND THE WOMEN’S MOVEMENT 1970-85. London: Pandora, 1987.
This anthology, based on “a correlation between the value system that sustains the institutions of art and the sexual division that structures our society,” constructs the historical context for British art criticism and practice in the 70s and 80s. The selections, almost one-third of which are by the editors, emphasize feminist deconstructive and materialist critical approaches, as in Pollock’s argument against “Images of Women” criticism, complemented by Parker’s “Images of Men.”
Peel, Giovanna. “A Room of One’s Own: A Case for Women’s Architecture.” CWS 3.3 (1982): 44-45.
Peel contends that women have a more “traditional” aptitude for architectural construction because they have “traditionally” dominated home spaces and because the construction of homes is a long dormant female occupation.
Pollock, Griselda. “Women, Art and Ideology: Questions for Feminist Art Historians.” WAJ 4.1 (1983): 39-47.
Pollock argues for an adaptation of Marxist forms of analysis in feminist art history, shifting art historians’ focus from descriptive histories to an analysis of art in its historical context, to show how art production is affected by ideology and how it expresses ideological assumptions.
—. VISION AND DIFFERENCE: FEMININITY, FEMINISM AND THE HISTORIES OF ART. London: Routledge, 1988.
Pollock declares that feminism has brought about a paradigm shift in art history that exposes previous art history as a masculinist discourse and that reconceptualizes art as a social practice. In her essays she employs Marxist and psychoanalytic discourses to analyze and deconstruct the social construction of femininity and woman in artistic representations.
Rabinovitz, Lauren. “Issues of Feminist Aesthetics: Judy Chicago and Joyce Wieland.” WAJ 1.2 (1980/81): 38-41.
Comparing Wieland’s TRUE PATRIOT LOVE to Chicago’s DINNER PARTY, Rabinovitz defines five aspects of feminist aesthetic value: that the work encourages “active artistic participation” by the viewer/reader, that artists work cooperatively on an equal status, that traditional women’s crafts are considered art, that female imagery be used without misappropriation or objectification, and that the contradictions inherent in making images into “art” be dealt with consciously.
Raven, Arlene. CROSSING OVER: FEMINISM AND THE ART OF SOCIAL CONCERN. Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1988.
In this collection of her essays, Raven uses an associational method to draw together historical events, poetry, descriptions of works of art, the words of artists, and her own voice. In her verbal weaving, Raven treats a variety of topics and individual artists, discussing spirituality and ethnicity, concepts of home, and the battle against rape. Using feminism to cross over traditional boundaries–between artistic and political commentary, between critical and poetic writing–her essays merge artistic and social concerns.
Raven, Arlene, and Ruth Iskin. “Through the Peephole: Toward a Lesbian Sensibility in Art.” CHRYSALIS 4 (1978): 19-26.
In a dialogue between Raven and Iskin, Raven attempts to broaden the idea of a lesbian sensibility by considering lesbianism as a model for all feminists, as a symbol of a woman who takes risks, is in control of her life, and who is the source of her own artistic creation, and she suggests that the lesbian sensibility “reflects a new process, form, and content,” though she does not elaborate on this idea.
Raven, Arlene, Cassandra L. Langer, and Joanna Frueh. FEMINIST ART CRITICISM: AN ANTHOLOGY. Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1988.
The essays in this book, organized chronologically from 1973 to 1987, utilize a variety of theoretical approaches, while addressing Chicana art, African American women’s performance art, erotic art, cinema, and general theories of feminist art criticism. Despite their differences, all of the theoretical approaches–Marxist, psychoanalytic, deconstructive, etc.–implicate a social dimension as basic to feminist aesthetic considerations.
Richert, Shirley Kassman. “From Women’s Work to Art Objects.” FAJ 2.1 (1973): 17.
Richert describes women’s creative work in quilts, weaving, pottery, basket weaving, and leather as work that has been aesthetically ignored and undervalued because it is traditionally private, women’s work, created for use rather than solely for display.
Robinson, Hilary, ed. VISIBLY FEMALE: FEMINISM AND ART. New York: Universe Books, 1988.
This anthology opens up a number of dialogues in feminist art criticism, such as that between Griselda Pollock and Ann Sutherland Harris about ideology in art. It covers views, from archetypal theory and psychoanalytic theory, develops positions from black and lesbian women artists, and delves into issues such as definitions of pornography, as in the article entitled “Towards a Feminist Erotica.”
Rom, Cristine C. “One View: THE FEMINIST ART JOURNAL.” WAJ 2.2 (1981/82): 19-24.
Rom reviews the historical position and editorial policies of THE FEMINIST ART JOURNAL, criticizing the magazine’s editors, and especially Cindy Nemser, for excluding many important currents in the feminist art movement and silencing many questions regarding feminist aesthetics and historical analysis by labeling “right wing” the efforts of many radical and separatist feminist artists and critics.
Rosenberg, Avis Lang. “PORK ROASTS: 250 FEMINIST CARTOONS.” CWS 3.3 (1982): 30-33.
In her review of an art exhibit and the accompanying catalogue of feminist cartoons, Rosenberg describes as “feminist” cartoons that show an awareness and exposure of the ways in which gender shapes experiences and perceptions in the situations depicted. She also insists that the gender patterns that create male privilege, and not men per se, are being “roasted.”
Sawyer, Janet, and Patricia Mainardi. “A Feminine Sensibility? Two Views.” FAJ 1.1 (1972): 4+.
Sawyer believes that there exists a collective female unconscious, untainted by “male” consciousness, that women must tap to find a female sensibility. Mainardi calls those who are developing a female aesthetic, the “right wing of the women artists’ movement,” describing them further as opportunistic, reactionary, and upholders of biological determinism. She avers that “Feminist Art” is political art, much different than a “feminine sensibility.”
