Editorial Feature

What Is The Feminist Art Movement?

Its origins, its impact and what it looks like today

The term “feminist art” gets bandied about a lot, often as a way to neatly categorize an artist’s work or even as a reason to dismiss it. But what is feminist art and what sparked a generation of artists to use their work to discuss the inequalities women had faced for centuries?

What is feminist art?

Put simply, feminist art is art by artists created consciously in light of developments in feminist art theory in the early 1970s.

Though it’s hard to pinpoint, it’s thought that art historian Linda Nochlin’s essay titled, Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists? first sparked the debate when it was published in 1971. In the piece she investigated the social and economic factors that had prevented talented women from achieving the same status as their male counterparts.

Building on that idea were parts of John Berger’s well-known book Ways of Seeing in 1972, which, among other things, explored the differences in representation of men and women. Berger concluded: “Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at”. So, essentially, Western art was replicating the unequal relationships already embedded in society.

The Dinner Party by Judy Chicago, 1974-79 (From the collection of Brooklyn Museum)

So with this enlightenment what happened next?

As what’s sometimes known as first wave feminist art, women artists began to create work that dealt with the feminine experience. Nothing was off limits and many artists explored vaginal imagery, menstrual blood, body art, conceptual films and using techniques like embroidery, which had previously been dismissed as “women’s work”.

One of the most iconic works of this period is Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party, as seen above. The installation saw 39 place settings arranged along a triangular table for various mythical and historical women. The piece functioned as a symbolic history of women in Western civilization and you can see a test place setting that the artist created for author Virginia Woolf below.

As well as creating new work, women artists were increasingly growing in their activism, looking towards challenging the systems in place. In New York City, women artists gathered together and created art organizations like the Art Worker’s Coalition, Women Artists in Revolution (WAR) and the AIR Gallery, that specifically addressed feminist artist rights and issues.

These groups protested museums like The Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art, which exhibited few women artists. And their action worked, with protests of the Whitney leading to a rise in the number of women artists presented going from 10% in 1969, up to 23% in 1970.

Virginia Woolf test plate for The Dinner Party by Judy Chicago (From the collection of National Museum of Women in the Arts)

How did the movement develop?

Going into the 1980s a shift began in terms of the subject matter being explored in feminist art. It seemed as though the era of radical idealism was coming to a close, with feminist artists rejecting the approach of embodying female experience and instead attempted to reveal the origins of our ideas of femininity and womanhood. Using psychoanalysis, feminist artists pursued the idea of "femininity as a masquerade" – a set of poses adopted by women to conform to social expectations of womanhood.

While the definition of feminist art was expanding and becoming different things, what unified the work created within the movement was a belief in the need for women’s equality, both in the the arts community and the wider world.

The Guerrilla Girls, formed in 1985, epitomized this and they became known for fighting against sexism and racism in the art world by protesting, speaking and performing at various venues while wearing gorilla masks and using pseudonyms to avoid the repercussions of speaking out. This piece below titled Women in America Earn Only 2/3 of What Men Do confronts the gender pay gap in America. As well as the discrepancies between men and women, it highlights the even bigger gap between men and women in the arts.

Women in America Earn Only 2/3 of What Men Do by Guerrilla Girls, 1985 (From the collection of Pomona College Museum of Art)

The Guerrilla Girls took feminist art in new directions by forcing the public to engage with their work, placing posters all over New York and then buying dedicated advertising space for their images. The Guerrilla Girls used humor, factual information and clean design to express their political message succinctly.

Other artists who used mass communication in their work during the 80s and 90s were Jenny Holzer and Barbara Kruger. Both used punchy graphics and drew upon the vocabulary of advertising by using catchy slogans to illustrate their points. Below is Kruger’s piece, Untitled (It's a small world but not if you have to clean it) from 1990, which pokes fun at the sexist notion that women are only interested in household chores. The magnifying glass intensifies the woman’s stare and by using personal pronouns like “you” (which Kruger does a lot in her work), she implicates the viewer and forces them to address traditional gender roles.

For this new breed of artists it was less about pointing out the differences between men and women - the hallmarks of feminist art in the 70s - and more about dismantling male-dominated social perceptions.

Untitled (It's a small world but not if you have to clean it) by Barbara Kruger, 1990 (From the collection of Public Art Fund)

What does the feminist art movement look like today?

The dawn of feminist art expanded the definition of art and created a new wave of work that continues to influence artists today.

The progress made by previous generations of feminist artists has meant that many contemporary creatives working in the 21st century no longer feel the responsibility to identify as “women artists” or openly address a woman’s perspective in their work. Rather many artists produce working the focused on their individual concerns as opposed to a general feminist message.

Madonna (Self-Portrait) by Cindy Sherman (From the collection of SCAD Museum of Art)

This can be seen in the work of artists like Tracey Emin or Cindy Sherman, whose self-portraits take on the role of iconic stereotypes and questions the male gaze. While Sherman doesn’t identify as a feminist artist herself, her practice grew from and is connected to the first and second generation of feminist artists. Other artists like Kara Walker, an African-American painter and printmaker, takes the conversation further by incorporating themes of race, violence and sexuality within her work.

In 2008, feminist art was given its first major retrospective at The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. The show, WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution featured over 120 works from artists and groups all over the world. It demonstrated that the movement has had just as much impact on the work of artists as other movements like Impressionism or Pop Art. Whether or not female artists identify with the feminist art movement, it's important to recognize the way the movement gave women the impetus to create work that they can identify with.

A Subtlety by Kara Walker, 2014 (From the collection of Creative Time)
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