What is feminist art? In the early 1970s, artists, critics, and his­ torians who were part of the feminist movement believed that, like the women’s movement itself, art made by feminist women represented a radical new beginning, a Part Two in the history of Western culture to complement the largely masculine history that would now become Part One. The goal of feminism, said early spokeswomen, was to change the nature of art itself, to transform culture in sweeping and permanent ways by introduc­ ing into it the heretofore suppressed perspective of women.1 In the new world order that would follow —Part Three —there would be gender balance in art and culture, and “universality” would represent the experiences and dreams of both females and males.

Twenty years later, we may smile at so utopian a vision, hav­ ing learned that there is no such thing as a singular female perspective; that not all art by women is feminist, not even all art made by women who are feminists; having lived to see the Feminist Art movement of the 1970s contextualized by critics and historians as just another avant-garde movement followed by other movements; and finding ourselves in a period that is chillingly (to feminists) called “postfeminist,” in which self- defined feminist art continues to be made, but in forms that dif­ fer radically from their 1970s predecessors.

How then do we situate the Feminist Art movement on the broader stage, conceptually and historically? Is it merely another phase of avant-garde? Or is it not, rather, to borrow a phrase that has been used to describe the cultural climate of the 1960s, “one of those deep-seated shifts of sensibility that alter the whole terrain”?2 The feminist critic Lucy R. Lippard argued persuasively in 1980 that feminist art was “neither a style nor a movement,” but instead “a value system, a revolutionary strat­ egy, a way of life,” like Dada and Surrealism and other nonstyles that have “continued to pervade all movements and styles ever since.”3 What was revolutionary in feminist art, Lippard ex­ plained, was not its forms but its content. Feminist artists’ insistence on prioritizing experience and meaning over form and style was itself a challenge to the modernist valorization of “progress” and style development: “in endlessly different ways,” wrote Lippard, “the best women artists have resisted the tread­ mill to progress by simply disregarding a history that was not theirs. Thus the agenda of feminist art could not be subsumed into that of modernism, and the very appearance of feminist art as early as 1970 was a distant early warning that modernism, and its theoretical commitment to formal values alone, was des­ tined to become a finite historical stage, in this case to be replaced by postmodernism.

Feminist art and art history helped to initiate postmodern­ ism in America. We owe to the feminist breakthrough some of the most basic tenets of postmodernism: the understanding that gender is socially and not naturally constructed; the widespread validation of non- high art” forms such as craft, video, and per­ formance art; the questioning of the cult of “genius” and greatness in Western art history; the awareness that behind the

claim of universality” lies an aggregate of particular stand­ points and biases, leading in turn to an emphasis upon pluralist variety rather than totalizing unity.4

These conclusions could be reached because feminism had



Grace Hartigan. Grand Street Brides. 1954. Oil on canvas,

72 x 102 1/2″. The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.

Gift of an anonymous donor




The deep-seated shift brought about by the Feminist Art move­ ment of the 1970s concerns more than just the perspective of modernism vs. postmodernism. The movement was also a major watershed in women’s history and the history of art. Until c. 1970, there had not yet existed a self-conscious and univer­ salizing female voice in art-self-conscious in articulating female experience from an informed social and political position, and universalizing in defining one’s experience as applicable to the experience of other women: “the personal is political,” in the 1970s slogan. From the sixteenth through the eighteenth cen­ turies, women artists had worked in relative cultural isolation, grouped together by men’s classification rather than by choice. Even in the nineteenth century, though some women artists par- ticipated in social movements, feminism and art had not yet jotned forces Kathe Kollwitz, fellow socialists were no, femi­ nists. Paula Modersohn-Becker’s band at Worpswede was not a feminist group. In nineteenth-century France, many women art-

joined m promoting a “l’art feminin” that defined the femi­

nine in art according to the principle of “separate spheres,” yet these women were frequently at odds with political feminists, and the “feminine” art that they championed was defined by so- cietally- and self-imposed gender stereotypes that turned out to be limiting, conservative rather than progressive.7 In the wake of the Arts and Crafts movement in England, women worked to advance the status of woman-identified arts such as needlework, but advancing the social status of women was not an overt part of the movement’s agenda.8

In America, women’s support of other women was mani­ fested at the Philadelphia Centennial of 1876, which boasted the first all-female exhibition space in its Women’s Pavilion and, more dramatically, in the Woman’s Building in the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, which was created to­ tally by women, from its architect, sculptors, and muralists to the women from all nations who submitted arts and crafts. Yet suffragists objected to the Women’s Pavilion on grounds of class (Elizabeth Cady Stanton complained that working class women were not represented, and the exhibits did not expose woman’s “political slavery”).9 The Chicago Woman’s Building, with its murals of Primitive Woman by Mary F. MacMonnies and Modern Woman by Mary Cassatt, embraced to some degree the agendas of both suffragists and conservative women, thanks to chief or­ ganizer Bertha Palmer’s insistence on their common cause, but the factions remained separate and opposed.10 Perhaps the nearest model for the union of art and feminist politics was the banner imagery produced in England at the turn of the twen­ tieth century to support the suffragist movement. Yet its prac­ titioners did not form an art movement nor did they challenge or seek to reform existing categories and hierarchies of art.11

As the twentieth century wore on, many women artists found circumstantial opportunities to exhibit and develop their work—for example, the circle of Alfred Stieglitz (in which women photographers were active), the WPA projects of the 1930s, the Surrealist movement —but the women in these groups did not especially identify with each other, and the groups in no way provided them with feminist structures for their art. In­ deed, the Surrealist group did the very opposite. There, the concept of the Femme-Enfant, the “Woman-Child,” was extolled as ideal and muse by the men of Surrealism, who regarded woman as the incarnation of spontaneity and innocence, un­ trammeled by reason or logic, and therefore naturally in touch with intuitive knowledge and the world of dreams and the imag­ ination. Surrealism thus exalted the female, but the female imprisoned within a world of childhood and immaturity. And it perpetuated Western culture’s dichotomous equation of woman with nature and the intuitive, and man with culture and the cerebral, thereby celebrating—according to the values of pa­ triarchal society—a relationship of inequality.12


Although women had increasingly swelled the enrollments of ar schools in the United States during the first half of the twen­ tieth century, very few had been able to make the crucial

created a new theoretical position and a new aesthetic category—the position of female experience. In so doing, it reduced what had previously been considered universal in art to its actual essence: the position of male expertence. Quick to fol- low were the modifiers-not just male experience but white male experience, and then heterosexual white male experience. And once any given work of art was understood to proceed out of and be shaped by specific conditions of gender, race sex­ uality, or class, it became equally clear that audiences a so responded to art out of their own conditioning, i.e„ the art we find most compelling is art with whose maker we share a basis of common beliefs or experience. If it is commonplace in our postmodern era to speak of pluralism and diversity, and if more attention is paid in art publications today to art that arises from a rainbow of races and ethnicities and that addresses social con­ cerns rather than formalist progressions, that is something feminism helped to bring about.