Schapiro, Miriam, and Judy Chicago. “Female Imagery.” WOMANSPACE JOURNAL 1.3 (1973): 11-14.
Schapiro and Chicago argue that certain forms in women’s art, especially the “central core” iconography, reflect the biological form of female sexuality and that these forms reverse the way the culture sees women and they assert female values–such as “softness, vulnerability and self-exposure”–in art.
Tickner, Lisa. “The Body Politic: Female Sexuality & Women Artists since 1970.” ART HISTORY 1.2 (1978): 236-247.
Against the historical background of the erotic depiction of women as a mediating sign for the male, Tickner discusses women’s erotic art as a process of de-eroticizing and de-colonizing the female body by using artistic strategies to challenge taboos and celebrate female biological processes and morphology.
Vogel, Lise. “Fine Arts and Feminism: The Awakening Consciousness.” FS 2 (1974): 3-37.
Vogel begins this early analysis of feminist art history with a painstaking critique of Hess and Nochlin’s WOMAN AS SEX OBJECT. With a clear eye for economic factors, and the social and analytical implications of class, race, and gender, Vogel outlines directions for feminist art teachers and historians.
Watterson, Georgia. “When My Vision is Cohesive, I Draw: Banahonda Kennedy-Kish (Bambi).” CWS 3.3 (1982): 20-22.
As a Native artist, Bambi feels her art is intrinsically bound to balancing the white and native cultures she lives with. Her statements as a Native artist are particularly interesting because they claim for the Native sensibility similar characteristics that some feminist theorists claim for women, suggesting that ideological opposition to white patriarchal culture may influence the choice of identifying characteristics.
Whelan, Richard. “Are Women Better Photographers Than Men?” ART NEWS 79 (1980): 80-88.
Whelan argues that the difference between male and female photographers is socioeconomic rather than aesthetic. He suggests that social roles imposed on women can help in photography and photojournalism because photographic subjects tend to trust or discount women more easily, considering them less powerful and intrusive than men.
Withers, Josephine. “Three Women Sculptors: Jackie Ferrara, Lila Katzen, Athena Tacha.” FS 5 (1979): 507-8.
“Faith Ringgold.” FS6 (1980): 207-212.
“Betye Saar.” FS 6 (1980): 336-341.
“Audrey Flack: Monumental Still Lives.” FS 7 (1981): 524-529.
“Musing About the Muse.” FS 9 (1983): 27-29.
“In the World.” FS 9 (1983): 325-6.
“Inuit Women Artists.” FS 10 (1984): 85-88.
“Jody Pinto.” FS 11 (1985): 379-381.
“On the Inside Not Looking Out.” FS 11 (1985): 559-560.
“Eleanor Antin: Allegory of the Soul.” FS 12 (1986): 117-121.
“Revisioning Our Foremothers: Reflections on the Ordinary. Extraordinary Art of May Stevens.” FS 13 (1987): 485-498.
Withers’ brief art essays, usually accompanying examples of the artists’ work, contain feminist analyses that elaborate on various aesthetic considerations. For example, in “Musing About the Muse” she considers female appropriations of the nude as a destruction of the active-male-subject/passive-female-object opposition common in male nudes; in “In the World” she describes the earthworks of women as “a more cooperative, organic, and process-oriented modeling.” Thus, Withers opens up many possible considerations of feminist aesthetics as a dynamic and shifting process of “reading” and reacting to works of art.
[The following list brings our bibliography a bit past a turning point in the scholarship that links feminism and aesthetics–a bend in the road that occurred in 1989-90 when the conjunction that had been forming for roughly twenty years in the feminist theory and practice of separate arts was sufficiently noticeable to require recognition by Philosophy, the academic home of Aesthetics since its inception in Aristotle’s POETICS (or at least since the term came into English in the eighteenth century). Acceptance occurred nearly simultaneously in special issues of the influential APA NEWSLETTER, of a leading feminist philosophy journal, HYPATIA, and of the American Society of Aesthetics’ JOURNAL OF AESTHETICS AND ART CRITICISM, all listed below. In the same academic year, the title of Rita Felski’s book, BEYOND FEMINIST AESTHETICS (see literature section, above), implied that the amorphous mass of ideas only recently identified as “feminist aesthetics” by Gisela Ecker’s 1985 title (above, literature section), was already a discipline worth contesting. Although arguments about its name may continue for some time, I expect the systematic feminist study of the arts to be a highly visible component of multi-cultural Women’s Studies in the decades ahead.]
AMERICAN PHILOSOPHICAL ASSOCIATION NEWSLETTER ON PHILOSOPHY AND FEMINISM (1990).
Armitt, Lucie, ed. WHERE NO MAN HAS GONE BEFORE: WOMEN AND SCIENCE FICTION. Routledge, 1991.
Baker, Houston A. WORKINGS OF THE SPIRIT: THE POETICS OF AFRO-AMERICAN WOMEN’S WRITING. University of Chicago Press, 1991.
Bassard, Katherine Clay. “Gender and Genre: Black Women’s Autobiobraphy and the Ideology of Literacy.” AFRICAN AMERICAN REVIEW 26. 1 (Spring 1992), 119-130.
Bergstrom, Janet and Mary Ann Doane. “The Female Spectator: Contexts and Directions.” CAMERA OBSCURA 20/21 (1990): 5-27.
Brand, Peg and Carolyn Korsmeyer, eds. “Feminism and Traditional Aesthetics.” Special issue of THE JOURNAL OF AESTHETICS AND ART CRITICISM 48.4 (Fall 1990).
Broude, Norma. IMPRESSIONISM: A FEMINIST READING: THE GENDERING OF ART, SCIENCE, AND NATURE IN THE NINETEENTH CENTURY. Rizzoli, 1991.
