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Feminist art

Women artists such as Helen Frankenthaler, Grace Hartigan, and Bridget Riley gained considerable reputations during the 1950s and early 60s. Although they were female, the content of their work was not, by design, feminist: that is, it neither addressed the historical condition of women nor could it be identified as woman-made on the basis of appearance alone. Until the end of the 1960s, most women artists sought to “de-gender” art in order to compete in the male-dominated, mainstream art world.

The counterculture of the 1960s inspired new and progressive social analyses. The mainstream was no longer regarded as ideologically neutral. Feminist analysis suggested that the art “system”—and even art history itself—had institutionalized sexism, just as the patriarchal society-at-large had done. Feminists employed the classic strategy of the disenfranchised, as did racial minorities, lesbians, and gays: they restudied and reinterpreted history. Of special concern to feminist theorists was the historical bias against crafts vis-à-vis high art. This new interest in art forms that had traditionally been relegated to the bottom of the status hierarchy (quilts, Persian rugs, Navajo blankets) eventually led to the emergence of Pattern and Decoration in the mid-1970s.

By 1969, overtly feminist artworks were being made and feminist issues raised. That year saw the creation of both WAR (Women Artists in Revolution), an offshoot of the New York–based Art Workers’ Coalition, and the Feminist Art Program, led by Judy Chicago at California State University in Fresno. (It soon recruited Miriam Schapiro as co-director and moved to the California Institute of Arts in Valencia.) Fledgling feminist institutions quickly arose in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and London, including galleries (A.I.R., SoHo 20, the Women’s Building, Womanspace); publications (Women and Art, Feminist Art Journal, Heresies); and exhibitions (“Womanhouse,” “Womanpower”). Throughout the 1970s, the meaning of feminist art and the roles that politics and spirituality play within it (the latter sometimes in the form of the “Great Goddess”) were articulated by thoughtful critics such as Lucy Lippard and Moira Roth. By the end of the decade the position of the essentialists—that there was a biologically determined female identity that should be expressed in women’s creations—was challenged by feminist artists and writers who regard that identity as culturally determined or “socially constructed.”

Feminist artworks have varied greatly. Predominating in the 1970s were autobiographical works in many media and cathartic ritualized performances—including Mary Beth Edelson’s Memorials to the 9,000,000 Women Burned as Witches in the Christian Era and Suzanne Lacy’s and Leslie Labowitz’s In Mourning and in Rage, a series of events featuring black-hooded figures that was designed to attract the attention of the news and disseminate information about violence against women at the time of the Hillside Strangler rape-murders in Los Angeles.

The return in the 1980s to traditional media encouraged feminist artists to create works with a conceptual—and critical—bent. The notion of the patriarchal “male gaze” directed at the objectified female other has been explored by artists including Yvonne Rainer, Silvia Kolbowski, and the British artist Victor Burgin. Two examples of recent feminist art that have received widespread attention are Cindy Sherman’s photographic investigations of the self in a culture of role playing and Barbara Kruger’s evocations of cultural domination through the graphic vocabulary of advertising.

If such works seem less overtly feminist than their predecessors, it is largely because feminist principles have been so widely accepted—despite the brouhaha frequently surrounding the term itself. In opposition to the purity and exclusivity of modernism, feminism called for an expansive approach to art. The feminist use of narrative, autobiography, decoration, ritual, crafts-as-art, and popular culture helped catalyze the development of postmodernism.

Extracts from 'Artspeak' by Robert Atkins (copyright (©) 1990, 1997 by Robert Atkins) reproduced by permission of Abbeville Press, Inc.