It was the Feminist Art movement, with its politically force­ ful reinstatement of figurative imagery, portraiture, and the decorative, that forced an expanded definition of modernism and opened up new avenues of expression to male as well as to female artists. Yet, ironically, postmodernism’s definition and cri­ tique of modernism as a sterile and reductive formal language lacking in rich content was based uncritically upon modernism’s self-definition as pure and transcendent of all lesser values, a self-definition that was, in turn, based upon the systematic de­ nial of the contributions of women to the history of twentieth- century art. Feminist art history, through its rediscovery of the oeuvres and “different voices’’5 of neglected women artists such as Paula Modersohn-Becker, Frida Kahlo, Alice Neel, Louise Bourgeois, and many others, has revealed that diversity and plu­ ralism were in reality a far greater part of the modernist movement than either modernism or postmodernism (intent on defining itself in opposition to the modernist “other”) has per­ mitted us to see.6



Sophia G. Hayden. The Woman’s Building, World’s Columbian

Exposition, Chicago, 1893. Main gallery, with Mary Cassatt’s

mural, Modern Woman. Courtesy the Chicago Historical Society

transition from amateur to professional status. The best-known exception was, of course, Georgia O’Keeffe, whose public image, to her own dismay and distaste, had been managed by her hus­ band and dealer, the photographer Alfred Stieglitz, to conform to a male observer’s sexualized notion of what a “real” wom­ an and her art would be like.13 In the 1930s, New Deal art programs such as the WPA afforded women artists an unprece­ dented opportunity for professional employment and identity under conditions that were theoretically egalitarian, but that were still limited by societal assumptions about the cultural su­ periority of male experience and the male point of view as the appropriate foundations for the making of art.14

The narrow window of opportunity for women artists that had briefly opened during the economic hard times of the 1930s quickly snapped shut again in the forties, with the emer­ gence of the critical apparatus that supported the Abstract Expressionist movement and its macho mystique —to which

women artists were automatically denied access. Such an artist was Lee Krasner (a.k.a. Mrs. Jackson Pollock), whose teacher Hans Hofmann, in the late 1930s, paid her work what was then considered a compliment: “This is so good that you would not know it was done by a woman.”15 Like many women artists in the circles of the Surrealists in the 1930s and the Abstract Ex­ pressionists in the 1940s, Krasner took on the time-honored role of “wife of” and support of a male artist who was soon to be­ come better known than she, and in whose shadow she lived until the Feminist Art movement of the early 1970s forced her “rediscovery.”16 Nina Leen’s famous documentary photo of “The Irascibles” says it all (page 16). Among these fourteen men, whose names are all today a familiar part of the saga of Ab­ stract Expressionism, there is only one woman, the painter Hedda Sterne, about whose work we know only that it had been characterized disparagingly by Clement Greenberg in a review of 1944 as “a piece of femininity.”17 Her unfamiliar name, given




Helen Frankenthaler. Mountains and Sea. 1952. Oil on canvas, 86% x 117 1/4″. Collection the artist, on extended loan to

the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Helen Frankenthaler. Small’s Paradise. 1964. Acrylic on canvas,

100×93 5/8″. National Museum ot

American Art, Smithsonian Institution,

Washington, D.C. Gift of George

L. Erion



Lee Krasner. The Seasons. 1957-58. Oil on canvas,

92% x 203%”. The Whitney Museum of American Art. © The

Estate of Lee Krasner


Joan Mitchell. No Rain (diptych). 1976. Oil on canvas, 110 x 158″. © The Estate of Joan Mitchell. Courtesy Robert

Miller Gallery, New York



The Irasdbles. 1951. Photograph by Nina Leen. From top left,

clockwise: Willem de Kooning, Adolph Gottlieb, Ad Reinhardt,

Hedda Sterne, Richard Pousette-Dart, William Baziotes, Jackson

Pollock, Clyfford Still, Robert Motherwell. Bradley Walker Tomlin,

Theodoras Stamos, Jimmy Ernst, Barnett Newman, James

Brooks, Mark Rothko. Life Magazine, © Time Inc.

no gloss in subsequent annals of the movement, would no doubt be lost to us today were it not for this amazing photograph, in which she is positioned, like the traditional female muse or alle­ gorical personification of the art of painting, to hover above and behind the men, from whom she is thus emphatically distin­ guished and to whose group she is clearly not meant to belong.

But despite limited opportunities in general for women art­ ists to make a name for themselves during this period, by the late 1950s, a few, such as Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, and Helen Frankenthaler, had been able to achieve unusual visibility and recognition in the art world as “second-generation Abstract Expressionists,” in part because they had cast themselves—and were being cast by critics—as disciples and followers of the inno­ vative male founders of the radical but by then established Abstract Expressionist movement. Stereotyped in the critical press as imitators of the styles of men and as jealous rivals for the favors of male mentors, these women had to pay a price for membership even on the peripheries of this all-boys’ club, and that price was isolation, especially from one another. In response to the question, What was it like to be a woman in the macho 50s?”, Joan Mitchell told an interviewer in 1985: “Do you mean, am I a feminist? I am. But I really like painting, whoever does it. The men helped me more than the women. It’s still a small world for women and they’re cutthroat with each other. At that time, the galleries wouldn’t carry more than, say, two women. It

was a quota system.”18 And in a 1975 interview, Miriam Schapiro commented on her relationships with other women art­ ists in the 1950s:

Joan Mitchell, Grace Hartigan, Jane Freilicher, Jane Wilson and Helen Frankenthaler were all friends and still are. We never discussed problems of ambition and ruthlessness. The spirit of the times did not permit such frankness—woman artist to woman artist. We identified and had camaraderie more on the basis of being women than on the basis of being artists. . . . When Helen and I were together . . . we never discussed our paintings. We were in the same gallery and didn’t discuss our work.”19

Women artists in the 1950s and 1960s suffered professional isolation not only from one another, but also from their own his­ tory, in an era when women artists of the past had been virtually written out of the history of art. H. W. Janson’s influen­ tial textbook, History of Art, first published in 1962, contained neither the name nor the work of a single woman artist. In thus excluding women from the history of art, Janson followed an approach that had already been established in such earlier twentieth-century art history textbooks as David Robb and J. J. Garrison’s Art in the Western World and E. H. Gombrich’s The Story of Art. But over the next two decades, it was Janson’s book that became the focus of indignation for a generation of college- educated Americans who had been startled by feminism into questioning the assumption, implicit in Janson’s omissions, that women never had made nor ever could make art that was aes­ thetically or historically significant. Janson himself later justified his actions in qualitative terms. “I have not been able to find,” he said in 1979, “a woman artist who clearly belongs in a one- volume history of art.”20 It was in the context of such program­ matic cultural and historical exclusion that feminist artists such as Mary Beth Edelson, in her memorable poster of 1971, Some Living American Women Artists/Last Supper, and Judy Chicago, in The Dinner Party of 1979 (page 227), were motivated to cre­ ate imagery that would literally bring women artists, for the first time, to the table of history.

In the pre-feminist 1950s and 1960s, it was rare indeed for a woman artist to find any place at all in the narrative of mod­ ernism. And when she did, her position was not defined as that of an innovator (although she may have been one), but as a facil­ itator of the work of the male artists who followed her. This pattern in the criticism was established early on for Helen Frankenthaler, whose stained canvas, Mountains and Sea of 1952, was given canonical status by Clement Greenberg, when he told of how the experience of seeing it had caused Morris Louis to “change his direction abruptly.”21 Greenberg positioned Frankenthaler not as the innovative leader of a new school of painting, but as a precursor, a link between the first generation of male Abstract Expressionists and the male painters of the Washington Color School, thereby providing her with the only credentials that would at that time have allowed her inscription, albeit marginally, into the annals of art “his-story.”