Chadwick, Whitney. “Negotiating the Feminist Divide.” HERESIES 24 (1989): 23-28.
Chave, A.C. “O’Keeffe and the Masculine Gaze.” ART IN AMERICA 78 (January 1990): 114-125.
“Contemporary Quilts.” Special focus issue of GALLERIE: WOMEN ARTISTS 3. 1 (1990).
Daly, A. “Are Women Reclaiming or Reinforcing Sexist Imagery?” HIGH PERFORMANCE 12 (Summer 1989): 18-19.
Davis, Kathy. “Remaking the She-Devil: a Critical Look at Feminist Approaches to Beauty.” HYPATIA 6. 2 (Summer 1991): 21-43.
DeKoven, Marianne. RICH AND STRANGE: GENDER, HISTORY, MODERNISM. Princeton University Press, 1991.
Devereaux, Mary. “The Philosophical and Political Implications of the Feminist Critique of Aesthetic Autonomy.” In Carr, Glynis, ed. “TURNING THE CENTURY”: FEMINIST THEORY IN THE 1990S. Bucknell University Press, 1992.
Dotterer, Ronald and Susan Bowers, eds. POLITICS, GENDER AND THE ARTS. Susquehanna University Press, 1992.
Edmondson, Belinda. “Black Aesthetics, Feminist Aesthetics, and the Problems of Oppositional Discourse.” CULTURAL CRITIQUE 22 (Fall 1992): 75-98.
Evans, Patricia, ed. ISSUES IN FEMINIST FILM CRITICISM. Indiana University Press, 1990.
Fullbrook, Kate. FREEWOMEN: ETHICS AND AESTHETICS IN TWENTIETH-CENTURY WOMEN’S FICTION. Temple University Press, 1990.
Gamman, Lorraine and Marshment, Margaret. THE FEMALE GAZE: WOMEN AS VIEWERS OF POPULAR CULTURE. Real Comet Press, 1989.
Garb, T. “The Forbidden Gaze.” ART IN AMERICA 79 (May 1991): 146-51.
Gates, Eugene. “The Female Voice: Sexual Aesthetics Revisited.” JOURNAL OF AESTHETIC EDUCATION 22. 4 (Winter 1988): 59-68.
Goettner-Abendroth, Heide. THE DANCING GODDESS. Krause, Maureen T. translator. Beacon Press, 1991.
Grigsby, Darcy Grimaldo. “Dilemmas of Visibility: Contemporary Women Artists’ Representations of Female Bodies.” Special issue of MICHIGAN QUARTERLY REVIEW 29.4 (Fall 1990): 584-618.
Hammond, Harmony. “Historias: Women Tinsmiths of New Mexico.” HERESIES 24 (1989): 38-43.
Hanna, Judith Lynne. DANCE, SEX AND GENDER: SIGNS OF IDENTITY, DOMINANCE, DEFIANCE AND DESIRE. University of Chicago Press, 1988.
Hein, Hilde and Carol Korsmeyer, eds. “Feminism and Aesthetics.” Special issue of HYPATIA 5. 2 (Summer 1990).
Jacobs, Lea and Patrice Petro, eds. “Feminism and Film History.” Special issue of CAMERA OBSCURA 22 (1990).
Jezic, D.P. WOMEN COMPOSERS: THE LOST TRADITION FOUND. Feminist Press, 1988. (Cassettes available.)
Jolicoeur, Nicole. “Feminism and Art Curatorial Practice.” CANADIAN WOMEN’S STUDIES 11. 1 (Spring 1990): 10-11.
Jones, S. “The Female Perspective.” MUSIC JOURNAL 91 (Fall 1991): 24-27.
Keeling, R. “Women in North American Indian Music.” NOTES OF THE SOCIETY FOR ETHNOMUSICOLOGY 47 (1991): 1148-49.
LaDuke, Betty. WOMEN ARTISTS: MULTICULTURAL VISIONS. Red Sea Press, 1992.
LaDuke, Betty. AFRICA THROUGH THE EYES OF WOMEN ARTISTS. Africa World Press, 1991.
Lauter, Estella. “Feminist Interart Criticism: A Contradiction in Terms?” Special issue of COLLEGE LITERATURE 19. 2 (June 1992): 98-105.
Lippard, Lucy. MIXED BLESSINGS: NEW ART IN A MULTICULTURAL AMERICA. Pantheon Books, 1990.
Lippard, Lucy R. “Both Sides Now.” HERESIES 24 (1989): 29-34.
Longhurst, Derek, ed. GENDER, GENRE, AND NARRATIVE PLEASURE. Unwin Hyman, 1989.
Lovely, D. “Speaking in Tongues: Women Artists and Modernism, 1900-1935.” ARTS REVIEW 42 (May 1990): 235-236.
MacDonald, S. “Demystifying the Female Body.” FILM QUARTERLY 45 (Fall 1991): 18-32.
“Making a Difference: Women in Museums.” MUSEUM NEWS 69 (July/August 1990): 37-50.
Maksymowicz, Virginia. “The Practice of Photography: Education, Gender and Ideology.” WOMEN ARTISTS NEWS 15. 3 (Fall 1990): 2-5.
Malti-Douglas, Fedwa. WOMAN’S BODY, WOMAN’S WORD: GENDER AND DISCOURSE IN ARABO-ISLAMIC WRITING. Princeton University Press, 1992.
McClary, S. “Feminine Endings: Music, Gender and Sexuality.” JOURNAL OF MUSIC 9. 3 (1991): 397-98.
“Native Women.” Special issue of Canadian Women’s Studies 10. 2&3(Summer/Fall 1989).
Parkerson, Michelle. “No More Mammy Stories: an Overview of Black Women Filmmakers.” GALLERIE 1989 Annual: 12-16.
