Historically, we probably cannot find a female artist that matches up to Michelangelo or Da Vinci primarily because women were excluded from training as artists- especially when it came to studying the human body and thus having to see a nude model. Towards the end of the 1960s, the feminist art movement emerged during a time where the idea that women were fundamentally inferior to men was criticized- especially in the art world. In "Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists" Linda Nochlin wrote, “The fault lies not in our stars, our hormones, our menstrual cycles, or our empty internal spaces, but in our institutions and our education”. Through various media, women artists brought to light a patriarchal history in which the majority of the most famous works of art were made by men and made for men. After the 1960s, we begin to see the birth of new media and the gradual decline of gender discrimination in art.
While feminist art history conventionally starts in the 1960s, history also recognizes aspects of feminist art starting much earlier than the 1960s and 1970s. Feminist art is quite simply, a feminist that makes art. Though it is purportedly a term that hinges on the consciousness of feminist art theory.
According to the dictionary definition, the word feminist was coined around 1852, and meant “feminine qualities. ” Shortly thereafter it came to mean the modern/contemporary intonations held in “feminist art.” There are several research articles alluding to specific writers/artists around this time:
Mina Loy, author of the feminist manifesto, worked with Peggy Guggenheim in 1923 to create lamp shades, glass novelties, and paper-cut outs. In 1936 she created found object collages in New York City.
There is a feminist art movement that began in the 1970s, but this is a less broad category than the term “feminist art,” and so the origins of feminist art can be re-defined both in the sense of language, and by acknowledgement beginning— at the least— around the late 1800s.
Lucy R. Lippard stated in 1980 that feminist art was "neither a style nor a movement but instead a value system, a revolutionary strategy, a way of life."
Before the 1960s, the majority of female artwork did not portray feminist content in the sense that it did not address nor criticize the conditions women had to face historically. For the most part, women were the subjects not the artists. Historically, the female body was regarded as being an object of desire for the pleasure of men. In the early 20th century we see works that flaunted female sexuality- the pin-up girl being a good example. By the late 1960s however, there was a plethora of feminine artwork that broke from the tradition of depicting women in a sexualized fashion.
In order to gain recognition, there was a struggle for female artists to "de-gender" their work to compete in a historically male-dominated art world. If a work did not "look" like it was made by a woman, then the stigma associated with women would not cling on to the work itself, thus giving it its own integrity. For instance, In 1963 Yayoi Kusama created Oven-Pan- part of a larger collection of works she referred to as the “aggregation sculptures”. As with other works from that collection, Oven-Pan takes an object associated with women’s work- in this case a metal pan- and completely covers it with bulbous lumps of the same material. Here we see an early feminist example of female artists finding ways to break from the traditional role of women in society. Having the lumps made from the same color and material as the metal pan completely takes away the pan's functionality, and- in a metaphorical sense- its association with women. The protrusions remove the item’s gender by not only removing its function of being a metal pan women would use in the kitchen, but by also making it ugly. Before this era, common female work consisted of “pretty” and decorative things like landscapes and quilts whereas now the artwork has become bold- even rebellious.
Towards the end of the decade, progressive ideas criticizing social values began to spring up in which the mainstream ideology that had come to be accepted was denounced as not being neutral. It was also suggested that the art world as a whole had managed to institutionalize within itself the notion of sexism. During this time there was a rebirth of various media that had been placed at the bottom of the aesthetic hierarchy by art history, such as quilting. To put it simply, this rebellion against the socially constructed ideology of a woman’s role in art sparked the birth of a new standard of the female subject. Where once the female body was seen as an object for the male gaze, it is now regarded as a weapon against said socially constructed ideologies of gender.
In the case of Yoko Ono’s 1965 work, Cut Piece, performance art begins to gain popularity in feminist artwork as a form of critical analysis on societal values on gender. In this work, Yoko Ono was seen kneeling on the ground with a pair of scissors in front of her. One by one, she invited the audience to cut a piece of her clothing off until she was eventually left kneeling in the tattered remains of her clothing and her underwear. This intimate relationship created between the subject (Yoko Ono) and the audience addressed the notion of gender in the sense that Ono has become the sexual object. By remaining motionless as more and more pieces of her clothing are cut away, she reveals a woman’s social standing where she is regarded as an object as the audience escalates to the point where her bra is being cut away.
