I am an artist who is also a feminist. My day job, that supports my art habit, is directing a program that helps women’s and gender studies programs all over the state of Wisconsin communicate and collaborate. It’s a good fit for me because I often describe my art as my women’s studies research. Its my way of reminding myself and others who work in Women’s and Gender Studies that the arts are an important part of the women’s movement. Art making can be intellectual, political, and activist work along with other forms of feminist scholarship. I consider my paintings to be visual texts that document my creative and critical thinking on topics ranging from examining how we value women’s place in society to reflections on environmental issues and how we steward the earth.
The contemporary feminist art movement originated in about 1970, inspired by the Women’s Liberation Movement which was sweeping the country at this time, bringing with it demands for social, economic and political change. Women began to join together to demand greater representation and an end to the marginalization of women socially, economically, and politically.
In this same period, women artists began to organize. Women artists came together to advocate for themselves. They first focused on the fact that few women were represented in galleries and museums, and that they were also excluded from the art history canon.
Few women taught on the faculties of art schools in spite of the fact that the majority of art students were women. Women art faculty were disproportionately found in temporary, non-tenure track positions despite making up over half of the available pool.
In the exhibition of art, it was common and accepted for exhibitions to be made up of all white males. Women of color were doubly discriminated against, with artists like Faith Ringgold told they could only exhibit in the museums devoted to African American art after all the black male artists had had their shows.
In the early 1970s, women artists and activists demonstrated at museums and exposed the sexist practices of galleries and art schools. Women visual artists, art educators and art historians formed consciousness raising groups, woman-centered art education programs, women’s art organizations, and cooperative galleries to provide the visibility that they had been denied. However, feminist artists sought more than equal representation. They believed that art could help bring about social and political change.
Exploring the kind of art women make when creating from their own life experiences led to a call for a re-examination of the criteria that defined what art and which artists were to be valued. It also led to a re-examination of the concept of ‘genus’ and the criteria that had been used to exclude past women artists from the art history texts used to educate contemporary artists.
There are many voices in the women’s art movement with an equal number of goals. Some wanted to transform traditional fine art media such as painting and sculpture with feminist awareness; others sought to introduce aesthetics and values from non-European traditions into the American visual vocabulary. Still others gave up object-making altogether in favor of performance art and video, and called for an elimination of the division between craft and fine art. Many feminist artists explored an aesthetics that emerged from female experience and female-coded labor, the female body, women’s history, and individual autobiography.
Many women artists sought to reclaim the female body by representing women’s bodies and bodily experiences in ways running counter to the sexualized and idealized representations dominating the images of women created by men. Some of this work attempted to reclaim female genitalia from degradation in works such as Judy Chicago’s well-known and controversial Dinner Party installation, (now on permanent display at the Brooklyn Museum after years without a permanent home). Her large-scale 1979 installation was created collaboratively and celebrated women’s traditional needlework as well as highlighting women who had been written out of history. The piece showed to sold-out crowds for several years. None-the-less, the piece has only found a permanent home in 2007 that will allow it to be shown regularly after 20 years spent mostly in storage.
The Feminist Art Movement profoundly influenced contemporary art practices. It introduced feminist content and gender issues; nonhierarchical uses of materials and techniques; and the idea of a multiple-voiced, fluid subject. The women’s art movement has championed the idea that gender is socially and not naturally constructed; validated non-“high art” forms such as craft, video and performance art; questioned the cult of “genius” and “greatness;” and placed an emphasis on pluralist variety rather than concepts of totalizing universalism.
A lot has changed but much has not. From 2004 to 2007, the percentage of women artists on view in major art institutions:
5-8% at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA);
15% at The Whitney Museum;
24% at The 2007 Venice Biennale
27% at Art Basel Miami.
(Source: New York Magazine, “Where are all the Women?” Nov. 26, 2007)
The recent award winning documentary Who Does She Think She Is? follows five contemporary women artists as they make their way. It interweave statistics that includes such facts as: Nationwide, 52 percent of professional trained artists and art historians are female. Yet, 98 percent of art the National Gallery of Art showcases has been created by males. At the National Portrait Gallery, that number is 93 percent, and at Hirshhorn Museum, it’s 95 percent. When looking at race, the number of white artists represented ranges from 94-99 percent.
I guess we are not done yet.
A Few Contemporary Feminist Art Organizations
The Rutgers University Feminist Art Project offers reading lists, art education resources, and websites of interest on the women’s art movement and ties together contemporary feminist art activities by region. You can go there to see what is happening in your region now and list your own related activities.
The Brooklyn Museum’s Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art has a mission to raise awareness of feminism’s cultural contributions, to educate new generations about the meaning of feminist art. They provide a timeline of important events since the 1960’s as well as offer podcasts, video, and a blog. Their Feminist Art Base is an excellent online digital archive dedicated solely to feminist art that I am honored to be a part of.
The national Women’s Caucus for Art is a national multi disciplinary organization focused promoting women artists and art historians in and out of the university through local chapters and annual conferences that parallel the College Art Association’s annual conference.
The power of art to change the self and society is still central to many women artists’ work. Younger feminists are using activist art in a number of ways today including coming together to exhibit and organize.
Check out these other women’s art organizations:
Women’s Art Organizations Worldwide (compiled by n.paradoxa feminist journal)