Ahhh… nothing like the second wave of feminism to fire up the engines of the feminist art movement.
The feminist art movement kicked off full throttle during the second wave of feminism (1960s – 1980s), sparked by the civil and gay rights movements and anti-war demonstrations. Feminist artists during this era had a mission — to change the contemporary world they were in by emerging into the established art world and changing everyday social interactions. The goal of feminist art was to impact and transform cultural attitudes and stereotypes. This art, and the entire movement, generated spaces and opportunities for women that didn’t exist beforehand.
Feminist art asserts sexual and gender differences with emotional, physical and mental differences, while giving women an opportunity to assess, understand and share these findings. Before this movement, when men dominated the world of fine art, the work of female artists would go unheard and unaccepted. Artwork created to demonstrate the fight for women’s rights had been around for centuries. However, it was the feminist art movement that brought attention to women’s inequality in the male-dominated art world. The artwork of this era was not created for aesthetic admiration purposes; the whole point of it is to showcase the world from a female’s perspective and to urge people to question societal and political standards and situations, and how to step towards equality and change.
In 1969 in New York, women left the Art Workers’ Coalition because it would not protest on behalf of minorities and female artists. They ended up forming a group called Women Artists in Revolution (WAR) and protested museums such as The Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney, which barely exhibited female artists, if at all. New York Women in the Arts also organized protests against gallery owners for not exhibiting women’s art. Due to the protests, the percentage of female artists featured at the Whitney Biennial rose from 10% in 1969 to 23% in 1970.
In California, female artists during this time mainly worked to create spaces for feminist art instead of protesting male-dominated establishments. Co-founders of the California Institute of the Arts’ Feminist Art Program, Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro, organized Womanhouse, a project launched in 1972 that included various on-site installations and artworks by female artists. Womanhouse was a collaborative space of exploration. Students worked together on exhibits, performance art and raising attention to the art movement, drawing crowds and national publicity.
In 1973, Judy Chicago, Sheila Levrant de Bretteville, and Arlene Raven produced the Feminist Studio Workshop (FSW). FSW was a two-year program for women in the arts that taught feminist studio practice, theory and criticism. The program was a part of the feminist mecca, a.k.a. the Woman’s Building in Los Angeles, which was created by feminist artists as an inclusive space for all women in the community, and had gallery space, a cafe, a bookstore and offices for a feminist magazine.
It’s important to distinguish that not all female artists are feminist artists. Artists of the feminist art movement created art specifically to raise awareness for the severe injustice and inequality women experienced in the art world and society as a whole.
Mary Beth Edelson
Being a pioneer of first-generation feminist artists, Mary Beth Edelson was a staple of 1960s art. She’s been an activist from the beginning of her career, having organized the first National Conference for Women in the Visual Arts in 1972. She also produced a group performance titled Proposals for Memorials to 9,000,000 Women Burned as Witches in the Christian Era (1977) at the A.I.R. Gallery, which was the first gallery to showcase all-female artwork. Edelson created her famous Leonardo da Vinci-Esque mural, on which she placed the heads of notable female artists in place of the original men. This work of art is quite possibly one of the most iconic pieces during the time period, challenging the male-dominated art world while also taking on the male-dominated world of religion.
Yoko Ono, an artist known for her relationship with John Lennon, created an interactive artwork titled Cut Piece. Cut Piece was a performance hosted in Japan where not only Ono challenged the neutrality of the relationship between the viewer and the art object, but she demonstrated how viewing without responsibility can harm or destroy the art piece. She sat on the floor in a traditional Japanese pose with scissors in front of her. She allowed strangers to cut whatever they wished. Some passively cut a sleeve or the hem from her skirt while others cut her blouse and her bra straps. Being a well-known activist and artist, Ono’s Cut Piece brought national and international attention. The act loudly protested violence against women and was one of the first kinds of art to bring the spotlight on women’s rights. It also addressed gender by Ono becoming the object rather than the subject in the piece, showing what is being done to her.
Ana Mendieta, a Cuban-American performance artist, painter, sculptor and video artist, is best known for her jarring work. One of her most recognized pieces is a photograph depicting a rape scene in 1973, in response to the highly publicized rape and murder of Sara Ann Otten that took place at Mendieta’s college, the University of Iowa. Rape Scene is an extremely confrontational and graphic work – it’s a private performance that Mendieta staged in her apartment for a group of her fellow students, posing as the seminude, bloodied victim of a sexual assault. This work is related to the feminist agenda on the issues of violence against women and defenselessness. Mendieta confronts viewers with a realistic representation of traumatic events, imploring them to assess their emotions and to take a stand.