During the 1970s, feminist art continued to be a tool for challenging the position of women in the social construct. The aim was for women to reach a state of equilibrium with their male counterparts. Judy Chicago coined the term feminist art. Her work, The Dinner Party, emphasized this idea of a newfound female empowerment through the use of turning a dinner table-an association to the traditional female role- into an equilateral triangle. Each side has an equal number of plate settings dedicated to a specific woman in history. Each plate contains a dish. This served as a way of breaking the idea of women being subjugated by society. Looking at the historical context, the 1960s and 1970s served as a prominent era where women began to celebrate new forms of freedom. More women joining the work force, legalization of birth control, fight towards equal pay, civil rights, and the famous Roe v. Wade action to legalize abortion, was reflected in artwork. Such freedoms, however, were not limited to politics.
Traditionally, being able to expertly capture the male/female nude on canvas or in a sculpture reflected a high level of achievement in the arts. In order to reach that level, access to nude models was required. Men were given that privilege while women were forced to focus their attention of “decorative” art due to the fact that it was viewed as improper for a woman to see a naked body. With the 1970s, however, the fight towards equality extended to the arts in which more and more women began to enroll in art academies. For most of them, their goal was not to paint like the traditional masters but rather to learn the techniques and manipulate them in a way that challenged traditional views of women.
Photography became a common medium used by feminist artists. It was used, in many ways, to show the “real” woman. For instance, in 1979 Judith Black took a self-portrait depicting her body in all its glory. It showed the artist with her aging body and all her flaws in an attempt to portray herself as a human being rather than an idealized sex symbol. Hannah Wilke also used photography as her way of expressing a non-traditional representation of the female body. In her collection called S.O.S- Stratification Object Series in 1974, Wilke used herself as the subject topless with various pieces of chewed gum in the shape of vulvas arranged throughout her body as a way of metaphorically demonstrating how women in society are chewed up and then spit out without a second thought.
At this time, there was a large focus on rebelling against the “traditional woman”. With this came the backlash of men- and even women- who felt as though their tradition was being threatened. To go from showing women as glamorous icons to showing the disturbing silhouettes of women-translated as an imprint left behind by the victims of rape- in the case of Ana Mendieta, underscored certain forms of degradation that popular culture failed to fully acknowledge.
While Ana Mendieta’s work focused on a serious issue, other artists, like Lynda Benglis, took a more satirical stance in the fight towards equality. In one of her photographs published in Artforum, she is depicted naked with a short haircut, sunglasses, and a dildo positioned in her pubic region. Some saw this radical photo as “vulgar” and “disturbing”. Others, however, saw an expression of the uneven balance between the genders in the sense that her photo was critiqued more harshly than her male counterpart, Robert Morris, who posed shirtless with chains around his neck as a sign of submission. At this time, the depiction of a dominant woman was highly criticized and in some cases, female art depicting sexuality was perceived as pornographic.
Unlike Bengalis’ depiction of dominance to expose inequality in gender, Marina Abramovic used subjugation as a form of exposing the position of women in society that horrified rather than disturbed the audience. In her performance work Rhythm 0 (1974), Ambramovic pushed not only her limits, but her audience’s limits as well, by presenting the public with 72 different objects ranging from a feathers and perfume to a rifle and a bullet. Her instructions were simple; She was the object and the audience could do whatever they wanted with her body for the next six hours. Her audience had complete control while she laid motionless. Eventually they became wilder and started violating her body- at one point one man took the pistol with the bullet and had it aimed at Ambramovic hoping she would pull the trigger. After the six hours, she began to move and the public got into a frenzy and ran away in fear. As if they could not come to terms with what just happened. In this emotional performance piece, Ambramovic depicts the powerful message of the objectification of the female body while at the same time unraveling the complexity of human nature.
In 1975, Barbara Deming founded The Money for Women Fund to support the work of feminist artists. Deming helped administer the Fund, with support from artist Mary Meigs. After Deming's death in 1984, the organization was renamed as The Barbara Deming Memorial Fund. Today, the foundation is the "oldest ongoing feminist granting agency" which "gives encouragement and grants to individual feminists in the arts (writers, and visual artists)".
