Monday, April 04, 2011

Where IS Feminist Art These Days?

Summer Garden, 9x11 inches, Mixed Media, ©2011 Jeane Vogel, $75.
Beware. I drop the "F" word a lot. I grew up hearing it was a dirty word but I never understood why. It seemed to me to be the most natural thing in the world. 


How could Feminism be offensive? It's a word that proclaims independence and equality and respect for all women.

Except to many people it doesn't mean any of those things. In the '70s it meant that women and men would have to share bathrooms. And women would have to go to war, or work, or not have a chance to be mothers and ultimately fulfilled as women. Oh, F.... Opps. Almost dropped that other "F" word. That’s generally how I respond when I heard those lies that we told to defeat the Equal Rights Amendment -- the Constitutional Amendment that would guarantee equal rights for women.

Instead, what feminism meant to my generation of women -- Baby Boomers -- was reproductive freedom, and equal pay for equal work, and access to education and jobs previously available only to men, and credit in our own names -- in fact the right to keep our own names. We hoped for the chance to go to work and not be sexually harassed. We dreamed of the day our minds would be respected, even if we had great breasts and long slender legs... or especially if we didn't.

The artists among us put these ideals into our art. The artists did what artists always do: they pushed the boundaries of "traditional" art to raise our consciousness and our hopes. Feminist art demanded reforms in the way we thought about women's abilities and women’s bodies. They lifted the veils of modesty that chained women to myths of helplessness and dependence.

It's 40 years later, and I'm left wondering what feminist art is now. Have we come very far?

I’m so grateful to have been able to attend the 2011 Women's Caucus for Art National Conference. It was a delicious orgy of women and art and ideas and challenges to push beyond individual limits. Breathlessly huddled over coffee or beer we asked: What can we do next? How can we do it? Who can we collaborate with to accomplish it? Where will it take us?

On the edge of inspiration was a nagging feeling that feminism, and feminist art, has lost its power and impact. What is feminist art now? What does it mean to women born after Roe v Wade gave women the right to control their reproduction?

We saw a lot of “feminist” art at the national conference. I saw some interesting work, some not. In 2011, is feminist art simply work that has been produced by women? Is it a way to rehash middle class injustices of childhood? Will it change the world? Will anyone ever notice?

Frankly, I was disappointed in the energy and spirit of younger women artists as they presented work they named feminist. Some explored the same themes that challenged their mothers and grandmothers. Do young women of today face the same misogynist  obstacles that we did when Richard Nixon was President? Sometimes. But the 2011 responses seem to be turned inward and personal and mostly consumed with body image.

What have we done to our daughters? Feminism means it’s ok to look the way you look? Well, sure it does. But is that all?

A common feminist theme – reproduction freedom – was nowhere incorporated into new work I saw. Instead, there were throwbacks to visuals of the 1950s. What are younger women trying to tell us? Are they romanticizing those years of emotional and suburban captivation for women?

And when I turn the mirror on myself, I have to ask: Where is my feminist art? Am I championing women or I am falling into self-indulging visual self-stimulation too?

I’m challenging myself. I’m challenging you. I’m not part of that younger generation making feminist art. I’m part of the older group. It’s not my turn to lead the way anymore, but there are still too much for us to say in our art that can turn a head… or a heart… to benefit our sisters.

Let’s create art that will change our world.

This blog was originally published by Jeane Vogel in the March 2011 WCA-St. Louis Newsletter.


Gwenn said...

I'm part of the younger generation of feminists and I certainly see what you're saying with regards to so-called feminist art that earns that title only because it was created by a woman.

At the same time, I still think there is a merit to that argument. There is something still so revolutionary about a female artist making a living with her work--there still aren't that many of us doing it!

I write about feminism and art, especially in this section of my blog and I have created work that touches on feminist themes without making feminism my entire focus. So it's true: I've felt the lack of a strong feminist voice in my own work. To remedy that I'm currently cogitating on a series about reproductive rights, and it feels very right.

Frank Zweegers said...

Great insightful post.

ChaoticBlackSheep said...

When I first saw this in the WCA newsletter, I took it personally. I thought, where does Jeane see me in this discourse? I try to push boundaries and already have to tailor fit much of what I submit to galleries to avoid being too provocative and outcast. I feel like I'm doing my part. But upon reading it again here I can see past my own insecurities and recognize that I share many of these same sentiments.

It is true that a lot of women are examining ideas that women have fought with for centuries and that younger generations are making artworks about many of the same things that their mothers and grandmothers struggled with. I see that as evidence of the fact that unfortunately these struggles are not yet over as we haven't yet reached parity. We have made progress and I am very grateful for how far earlier women pushed so that I can explore and voice the things I have to say. (In earlier times, I would not have had such amazing opportunity to do so.)

But the conversation is not yet over; there is still much to discuss. I long to see the day when these topics are no longer relevant or worth discussing because women can't relate to them at all for lack of shared experience, but, cynic that I am, I do not foresee it happening in my lifetime.

In regards to body image, this is a big issue and I don't know that the impact of the fashion and beauty industries on young women is as well understood as it could be. One offshoot of this is that young men are more vocal about feeling entitled and are highly critical of young women (especially girlfriends and lovers) based on their physical appearances, possibly even more so than in previous generations. I fight with body image on a personal level and have myself struggled with anorexia on and off throughout much of my adult life for all that it isn't a central focus of my art. In truth, body image is a real issue for a lot of women. There are a lot of big issues, including female reproductive health, reproductive freedom, equality in the workplace & home, and more, and they don't always fit together in the whole picture puzzle easily.

In closing and most importantly, I agree wholeheartedly: let’s create art that will change our world. And I will go so far as to add that age should make no difference; we all have much to discuss, young and old alike.