What Is Fem­i­nist Art?

(a) An in­ter­est­ing chap­ter in art his­tory, now closed. (b) Spe­cial plead­ing for medi­ocre artists. (c) A sou­venir left be­hind by 1960s coun­ter­cul­ture. (d) The most im­por­tant artis­tic move­ment since World War II.

The Washington Post Sunday - - Arts - By Blake Gop­nik

The cor­rect an­swer is Oth­ers agree: Fem­i­nist cre­ativ­ity has brought about “the most far­reach­ing trans­for­ma­tions in both art­mak­ing and art writ­ing over the past four decades,” says Stan­ford scholar Peggy Phe­lan. Fem­i­nist art of the 1970s was “the most in­flu­en­tial in­ter­na­tional move­ment of any dur­ing the post­war pe­riod,” de­clares Jeremy Strick, di­rec­tor of the Mu­seum of Con­tem­po­rary Art in Los An­ge­les.

It helped make pos­si­ble “the very terms of cur­rent artis­tic prac­tice,” says Cor­nelia But­ler, chief cu­ra­tor of draw­ings at the Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art.

The best Amer­i­can artists of the last 30 years “are as in­ter­est­ing as they are in part be­cause of the fem­i­nist art move­ment of the early 1970s. It changed ev­ery­thing,” writes New York Times art critic Hol­land Cotter.

More than any other 20th-cen­tury move­ment, fem­i­nism pushed back against the art-for-art’s-sake at­ti­tudes of modernist ab­strac­tion. It pushed in­stead for work that talked about cru­cial is­sues in the world out­side. Ever since fem­i­nism, in all ar­eas of art­mak­ing, the mes­sage has mat­tered as much as the medium.

One sim­ple way to gauge the in­flu­ence of vin­tage fem­i­nist art: By how much it’s on our minds to­day.

In Jan­uary, a sym­po­sium on the sub­ject was held at the Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art in New York, in front of an over­flow crowd.

Last month, a blowout show of fem­i­nist art of the 1960s and ’70s launched in Los An­ge­les, and the Brook­lyn Mu­seum opened its lav­ish new El­iz­a­beth A. Sack­ler Cen­ter for Fem­i­nist Art.

On Fri­day, the Na­tional Mu­seum of Women in the Arts cel­e­brated the in­sti­tu­tion’s 20th an­niver­sary, its gal­leries filled with an im­por­tant ex­hi­bi­tion of fe­male painters from Re­nais­sance Italy. (Come Septem­ber, it will be host­ing “Wack!,” as the L.A. show is called.)

There’s a rea­son all this women’s work has come to­gether now — it’s the 30th an­niver­sary of “Women Artists: 1550-1950,” the first ma­jor mu­seum sur­vey of the sub­ject. But fem­i­nists haven’t planned a strate­gic, uni­fied ef­fort to cel­e­brate that mo­ment. Clas­sic fem­i­nist art is all around us now sim­ply be­cause it is a per­fect fit for what’s up in to­day’s art world.

Take “Wack!” The most strik­ing thing about it is how cur­rent art feels, though it’s all decades old.

“Wack!” has the same mix of me­dia you’d find in any con­tem­po­rary bi­en­nial: Lots of video; in­stal­la­tions of all kinds, rang­ing from a fem­i­nist “club­house” built from mat­tresses to a room-size sculp­ture made of sand-filled panty­hose; plenty of pho­tog­ra­phy, staged as well as doc­u­men­tary; de­tri­tus and doc­u­ments left over from per­for­mances and con­cep­tual projects; a smat­ter­ing of idea-driven paint­ing.

And the show has the same po­lit­i­cal charge and drive as a lot of very re­cent work in those me­dia. Even some of the most in­no­va­tive ex­per­i­ments of the 1960s, such as the con­cep­tual ab­strac­tion of Sol LeWitt or the rad­i­cal video and film works of Bruce Nau­man and Michael Snow, had cen­tered on ask­ing ques­tions about the na­ture of art.

The fem­i­nists cared less for art than for the im­por­tant things it can be used to talk about.

And be­cause gen­der af­fects just about ev­ery as­pect of hu­man ex­pe­ri­ence, fem­i­nist artists found oc­ca­sion to talk about al­most ev­ery­thing. They dealt with top­ics that lead­ing artists have been broach­ing ever since: bod­ies, class, race, con­sumerism, the art mar­ket, colo­nial­ism, po­lit­i­cal and cul­tural power.