Richards, Catherine. “Virtual Reality: the Rebirth of Pure Art?” WOMEN’S ART 41 (July/August 1991): 4-6.
Robinson, S. “Demarginalizing Women Photographers.” ARTWEEK 20 (July 1989): 11.
Ruppert, Jeanne, ed. GENDER: LITERARY AND CINEMATIC REPRESENTATION. Florida State University Press, 1990.
Russ, Joanna. “Anomalousness” and “Aesthetics.” Warhol and Herndl 194-211.
Schapiro, Miriam and Faith Wilding. “Cunts/Quilts/Consciousness.” HERESIES. 24 (1989): 6-10.
Scott, Bonnie Kime, ed. THE GENDER OF MODERNISM: A CRITICAL ANTHOLOGY. Indiana University Press, 1990.
Seitz, B. “Songs, Identity and Women’s Liberation in Nicaragua.” LATIN AMERICAN MUSIC REVIEW 12. 1 (1991): 21-41.
Shapiro, A.D. “Music and Gender: Another Look.” THE SONNECK SOCIETY BULLETIN FOR AMERICAN MUSIC 17. 2 (1991): 58-60.
Slyomovics, Susan. “Ritual Grievance: the Language of Women?” WOMEN AND PERFORMANCE 5. 1 (1990).
Smith, Paul Julian. THE BODY HISPANIC: GENDER AND SEXUALITY IN SPANISH AND SPANISH-AMERICAN LITERATURE. Oxford University Press, 1989.
Tracy, Laura. “CATCHING THE DRIFT”: AUTHORITY, GENDER AND NARRATIVE STRATEGY IN FICTION. Rutgers University Press, 1989.
Villarejo, Amy. “Reconsidering Visual Pleasure.” NWSA JOURNAL 3 (Winter 1991): 110-116. Review essay.
Walker, Cheryl. “Feminist Literary Criticism and the Author.” CRITICAL INQUIRY 16. 3 (Spring 1990): 551-571.
Wallace, Michelle. “Variations on Negation and the Heresy of Black Feminist Creativity.” HERESIES 24 (1989): 69-75.
Warhol, Robyn R. and Diane Price Herndl, eds. FEMINISMS: AN ANTHOLOGY OF LITERARY THEORY AND CRITICISM. Rutgers University Press, 1991.
Includes articles by Friedman, Gilbert and Gubar, Jones, Kolodny, Mulvey, Robinson, Showalter, Tompkins, and Zimmerman(listed in the annotated sections of this bibliography), and others.
Werden, Dyana. “‘Languaging’: an Image/Word Conjunction.” TRIVIA 16/17 (Fall 1990): 40-49.
Weston, Jennifer. “Thinking in Things: a Woman’s Symbol Language.” TRIVIA 16/17 (Fall 1990): 84-98.
Williams, L. “Firm Bodies: Gender, Genre and Excess.” FILM QUARTERLY 44 (Summer 1991): 2-13.
Wolff, Janet. FEMININE SENTENCES: ESSAYS ON WOMEN AND CULTURE. University of California, 1990. “Women’s Studies / Women’s Status.” College Music Society. NOTES 47 (1991): 801-02.
Young, G. “Letters From the Front Line: The State of the Art for Women Composers.” EAR 15 (Mar. 1991): 16-19.
Zimmerman, Bonnie. THE SAFE SEA OF WOMEN: LESBIAN FICTION 1969-1989. Beacon, 1990.
Deconstruction: a method of critical analysis of philosophical and literary language that emphasizes the internal workings of language and conceptual systems, the relational quality of meaning, and the assumptions implicit in forms of expression. (via Merriam-Webster)
Feminist art: work that is rooted in the analyses and commitments of contemporary feminism and that contributes to a critique of the political, economic and ideological power relations of contemporary society. It is not a stylistic category nor simply any art produced by women. (via Grove Art Online)
Historical revisionism: the reinterpretation of orthodox views on evidence, motivations, and decision-making processes surrounding a historical event. Though the word “revisionism” is sometimes used in a negative way, constant revision of history is part of the normal scholarly process of writing history. (via Wikipedia)
Performativity: an interdisciplinary term often used to name the capacity of speech and gestures to act or consummate an action, or to construct and perform an identity. Performativity reverses the idea that an identity is the source of more secondary actions (speech, gestures). Instead, it inquires into the construction of identities as they are caused by performative actions, behaviors, and gestures. Performativity problematizes notions of intention and agency; it complicates the constitution of gender and subjects. (via Wikipedia)
Postmodernism: a host of late-twentieth century movements, many in art, music, and literature, that react against Modernist tendencies and are typically marked by revival of historical elements and techniques. Postmodernism is often associated with deconstruction and post-structuralism because its usage as a term gained significant popularity at the same time as twentieth-century post-structural thought. (via Wikipedia)
Feminism first manifested in the arts as a sudden eruption of questions and criticism—an awakening among women artists, writers, and thinkers who believed they had serious grounds upon which to challenge the notion that women were naturally less talented, less motivated, or less interested/interesting than men. Instead they argued that women had been systematically and structurally kept from paths of achievement, but also that even when they overcame those limitations, their achievements were in other ways co-opted, ignored, or erased; and finally, that the notion of achievement was itself relative and defined by male values.
Over the course of this class, we’ll look at how this thinking impacted the arts—not just art made by women, but the entire field—as it was forced to rethink some of its basic tenets and most cherished beliefs about itself. Instead of being seen as simply tracing, preserving, and celebrating the great cultural achievements of humankind, feminism forced art theory and history to consider the roles they might have played, by separating art as a special, elevated category of human production predominated by male artists, critics, and patrons, in creating the impression that women were inferior, not just in the arts, but in all elevated aspects of human achievement.