Abstract Expressionism glorified a “virile” art, whose very potency and purity depended on its practitioners’ rejection of



Mary Beth Edelson. Some Living American Women Artists/

Last Supper. 1971. Offset poster. Left to right: Lynda Benglis,

Helen Frankenthaler, June Wayne, Alma Thomas, Lee Krasner,

Nancy Graves, Georgia O’Keeffe, Elaine de Kooning, Louise

Nevelson, M. C. Richards, Louise Bourgeois, Lila Katzen, Yoko

Ono. Border: 67 other women artists. Courtesy the artist

and struggle to achieve transcendence over the female-gendered world of nature. The women artists associated with the first and second generations of that school professed allegiance to its principles. However, consciously or unconsciously, they devel­ oped for themselves a range of personal imagery that—as later feminist artists and critics, in search of foremothers, were quick to point out—appears to have challenged the established para­ digm: the taste, for example, for landscape metaphors in the work of Frankenthaler and Mitchell; the egg, breast, and plant forms, and the procreative metaphors that became central to the iconography of Lee Krasner’s work from the late 1950s on; or the predilection for figuration and for an iconography that often draws upon the life experiences and roles of women in the art of Grace Hartigan.

The question of how—or whether—the fact of being female had in any way affected the style or the content of these women’s art was a question that was increasingly foregrounded by femi­ nist criticism in the 1970s. And for those women artists of an older generation, who had long struggled to negotiate their fe­ male identities and to find acceptance as “artists” pure and simple, within and despite what Lee Krasner would later de­ scribe as “the misogyny of the New York School,”22 it was an explosive and uncomfortable issue that bred both confusion and

anxiety. Reactions ranged from Frankenthaler’s adamant refusal to be associated or categorized in any way with “women artists” and their issues23 to Krasner’s touching openness and willing­ ness to enter into a dialogue with a much younger generation of radical feminists. When students working with Miriam Schapiro in the Feminist Art Program at CalArts in 1975 asked Krasner to send them a “letter stating the intentions of your art” for in­ clusion in their book, Art: A Woman’s Sensibility, she replied, with an implicit awareness of their concerns: “I try to merge the organic with the abstract—whether that means male and female, spirit and matter, or the need for a totality rather than a separa­ tion are questions I have not defined as yet.”24

Among the women of the New York School, Grace Har­ tigan, who exhibited her works under the name George Hartigan until 1954, has been the most vociferously resistant to feminist readings. Understandably fearful, as many women of her generation were, of being ghettoized and stereotyped as a woman artist —i.e., as something lesser—Hartigan has consis­ tently maintained that she faced no discrimination and that she was, in effect, simply one of the boys. Of her reasons for adopt­ ing a pseudonym, she has said: “It had absolutely nothing to do with the feeling that I was going to be discriminated against as a woman. It had to do with a romantic identification with



Grace Hartigan. Bread Sculpture. 1977. Oil on canvas, 76 x 92′. Courtesy C. Grimaldis Gallery, Baltimore



George Sand and George Eliot.”25 Although Hartigan formed her style in the late 1940s on the model of the painterly abstrac­ tions of Pollock, de Kooning, and Kline, by 1952 she started to turn away from “pure” abstraction and began a lifelong quest for a meaningful iconography. At first inspired by the street life of New York’s Lower East Side—the “vulgar and vital in Ameri­ can modern life” as she then put it26— and attracted, perhaps unconsciously, by the rituals of women’s lives, their dignity as well as their emptiness, she painted Grand Street Brides in 1954, inspired by the dressed-up mannequins in a bridal shop window (page 11). The increasing independence and fertility of inven­ tion in her work over the next decades is exemplified by Bread Sculpture of 1977, whose seemingly whimsical imagery, derived from a book that describes what can be made out of dough, stresses maternal icons and fertility goddesses and plays on the idea of creating art out of the materials of basic human sustenance.

When faced in the 1970s by inevitable feminist comparisons between her own interpretations of women and those of her mentor de Kooning, Hartigan resisted readings of female identi­ fication in her own work and of misogyny in de Kooning’s, adamantly defending the universality of his art (and by exten­ sion. her own). To Cindy Nemser’s suggestion that “the way you portrayed women is very different from de Kooning’s violent in­ terpretations of women,” she replied, vehemently but evasively:

I disagree with you. The violence is in the paint. De Kooning’s women are very loving. . . . When those first women—those fif­ ties women—were shown, I had a big argument with Jim Fitzsimmons, who is now the editor of Art International. He said that they were destructive, that it was hatred, Kali the blood goddess. He pointed to one painting that had big palette knife strokes slithering across the chest and said, “Look, de Kooning is wounding her with blood.” So I went to Bill and I said, “Jim Fitzsimmons said that you stabbed that woman and that is blood.” Bill said, “Blood? I thought that it was rubies. ”27

And to Nemser’s comment on Grand Street Brides that “it’s inter­ esting that you picked up on that particular ritual. It is one that women are trying to come to terms with today,” Hartigan aban­ doned her previously professed fascination with the “vulgar and vital in American modern life” and countered: “I really hadn’t thought of it. I was really thinking of Goya and Velasquez, of that empty ritual of the court, all of the trappings . . .”28

Even a younger artist like Eva Hesse—who came to promi­ nence in the late 1960s in a proto-feminist critical context, sin­ gled out by Lucy Lippard who emphasized her predilection for circles, soft materials, veils, layering, and repetition—even Hesse struggled uncomfortably with feminist as opposed to main­ stream formalist readings of her work,29 When asked by Nemser in a 1970 interview if some of her forms had male and female sexual connotations, she quickly retorted: “No! I don’t see that at all. I’m not conscious of that at all or not even uncon­ scious. I’m aware they can be thought of as that even in the process of making them, but I am not saying that.”30 And about the meaning of the circle in her art, she said: “I think the circle

Eva Hesse. Ringaround Arosie. 1965. Pencil, acetone varnish,

enamel, ink, glued cloth-covered electrical wire on papier-mache

on Masonite, 26 3/8 x 16’ 1/2 x 4 1/2″. © The Estate of Eva Hesse.

Courtesy Robert Miller Gallery, New York

is very abstract. I could make up stories about what the circle means to men, but I don’t know if it is that conscious. I think it was a form, a vehicle. I don’t think I had a sexual, anthropomor­ phic, or geometric meaning. It wasn’t a breast and it wasn’t a circle representing life and eternity.”31

Today, in the 1990s, women artists of the pre-feminist and post-feminist generations are being, in the first instance, crit­ ically resurrected and in the second, given critical priority over the feminist generation of the 1970s. The result is to bolster and restore the very art-historical and critical metanarrative that the feminist generation had threatened to disrupt. The art of such pre-feminist women as Louise Bourgeois, for example, is assimil-



Louise Bourgeois. Femme-Maison. c. 1947. Ink on paper,

9’/8×35/b”. Private collection. Courtesy Robert Miller Gallery New York

able today by the mainstream only to the extent that it can be understood to have internalized the man-centered focus of the traditional woman. Bourgeois’s work, writes New York Times critic Michael Kimmelman, “deals with sexual identity” and “is about polarities-male and female, aggressive and passive.”32 Resurrected now after decades of neglect (she was the only woman to be included in the Guggenheim Museum’s inaugural show for its Soho branch in 1992, selected at the last minute to counter and forestall further objections to that show’s tradi­ tionalist all-male lineup), Bourgeois’s intuitive and perversely metamorphic imagery is being used and positioned critically to prop up the old stereotypes rather than to challenge them, and she herself is being used as a role model to support the relega­ tion and confinement of women artists to work that “deals with sexual identity” in its most limited and limiting dualistic sense.

