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The Art History Archive - Feminist Art


Especially since the late 1960s, when the feminist art movement can be said to have emerged, women have been particularly interested in what makes them different from males — what makes women artists and their art different from male artists and their art. This has been most prominent in the United States, Britain, and Germany, although there are numerous precursors to the movement, and it has spread to many other cultures since the 1970s.

Feminists point out that throughout most of recorded history males have imposed patriarchal (father-centered) social systems (in which they have dominated females). Although it is not the goal of this article to recount the development of feminist theory in full, the history of feminist art cannot be understood apart from it. Feminist theory must take into account the circumstances of most women's lives as mothers, household workers, and caregivers, in addition to the pervasive misconception that women are genetically inferior to men. Feminist art notes that significant in the dominant (meaning especially Western) culture's patriarchal heritage is the preponderance of art made by males, and for male audiences, sometimes transgressing against females. Men have maintained a studio system which has excluded women from training as artists, a gallery system that has kept them from exhibiting and selling their work, as well as from being collected by museums — albeit somewhat less in recent years than before.

Here is a notice posted by the Guerrilla Girls (founded in 1985, a New York based group of otherwise unnamed women "artists, writers, performers and film makers who fight discrimination") in a list they published in 1989:

The Advantages of Being a Woman Artist:

Working without the pressure of success.

Not having to be in shows with men.

Having an escape from the art world in your 4 free-lance jobs.

Knowing your career might pick up after you're eighty.

Being reassured that whatever kind of art you make it will be labeled feminine.

Not being stuck in a tenured teaching position.

Seeing your ideas live on in the work of others.

Having the opportunity to choose between career and motherhood.

Not having to choke on those big cigars or paint in Italian suits.

Having more time to work when your mate dumps you for someone younger.

Being included in revised versions of art history.

Not having to undergo the embarrassment of being called a genius.

Getting your picture in the art magazines wearing a gorilla suit.
Feminist art history must be considered as part of this discussion. Its proponents have demanded that women's arts from all cultures, of all periods, be included in studies and exhibitions of art. In 1971 Linda Nochlin (American, contemporary art critic) wrote a landmark article, "Why Have There Been No GREAT Women Artists?" giving tremendous momentum to feminist scholarship concerning women in the arts. Numerous histories of women artists were published in the 1970s, and several others have appeared in the years since then.

Before the late 1960s most women artists, struggling to participate in the male-dominated art world, had overwhelming disincentives to put feminist meanings into their work, and sought to de-gender their art. Often, on the basis of appearance alone, their work could not be identified as woman-made. Several countercultural movements arose simultaneously with feminism in the 1960s. At this time the United States experienced social upheaval coming with the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War, economic prosperity, the arrival of oral contraceptives, reforms in the Catholic Church, nostalgia for the presidency of John F. Kennedy, and experimentation with psychotropic drugs. Many other countries experienced social unrest of various kinds during this period. Some gender issues have been of interest to both male and female artists. Although feminist art has arisen more from the concerns of artists of one gender, and some of those concerns are sexual in nature, more often than not feminist issues have been about women's power in arenas of which sexuality (reproductive acts and roles) is an important part.

Feminist art sometimes poses or confronts such questions as:

1. How is a woman's gaze different from a man's? How does that difference influence the ways in which the two genders view the world? And how they view art?

2. What constitutes obscenity and pornography? Where do they come from? What are their results? Are they always transgessive? What place do they have in art?

Although feminist artists have shown great interest in the depiction of nude figures (both male and female), very few feminist artists have shown interest in creating erotic work. Learn more by reading Feminist Art Practices & Political Art.


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