The key ideas of this lecture can be explored in an hour and fifteen minutes through a variety of examples listed below by theme, including:
Constructs and Performances of Masculinity and Femininity
To understand the disruption that feminism caused, it is helpful to think about the context of American culture just before feminism gained momentum. On one hand, the 1950s and 60s in America had perhaps some of the most rigid ideas of what was appropriate and acceptable behavior for each gender since the Victorian era, and in post-war America, the rise of TV and mass media culture allowed those ideals to be naturalized and widely disseminated, regardless of how attainable or true they might be to people’s actual experience. For example, the idea that all women could or should be happy housewives was a powerful message across the nation, despite the fact that women had proved capable of working in a variety of fields during WWII, and that poor women and women of color were never really factored into this fantasy of femininity.
At the same time that people’s expectations and experiences were being highly policed according to gender, the values of high art were focused on the universal, transcendent potential of abstraction—the idea, as we talked about in relation to Abstract Expressionism, that art was meant to be a purely visual medium, only about itself and its own potential for innovation, and as such an expression of human creativity, freedom, and existence in abstract and universal terms. Art “about” something specific was seen as trivial and the implication was clear that those who weren’t moved by abstract art were just not culturally evolved enough to appreciate it, rather than that it might not be as relevant for some people’s experiences as for others’.
- Jackson Pollock at work in his studio, 1950. Photograph by Hans Namuth
- Carolee Schneeman, Eye Body: 36 Transformative Actions, 1963, Paint, glue, fur, feathers, garden snakes, glass, and plastic with the studio installation “Big Boards.” Photograph by Erró
(For further discussion of these works, see this interview.)
Depending on your preference, perhaps present these two images side by side without identifying captions at first, and invite the class to respond to what they see on screen. Begin with a compare and contrast discussion of Schneeman’s image in relation to Pollock’s, which will presumably be familiar and recently covered material.
What are we looking at in Schneeman’s image? Multi-panel collaged paintings, with elements of the real world (á la Rauschenberg) included in the structure. In each of the series of photos, the artist’s naked painted body is presented as part of the tableaux. Schneeman’s artwork becomes unstable, an evolving set of potential images activated by her performance, and her body and its difference refuses to be transcended—her body is embedded, encrusted in the surface of the work just as Pollock’s masculinity had been read into his paintings, but without ever having to make itself visible.
You may remember that we talked about the way Pollock drip paintings were interpreted as ultimate modernist paintings all about painting and flatness, as psychological deposits of artistic angst or quasi-spiritual existential pourings of his inner being, but also as Action Paintings: the canvas as an “arena on which to act.” In Pollock’s context all of these interpretations were cast in the most masculine terms—bravery, facing the abyss, attacking an opponent (notice it isn’t a stage for dancing, but an arena, like a boxing match). The next generation of artists would be inspired by the idea of the body itself becoming part of the work, or the medium of art itself, but feminist artists in particular would focus on the performance of the body as not just any body, but always a gendered body that is read differently, expected to have certain qualities and behaviors, and therefore bound to interact, perform in, and experience the world differently. This fact that the artist’s body plays a part in his/her work, as well as the idea of art as a performance rather than an object, are taken to their literal culmination in the series of photographs directed by artist Carolee Schneeman called Eye Body: 36 Transformative Actions (1963).
- Carolee Schneeman, Interior Scroll, 1977, Performance
(See here for further information.)
Carolee Schneeman, who trained and thinks about herself primarily as a painter, has continued to work in ways that blur the boundaries between static and durational formats. She was at the forefront of Happenings and performance art in the early 1960s, performing in works such as Claes Oldenburg’s Store Days (1962), Robert Morris’s Site (1964), and directing and performing in her own exuberant Meat Joy (1964). She then began making experimental films that were hand-colored, highly textured, and mixed abstract and very specific, highly personal imagery (most famously, Fuses, 1965). While her work is now considered groundbreaking, during the early part of her career she faced a lot of discrimination from the avant-garde film world, which was even more of a boys’ club than painting. Like painting under the influence of Clement Greenberg, art films had taken the idea of medium-specificity to its extreme, so that the most highly praised films were about technical aspects of filmmaking, like the zoom or editing, or about the conditions of projecting film, like light and darkness, or dirt accumulating on the surface of the film strip.
Schneeman’s most widely reproduced work, Interior Scroll (1977), is a performance during which she unravels and reads a text from her vagina. Through the images alone, this piece seems to be very rooted in the experience of the body, about nature and fertility from the womb, but the text Schneeman reads has nothing to do with vaginas, wombs, or fertility, as you can see from the excerpt on the screen [perhaps ask students to read aloud, or the instructor can read aloud and ask for an interpretation/summary in response]. The text is really a snarky, pointed response to the gendered value systems of the art world, which may pose as neutral but were set up to privilege male voices and only allow women to speak if they agree to speak like men. Schneeman is challenging what seemed to her (and others) as the suspicious side-effect of Greenbergian Modernism and the minimalism and linguistic conceptualism that followed. That is, the time when it was first possible for women and minorities to find voices in the larger culture and access the refined halls of high art conveniently coincided with a push for art to have no narrative, to be something purely aesthetic or conceptual about the nature of art, rather than the story of the artist; or to be entirely about the viewer<‘s interpretation of an abstract, analytic proposition instead of reflecting the artist’s personal experience.
