Feminist Art: “The Personal as Political”

Georgia O’Keefe, “Ram’s Head White Hollyhock and Little Hills”, 1935

Can there really be one art movement that stands out from the rest? Which do you think the chief curator at the Museum of Modern Art and a New York Times art critic would name as the most influential art movement in the postwar period?

Did you guess the Feminist Art movement? Didn’t think so.

I was surprised, too. After all, feminism was more a political movement to me than an artistic one and even as an artistic one, it would seem likely that the political message took prominence. Yet, it is argued by curators and art directors alike that the feminist art of the seventies “changed everything”. Feminism, according to Blake Gopnik of The Washington Post, brought the message in line with the medium. It defied the minimalism of modernist abstraction and the universality of Pop Art to bridge the artistic and the political. So what is it about Feminist Art that makes it so lauded yet so underappreciated at the same time?

The reason why feminist art has remained lesser-known despite powerful figures like Barbara Kruger, Cindy Sherman and Judy Chicago is due to something they cannot change: their feminism. The overwhelming masculinity of the art world, dating from the pre-Renaissance era where art studios were off-limits to women (except as models, of course), has permeated into the modern context. The current rat race of the art world, with its marketing-obsessions and constant struggle to be the Next Big Thing feels harder compared to the artistic ideal of elevated ideological meaning in artwork. In the midst of a testosterone-fuelled industry, it is no surprise that women artists struggle to be taken seriously, wrestling with the stigma of “emotional” or “feminine” approaches to art, not least when their subject matter is that very stigma.

Little wonder then that there have been no great women artists, leading feminist art historian Linda Nochlin declares. She argues that the question of a great woman artist in itself is sexist, implying that for one, women are not capable of greatness, and that two, there are essential feminine qualities that make female greatness different from male greatness. Nochlin dismisses the possibility of lasting artistic difference between the sexes, pointing out the masculinity of the work of Georgia O’Keeffe, Artimisia Gentileschi, Berthe Morisot and Rosa Bonheur and with equal measure, the sensitive, delicate approach of Fragonard, Redon and Corot.

“The personal as the political” is an emblem of the feminist movement and as seen from Barbara Kruger’s emblematic captioned pieces that embody the personal struggles of women, (“Your body is a battleground”, “You destroy what you think is difference”, “Your comfort is my silence”) the feminist art movement as well. The tongue-in-cheek approach of Kruger, Judy Chicago and Lilith Adler contrasts with the sombre grittiness of Victoria Van Dyke and Cindy Sherman’s later works, although the message is always deadly serious. The nature of their feminist message however works against them, and often are dismissed as sensationalistic, or provocative. Yet it is precisely that risquéness the feminist art movement wants to convey, that catches your attention and pulls you in whilst whispering its messages of equality and reproductive rights, equal parts feminist and feminine.

Gender stereotypes remain deeply ingrained in the art world as well. Recent surveys on women artists have revealed that female artists earn roughly three quarters the amount male artists earn, and whilst women make up nearly half (46%) of the individuals working in the art sector, they are severely underrepresented, an optimistic example being art by women artists making up 11% of the solo exhibitions at the Guggenheim. Artists like The Guerilla Girls offer up commentary on this with their colourful, gorilla-clad prints and snappy captions like “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum?” and “The advantages of being a woman artist: not having to be in shows with men”. One might argue that this is not art, but was an upside-down urinal or Brillo boxes? Indeed, art may be the most ideal platform on which to express feminist sentiments, merging a hard message with a softer delivery. Still there is the question of the feminist art movement being taken seriously not only by the art world but the general public as well, and this looks unlikely to happen in the near future.

Despite being described as “the most influential international movement in the postwar period”, it appears that the art world has merely taken the package and left behind the essence of the feminist art movement. The elevation of the artistic message is pervasive in artwork all over the world now, yet the feminist message remains in the shadows. Lucy Lippard described the movement as built around “a value system, a revolutionary strategy, a way of life” and it was “neither a style nor a movement” and this was perhaps why it was ignored. If it had been able to mask the feminism with artistic values, it might have perhaps been given more merit albeit undermining the movements entire purpose. As it is, by ignoring the core message of the movement, it was treated the way real-life feminism has oft been regarded, tolerated, at times scorned, but largely ignored.

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