This strategy and these readings are not new ones. As Whitney Chadwick has observed of Bourgeois’s Femme-Maison paintings of 1946-47: “Although Bourgeois pointed to the home as a place of conflict for the woman artist, critics [at the time] read the paintings as affirming a natural’ identification between women and home.”33 Today, what is genuinely radical and re­ bellious about Bourgeois’s woman-centered art is being further submerged by a mainstream criticism that wants to bend her into being a “link” between masculinist movements. There is cer­ tainly great irony in the fact that Bourgeois is now being described, in Kimmelman’s words, as “a link to the European roots from which postwar American art sprang,” since, having been marginalized and ignored all these years, she could hardly have played an influential role for America’s mainstream male artists, even though her related work and strategies do in many instances predate theirs.

In recent years, in fact, following the pattern that Green­ berg established for Frankenthaler, and as part of the ongoing backlash against feminism that was begun in the 1980s, we have seen a continuation and escalation of critical attempts to reposi­ tion some of the most prominent of the pre-feminist women artists, so that they may now be seen as “links” between male- dominated movements. For example, Hartigan’s art, with its pre­ dilection for figuration and aversion to the false posturing of gestural abstraction, has come to be seen—and rightly so—as a threat to the historical integrity of Abstract Expressionism, whose self-definition and position in the normative canon have been closely dependent upon the exaltation of the macho ges­ ture. At first relegated to the deviant category of the movement’s second generation,” Hartigan has twice been repositioned by

critics in the eighties and nineties in ways that seem designed to distance her from the sacrosanct movement that her “different voice might threaten to taint. In the 1980s, there was a brief effort to make her into a forerunner of the so-called New Ex­ pressionism in the art of Julian Schnabel, David Salle, and others—a connection that she vigorously rejected.34 And in 1993, her work, long ignored by the New York art world, was featured prominently in an exhibition at the Whitney Museum entitled Hand-Painted Pop: American Art in Transition, 1955— 62, where it was offered up as a “link” between Hartigan’s be- loved Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art, a movement that she had always scorned and despised.35



And when Lee Bontecou’s canvas and wire wall reliefs of the sixties are shown again today, after long banishment from mainstream galleries and museums, we read, predictably, that “Bontecou’s reliefs fall between and link major art movements— Abstract Expressionism of the 1950s and Pop Art and Minimal Art of the 1960s.’’36 We hear nothing of the multiple meanings that these works held in the 1970s, either for the women artists who identified “the large, velvet lined cores of Bontecou’s work” with “the central cavity of the female and thus the female her­ self,”37 or for the male critics who, from their own point of view, imposed on them a related but very different kind of sexualized meaning, as emblematic of the threatening vagina dentata. Miriam Schapiro has recently said of Bontecou’s works: “They were not sexual in the ways the men were then saying. Many of these works were about living in the world and being menaced by war. It was unusual at the time she produced them for women to express anger and rage in art. Women’s rage is fright­ ening to men, and so they metamorphosed it into the conventional idea of the vagina dentata, creating a myth that could contain the power of women’s anger. Bontecou’s work was hot for a time, but then she was driven out of the art world.”38

This persistent and escalating relegation of pre-feminist women artists to the no-man’s land of “linkage” is in part an in­ evitable result of the continuing refusal (on the part both of the critical establishment and many of the women themselves) to ac­ knowledge gender as a relevant factor and category of analysis in the framing of the history of mainstream modernism. Never­ theless, the fact remains that these women and their art can never be comfortably accommodated within the structures of the male-dominated and male-defined movements in which they originally worked —unless or until we are willing to acknowledge the historical existence within these movements of the different voices of women, and to modify our characterization of modern­ ism accordingly.

Lee Bontecou. Untitled. 1961. Welded steel and canvas,

72 x 66 x 25”. The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York


Women artists of the feminist generation differed from the women artists of the fifties and sixties most of all in the deliber­ ate grounding of their art in their socialized experience as women and —the corollary of that position —in their acceptance of women’s experience as different from men’s but equally valid. In exposing for open consideration what had previously been hidden or ignored, they connected —for the first time, in a con­ scious way —the agendas of social politics and art. The key principle was consciousness-raising, defined by women’s move­ ment theorists as a “method of using one’s own experience as the most valid way of formulating political analysis.”39

Accordingly, early feminist artists advocated reliance upon the self as the sole source of knowledge, and while Hartigan or Krasner would not have disagreed with that principle, the differ­ ence was in the level of sociopolitical awareness about what a female self was. Feminist artists asserted a new position for “woman” in art, as subject rather than object, active speaker and not passive theme. And although many earlier women artists might have supported that goal (even the conservative advocates



of l’art feminin), the difference was that 1970s feminists were no longer so clear about the nature of female identity, realizing that it was up to them to redefine it. Thus, while the seventies femi­ nist artist was acutely aware of the artificiality and repressive power of what would later be called “the social construction of gender,” her problem was to find, within a self already badly warped and damaged by social roleplaying, an authentic voice that might serve as a basis for a new and “liberated construc­ tion of female identity.

Women of the 1970s discovered that, in today’s parlance, the inner self was a realm already socially inscribed, when they found that there was no way for a woman whose consciousness was being raised to answer the question, “Who am I? outside the frame of reference of her gender. The invention of personas and the exploration of roles so prevalent in early feminist art were, on one level, a way of examining the relation between fe­ male roles and the inner self, and of clarifying their differences. Their construction of fantasy roles (Eleanor Antin, Lynn Hershman; see pages 168 and 167) and their sometimes delib­ erately childlike play (The Dollhouse at Womanhouse; see Raven, page 65) may be instructively compared with something like Claes Oldenburg’s Ray Gun series of 1960-62, whose imaginary hero, based on comic book heroes like Buck Rogers, is a magic “ray gun.” Both forms of art concern fantasy life, but with the critical distinction that feminists were self-conscious about the gender dimensions of their roleplaying. whereas Oldenburg could not imagine a frame of reference outside masculinity (even when, in retrospect, his subject begs for it). Oldenburg’s magically empowered alter-ego holds New York at bay—a comic hero with real bravado, whose dream is phenomenal personal power.40 Yet for feminist women, the romantic construct of the self vs. society did not hold up. Through feminism, women were among the first to arrive at the realization that the self may only exist within social framing, and so the cliche of the individual vs. society, which had been a male myth all along, was brought into question by feminist women, who now saw the categories as not only interdependent but also problematic.