Even when they bor­rowed ap­proaches dreamed up by men, the fem­i­nists gave them new po­lit­i­cal heft. At first glance, Eleanor Antin’s 144 black-and-white shots of a fe­male body, ar­ranged in a 4by-36 grid, look like plain-Jane con­cep­tual art, per­haps ad­dress­ing is­sues such as pho­tog­ra­phy and form. In fact, Antin’s grid rep­re­sents four daily shots of the artist her­self, trim­ming her nude body down to a more “ideal” size through 36 days of di­et­ing. It’s called “Carv­ing: A Tra­di­tional Sculp­ture,” riff­ing on the an­cient Greek idea of the male artist who whit­tles away at gross mat­ter to find the ideal beauty — usu­ally slen­der, fe­male beauty — hid­den deep inside.

The fem­i­nists used all kinds of art to­ward a sin­gle end: dig­ging out from un­der cen­turies of male­dom. The best work in “Wack!” takes on that task with a com­mit­ment and ag­gres­sion that most of to­day’s art never man­ages. Even af­ter four decades, the show’s most whacked­out pieces still push you off bal­ance.

To get into the show, you have to brush past a 12-foot-tall, blood­red vulva sus­pended from the ceil­ing, wo­ven from sisal in the gnarly style of a clas­sic hip­pie hang­ing. It’s so supremely brash it makes you laugh and squirm at the same time. Many of the fe­male and fem­i­nist themes in this show, as well as the sim­ple con­cen­tra­tion of them in one place, can leave even fans feel­ing vaguely squirmy. We’re clearly not used to an ex­hi­bi­tion that’s all wo­man, all the time, even though we seem to have no trou­ble with other shows drenched in testos­terone — which would be al­most ev­ery ex­hi­bi­tion that we’ve ever seen, judg­ing by the war­riors and cour­te­sans and ma­cho brush­strokes in their works, and by the males who crafted them.

There’s a huge dose of dis­com­fort in footage of a pub­lic per­for­mance first put on by Yoko Ono in Ja­pan in 1964. For “Cut Piece,” Ono sits on­stage in an au­di­to­rium and in­vites au­di­ence mem­bers to climb up and clip her cloth­ing off with scis­sors. Ono’s role in the event in­vokes a pure, clas­si­cally fe­male vul­ner­a­bil­ity, while there’s ev­ery­thing from wor­ried ten­der­ness to raw misog­y­nist ag­gres­sion in the re­ac­tions of the cut­ters. And of course there’s also some­thing em­pow­er­ing in Ono’s re­fusal to re­act, what­ever’s done to her. She took the pas­sive re­sis­tance of the civil rights move­ment and made it the medium of art.

The work of Dan­ish artist Kirsten Juste­sen also seems to deal with

d. vic­tim­hood, or help­less­ness at least: A 1968 piece called “Sculp­ture II” shows a young wo­man naked and in a fe­tal po­si­tion, inside an open card­board box. It seems to as­so­ci­ate wom­an­hood with the vul­ner­a­bil­ity of in­fants, but also with their un­re­al­ized po­ten­tial.

A Bri­tish fem­i­nist who called her­self Cosey Fanni Tutti pushed more ag­gres­sively into prob­lems of women, power and sub­jec­tion. She ad­dressed the com­plex is­sues of sex and pornog­ra­phy by be­com­ing a real porn star, mod­el­ing for grossly low-end, hard-core rags and tak­ing money for it. The room that doc­u­ments her art, full of all kinds of ugly and de­grad­ing shots, is gen­uinely hard to take — as it ought to be, given the sub­ject it ad­dresses.

Has Tutti re­taken con­trol of the fe­male body, or does her project demon­strate its on­go­ing and in­evitable degra­da­tion at the hands of men?

There’s no easy an­swer, just an ef­fort to ask the ques­tion as po­tently as pos­si­ble. In Tutti’s art, as in work by her more fa­mous peers Cindy Sher­man and Martha Rosler, there’s also a cru­cial ques­tion­ing of how images of women func­tion in so­ci­ety. This is a cru­cial prece­dent for the broader ques­tion­ing of images that artists, of all stripes and both gen­ders, have been do­ing ever since. It may be fem­i­nism’s great­est con­tri­bu­tion to the his­tory of art.

The funny thing is, clas­sic fem­i­nism’s shadow may loom so large over con­tem­po­rary fe­male artists that it’s hard for them to crawl out from un­der it. The artists in “Global Fem­i­nisms,” a group show of re­cent fem­i­nist art that in­au­gu­rates the Sack­ler Cen­ter in Brook­lyn, ad­dress many of the same themes their fore­moth­ers did, us­ing the same me­dia and strate­gies. But they mostly man­age to make their work feel stylish, rather than gen­uinely risky. It’s as though the pas­sion­ate en­gage­ment that led the ear­lier fem­i­nists to make the work they did has be­come a su­per­fi­cial artis­tic de­vice.