- Yoko Ono, Cut Piece, 1964, Performance
(Extended discussion here, artist’s reflections here)
- Vito Acconci, Following Piece, 1969, Performance
(Smarthistory essay here)
Performance became a favored medium for feminist artists because it was both new, without a long history that excluded them, like painting’s, but also because it always foregrounded the degree to which experience is based in bodies that are differentiated by gender, as well as race, class, and other such socially divisive categories. These two powerful performance pieces emerged at almost the same moment from what we might say was a gender-neutral interest in Conceptual Art, that is in making work using instructions as a way of relinquishing or limiting the artist’s control over the work. Yoko Ono’s instructions for her piece read: “Performer sits on stage with a pair of scissors in front of him. It is announced that members of the audience may come on stage—one at a time—to cut a small piece of the performer’s clothing to take with them. Performer remains motionless throughout the piece. Piece ends at the performer’s option.” Vito Acconci’s piece is based on the self-determined rule that he would pick a stranger walking along a public street and follow them until they went into a non-public place, an activity that could last anywhere from a few minutes to eight hours.
How would you interpret each of these pieces separately—what kinds of metaphors and philosophical ideas do each mobilize? How does that giving up of control signify differently? How do the artists’ gendered bodies affect how we read these pieces? How are their symbolisms and affects different?
Both investigate issues of control and ego as well as the relationship between the individual and others in a social/relational field, but in comparison also suggest oppositions such as passivity versus aggression. It is interesting that Acconci’s idea of giving up control looks like stalking, and Ono’s looks like submission. Is this because of the way they constructed their experiments to circumvent control, or because of the way we read their bodies in action? It could be a little of both. Ono’s piece can be performed by a man, and when it is it reads very differently, though never ominously like the photos of Acconci. But when it is Ono on stage, the implications resonate in a variety of directions, and many do relate to a certain kind of body—interpretations related to sexual violence or female objectification are common; evocations of sensitive imagery from World War II of Japanese civilians with their clothes shredded by the atomic blast and from the escalating Vietnam War are also put into play. Yet, Ono also wanted to challenge Western, masculine value systems that see submission as weakness, and she speaks eloquently about being influenced by stories of the Buddha and attempting to “produce work without ego in it…Instead of giving the audience what the artist chooses to give, the artist gives what the audience chooses to take” (statement by the artist).
The Personal is Political—and Art is Personal and Political (whether it’s obvious or ideologically naturalized)
By investigating how different types of bodies have different experiences in the world, and lead to different interpretations and responses to artworks, feminist artists helped make visible the powerful insight of the slogan “The Personal is Political,” which was used widely by the Women’s Rights Movement. As women around the country came together to talk about what felt like isolated, private experiences—from sexual abuse to dissatisfaction with housework—that society tended to cast as individual failings on the woman’s part, they realized their “personal” problems were in fact widely shared, and politically structured aspects of society.
Likewise, women and minority artists started resisting the idea that art would only be valid if it wrestled with concepts that transcended the “personal,” especially if speaking of personal, but shared, experiences had the power to unite classes of people who felt isolated by the silence surrounding anything that differentiated their experience from the “universal.” For if art was to be important to people’s lives, shouldn’t it be able to address highly personalized and yet widely-shared experiences such as sexism and racism? If art was always appealing to the universal human, it was bound to ignore the specific challenges and exclusions placed on certain categories of humans. Also, the question was raised whether there was really anything universal and neutral in art related to mathematical logic or formal abstraction, since these were all areas that had been dominated by and played to the (socialized) strengths of upper class, white men. Maybe Minimalist sculpture was just as personal for the men making it—speaking to the industrial towns they came from, their technical training and fondness for engineering, spare aesthetics, and a denigration of emotionality.
- Adrian Piper, Mythic Being: Cruising White Women #1 of 3, 1975, Photograph of performance
- Adrian Piper, My Calling Card #1, 1986, Lithograph
(For more information on Piper and/or a great opportunity to discuss Wikipedia and how it creates and polices its content, see her removed and reconstructed Wiki-bio.)
As a light-skinned, mixed-race woman working first in the style of Conceptual Art, with artists who were interested in art as logical proposition and art as language, Adrian Piper was uniquely placed to press against the presumed universality of these abstract propositions. While Conceptual artists saw their work as political in its resistance to commodification and easy consumption, Piper started to invoke more personal, what we might call “identity” politics.
Piper started by performing strange actions in public, like Acconci, as a way to investigate social interactions—for example, going out with a rag stuffed in her mouth or covered in wet paint and wearing a wet paint sign. But it quickly became clear to her that there is no neutral body, and so working with one’s own body is to work with identity, identity constructions, and social definitions. Piper was at the forefront of turning performance back on itself, as a commentary on the ways in which all identity is performance, and as a tool for considering how we all play roles for each other based on social expectations that exist prior to realizing what we might consider our unique, innate, or self-determined personalities.
In Mythic Being (great article on this here), Piper overidentifies with the role most feared by the art world—instead of being the token, unthreateningly pretty, light-skinned African-American girl, she would show up as a revolutionary-looking, urban black man with an Afro.
Piper did performances dressed as the Mythic Being, going to gallery openings, dancing at the bus stop, and walking the streets muttering lines from her diary to herself over and over. In Cruising White Women (1975), she performs the stereotype at the root of the racist fear of black men on the sexual prowl for white women, and returns it as commentary. Through photos for a gallery-going audience, she showed them their own world-view as caricature and impersonation, a performance she put on to meet their paranoid fantasies. And what could be more personal—both the way people are type-cast and judged by their appearances, and the reactions of the traditional gallery-going audience to the eruption of politics in their pristine white spaces?
In a later work, Piper again used artistic intervention as a tool for combating her real-world experiences with racism and sexism, producing “calling cards” that she would hand out discretely in social situations, which call people out on racist or sexist behavior.
- Martha Rosler, Bringing the War Home: House Beautiful (Giacometti), 1967–72, Photomontage
- Martha Rosler, Body Beautiful or Beauty Knows No Pain (Cargo Cult), 1967–72, Photomontage
(Further discussion here; overview/review of artist’s retrospective here.)