It was the achievement of feminists to articulate that very problem in art. In the words of Judy Chicago, the agenda for women artists was “to transform our circumstances into our sub­ ject matter … to use them to reveal the whole nature of the human condition.”41 Instead of asking, “Who am I?,” they posed a new question, “Who are we?,” as if only by exploring the shared, collective “circumstances” of women could individual women come to understand themselves as human beings. One of the first areas of circumstantial identity to be explored was the female body. Artists such as Faith Ringgold, Adrian Piper, and Eleanor Antin sought to reclaim women’s bodies from the societal straitjacket of sex-objecthood through semiplayful explo­ ration of dieting and fasting, ways in which social expectations literally shaped the female body. From the early 1970s, feminist artists understood their task to be, in the words of Lisa Tickner, ‘the de-colonizing of the female body,” reclaiming it from mas­ culine objectification.42 Carolee Schneemann, in her memorable Interior Scroll performance, attempted the metaphoric transfor­ mation of the female body from passive object to speaking agent. Other artists created body images for the female viewer_

Sylvia Sleigh, in her witty inversions of male/female roles; Hollis Sigler, Janet Cooling, Harmony Hammond, Terry Wolverton, and others, in images and performances directed to the lesbian gaze. Joan Semmel sought gender balance through images of men and women in bed together, “sensuality with the power fac­ tor eliminated,” as Semmel described them.43 And other feminist artists redrew the male body as negative cultural sig- nifier: Nancy Spero, May Stevens, Judith Bernstein, whose phallicized images of helmets, bombs, and screws defined the phallus as sign of power long before Jacques Lacan’s similar (but not similarly critical) theory was known in the United States.

Other feminist artists reclaimed the ancient Great Goddess through images, rituals, and performance art in an effort to re­ establish a female dimension that has long been largely missing in world religions. Their enterprise, which paralleled that of feminist theologians, aimed to replace the “masculine archetype, characterized by the mind-body duality,”44 with mind and mat­ ter reintegrated. For feminist artists, as in ancient times, the earth is identified as the body of the Great Mother, and through the use of their own bodies in nature-sited rituals, artists like Ana Mendieta, Mary Beth Edelson, Donna Henes, Betye Saar, and Betsy Damon forged a new way to affirm the connection be­ tween microcosm and macrocosm. In asserting their own sense of connection with matrifocal ancient cultures, these artists were less interested in reinstating female procreativity as a cosmic principle than with changing the gender-distorted relationship between humans and nature that has been a hallmark of pa­ triarchy, to emphasize the wholeness of a nonhierarchized continuum between nature and culture. In these respects, the legacy of the work of Goddess artists lies in the growing con­ temporary concern for the environment, the ecology movement, and in the quest for the renewal of spiritual meaning in modern society. In this spiritual current of feminist art, as in others, the focus is upon “we” and not “I.”

As feminist artists explored female experience and identity through their art, they created and addressed a new audience. Lucy Lippard has argued that feminist art replaced the modern­ ist “egotistical monologue” with a dialogue—between art and society, between artist and audience, between women artists of the present and those of the past—and with collaboration as a creative mode.45 The feminist position is that (in Lippard’s words) “art can be aesthetically and socially effective at the same time,” by contrast to the masculinist avant-garde model, in which the creative isolation of the artist, out of touch with so­ ciety, is highly valued. Feminist art is instead deliberately pitched to a public and social context, and as Lippard says, is “characterized by an element of outreach, a need for connec­ tions beyond process or product, an element of inclusiveness.”

Hence, collaborative art, performance art, environmental art—not exclusively but predominantly feminist forms in the 1970s and 1980s—had in common structures that transcended the individual, whether through rituals that connect modern feminism with ancient myth, or through social protest aimed at affecting public policy. Within the feminist movement, women of color led the way in creating effective forms of social protest art—from Faith Ringgold’s tireless activism in the late sixties, fighting racism and sexism simultaneously, to the Wall of Respect



for Women, a product of multicultural collaboration by Tonne Arai and other artists in New York City, itself a monument to feminist collaboration. In the mural projects of Las Mujeres Muralistas in San Francisco, as in the citywide performance art projects of Suzanne Lacy and others in Los Angeles, a broader connection between art, community, and social policy was forged.

Also, in the late 1970s and 1980s, women artists became in­ creasingly prominent in the field of public art in the United States—an involvement that may seem paradoxical, given the traditional association of women with the private sphere and men with the public. But in an era when Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc had become a symbol for an old-fashioned attitude that saw artistic freedom as superior to and irreconcilable with the needs of the public, an era when the public’s acceptance of the art that invaded its spaces could no longer be taken for granted, the in­ volvement of women artists in a multitude of publicly funded, large-scale, urban projects led in crucial ways to the reshaping of this entire field. Women introduced new attitudes and icon­ ographies to public art projects, in which they sought to express the self not simply as the personal “I,” but worked instead to blend the personal with the public, pointing the way toward a reconciliation of the traditional conerns of the artist with those of the community. Artists such as Alice Adams, Alice Aycock, Agnes Denes, Lauren Ewing, Jackie Ferrara, Nancy Holt, Val­ erie Jaudon, Joyce Kozloff, Mary Miss, Patsy Norvell, Beverly Pepper, Jody Pinto, Alexis Smith, Mierle Ukeles, and many, many others turned landfills into public parks, designed and decorated plazas, convention centers, schools, bridges, airports, and railroad stations. Sensitive to the social and cultural history of the sites where they had been invited to intervene, they inter­ acted closely with members of the community, worked in teams with engineers and architects, and negotiated with local govern­ ments and art agencies. “I have thought a lot about why women have such a powerful voice and presence in this field,” Joyce Kozloff has recently written. “Partly I believe [it is] because women are acculturated to the interpersonal, relating skills that public art requires. And partly because the women in the field (most of whom were in their forties in the 1980s) came to matu­ rity during the social and political movements of the sixties and seventies, and really have a passionate commitment to extending art into the real world.”46


As Kozloff’s comment suggests, feminist artists of the 1970s were highly conscious of a common thread of “women’s sen­ sibility” that seemed to run through the great diversity of their art forms. And at its best, feminist art did shape a tentative female universal out of multiple particulars, whose very differ­ ences made emergent patterns resonate. However, this high-wire fusion of the private and universalizing agendas backfired when, in the 1980s, critics singled out feminist art’s most literalist ex­ periments and proclaimed them to be “essentialist”—false universals that did not represent all women (something their creators had never claimed in the first place). French feminist critiques of Freud’s theories of femininity and his familiar dic­

tum that “biology is destiny” (“There is no such thing,” wrote Helene Cixous in 1975, “as ‘destiny,’ ‘nature,’ or ‘essence,’ but living structures . . .”47) were applied to visual representation by British feminist film theorists such as Laura Mulvey, Pam Cook, and Claire Johnston, who saw as anethema to feminism the idea of a historically unchanging feminine essence.48 By 1980, femi­ nist art criticism had begun to identify feminist art that focused on the female body with a wrongheaded belief in a “female es­ sence residing somewhere in the body of woman.”49