Po­lit­i­cal en­gage­ment and the me­dia and im­agery as­so­ci­ated with it — in fem­i­nist art, but also in most other kinds of artis­tic ac­tivism — have be­come com­po­nents in a with-it style, on par with play­ful ab­strac­tion or hip­ster car­toon­ing. Which makes to­day’s ac­tivistin­flected art a very dif­fer­ent thing from what fem­i­nism turned out in the 1960s. Ac­cord­ing to Lucy Lippard, a vet­eran fem­i­nist who got a stand­ing ova­tion at the MoMA fem­i­nism con­fer­ence — be­fore her talk had even started — women’s art in its first 1970s flow­er­ing was built around “a value sys­tem, a revo­lu­tion­ary strat­egy, a way of life.” It was “nei­ther a style nor a move­ment.”

I can hear them al­ready: Pen­cils be­ing sharp­ened as read­ers get ready to write in about some artis­tic medium or approach that seems typ­i­cal of fem­i­nism, but that was in fact used by one or an­other male artist be­fore the women got to it. There was video art be­fore the fem­i­nists made any. Per­for­mance was al­ready well un­der­way when Yoko Ono started do­ing her stuff. Though staged pho­tog­ra­phy may make Cindy Sher­man one of the most im­pres­sive fig­ures in “Wack!,” there had been plenty of it be­fore she came along.

All that, how­ever, misses a cru­cial point: Fem­i­nist art wasn’t about the “ei­ther/or” of tra­di­tional art his­tory, where one preen­ing artist — al­most al­ways male — tries to as­sert way of mak­ing art as the “next big thing,” in part by el­bow­ing ri­val artists and ap­proaches out of the way. Fem­i­nism was about “both/and,” in the ser­vice of com­ing to grips with a mas­sive is­sue that was more than any one artist, or way of mak­ing art, could ever deal with. Where men had al­ways jock­eyed for place, fem­i­nists be­lieved in rewrit­ing the rules of the horse race.

Many of the works in “Wack!” don’t have a sin­gle au­thor; lots don’t have any artis­tic “prod­uct” in the nor­mal sense, be­yond a few tat­tered records of some long-lost ag­i­ta­tion. Artis­tic col­lec­tives, some­times dou­bling as rock bands, are an es­pe­cially hot prop­erty on the art scene now, but it’s worth rec­og­niz­ing that fem­i­nists were gang­ing to­gether and act­ing up, and out, be­fore most of to­day’s art stars were even born, and be­fore col­lab­o­ra­tion was any kind of sell­ing point.

But­ler, who or­ga­nized the L.A. show and is now at MoMA, talks about “fem­i­nist art’s lofty and ro­man­tic striv­ing for noth­ing less than a com­plete re­or­ga­ni­za­tion of cul­tural hi­er­ar­chies.” That, she says, is why she wanted “Wack!” to of­fer more than a small “canon” of fem­i­nist lu­mi­nar­ies or a clear rank­ing of fem­i­nism’s many dif­fer­ent ap­proaches to art­mak­ing. As she puts it, “some­thing about the sub­ject of fem­i­nist art in­spires a healthy sense of ex­pan­sive­ness, re­sis­tance and sub­ver­sion.”

may be the most cru­cial way in which the fem­i­nist art of the 1960s and 1970s fore­shad­ows where we are to­day: Fem­i­nism can be thought of as cru­cial move­ment of the re­cent past be­cause it could act as an um­brella for any num­ber of ap­proaches to mak­ing art. On the sur­face at least, that even­hand­ed­ness re­sem­bles the way the en­tire art world now func­tions. It en­cour­ages a vast range of at­ti­tudes and me­dia and forms, with each one val­ued, in the­ory, for what­ever point it’s most suited to mak­ing — but maybe, more ac­cu­rately, for what­ever mar­ket niche it fills. The art world may be sales-ob­sessed and so­cially com­pla­cent, but in its ideal vi­sion of it­self, what a work of art is made from or looks like is sup­posed to mat­ter less than what it is



Fem­i­nism helped put such no­tions into play.


Kirsten Juste­sen’s “Sculp­ture II,” part of “Wack! Art and the Fem­i­nist Revo­lu­tion” at the Mu­seum of Con­tem­po­rary Art in Los An­ge­les.

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