I am sure it comes as no surprise to those who usually listen to this podcast that I am a feminist. It is a no-brainer to me to stand for equality for all, regardless of gender, race, or sexual orientation. It also seems obvious to me that if you are a woman and you are an artist, you are probably a feminist. What better way to stand against discrimination in the art world than to embrace intersectional feminism? While there are many who do not agree with me, feminist artists are strong in number and even stronger in their effect on the art world. Today, I will talk about the lasting impact that feminism has had on art.
Feminists are regular historiographers. A historiographer studies how history has been written about and recorded, and what inherent biases are present in these records. Feminists have scoured historical records that are rampant with misogyny to dig up many of history’s “forgotten” women, including female artists that historians seem to have skipped over. Queer and feminist scholars have had to deal with the “historical invisibility” of their subjects, as their subjects are “not the stuff of official histories” (Latimer 93). The reason I have access to all of the information about women artists I have used in previous episodes is in large part due to the feminist art historians who made the invisible visible again. A great example of this is a book written by the anonymous feminist art activist group, the Guerrilla Girls. Their book is called The Guerrilla Girls’ Bedside Companion to the History of Western Art, and it focuses on women artists throughout history that have been kept out of standard art history curriculums. The book also emphasizes the point that women means all women, as the history of Western Art has often excluded people of color (Guerrilla Girls 8). From ancient Greece and Rome to the 19th century, the Bedside Companion shows its readers the amazing women they have been missing out on.
In the beginning of the women’s movement, artists like Rosa Bonheur and Mary Cassatt joined the effort while other artists “disavowed feminism after making it in a man’s world” (Guerrilla Girls 49). Those who followed Bonheur’s and Cassatt’s footsteps in the 19th and 20th centuries made feminist art history. One of the most famous pieces of feminist art is Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party, created from 1974-79. The Dinner Party is a giant “ceremonial banquet,” with places set at a large table for many famous women in history. There are 39 place settings, and 999 names written on the floor (“The Dinner Party”). In my opinion, this piece is a visual representation of the feminist historiography I mentioned before. All 1,038 names in the work are names that were, unfortunately but most likely, left out of common history and art history curriculums. The Guerrilla Girls not only pushed for the inclusion of more women in galleries and museums, but also made their own propaganda-inspired art. In 1989, the Guerrilla Girls created a billboard showing a lounging nude woman with a gorilla mask over her head. The text on the billboard said:
Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum?
Less than 5% of the artists in the Modern Art sections are women, but 85% of the nudes are female (“Posters, Stickers, Billboards, Actions: 1985-2016”).
This provocative piece was only the start of what the Guerrilla girls set out to do. The anonymous group continues to make work today, and they have criticized everything from the lack of women’s artwork in museums, to the abysmal wages paid to those who work in art galleries, to lack of representation of the art of people of color, to limits on gay rights, and so on (“Posters, Stickers, Billboards, Actions: 1985-2016”). Artists like the Guerrilla Girls and Judy Chicago helped open the doors to feminist art, and today there is an even wider range of feminist artistic expression.
Especially because of the spread of information in the age of the Internet, feminist art is more popular than ever. One of my favorite contemporary feminist artists is Kara Walker. Her characteristic, beautiful cut-paper silhouettes depict the lives and history of African-American women. In her artist statement, she says that she is “rewriting History” even though there is “a lot of (white, patriarchal) damage to undo” (“Kara Walker”). Another contemporary feminist artist I admire is Shirin Neshat. She is a photographer and digital artist who focuses on exploring the roles of women in Islamic, specifically Iranian, society. She creates a “feminist reclamation of history that tells Iran’s story via the female gaze” (“The Feminism of Resilience”). Artists like Walker and Neshat are part of a vast network of feminist artists working today, and I encourage you to check out their work and the work of other contemporary women artists.
Today’s feminism is not your mother’s feminism, and today’s feminist artwork and art activism is not the second-wave stereotype that people like to pretend it is. Today, intersectional feminist artists promote the work of women, people of color, and the LGBTQI+ community. Our goal is to remove the “historical invisibility” of the artists in all of these groups, and encourage future generations to create art even when they aren’t represented in the mainstream art world. It is time to break the tradition of the white, male art world. In the words of Rosa Bonheur, “let women establish their claims by great and good works and not by conventions” (Guerrilla Girls 49).
"The Dinner Party by Judy Chicago." Brooklyn Museum. Brooklyn Museum, n.d. Web. 28 July 2016. <https://www.brooklynmuseum.org/exhibitions/dinner_party>.
Guerrilla Girls.The Guerrilla Girls' Bedside Companion to the History of Western Art. New York: Penguin, 1998. Print.
"Kara Walker." Brooklyn Museum. Brooklyn Museum, n.d. Web. 28 July 2016. <https://www.brooklynmuseum.org/eascfa/feminist_art_base/kara-walker>.
Latimer, Tirza True. “Improper Objects: performing queer/feminist art/history.” Otherwise: Imagining Queer Feminist Art Histories. Jones, Amelia, and Erin Silver. 2016. 93-109. Print.
"Posters, Stickers, Billboards, Actions: 1985-2016." Guerrilla Girls. Guerrilla Girls, n.d. Web. 29 July 2016. <http://www.guerrillagirls.com/projects/>.
Zakaria, Rafia. "The Feminism of Resilience: Shirin Neshat at the Hirshhorn." Los Angeles Review of Books. Los Angeles Review of Books, 12 Sept. 2015. Web. 28 July 2016. <https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/the-feminism-of-resilience-shirin-neshat-at-the-hirshhorn/#!>.
Butler, Cornelia H, and Lisa G. Mark. Wack!: Art and the Feminist Revolution. Los Angeles: Museum of Contemporary Art, 2007. Print.
Guerrilla Girls. Bitches, Bimbos, and Ballbreakers: The Guerrilla Girls' Illustrated Guide to Female Stereotypes. New York, N.Y: Penguin Books, 2003. Print.
Nastasi, Alison. "10 Famous Feminist Artworks." Flavorwire. Flavorpill Media, 27 Mar. 2012. Web. 28 July 2016. <http://flavorwire.com/273653/10-famous-feminist-artworks/4>.