But even from the beginning, first-generation feminists had been criticized for what would later be called “essentialism.” Writing in 1972 in response to an idea that was already in the air at the time, Patricia Mainardi disclaimed the notion of a “feminine sensibility” in art, resisting the implicit restriction of women’s art to the realm of female anatomy, when men had a wider range of expressive possibility, with “the freedom to be sensitive and delicate or strong and bold … to make art out of their loves and hates, their politics and religion.”50 For women, said Mainardi, “the only aesthetic freedom worth fighting for is the freedom to do the same.” Without naming names, Mainardi spoke of a “right wing of the women artists’ movement” that was “codifying a so-called ‘female aesthetic,”’ an implied indictment of Judy Chicago’s centralized-core imagery, which became ex­ plicit in a critique written by Cindy Nemser a year later. Nemser reported that in 1971, Chicago, fresh from her Fresno teaching, was answering the frequently asked question—was there a women’s art distinct from men’s art?—with her theory of “Cunt Art,” a case for (in Nemser’s description) “an intrinsic fe­ male imagery created out of round, pulsating, ‘womb-like’ forms.”51 Nemser denounced this theory, and in later writings she adduced the diversity and range of contemporary women’s art to argue against any too narrowly defined aesthetic for women’s art in general.52

The ur-text for the aesthetic credo that had been formu­ lated by Chicago and Schapiro was an article co-authored by the two artists in March 1972, and published in Womanspace Journal the following year. “What does it feel like to be a woman?,” they asked. “To be formed around a central core and have a secret place which can be entered and which is also a passageway from which life emerges? What kind of imagery does this state of feeling engender?”53 The artists went on to point to some of the “many women artists [who] have defined a central orifice whose formal organization is often a metaphor for a woman’s body”: Georgia O’Keeffe, whose “haunting mysterious passage through the black portal of an iris” was “the first recognized step into the darkness of female identity” (page 26); Lee Bontecou, whose im­ ages of vaginal central cavities present female identity as both active and passive (page 26); Louise Nevelson and her boxes, Deborah Remington’s eggs, Schapiro’s “centralized hollows,” and Chicago’s “central core images.”54

What the critics saw as potentially confining women to their biological identity, Schapiro and Chicago saw as a means of lib­ erating women from negativizing attitudes about female anatomy and their own bodies. They cautioned, in fact, that the “visual symbology” they described should not be seen sim- plistically as “vaginal or womb art,” but rather as the framework for an imagery that would reverse the loathing and devaluation



of female anatomy in patriarchal culture. The woman artist could take “that very mark of her otherness and by asseiting it as the hallmark of her iconography, [establish] a vehicle by which to state the truth and beauty of her identity. ” It was in this spirit that they had embraced the derogatory sexual term “cunt,” traditionally used by men to alienate women from their own sexuality, with the goal of reclaiming a female descriptor and transforming it into a celebratory term.

In seeking to reinstate a positive view of femaleness through frank celebration of the female body and its biological powers, Chicago and Schapiro anticipated the approaches of certain feminist writers of the period who also later came to be denounced as essentialist, especially Mary Daly and Adrienne Rich. Daly claimed that “female energy is essentially biophilic,” while Rich described the female body—its diffuse sensuality, lunar-timed menstruation, its power to give birth—as having “far more radical implications than we have yet come to appreci­ ate.”56 Rich noted what Chicago and Schapiro had earlier observed: “Patriarchal thought has limited female biology to its own narrow specifications. The feminist vision has recoiled from female biology for these reasons; it will, I believe, come to view our physicality as a resource, rather than a destiny.”57

In part, the emphasis on the biological and sexual in early feminist art must be understood against the historical back­ ground of the severe repression of women’s sexuality in the 1950s and 1960s. Heterosexual women were not encouraged to experience their bodies directly, but only as they were perceived and used by men and children. Young women were taught to value their bodies as a trophy to give or withhold (officially, only the latter) in response to male desire, and, after marriage, as the vehicle for wifely duty. Female sexual pleasure was framed and mediated by constructs of “good girl vs. bad girl,” chastity vs. shame. Given the centuries of indoctrination of women in the determinism of their biological identity, it is not surprising that in the early seventies feminist artists should have taken their first rebellious step by challenging the most repressive category—the sexual. Indeed, they may have made the most radical move pos­ sible when they asserted the power to define their sexuality in art on their own terms, not men’s. Thus they openly celebrated the female body from an experiential viewpoint, exploring their and society’s attitudes about the body, and proclaiming female organs—through “cunt” imagery—as metaphoric emblems of women’s independent power and freedom from male dominance.

First-generation feminists reexamined what “female” meant, not in an effort to limit it to a biological essence, but rather, to test the culturally constructed definitions of the “feminine” that they knew. In Chicago’s Cock and Cunt play performed at Woman- house in 1972, “HE” and “SHE” sport giant cloth penis and va­ gina appendages, conspicuously attached to their natural bodies as foreign materials. When HE tells SHE that “A cunt means you wash the dishes,” she looks at her appendage and says, “I don’t see where it says that on my cunt.” From a position of com- monsensical self-knowledge, and with the subversive power of humor, Chicago and her students ridiculed gender roles in hu­ man anatomy (thereby challenging the Freudian construct that biology is destiny ), and mocked the social definitions of what

belongs “naturally” to the sphere of the female.

The CalArts students who created Womanhouse were guided by the theory-in-formation of their teachers Chicago and Schapiro, but because as a matter of process, consciousness- raising and self-examination preceded artmaking, individual so­ lutions were grounded in experience rather than theory. For this reason, the art produced by the students could not be essential­ ist because it did not claim that level of generalization. Yet Schapiro and Chicago themselves theorized a “central core im­ agery” that did aim to establish a certain universalizing formal iconography for women, and whose potential scope could be demonstrated in the recurrence of centralized forms in women’s art. When this thesis was taken up for consideration by Lucy Lippard in her introduction to the “Women Choose Women” ex­ hibition of 1973, critical reaction escalated, and charges of what would later be called essentialism began to be heard in every quarter, especially from women artists.58 In fact, in her very brief remarks, Lippard herself had entertained the thesis of women’s special predilection for centrally focused images only in a tentative and exploratory way, noting that she had observed in women’s art made in 1970-71 certain recurrent preoccupations, such as “a uniform density, or overall texture, often sensuously tactile and repetitive to the point of obsession; the prepon­ derance of circular forms and central focus (sometimes contradicting the first aspect) … a new fondness for the pinks and pastels and the ephemeral cloud-colors that used to be taboo unless a woman wanted to be ‘accused’ of making ‘femi­ nine art.”59

By 1973, however, what Lippard had observed in women’s studios, a large sample of which was included in the “Women Choose Women” exhibition, could no longer be regarded as a pure product of the female unconscious unmediated by feminist theory. The choice of pinks and pastels, fruit and vaginal imag­ ery, eggs and breasts, on the part of women artists connected to each other through their common awareness of the broader women’s movement was a political act, a defiance of the conven­ tions that had made it death for earlier women artists to associate themselves with forms and iconography that had been stereotypicallv and pejoratively deemed “feminine.” Traditionally feminine iconography was now reclaimed by politicized women artists to serve the cause of feminist art. And thus, paradoxically, while the raging debate within feminism in the period between 1970-75 was about whether or not women’s art could be defined in absolute terms, emerging feminist consciousness in an ever- broadening spectrum of artists was making it impossible to identify a “pure” woman artist who could be said to have a fe­ male essence untouched by feminist ideas. Increasingly, women’s art was distinguished both by the use of female-identified forms in a self-conscious way and by resistance to the idea that women should use such forms.

