The Influence of Feminism in Art

THE IMPACT OF FEMINIST ART

To examine the impact of feminist art upon mainstream art is to examine the long list of what was excluded or forbidden in the art world. For those outside this world, artists appear to be daring avant-garde experimenters, but nothing could be further from the truth. In the 1970s, the art world in New York was ruled by rules and old hierarchies were still powerful. Among the “thou shalt nots” were symbolism, narrative, figuration, representation, all of which Clement Greenberg considered to be “literary effects.” The art world followed the assumption that the male was the universal and the female was the particular. When the male artist spoke, he spoke for the world; when the female artist spoke, her language was personal. Therefore, abstract art (painting) was a universal language that reflected the aspirations of humanity and figurative painting could only be specific. Logically, it followed that women in their inherent limitations were incapable of being the fulcrum for human beings.

Although Postmodernism did not stress race or gender, post-colonialism critiqued both Western intellectualism and Postmodernism itself for assuming that the white male was the central actor in the metanarrative. In refuting the universal, Feminist art moved away from Modernism and located itself in Postmodernism. There could be no meta-narrative for women. Feminist art used all of the “forbidders” in art to present the personal and the particular and the local. Feminist art was symbolic: Judy Chicago’s flower and her butterfly are symbolic of the “feminine” whether anatomical or rhetorical. Feminist art was narrative: performances told stories of female servitude or suffering, such as Faith Wilding’s Waiting. Womanhouse was less an installation and more a metaphor of how the home became a trap for women and there they lived out their lives in tiny domestic dramas and endlessly repetitive acts.

Because there was embedded opposition to feminism and the feminist movement, the vanguard position of those women got little attention beyond reactionary refutation. From a distance of forty years, it is difficult to understand why feminism was not seen as part of Postmodernism. The most obvious answer is that the art world was not aware of Postmodern theory until the 1980s and feminism was better understood within an artistic context rather than in an intellectual context. Feminism was seen as nothing more than an irritating anti-formalist gesture outside of the mainstream of art. However while the art critics rejected feminist art, artists were watching and looking and seeing something new.

Feminism changed the definition of art, what it could do, what it could be; feminism widened the boundaries of art, where it could go, what it could include. Ironically, the leaders of feminism and the best works of feminist art were relegated almost at once to history as “examples of” a genre. The pioneers found themselves to be historical figures in their own lifetimes, often in mid -career. Historicization of feminism had the effect of sidelining its importance while appropriating its impact. The artists who benefitted from feminism were often male artists, such as Eric Fischl who was at the California Institute of the Art when Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro were teaching in the Feminist Art Program. His figurative and representational paintings were intensely personal narratives, full of symbolism.

The new “presence” of women on the art scene alerted the art world to new voices and to the possibility that many other artists were also being excluded. However, unlike white women, women artists of color did not have the numbers or the institutional support to make the immediate impact and inroads into the art world. For example, the Cuban artist Ana Mendieta was uneasy about being among white women in the New York co-ops. Betye Saar noted that exhibitions by African-American women at the Woman’s Building in Los Angeles were not well-supported by white women. In fact women of any color were very much on their own. When asked why African-American males did not support the cause of women in the 1970s, art historian Samalla Lewis explained that the women of the Women’s Movement (seen as white) could always return to the society of the white male.

It would not be until the late 1980s and early 1990s when the new buzz word, Multiculturalism, became fashionable that artists of color were recognized under the somewhat condescending rubric of “politically correctness” in the art world. Today, the most infamous example of art world tokenism is the 1993 Whitney Biannual. In retrospect, it is judged to be a cynical gesture of inclusion in order to allow New York to return to the “normal” white male biases. Indeed in 2007, New York Magazine art critic, Jeffrey Saltz, did a survey of women in the Museum of Modern Art in his article Where are all the Women? Saltz wrote that, “…it has become bitterly clear that MoMA’s stubborn unwillingness to integrate more women into these galleries is not only a failure of the imagination and a moral emergency; it amounts to apartheid.”

Museums and galleries continue to discriminate against women. Saltz followed up his article about MOMA with a survey of six other institutions in New York City, Data, Gender Studies, and found the same dismal results. Despite the inclusion of women and people of color in the intellectual world of academia—as students, teachers, and as actors in history—the art world remains frozen in the sixties, denying the majority of the artists entry into a closed system. That said, the feminist movement may not have opened the doors of galleries or museums but it did open the minds of women to other possibilities of art making.

When one examines the history of the decades following the 1970s, it becomes clear that the women who survived and became prominent as artists did so by going into fields that were either new, such as performance or installation art, or less desirable, such as photography. Artists such as Jenny Holzer, Barbara Kruger, Cindy Sherman, Sherrie Levine, Rebecca Horn, Rachael Whiteread, Annette Messager, and Katharina Fritsch are “art stars,” and none of them does conventional or traditional art. As the dominance of painting diminished it was possible for women to renter this arena and Jenny Saville and Marlene Dumas achieved the success that painters of earlier generations longed for.

The increasing importance of women artists of color in the art world owes more to the efforts of individual women, such as Faith Ringgold and Betye Saar, than to the strong support of mainstream (white) artists or dealers. More and more women artists of color asserted themselves through political movements specific to their color, such as La Raza, even though most of these movements were patriarchal, to speak to their “own” people. Judy Bacca produced and directed one of the most remarkable works of art of the late twentieth century, The Great Wall of Los Angeles (1974-79), at the time it was the world’s longest mural. Faith Ringgold’s trenchant criticism of white power—her bleeding flags of the 1969s—gave way to charming children’s tales of life in Harlem and to commentaries on art history from the point of view of an African-American woman.

The strategies of Bacca and Ringgold represent two approaches or solutions to the “problem” of being both a woman and an artist of color in a white art world. Bacca reminded in the Chicano community of Los Angeles, dedicated to showing the history of minorities in the city. Ringgold’s art reached a plural and multicultural audience because her sharp social criticisms were filtered through irony, reflecting the turn towards “theory” in the 1980s. Twenty years later, Kara Walker was able to critique slavery through a complex use of white novels on slavery, such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Benefiting from a savvy and aware art audience, these women could rely on the viewer to understand the sub-text of oppression and inequality and the lingering legacy of historical injustices.

Part of the breakdown of Modernism and formalism and of Pluralism, feminist art generated a new demand for more content-orientated subject matter in art. Feminism is no longer univocal, feminism has become a movement of many voices, male and female, Western and non-Western. Today, many young women do not identify themselves as “feminist,” fearing the negative stereotypes attached to the term. And yet, these very women have and will benefit from the goals of the Feminist Movement in politics and in art, stemming from the 1970s. Despite the on-going discrimination against women in the art world, today there are prominent artists who just happen to be women. The fact that these women rarely get a one person show in a major museum remains problematic.

Since the 1980s, women in American have experienced three decades of “backlash” but despite continuing opposition to their gains, some progress has been made. From 2008 to 2010, a woman was third in line from the American presidency. In 2008, a woman ran for the office of President in America. That women, Hillary Clinton, became the Secretary of State from 2008 to 2012. European women and African women have a far better track record. A woman is chancellor of Germany, a woman ran for the office of President in France, a woman runs the International Monetary Fund, woman has been prime minister of England and in 2012 three female peace activists, Liberians Ellen Johnson and Leymah Gbowee won the prize along with Tawwakul Karman of Yemen, were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. It is hoped that everyone will benefit from hearing the voices of the many instead of the few.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]