Feminist Art as Evolution Rather Than as a Movement
Feminist art as a named movement evolved in the context of the late 1960's early 1970's political climate. The movement contextually cannot be separated from larger civil rights movements and specifically those relating to women; like the sexual revolution, the women's liberation movement, and the formation and growth of groups like the National Organization for Women. Strictly speaking there can be no real separation of the feminist art movement from the civil rights movements in its context because so much of art of the era acted as the voice and vision of the messages of the movements as a whole. Though there are of coarse exceptions to this rule art as a whole during this period was a demonstrative agent for social change.
In this analysis of both feminist art and its contextual school of thought, during the civil rights era I will discuss the discrimination and degradation that women artists have been shown by the high-brow art world. I will also discuss and dissect the "feminist" art as essentially feminine vs. The art of women as essentially the same, or to be treated as such, as male art debate. As a point of departure for these issues I will analyze a few works associated with the feminist art movement and discuss the political impact of each of the artists, Carolee Scheerman, Cindy Sherman, Mimi Smith, Ana Mendieta and Judy Chicago.
Women artists, who have been brave enough to produce their art, have been shown the cold shoulder by the art world since the public recognition of art really began. The recognition of the genius of high art has been evident from antiquity but with few exceptions was direct identification of a woman as the genius ever given. One of the first exceptions to this rule is Artemisia Gentileschi (1590-1642), a genius beyond that of her famous father who was truly only given name recognition because she was the daughter of a recognized artist even though her imagery was and is so powerful it represents the epitome of the strong feminine ideal of her age. The degradation and discrimination of women in the fine arts has become an institution of its own.
In a compilation of interviews of fifteen contemporary female artists there are several questions and answers regarding the discrimination they have felt throughout their careers. Two artists in particular express their experiences pointedly when asked about the question, "As a female artist, have you ever experienced discrimination from the art-world? "
Julie Lamoe- "When I graduated from art school in 1965, men instructors were still asking women students why they were painting and not getting pregnant. "
Lil Picard- "I had the experience twice of being refused as an artist by galleries -- once in New York and once in Dusseldorf -- and told bluntly, 'We don't take on women.' "
Cindy Sherman, the recognized feminist artist of black and white still shot photography created untitled self-portraits that represent fundamental and very different images of her as a whole series of archetypal images. In The Power of Feminist Art Sherman's 1979 untitled photograph of herself depicted as a low income housewife of the 1950s is unsettling. Yet, not quite as unsettling as another self-image in another untitled photograph from 1985 reproduced in The Pink Glass Swan of herself as an archetypal and timeless witch. The source of the fascination with Sherman's works lies in her uncanny ability to represent herself as everything a woman can stereotypically be and include the entire gambit of emotions each one might or should realistically feel.
Ana Mendieta produced an unsettling photographic image of the silhouette of a female figure legs together and holding up her arms in an expression of caution to the viewer. The reason for the unsettling nature of the photograph is that it is the picture of a scene painted in rock on the ground and the scene very much resembles a burial mound in the dessert. The eternal silence of the depiction of this nameless faceless woman gives a voice to the idea that we are not flat images and our silence does not help our cause.
Stepping away from the image of a woman trapped in stone the viewing of the artist Mimi Smith's Steel Wool Peignoir is also a depiction of the trappings of being a woman. At first glance the 1966 composite piece of steel wool, nylon, and lace looks to be the representation of a soft feminine article of clothing representing a subtle feminine sexuality, possibly a medieval gown. Yet upon closer inspection the trap of the steel and the impact of the knowledge of what the garment has been fashioned from make clear that it is meant to represent a trap in disguise. The trap of subtle sexuality or repressed sexuality, covered from head to toe in lace and steel a woman inside this composite would be trapped and uncomfortable regardless of her soft appearance.
The recognizable image of Judy Chicago's "The Dinner Party" is a staple impression of the vast and unending representation of domesticity and yet at the same time a representation of a table for conversation about the position of women that has yet to be peopled, but boasts a profound list of invitees. The triangle represents the amphelos and each ceramic plate represents a depiction of what the vagina of the woman might look like. The personality of each representation and its coinciding woman of history can clearly be seen in each colorful still shot of the place settings. Thought to be sexually explicit it is a very tame example of her work as one of the pioneers of the feminist art movement, and especially that part of the movement that blatantly challenges the confines of female sexuality. In her book by the same title Chicago relates the meaning of the historical foundations that women have given to art to feminism and to society:
The women represented at the Dinner party (39) table are either historical or mythological figures. I chose them for their actual accomplishments and/or their spiritual or legendary powers. I have brought these women together -invited them to dinner, so to speak -in order that we might hear what they have to say and see the range and beauty of our heritage, a heritage we have not yet had an opportunity to know. (Chicago 1979, 52)
Another startling example of this same blatant challenge to female sexuality and the degradation of the history of women is the still shot of a performance piece "Interior Scroll" by Carolee Scheerman, another pioneer in feminist art in which a Scheerman appears to be removing or replacing what looks like her inner organs. The idea is said to be a representation of the ways in which women have been erased from history, the artist reads from her text "Cezanne: She was a Great Painter" as the performance depicts the blatant challenge to female oppression as the truth of women is hidden away inside her very body.
The sexual revolution challenged the very fiber of the traditional representations and stereotypes of women as submissive. All of the above works are representations of the culture they are attempting to alter and the hope for a different idea of feminine. They did not only challenge the feminine they also challenged the level of acceptable expression that had been held by an iron fist in the 1950's and had been publicly and politically rejected by the 1960's sexual revolution. In these examples there is no real question that the many faces of women are represented in the context of a challenging time, that of the civil rights movement and more specifically the feminist movement. Regardless of the varied validity given to the works of these women as artists outside of their feminine messages the impact of their art is immeasurable.
The idea that any of these images could have been created, directed or performed by a man may seem far-fetched when the images are fresh in ones mind. Yet, the truth I they could have been as similar messages have been expressed by men. The question to ask would be does the gender of the artist as female, male or androgynous give the viewer a different impression of the work and its meanings. Artist Helen Pashigan speak eloquently of the question of feminist vs. universal art, "If women show together as women artists, the common denominator becomes 'women' not 'art.' "
The divisive nature of the feminist vs. universal art debate is not unusual to the feminist movement in general as the civil rights movement challenged the standards and schemas of the traditional positions of women so did feminist art.
Another question one might ask is, "Has feminist art lived its usefulness?" The answer would lie most heavily in the answer to another question and that would be, "Is the woman artist represented in comparable numbers as the male in traditional artistic venues?" Even today…