The 1970s debate about women’s art was consistently mis­ directed to the question of “whether” rather than “how” women used certain forms. For example, critics of essentialist theory correctly pointed out that both men and women have used bio- morphic or centralized imagery—Hepworth but also Moore and Arp, O’Keeffe but also Dove and Baziotes, Chicago but also Johns and Noland. Indeed the centralized-core form has as­ sumed an archetypal status in art, Jungian or otherwise,



recurring in Neolithic stone circles, medieval manuscripts, Gothic rose windows, and Renaissance central-plan churches, to name hut a few. This recurrent archetypal structure, which may or may not he gender-specific, seems to be deeply embedded in the human psyche. However, each age provides a different theoretical justification for its use—theology for Gothic and Re­ naissance art (in different ways), Freudian psychology for Surrealism, and feminism for Chicago and Schapiro. Similarly, both male and female artists in the 1960s and 70s used central form imagery, yet the question to be posed is not whether the form language is essentially female or male, but, rather, what is signified when that form language is used by women or men.

In this case, the categoric female is appropriate. In 1974, Judy Chicago observed, “I’d say the difference between Pasadena Lifesavers and a [Kenneth | Noland target is the fact that there is a body identification between me and those forms, and not between Noland and the target. I really think that dif­ ferentiates women’s art from men’s.”60 Theorist that she is, Chicago believes that women’s art, like her own, proceeds from body identification. That many pre-feminist women artists have used centralized imagery, as Chicago and Schapiro pointed out, does not prove that all women mystically share this viewpoint. But we can say that under the influence of feminist theory in the 1970s, many women were drawn to use centralized imagery with the understanding that it is about the body, a theoretical position not taken by men as a group. (It was, in fact, not in men’s interest, as the dominant group, to define themselves as a group at all, though it was advantageous for women, like other socially oppressed groups, such as blacks and Chicanos, to iden­ tify themselves as a group in order to solidify their opposition to oppression.)

Today, the founders of feminist art do not renounce or deny their characterization as essentialist, and it is perhaps more use­ ful to further articulate the term than to resist it. We would do well to replace the term biological essentialism (which no known feminist has ever championed) with two others—cultural essen­ tialism and political essentialism — which can be historically distinguished. Cultural essentialism, roughly equivalent to what is today called socially constructed femininity, is society’s gender- stereotyped conditioning of women’s self-image and experience. It is very difficult for women to escape this conditioning, even when we want to, for we are all contaminated by past meaning. Moreover, if femininity is a social construction, then we must ac­ knowledge that women have had a role in constructing it, simply by their gradual, ever-self-implicating acceptance and perpetua­ tion of its terms.

How can women ever escape from cultural essentialism? The first step, according to early seventies feminists, was to identify its manifestations. When Judy Chicago observed about her Menstruation Bathroom at Womanhouse, “However we feel about our own menstruation is how we feel about seeing its im­ age in front of us,”61 she introduced the pragmatic view that to deal with the social construction of woman that has been im­ posed on us we have to begin by acknowledging its effects upon our psyches. And for artists, imaging is a means of discovering how one feels about such things. The young artists at Woman- house began by representing what could be called the icons of

their own oppression —lingerie, dollhouses, women’s clothing, makeup—since these familiar objects had helped to shape their identities, which were composed of gender-socialized attitudes as well as rebellious ones. Mimicking the societally ordained forms of femininity proved to be the first step of separation, of gain­ ing critical distance from that which is being mimicked. As Luce Irigaray would later observe, when women lack a language of their own outside that of the patriarchy, mimicry is the only available form of critiquing its values, of exposing “by an effect of playful repetition what should have remained hidden.”62

Although it was not then so named, cultural essentialism was recognized in (he early 1970s as the problem to which political essentialism —the deliberate celebration of culturally es­ sentialist forms—offered a solution. The claim of Schapiro and Chicago that women’s art might have common and enduring characteristics must be understood as, above all, a deeply politi­ cal claim. Its purpose was not to establish a Procrustean identity for women’s art but, rather, to help balance gender values in so­ ciety, by asserting the inherent validity of all things in women’s sphere—from vaginas to lipsticks—as fit subject matter for art. Through art made by women (which would necessarily present such things differently from men), those feminist artists believed they could, in Schapiro’s words, “redress the trivialization of women’s experience.”63 As a necessary first stage of value­ building, comparable to the “Black is beautiful” phase of the civil rights movement, it perhaps necessarily left the sorting out of what is biological and what is cultural to a later stage.

Equally political in intent—but misread as culturally essentialist—was the impulse on the part of many early feminist artists to connect with a historical female ancestry—Mary Beth Edelson with the ancient Great Goddess, Miriam Schapiro with Mary Cassatt and Frida Kahlo, May Stevens with Artemisia Gen- tileschi, Judy Chicago with all the historical guests at The Dinner Party. When Schapiro led the way in singling out for admiration the anonymous women whose art was needlework—most of all, the quilt makers—anti-essentialist critics argued that to glorify the “female” categories of art production was to “ghettoize” women’s art, by reifying modern women’s association with female-stereotyped art forms.64 However, Schapiro was not say­ ing that “female traditionalist” categories should be perpetuated, merely that they have existed historically, and that within severe social constraints, women have made a culture that deserves at­ tention, admiration, and commemoration. From this perspective, to pay homage to women’s traditional arts is not to identify with a cultural dead end; it is to honor those whose creativity took particular channels because it was prevented from taking others. And in a different-but related instance, when Schapiro and Joyce Kozloff chose to use a variety of non-Western decorative patterns (such as Islamic or Japanese) in their work of the 1970s and 80s, they did so not because women had originally invented or produced those patterns (in fact, they had not)—it was not, in other words, an embrace of biological essentialism but a cul­ turally specific challenge to it, for it was their intention to liberate an area of visual expression that had long been gen­ dered as feminine by male Euroculture and hence devalued, policed, and controlled in Western art.

Thus to incorporate references to women’s traditional arts in




Georgia O’Keeffe. Goat’s Head with Red. 1945. Pastel on paperboard, mounted on paperboard, 277/8 x 31 11/16″. Hirshhorn

Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution,

Washington, D.C. Gift of Joseph H. Hirshhorn, 1972

Lee Bontecou. Untitled. 1963. Soot and analine dye on muslin, 39 x 36″. Private collection

Rose window, north transept. 13th century. Stained glass.

Chartres Cathedral, France




one’s own contemporary an was not only to make creative use of devalued but still aesthetically viable forms and ideas, but also to make political use of them in order to engage the dominant male culture dialectically. In reviving the art and rituals of their foremothers, feminists gave those forms new life and status in the cultural order by challenging the value system that had sub­ ordinated them. But feminists of the early 1970s were not colonial quilters or Neolithic earth mothers, they were largely urban, educated, middle-class women. Their desire to pay hom­ age to their female forebears was already a historicization of their identification with female tradition, and if they then brought those genres, tastes, and values into “high art” in mod­ ern culture, it was in the spirit of a revival that aided the creation of something distinctly different. As Walter Pater said about classical revivals, “we can’t be Greeks now’.”65 The classical analogy is apt on another level, because just as the forms and values of classical antiquity were rev ived in the Renaissance and again in the eighteenth century for social and political reasons — serving as moral justification for the cultural empowerment of a particular viewpoint66—so the 1970s feminist articulation of a body-based female aesthetic gained political credibility and power when coupled with a self-conscious definition and revival of a female tradition in art.