Although feminist art is fundamentally any field that strives towards equality among the genders, it is not static. It is a constantly changing project that "is itself constantly shaped and remodeled in relation to the living processes of women's struggles". It not a platform but rather a "dynamic and self-critical response". The feminist spark from the 1960s and 1970s helped to carve a path for the activist and identity art of the 1980s. In fact, The meaning of feminist art evolved so quickly that by 1980 Lucy Lippard curated a show where "all the participants exhibited work that belonged to 'the full panorama of social-change art,' though in a variety of ways that undercut any sense that 'feminism' meant either a single political message or a single kind of artwork. This openness was a key element to the future creative social development of feminism as political and cultural intervention."
In 1985, the Museum of Modern Art in New York opened a gallery that claimed to exhibit the most renowned works of contemporary art of the time. of the 169 artists chosen, only 13 were women. As a result of this, an anonymous group of women investigated the most influential museums of art only to find out that they barely exhibited women art. With that came the birth of the Guerrilla Girls who devoted their time to fighting sexism and racism in the art world through the use of protest, posters, artwork and public speaking. unlike the feminist art before the 1980s, the Guerrilla girls introduced a bolder more in-your-face identity and both captured attention and exposed sexism. Their posters aim to strip the role that women played in the art world prior to the feminist movement. In one case, painting "La Grande Odalisque" by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres was used in one of their posters where the female nude portrayed in the painting was given a gorilla mask. Beside it was written "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". By taking a famous work and remodeling it to remove its intended purpose for the male gaze, the female nude is seen as something other than a desirable object.
The critique of the male gaze and the objectification of woman can also be seen in Barbara Kruger's "Your gaze Hits the side of my face". In this work we see the a marble bust of a woman turned to its side. The lighting is harsh, creating sharp edges and shadows to emphasize the words "your gaze hits the side of my face" written in bold letters of black red and white down the left side of the work. In that one sentence, Kruger is able to communicate her protest on gender, society, and culture through language designed in a way that can be associated with a contemporary magazine, thus capturing the viewer's attention.
In the 1970s, society started to become open to change and people started to realize that there was a problem with the stereotypes of each gender. Feminist art became a popular way of addressing the social concerns of feminism that surfaced in the late 1960s to 70s. The creation and publication of the first feminist magazine was published in 1972. Ms. Magazine was the first national magazine to make feminist voices prominent, and make feminist ideas/beliefs available to the public and supported the works of feminist artists. Like the art world, the magazine used the media to spread the messages of feminism and draw attention to the lack of total gender equality in society. The co-founder of the magazine Gloria Steinem coined the famous quote, “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle,” which demonstrates the power of independent women; this slogan was frequently used by activists.
Lucy R. Lippard argued in 1980 that feminist art was “neither a style nor a movement but instead a value system, a revolutionary strategy, a way of life.” This quote supports that feminist art effected all aspects of life. The women of the nation were determined to have their voices heard above the din of discontent, and equality would enable them to obtain jobs equal to men. Art was a form of media that was used to get the message across; this was their platform. Feminist art would support this claim because the art began to challenge previously conceived notions of the roles of women. The message of gender equality in feminist artworks resonates with the viewers because the challenging of the social norms made people question, should it be socially acceptable for women to wear men’s clothing?
The magazine and the rise of feminism occurred during the same time feminist artists became more popular, and an example of a feminist artist is Judy Dater. Starting her artistic career in San Francisco, a cultural hub of different kinds of art and creative works, Dater displayed feminist photographs in museums and gained a fair amount of publicity for her work. Dater displayed art that focused on women challenging stereotypical gender roles, such as the expected way women would dress or pose for a photograph. To see a woman dressed in men’s clothing was rare and made the statement of supporting the feminist movement, and many people knew of Dater’s passionate belief of equal rights. Dater also photographed nude women, which was intended to show women’s bodies as strong, powerful, and as a celebration. The photographs grabbed the viewers attention because of the unusualness and never-before-seen images that do not necessarily fit into society.