So “The Personal is Political” can mean that our personal experiences, and the world that shapes them, is inherently and overtly political, and it can be the ground for political movements and the reason for political change (as in the Women’s Rights Movement, seeking political responses to women’s inequality). But “The Personal is Political” also means that each of us, as an individual, exists in a political nexus, acts as an economic, social, political being, and is part of the body-politic that acts on our behalf—whether in local or international matters. In the context of the Civil Rights Movement, the Anti-War Movement, the Women’s Movement, and the counter-culture, sexual liberation, and leftist politics of the 60s and 70s, “The Personal is Political” also meant that the micro-level choices each of us make on a daily basis are unavoidably political at macro-level, and need to be examined. As feminist art pushed against abstraction to re-introduce subject matter and overt political critique into work, the critique of sexism could be seen in relation to other kinds of political critique.
The late 1960s and early 1970s magazine collages of Martha Rosler center around American capitalism and the degree to which desire, as guided by mass media imagery from magazines, TV, film, and advertising, drives consumption. On the one hand, this system helps create and then profit from our pursuit of restrictive, highly gendered, and generally unattainable social ideals. On the other, it necessitates the aggressive economics of globalization and spurred the politics of the Cold War, in which any country (like Vietnam) that didn’t accept American economic imperialism would face American military imperialism.
Rosler’s collages about the false promises of advertising use the photomontage technique pioneered by Hannah Hoch and other Dadaists to create uncomfortable juxtapositions. On the left, a luxurious, art-filled, serene interior, sold by magazines such as House Beautiful as the ideal home for which we should all strive, is shown to be surrounded by fields of dead Vietnamese from Life Magazine. What are the details of this living room that carry meaning and how might this carefully selected interior help the artist make her point, or deepen that point? A Giacometti sculpture, often interpreted as an existential cry against WWII, becomes just decoration, a commodity for these art-collectors—or can’t they see the relation between European deaths and Vietnamese deaths? A Modernist painting on the wall also problematizes the idea that Modernist painting is the best hope for politically avant-garde or revolutionary potential in art; as it easily becomes beautiful decoration for rich people’s homes, its past radicalism dissipates with time.
Rosler’s collages also play on the idea of the Vietnam conflict as the “living-room war,” so-called because it was the first war widely covered and broadcast by TV news to a growing majority of Americans with TV sets in their home. The question of how one could see such images of carnage, however, from the comfort and safety of the American home and not be moved to action is one that these collages seem to ask but are unable to answer.
On the right, the beauty rituals of perfect white models are pasted onto shipping containers being loaded by dark-skinned men from places far away onto cargo ships, linking capitalism’s success in focusing women on the relentless pursuit of physical perfection with the relentless pursuit of cheaper labor markets in the third world.
Through these collages and her video works, Rosler makes clear that the personal couldn’t be more political. The stereotypes and ideals society lays out for women and men not only shape us as individuals, but this shaping process is guided by the interests of the larger political and ideological situation. Here you could mention the video Martha Rosler Reads Vogue (1982) as a prompt for a writing assignment responding to and analyzing the video’s various critiques and strategies.)
History, Myth, and Narration—Deconstructed and Reconstructed
The ability to analyze, critique, and re-think this shaping process underpins another strategy and segment of feminist art and theory. Feminist artists, other critical postmodern artists, and many artists working today have realized that individuals come to understand themselves and their world in relation to narratives and images that pre-exist them, and that they are shaped by the biases and interests of society. Thus their work came to focus on the narratives that shape us, investigating how these can be updated, diverted, or disrupted. Historical revision, as we talked about at the beginning of class, and as you read about in relation to Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party, is one response to the erasures and absences in history that might make women believe in their own inferiority.
- Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1974–9, Ceramic, porcelain, and textile
(Website is here.)
If you had the students read the curatorial overview on the website, use this as an opportunity to stop lecturing and have them explicate the important aspects of this project. To make this more manageable and make them feel more responsibility, you could assign summaries for different sections to different groups in the previous class, i.e., one group shares background on the artist, another shares why the use of textiles and porcelain were important, another explains “central core” imagery, etc. Or, you can guide a discussion broken up into pieces: what are the subjects or issues raised by this work? What are the goals it pursues? How does the form of the work, the mediums and iconography used, and the method of display relate to its subjects and its goals?
To give historical context, remind students that this was before women’s studies classes, at a time when one of Chicago’s college professors felt comfortable declaring that women had made no important contributions to history, and when the best compliment most art teachers would bestow on their female students was that they “paint so well, [one] can’t tell a woman did it.”
When Judy Chicago became an art professor, she decided to work with a group of female students to investigate questions such as: what would a woman’s art look like if she wasn’t trying to make it look like a man’s? How do we build a visual language of our own, when the entire history of art, the entire range of visual culture has been defined by and organized around the ideals and achievements of men? Why have women’s creative work and the mediums available to them—tapestry and textile, ceramics and pottery, and other crafts—been demeaned, and can we bring them into the high art classification? And why does history only consider individual achievement, focusing always on lone producers and innovative sudden creation, instead of communal, traditional, and evolutionary achievements building on continual progress through the work of many? (This is a more accurate understanding of historical movements, after all.)
So after creating the Feminist Art Program at California State University, Fresno in 1970, Chicago started to work on a project in 1974 that would seek not only to revise the male-centric Western canon, but to challenge many of the values that went along with it. The Dinner Party uses “central core” imagery instead of phallic forms to unify the table and the plates. The work was produced by a community, with many hands and helpers involved, and showcases crafts associated with women’s work.
Not only a massive artistic undertaking, it was an intense historical research project that helped uncover and share knowledge about over 1,000 women whose stories had been lost. Remember, this was before Google, so finding each name and information on these women was more than a click away—and yet, in early 2014, the Brooklyn Museum sponsored a special Wikipedia Edit-a-Thon to add many of the women from The Dinner Party to Wikipedia. The most common source for quick knowledge on a subject, Wikipedia is created by volunteer submissions and each article requires easily sourced materials, meaning the site often reproduces the biases of traditional histories and the volunteer-editors, who are predominantly male.
- Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Stills #7 and #21, 1978, Black and white photographs
(More about this project is here, and a Smarthistory essay is here.)
Instead of trying to correct the record of a biased history, many critical artists, especially in the later 70s and 1980s, became increasingly interested in trying to deconstruct the way stories—historical stories, media stories, news stories—all work to shape how individuals present themselves and conform to or perform as certain roles.
Cindy Sherman’s multiyear project Untitled Film Stills consists of almost a hundred photographs, each of which appears to be a still from a movie featuring a lone female protagonist. What information can we gather from each image? What do we think we know about these women? What about the movies they are in? Why do we think we can make these guesses? The clichéd nature of these images remind us that the outward signs we are reading—clothing, poses, lighting, framing—are legible because they are familiar, shared by our social conditioning. Therefore, just as publicity stills can rely on these signs to tell audiences what to expect, we as individuals learn and then position ourselves in relation to these kinds of signs, or performances of personality. This performance, and its flexibility and manipulability, are made clear by the fact that Sherman was the model for all 80+ of the images—doing her makeup and costuming and setting her stages so that she could be thoroughly convincing as each and every one of these women in entirely fictional and unrealized film projects.
By showing the same person, these are “self portraits” of the artist, but without ever showing the “real” Cindy Sherman, they call the idea of a stable, set, “real” individual into question. Andy Warhol, who had his own critique of media culture, famously said in a 1966 interview, “I don’t know where the artificial stops and the real starts.” Here we see the impossibility of constructing an authentic identity outside of all of the artificial images that we are fed, which provide models of womanhood, American-ness, whiteness, success, seduction, etc. that we use to construct identity.
[Optional:] As Joseph Kosuth’s One and Three Chairs showed us (if this work has been covered), we can’t identify a real chair except in relation to the word “chair,” which is an ideal with no equivalent in reality. Similarly, we understand ourselves and others in relation to abstract ideas that can never avoid simplifying or idealizing the thing they refer to.
Sherman’s project offers new insights into how we think about ourselves as individuals and as part of a larger society. We dress a certain way to be perceived as X or Y. Women in particular at this time were asked to fulfill incongruous roles—the sexual playmate and the housewife, the secretary and the devoted mother—and would find that even within one’s individual life, even if the social restrictions on women lessened, they weren’t then free to find some true, authentic self or true essence of womanhood beneath all these clothes and roles. Rather, individuals seemed to be accumulations of roles, of performances, of signs we’ve learned to give off that tell people what to think about us. And while bodies may be biologically assigned as male or female, the performance of femininity or masculinity is something we learn, like we learn language, as babies mimicking what we hear around us. Therefore, there could be no essential or universal experience of what is it to be a woman, because how women and men are asked to perform changes depending on the context in which these signs are learned.
However, with the rapid expansion of media images in the 20th century—photographs, then movies, then TV, especially in the Western world and America in particular—there became the ability for industry to control and capitalize on this shaping of identities, proliferating available roles but also homogenizing the signs and styles that go with those roles. In many ways, it was this homogenous and oppressive vision of the perfect housewife that had caused so many women in the 50s and 60s to feel suffocated, and ultimately rebel en mass in the Women’s Movement. Arguably, Sherman’s work suggests that that goal of critical feminist art is not to find an essential, shared characteristic, style, or iconography that speaks truthfully or authentically of womanhood or woman’s experience, but to realize how ideas of femininity are constructed and disseminated in the media age, find ways to uncover the mechanisms of control, and in doing so, undermine their effectiveness.
- Barbara Kruger, Untitled (We Won’t Play Nurture to Your Culture), 1983, and Untitled (We Don’t Need Another Hero), 1987, Photostats
(Further discussion is here and a good overview and images are here.)
Similarly, Barbara Kruger’s iconic red and white posters use the visual language of marketing and magazine design to counter the very ideas it is usually used to promote—consumerism, power relations, stereotypical gender roles, the cult of individual achievement, autonomy, and upward mobility—which mark the American ethos, especially during the revived conservatism of the Ronald Reagan years. Having worked as head designer for Mademoiselle magazine, Kruger subversively tweaks the combination of familiar (often nostalgic-seeming), found black-and-white images and slogan-style text bars which are typically used to aggressively sell products but also calibrated to subliminally sell ideas about who you are as a reader, audience, consumer, etc. Kruger makes clear the way advertising asks us to position ourselves in relation to the ideas it is selling by always using ambiguous personal pronouns (we, you, they, us) in her texts. This means that the “We” in “We don’t need another hero” is determined by the imagination or inclination of the person reading it. Is the “We” spoken by the little girl in pigtails, by women as a category, by all people who read the poster, by all anti-heroes? Who is the “You” in “We won’t play nature to your culture”? Whose culture and why is it separate from nature? Who would be asked to play nature and do you include yourself in that group or the other?
Kruger doesn’t identify her work as strictly feminist, but about all of the power relations that affect us as subjects and about which we need to think critically. Another way that her work performs this expansive criticality is by not being contained within museums or galleries, but often appearing as billboards, on buses, city streets and in other public places, and on consumer products like t-shirts and matches that can move about and interrupt our daily acceptance of the status quo.
This expansion of feminist critical strategies to encompass an elaborate nexus of power relations affected by a range of identity-formations (gender, race, class, sexual difference) and geopolitical positions, and a desire to intervene in public, non-art spaces and systems, increasingly mark the work of contemporary artists. These artists often are less inclined to call themselves feminist artists, but nonetheless unabashedly work with and build on strategies, subject matter, artistic mediums, and theoretical approaches that blossomed at the intersection of feminism and art in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s.