Women’s Art Movement
by Helen R. Klebesadel
Contemporary feminist art originated in about 1970, inspired by the Women’s Liberation Movement which was sweeping the country at this time, bringing with it demands for social, economic and political change. Women began to join together to demand greater representation and an end to the marginalization of women socially, economically, and politically.
In this same period, women artists began to organize. As with the women’s movement in general, white women originally dominated the women’s art movement, however women of color and lesbian and bisexual artists were present and influential from the beginning.
Women artists came together to advocate for themselves. They first focused on the fact that few women were represented in galleries and museums, and that they were also excluded from the art history canon. Few women taught on the faculties of art schools in spite of the fact that the majority of art students were women. Women art faculty were disproportionably found in temporary, non-tenure track positions despite making up over half of the available pool.
In the exhibition of art, it was common and accepted for exhibitions to be made up of all white males. Women of color were doubly discriminated against, with artists like Faith Ringgold told they could only exhibit in the museums devoted to African American art after all the black male artists had had their shows.
In the early 1970s, women artists and activists demonstrated at museums and exposed the sexist practices of galleries and art schools. Women visual artists, art educators and art historians formed consciousness raising groups, woman-centered art education programs, women’s art organizations, and cooperative galleries to provide the visibility that they had been denied. However, feminist artists sought more than equal representation. They believed that art could help bring about social and political change. The power of art to change the self and society is still central to many feminist artists’ work.
Exploring the kind of art women make when creating from their own life experiences led to a call for a re-examination of the criteria that defined what art and which artists were to be valued. It also led to a re-examination of the concept of ‘genus’ and the criteria that had been used to exclude past women artists from the art history texts used to educate contemporary artists.
There are many voices in the women’s art movement with an equal number of goals. Some wanted to transform traditional fine art media such as painting and sculpture with feminist awareness; others sought to introduce aesthetics and values from non-European traditions into the American visual vocabulary. Still others gave up object-making altogether in favor of performance art and video, and called for an elimination of the division between craft and fine art. Many feminist artists explored an aesthetics that emerged from female experience and female-coded labor, the female body, women’s history, and individual autobiography.
Many women artists sought to reclaim the female body by representing women’s bodies and bodily experiences in ways running counter to the sexualized and idealized representations dominating the images of women created by men. Some of this work attempted to reclaim female genitalia from degradation in works such as Judy Chicago’s well-known and controversial Dinner Party installation. Her large scale 1979 installation was created collaboratively and celebrated women’s traditional needlework as well as highlighting women who had been written out of history. The piece showed to sold-out crowds for several years. None-the-less, the piece has only recently found a permanent home that will allow it to be shown regularly after 20 years spent mostly in storage.
The Feminist Art Movement profoundly influenced contemporary art practices. It introduced feminist content and gender issues; nonhierarchical uses of materials and techniques; and the idea of a multiple-voiced, fluid subject. The women’s art movement has championed the idea that gender is socially and not naturally constructed; validated non-“high art” forms such as craft, video and performance art; questioned the cult of “genius” and “greatness;” and placed an emphasis on pluralist variety rather than concepts of totalizing universalism.
There is still room for improvement in today’s art culture. Women artists are still not statistically represented as faculty in art teaching institutions, in museum collections, or in art texts. Art museums still present only an average of 15% women in curated exhibits, and a mere 4% of museum acquisitions are works by women artists. Young feminist artists continue to create feminist critiques with their own concerns and life experiences defining their artwork.
Gender and sexuality issues, politics, environmental issues and social inequities continue to be addressed in the work of contemporary feminist artists. The Women’s Art Movement continues to help define and articulate the issues of the Women’s Movement through the creative and critical thinking of women artists. While not always acknowledged, feminism is alive and well and living in the arts.
Helen R. Klebesadel is Director of the UW System Women’s Studies Consortium and Associate Chair of the Women’s Studies Program, UW-Madison, and an artist who exhibits her work nationally and internationally. She is represented by the Grace Chosy Gallery in Madison.
This article first appeared in the September 2002 issue of the Wisconsin Women’s Network’s Newsletter, The Stateswoman.