Judy Chicago, the founder of the first feminist art program in the United States, not only started up an important establishment for women (The Woman’s Building), but she also created some of the most important icons of 70s feminist art. Womanhouse was born in 1972 – it was a collaborative installation that Chicago and Schapiro created with their students, transforming an abandoned building into a house representing women’s experiences. The Dinner Party, which is an epic massive ceremonial banquet arranged on a triangular table with 39 plate settings. Each setting commemorates an important woman from history. The settings consist of gold cups, utensils, and porcelain plates with raised central motifs that are based on vulvar and butterfly designs and are styled appropriately to each individual woman being honored. On the tile flooring below the table, 999 other important women are commemorated by having their names inscribed in gold.
Lynn Hershman Leeson
Internationally acclaimed artist and filmmaker Lynn Hershman Leeson has been labeled as one of the most influential media artists in history and is known for her innovative work that investigates the relationship between women and society, humans and technology and identity and surveillance. From 1973 to 1976, Leeson abandoned her identity and became Roberta Breitmore. She started this by wearing a blonde wig, a face full of makeup and developed a different way of moving about the world. She undertook real-life activities such as opening a bank account, getting a credit card, dating men, renting an apartment and seeing a psychiatrist. Breitmore placed ads in local newspapers seeking a roommate and received 43 responses. She interacted with 27 of those people. Breitmore had her own sense of style and makeup, walk, handwriting, gestures and speech mannerisms. During the fourth year of the performance, Breitmore multiplied into four other people appearing in her guise. Her act ended in 1978 in Ferrara, Italy where she underwent an exorcism ritual in the crypt of Lucrezia Borgia, where she was transformed through the elements of earth, water, fire and air. Through her work and performances, Leeson explored the constructed society of identity within females and molded a new identity being through the costumes, technologies and new behaviors that all women adopt.
Ewa Partum is a poet and artist whose work provokes questions about gender issues and female identity. Partum was involved in WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution, due to her work in the feminist art movement in the 70s and 80s. Her artwork tackled society’s beauty standards. In her performance piece Change, done on camera and in front of an audience, she had a makeup artist apply makeup to half of her body to age her. With this piece, she addressed the beauty standards created and enforced by men and addressing the ideology of women becoming undesirable as they age. Eventually, she placed the image of her half-aged face on posters and spread it around socialist Poland, having the statement “My problem is the problem of a woman” transcribed onto the posters.
Once blacklisted and disregarded by feminists and art critics alike, Betty Tompkins is now one of the most influential artists from the second wave of feminism. Her early work in the 70s, which included large scale photorealistic paintings of heterosexual intercourse, was practically unknown until it was exhibited for the first time in New York in 2002. Her provocative paintings demonstrated a response to the issues women faced in the business, art and real world. Her feminist-identified imagery and artwork manifested an unsung precursor to contemporary involvement with explicit sexual and transgressive imagery.
As the second wave of feminism continued to forge forward, feminist art activists became bolder with their approach in order to emphasize the inequalities in the art market. One of today’s most recognizable art collectives was created, bringing together second wave feminist artists who were discouraged by the progress of women in the arts. Known for their gorilla masks and bold protest art, the Guerilla Girls banded together in 1985 after protesting an exhibition called An International Survey of Painting and Sculpture at the MoMa in New York. The show premiered 148 men, 13 women and no artists of color. They had a mission of bringing gender and racial inequality into the spotlight within the art community. In 1989, they gathered facts from the Met’s public collections and revealed that female artists produced less than 5% of the artwork in the Modern Art Department while 85% of the artwork displayed were female nudes. These feminist activist artists exposed gender and ethnic bias and corruption in all professional fields such as art, film and politics. They continue to practice today (all anonymously) and believe in an intersectional feminist ideal that supports human rights for all people.
The women mentioned are only some of the feminist artists that played with the ideas of gender, identity, and societal standards. They used performance art, video and other artistic expressions that would eventually become significant in the Postmodernism era. Rather than idealizing the conflict of individual vs. society, Feminist Art put connectivity on the pedestal and viewed the artist as part of a whole society, not separate from it.
It’s been debated as to what Feminist Art was exactly – was it a stage in art history or was it a complete shift in the way art was done? It’s even been compared to and described as Surrealism, being that Feminist Art is a certain way of making art and not art that is just seen. Whatever it may be, there is no doubt that the Feminist Art Movement was a part of changing the course of women’s history for the better.