Thus while the idea of a categoric women’s art may be phil­ osophically dubious, it was a valuable creative principle for the historical Feminist Art movement, which drew in its early stages upon a form of female essentialism—a belief in the unitary real­ ity of the category female—as its source of artistic inspiration. The significance of the category female for early feminists was not biological (that was merely its sign) but political, for femi­ nism’s power, it was then believed, was the power of women as a group. In this sense, the accuracy of the essentialist belief is be­ side the point, since right or wrong, it was an enabling myth. Like other empowering essentialist ideas in history (e.g., that Jesus Christ was the Son of God, that there is a Great Chain of Being, that utopian political states will bring peace and justice to Earth, or that the human male but not the female may pos­ sess artistic genius), it opened the way to political change in society, and a door to creativity and discovery in art.


Feminist artists who emerged in the eighties and early nineties have maintained an ambivalent dialogue with seventies feminist art: they developed directly from it, yet are at pains to distance themselves both from it and from the “essentialist heresy” by which contemporary critical theory has increasingly character­ ized seventies feminism.67 And, indeed, the first generations approach contrasts strikingly with postmodernist theory’s cu­ rious insistence that although an essentialist ‘feminine’ does not exist, “femininity,” as a social construction, is not a stable reality either. This, of course, has left wide open the ontological ques­ tion of what is real, while depriving women of their history by dismissing as beneath consideration practically everything that flesh-and-blood women have historically accomplished in the

real world. Postmodernism’s anti-essentialist position thus attacks the theoretical foundation of first-generation feminism on seem­ ingly logical grounds, but ignores the diverse artistic superstruc­ ture that was built upon it. As many women have complained, this perpetually dcconstructive, negative, and hostile stance is an unproductive approach for feminists. Moreover, as a post­ modern position, it is also theoretically inconsistent, for why should “essentialist feminism” be the only exception to the post­ modern tenet that culture produces multiple meanings, all of them equal in value?

In a sense, the very figment of an essentialism that never was has served as a creative prod to women artists working in the eighties and nineties—artists such as Janine Antoni, Ida Ap- plebroog, Barbara Kruger, and Lorna Simpson —to demonstrate the many ways that women’s art can expand and articulate fe­ male identity beyond the given of female anatomy (see Schor and Cottingham chapters). More problematic, however, has been the emergence in the 1980s of a “feminist” art that revives old masculinist constructs of the female body, theoretically in a crit­ ical spirit (though this is not always visually clear), while putting down as naive and reductively biological the fat more radical fe­ male imagery of the early years. Disturbed and bewildered by the popularity of Cindy Sherman’s work, the critic Jeff Perrone, writing in 1983, cut to the heart of the issue:

Sherman poses herself in Playboy-like centerfolds, albeit clothed in little schoolgirl outfits that make her appear both withdrawn and New Wave, seductive and scared—a punk virgin waiting to get laid. I think some people (men) like it so much because some critics and collectors (men) like a little blonde served up in juicy color. That her photographs are ostensibly about female representation in popular culture seems beside the point, not to mention evasive. Her work is, from the consumer’s point of view, having your cheesecake and eating it too.68

Perhaps as a result of postmodernism’s denunciation of es­ sentialism, the only acceptable way remaining for post-70s women to represent themselves appears to be in slightly iron- ized versions of the old familiar images of femininity—i.e., as sex objects and victims—that have traditionally been devised by and for men. Such images can be read as a critique of the social construction of femininity and of the power and complicity of representation in creating the illusion of fixed identity —but, as Perrone pointed out, they don’t have to be. And the question re­ mains open whether the male viewer, whose voyeuristic position is still privileged by such images, is being made by the artist to feel comfortable, or uncomfortable, with that position.

The answer to that question constitutes a major difference between Sherman’s postmodern images (see page 257) and the staged “costume images” produced in the early 1970s by stu­ dents in the Feminist Art Program. Dori Atlantis’s 1970 photograph of Cheryl Zurilgen as Kewpie Doll, for example (Wilding, page 37), breaks through the confinement of that ste­ reotype to become an act of defiance and self-empowerment by virtue of a parody so relentless and so clearly exaggerated that this image can no longer function in the normal way—to gratify



and empower a male spectator while disempowering and defin­ ing the female objects of his gaze—but rather, it unequivocally ridicules and exposes that mechanism.

The very ambiguity of Sherman’s brand of feminist art, on the other hand, may have unintentionally opened the door to some of the 1990s most blatant reassertions of the social manip­ ulation of female identity, such as the “Living Doll” fashion photographs recently featured by The New York Times Magazine in the hope of inducing “women past the age of puberty,” as the caption put it, to “want to dress up like little girls.” Distressingly close in appearance to the self-affirming feminist statements of the early seventies, these photographs, which advocate acquies­ cence to oppression all over again in the name of fashion, are in reality total inversions of those early images and are anything but feminist. The dialectical relationship between them is in all likelihood not the result of influence, but of the reemergence of an atavistic instinct—and an all too familiar strategy—to repress women by infantalizing them and hoping that they will go along with it. But by now. thanks in part to the power of feminist art, we know the difference.

Certainly, the best evidence that within women lies some­ thing other than determinist social constructions is the fact that feminists could rebel against and question patriarchy at all. In feminism’s rebellious challenge to masculinist art, the mind and body worked together to produce a coherent female self—and. as well, a blanket denial of the passive feminine being that had been the patriarchy’s creation. So coherent a self is both terrify­ ing to our culture and a terrifying responsibility to live up to. It

is no wonder that today, as in earlier feminist movements, men and often women have worked to submerge, deny, or distort women’s effort to do so. And yet, the case can be made that feminism, in its very recurrences, has demonstrated an endur­ ing power to survive its challengers.

In the 1970s, feminism’s exploration of “who we are” was powered by a complex dynamic interchange between the politi­ cal goal of fulfilling a shared agenda for all women and the necessary path to that goal through the diversity of individual experience. Feminist art kept those potentially contradictory goals in a state of tension, holding in balance a pull in opposite directions by public-political and private-aesthetic values.

Of course, it had been the goal of feminism to dissolve what it saw as the artificial boundary between those categories, to insist that on every level, “the personal is the political.” In the 1970s, this phrase was understood to imply that the reality of women’s lives was larger than their traditional circumscription in the realm of the private and the personal and that, indeed, the very categories of private and public were in themselves political fictions. In the 1990s, the phrase could be understood in almost an opposite sense, to describe the rather cynical contemporary doctrine that there is no self outside socially inscribed roles and meanings: the personal is only the political. But for feminists of the 1970s, the slogan contained in its implicit rejection of the traditional doctrine of “separate spheres” an empowering idea: the personal was liberated to become the political, which it had never before been for women. And thus a path was opened to creative action upon and within society.

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