I'm an artist and a feminist but I don't like feminist art. Type “feminist art” into an internet search engine and you will find art that aggressive as it is explicit. It’s not for everyone. But what exactly is feminist art and how is it relevant to the next wave of gender equality activists?
The feminist art movement began in the late 1960's amidst a broader social revolution against prevailing norms. It's purpose was to produce art that reflects women's lives and experiences. It also sought to bring more visibility to women within art history and art practice.
The trailblazers of this artistic feminist movement included: Yoko Ono with her performance pieces, Vivenne Binns with her paintings of female genitalia, and Judy Chicago with her installations. As these examples suggest, the feminist art movement has been synonymous with acceptance of alternative art forms as artists sought to challenge the prevailing perception of what was art. By embracing alternative media, such as fabric, performance, video and installation, feminist artists have expanded the definition of art beyond those traditional mediums dominated by males. One might even say that feminist artists have purposely rejected the more classical art forms such as of painting and sculpture. So much so, that the feminist art movement has been the single biggest influence on contemporary art forms, such as decorative, conceptual and performance art.
Creating a definition of art that is broader and more encompassing is a fantastic achievement and should not be underestimated or undervalued. However, I’m an admirer (and a creator) of the traditional oil painting, a medium that was rejected by the early feminist art movement because it was (and still is) dominated by males. So, is there a place for me and my oil paintings in the feminist genre?
Well, the aim of feminist art is to make the viewer question the social and political norms of society in the hope to inspirer a greater change in attitudes, thereby ending sexism and supporting gender equality. And I'm all for that. The fundamental reasons for producing feminist art remain unchanged. What has changed over the decades is the way in which we communicate and the mediums through which we do so.
As Rosemary Betteron asserts in her 2003 essay, the customary feminist art rhetoric must adapt to newer ways of communication, as our culture has changed significantly since the late 20th century. The advent of social media alone has brought about significant changes in communication but so to have other cultural developments. As so the shock tactics of early feminist art may not resonate with the next wave of feminists. The next wave of feminist artists must communicate using methods that have evolved with the times and it seems such changes are here already.
A recent study published by Artsy identifies a number of new trends in 21st century feminist art. What we see is the use of traditional narratives and aesthetics, through the appropriation of iconic masterpieces and canonical themes, that are subsequently subverted with feminist ideals. The article concludes that “these examples willingly seduce with their visual allure… draw you into the room, only to expose that room as warped and unstable, constructed with an outdated set of tools”. It’s a different aesthetic to that employed by the early feminist artists. Whilst this one case study is by no means exhaustive, it may be reasonable to expect similar trends elsewhere, including Australia.
The third wave of feminists will no doubt communicate and engage with audiences in ways that are vastly different to their predecessors (although the tried and tested protest march is always a good tactic). So to will the next generation of feminist artists. Rather than rejecting the old and rewriting the book from scratch, as far as art production is concerned, I believe we will see a merging of the old with the new: an exploration of new territory that combines traditional mediums with new methodology or new mediums with classic narratives. Much like vintage clothing, it will be taking something that has already been invented (probably by men) and modifying it in a way that work for us. I look forward to the emergence of the next wave of feminist artists who will not doubt inform the next generation of feminists and hopefully the one after that. After all, a woman's work is never done.....
Artwork above: My Dear detail by Leah Mariani (2016)
Berger, John, “Ways of Seeing”. British Broadcasting Corporation and Penguin Books, 1973.
Betterton, Rosemary, “Feminist Viewing: Viewing Feminism.” The Feminist Visual Cultural Reader. London: Routledge, 2003.
DiTolla, Tracy, “Feminist Art Movement.” The Art Story Foundation. Accessed 24 September 2016. Available from: http://www.theartstory.org/movement-feminist-art.htm
Korsmeyer, Carolyn, "Feminist Aesthetics.” The Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy (Winter 2012 Edition). Available from: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/feminism-aesthetics
Tani, Ellen Yoshi. “What Makes Contemporary Art Feminist? An Art Genome Project Case Study.” Artsy, 2015. Available from: https://www.artsy.net/article/theartgenomeproject-what-makes-contemporary-art-feminist-an-art