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ART & FEMINISM: What Constitutes Feminist Art?

Art made by women has been in production for centuries, mostly as a way to keep them busy while at home as a form of education either through tapestry, sewing or scrapbooking. From the 1920s and the late 1960s there was little to no organised activism for the feminist movement, however the uncertainty of a woman’s position in society remained rather ambiguous. It is strongly believed that the first feminist art production began in the late 1960s, during the “second wave” of feminism in the United States and England. The previous wave, known as the “first wave”, is what helped this art practice take place and earn its own term. 

Some historians and feminist scholars argue that the concept of “Feminist Art” also encapsulates the 18th century and 19th century feminist’s, who were in fact, a part of the feminist movement even if the concept itself was not wildly known at the time. It is commonly believed that during the mid-19th century when women’s disenfranchisement was rife, no feminist art was produced. Of course, there were female artists before the 1960s creating art that expressed and discussed the female body, ideas of domesticity and their personal experiences. For instance, Louise Bourgeois and Eva Hesse created artwork centralised around these ideas, yet they did not identify with the term feminist as it had not yet been conceived. The concept of Protofeminism anticipates modern feminism eras when the feminism concept was still unknown. This refers to times before the 20th century, but the exact precise usage is disputed.

….But what actually constitutes feminist art? Is it more than just a conversation through visuals that helps the viewer question certain constraints that women face? To give you an idea, the avant-garde cubism movement of the early 20th century used a three dimensional technique and had distinct intentions for the viewer, indeed there were different approaches but ultimately the visuals were cubist. Naturally I wondered to myself… what makes feminist art feminist, beyond the idea discussed in the image. Is there a formula that a feminist artist has to follow and if so, what is that formula?

In my research, I have found that feminist art is a multi-disciplinary movement, meaning that there is no singular medium or style that defines Feminist art. Being such a versatile subject for these artist’s helps the movement expand and grow into different styles. The movement is constantly evolving and has little to no constraints visually. With it not being limited by any medium and only discussing issues surrounding the female psyche, body and sexuality, Feminist art has ultimately unified women who identify with one another and this has helped with the creation of creative places of nurture for those who feel marginalised without these I don’t believe Feminist art would have made such an impact so quickly. This all goes hand and hand and has a butterfly effect, female artists would still today be struggling to find recognition from their male counterparts if this movement was absent from our society today. 

To give you a better idea surrounding this concept, the “second wave” feminist artists developed on the concepts that Protofeminist artists created by coupling their artwork and experience to further the feminist movement and include a wider visual vocabulary to help describe their goals. A great example of this is in New York City during the 1970s, when there was an intransigent gallery and museum establishment and female artists were extremely concerned about equal representation within the industry.

Several women’s art organisations were formed such as the Art Worker’s Coalition, Women Artists in Revolution (WAR) and the AIR Gallery, to address Feminist artists’ rights and issues within the community. Organisations such as these protested at museums such The Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney, who unfortunately more than always exhibited male artists more frequently than their female counterparts and clearly put equal representation at the wayside. During this time the Feminist community continued to protest the Whitney Annual (a large exclusive event celebrating American art) and this led to a rise in the number of women artists presented from ten percent in 1969 to twenty-three percent in 1970.

The seventies saw female artists, such as Judy Chicago, create new and separate spaces for women’s art, rather than fighting the male dominated establishment. The Feminist Art Program at the California Institute of the Arts, founded by Chicago and Miriam Schapiro, helped female artists practice with one another and expand on these concepts surrounding Feminist art. Chicago continued further and organised, along with Sheila Levrant de Bretteville and Arlene Raven, the Feminist Studio Workshop (FSW). This was a two-year program for women in the arts that also contained a gallery space, a cafe, a bookstore and offices for a feminist magazine among others resources. As these spaces became more available for women during the “second wave”, so did more concepts and forms of Feminist art. 

As the Seventies ended and the conservatism of the Reagan and Thatcher administrations entered the eighties, Feminist artists started to take on more of psychoanalytical and Postmodern theory by which they examined the body in a more intellectually removed manner than the embodied female experience which dominated the art of times past. The continuation and expanding definition of feminist art, although not always aligned, expressed the need for women’s equality. The Guerrilla Girls, best known for fighting sexism and racism in the art world by performing and protesting at various venues while wearing gorilla masks, took Feminist art in a new direction by plastering posters all over New York and eventually buying advertising space for their imagery. Mass communication was a theme used by many, including Jenny Holzer and Barbara Kruger, who drew on the visual vocabulary of advertising and the distillation of complex political statements into catchy slogans.

As discussed before, the movement itself is evolutionary and thus the artworks continue to evolve with it. Unlike other movements such as Impressionism and Cubism, Feminist art is not constrained by a time period because the preface is based on Feminism. I believe that such civil and social issues like Feminism are ambiguous to a time period being applied and could continue on until the end of our days as creative humans. So when thinking about what constitutes feminist art there is no real answer, you must just look at the time period and see what popular themes arose then and how it progressed visually based on the discussions surrounding the movement at that time. For artists such as Barbara Kruger, the embellishment of advertising played a massive role in her production of artworks and much like with Tracey Emin and her collaboration with Louise Bourgeois (who is considered a the Protofeminist) saw an explosion of old and new themes arise.

So where to from here for Feminist art? One could only assume that the digitalisation of art through NFT’s and other new routes will introduce a new and exciting practice that could help with the Feminist movement as whole. I am certainly excited for the movement to progress forward positively in my lifetime. I am hoping to see new ideas and artworks come from it. Hopefully with the use of the internet we will see the expansion of common beliefs and ideas that will help progress the Feminist movement and collapse any disparities between sexes and minorities. You never know, an artwork may influence the idea for an old law to be overtaken by something more progressive for today. It wasn’t so long ago that women were viewed as property for men and now our intellectual property helps break those barriers that once had us caged.