The Waves of Feminist Art

By Olivia Comstock

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Bengalis Ad by Lynda Bengalis (1974) is probably the most controversial feminist artwork ever.

HISTORICALLY

If you flip through any book about art, from any time, on any movement, the artists that will be featured are primarily men. Historically, women’s relationship with art has not been a good one. Women have been involved in art in one of two ways. The first is when women were subjects of paintings and objects of male desire. Nude portraits, which have been prominent since the Renaissance, are predominantly of women. In addition, the women in these portraits are presented as shy, demure, and pleasing to men. They do not look at the viewer, but instead look off to the side, which shows weakness. They are lounged in a way that displays their sexuality for the pleasure of the viewer, but they in no way own their own sexuality.

The second way women are involved in art is as minor artists, footnotes to major movements. Even though there have been women who are artists scattered throughout history, they are not recognized or seen as prominent. If women were involved in the art world, they were only seen as models or muses for male artists, even if they were artists themselves. Additionally, once women started to be recognized for professionally pursuing art, they were excluded from the art movements of their respective time because their style differed from the prominent men of that period. An example of this is Marie Laurencin, who was an artist at the same time as Picasso and the other Cubists, but she was not seen as a Cubist because of her “feminine” style and subjects.

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Le Bal Elegant Marie Laurencin 1913

Later, during the Surrealist movement around the 1930s, women such as Meret Oppenheim, were finally recognized as members of the movement, but only because they got their in by starting out as models and mistresses for the male artists. Additionally, Oppenheim still faced troubles because one of her most famous pieces, Object, was renamed to Luncheon with Fur, by André Breton, a fellow male Surrealist, without her consent.

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Object Meret Oppenheim 1936

1ST WAVE

In the 1960s, along with the women’s liberation movement, came the beginning of feminist art. This was female centric – the artists were women, the subject was woman, and the biology was female. Feminist art of the 1960s and early 1970s was characterized by essentialism, which is the theory that what makes a woman a woman is her biological characteristics. Art wise, this means that art of this time focused on stereotypical female characteristics, female anatomy, and female biology. It was a way of flipping the previous binary where men, masculine characteristics, and biology were superior to women and their corresponding characteristics and biology. Instead, feminist art asserted that the very essence of what made women women was valuable and special. They used familiar images of women and the female body to propel their agenda. An example of this is Judy Chicago, who coined the term feminist art and who created The Dinner Party, an installation piece of a triangle dinner table with vagina shaped place settings for famous women.

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Dinner Party Judy Chicago 1974-79
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Close up of Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party

Another example is Hannah Wilke, who made tiny sculpted vaginas and then photographed them attached to her body.

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S.O.S. Starification Object Series Hannah Wilke 1974-82
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Teasle Cushion Hannah Wilke 1967

A final example is Cindy Sherman, who made conceptual portraits that look like stills from movies. She presents herself as a B-movie and film noir actress, which plays on the historical idea of the woman as the subject to be looked at.

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Untitled Film Still #21 Cindy Sherman 1977
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Untitled Film Still #6 Cindy Sherman 1978

Both Sherman and Wilke use photography as a central medium for their art. This is significant because photography was very important in feminist art. Photography was a new medium and was accessible for all genders. Males did not have hundreds of years of a head start, as they did with painting. Because they had equal access, women were very interested in using photography for their art.

2ND WAVE

In the 1980s and 1990s, there was a second wave of feminist art. This time, feminist art was characterized by constructivism, where women and men are constructs created through culturally enforced behaviors that people perform in order to be read as one gender or another. With this theory, people are created through their experiences and culture more than their biology. The focus shifts from feminine characteristics to personal experiences, personal politics, and identity politics. This was distinctly different from the first wave of feminist art. It also reflects the influence of post-modernism, post-structuralism, and the uniting of philosophy and art through conceptual art at this time. Additionally, women continued to incorporate new media into their art including performance, video, and other non-traditional mediums. Feminist artists during this time were also calling attention to structural and institutional problems that lead to women’s exclusion. A few prominent feminist artists during the 1980s and 1990s that were influenced by these ideas include the Guerilla Girls, who are a group of anonymous artists that took pseudonyms of famous women. They made posters highlighting the exclusion of women and minorities from the art world.

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Poster Guerrilla Girls 1989

Another example is Linda Nochlin, who was not an artist, but a critic. She wrote an essay titled “Why Have There Been no Great Women Artists”, where she discusses the problem with framing the question that way and how historically women are structurally disadvantaged. Another artists at this time, Barbara Kruger used collage and photomontage to explore themes of capitalism and consumerism’s influence on our lives and the idea of gender as a construct.

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I Shop Therefore I am Barbara Kruger 1987
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Barbara Kruger

Finally, Adrian Piper, a black woman, made art that deals with race, racism, the notion of “passing”, and combines philosophy with art. She not only was an artist, but also was a recognized philosopher, publishing essays on race, ideology, politics, and identity.

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Catalysis III Adrian Piper 1970, performance
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I Embody Everything You Most Hate and Fear Adrian Piper 1975, performance

TODAY

Today, feminist art is more global and multicultural. It continues the constructivist thread of the 1980s and 1990s and continues to look at structures that disadvantage women. However, feminist art today also embraces beauty and intelligence in a way that was discouraged in previous feminist art periods, where beauty was a detractor to intellectual legitimacy. A few trends in feminist art today include appropriating familiar artwork of male historical greats and replacing the subjects with more politically correct ones.

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A Little Taste Outside of Love Mickalene Thomas 2007
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La Grande Odalisque Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres 1814

In the same vein, women are revisiting feminist art of the 1960s-1990s appropriating it and referencing it. In addition, some women are recreating historical scenes in a historical style to reframe real events in a feminist way. These two components of feminist art today border on kitsch. Other artists are exploring identity issues, the influence of the mass media, and technology. None of these are especially feminist issues, indicating that feminist art today is not as blatant as it was when it began. On the other hand, feminism in art is being dulled by the focus on individualism, capitalism, making money, and moving up in the art world. This distracts from the focus on a political goal or message. Feminist art is a very broad group, especially in the contemporary world, which asks the question, what is considered feminist art? As a viewer of art, this is something you formulate an answer for yourself.

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