Feminist Art: Aim, Forms, Major Figures

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There are many different movements in our society that emerge to change our way of thinking and improve our everyday lives. One of the most ignorant and regressive ways of thinking that still exists until this day is that men should be more superior than women. It’s very evident that women always seem to have an inferior role in society when compared to men and that they’re not seen or treated in the same way; there are always boundaries and discriminations when it comes to gender differences. In attempt to push that boundary away, feminism or the feminist art movement arose.

Feminist Art, just like surrealism, can be explained as not as a style of art that can be seen but rather a way of making art. It aims to blur the discriminations and biases against gender differences, sexual orientations, social classes, and economic status. Its goal is to abolish the gender gap and to have justice and equal rights. The problem doesn’t only lie in our thinking and the way we act, it also lies in our unconscious biases and prejudices. Feminism still remains a highly controversial topic in today’s world, and although the movement is about fighting for women’s rights and the demand for equality, it has divided itself and caused different forms of feminism to occur. Artists used different mediums of art to express different measures of feminist art. While Yoko Ono and Marina Abramović used performance art, others used paintings and still-life artworks such as Judy Chicago.

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Another way used to approach the topic was by writing about it. In Linda Nochlin’s text “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?”, she took a different direction than the usual seen in such artworks, texts, and performances; instead of taking an emotional approach, she decided to address historical analysis. She examines the problem in our society that led to this unjust system that we live in, what it takes to be a “great” and accomplished woman in today’s society, and of course, attempts to answer the question “why have there been no great women artists?”

The questions that Nochlin raised in her essay remain relevant to today’s world and today’s feminist art movement. The problem with her main question is that it actually supplies its answer. People tend to answer it with naive assumptions and fallacies. Some believe “There are no great women artists because women artists are incapable of greatness,” while others seem to think that “there is a different kind of ‘greatness’ for women’s art than for men thereby postulating the existence of a distinctive and recognizable feminine style,” and finally some tend to say that it’s because “women artists are more inward-looking, more delicate, and nuanced in their treatment of the medium.” Nochlin dismisses all those claims because she believes that they do not address the essence and core of the question. She agrees that there aren’t any “great” women artists or any “women equivalent to Michelangelo or Rembrandt, Delacroix or Cèzanne, Picasso or Matisse,” not because of the assumptions that have been claimed, but because of the lack of education and opportunities that have been given to women. It’s the institutions’ fault. The institution deprived the women of becoming such great artists. It’s clear that Nochlin believes that great art exists, and although she doesn’t directly mention it, it is evident that it’s associated with men. Our concept of greatness is allied with our concept of genius in the same way “he” and “one” have been allied in common language. The problem lies within the concept of genius, commonly associating it with the male artist and not the female. In reality, it wasn’t a lack of genius which had prevented women from succeeding, but instead their limited position within the society which deprived them the opportunity of becoming great artists in this world. Even the word “great” was measured by historical male standards, which doesn’t make sense now because they aren’t the same standards as the past. Now they might be closer to what they were before, although we can’t go digging around in the past trying to find the equivalence of Michelangelo because she’s not going to be there. She doesn’t exist. There was no possibility for a woman to achieve what Michelangelo achieved.

In the past, women didn’t have the same educational opportunities as men. “Great” artists are usually composed of many qualities: knowledge, bravery, intelligence, capability, and so much more. If society doesn’t allow a person to have one or more of these qualities then how can a great artist be achieved? Social institutions restricted women from learning and living freely. It is known that drawing nude models is one of the most difficult and most important aspects of art, but during that time, “it [was] all right for a woman to reveal herself naked-as-an-object for a group of men, but forbidden to a woman to participate in the active study and recording of a naked man-as-an-object, or even of a fellow woman.”(161) To restrict and deny a woman the right to practice this essential stage of training meant to deprive her of creating major or “great” works.

Some of the performances that highlighted the feminist art movement, such as Yoko Ono’s “Cut Piece” and Marina Abramović’s “Rhythm 0,” took the idea of feminism to another level. In the “Cut Piece,” Yoko gave the audience scissors and the freedom to cut a part of her clothing while she sat in her place without moving, like an object. You would think that people might be shy and respectful and cut tiny pieces of her shirt, but what actually happened was that people slowly started cutting more and more and the artist started feeling uncomfortable. In the end, one person even cut her bra, which forced Yoko to move and hold her bra to prevent her breasts from showing. In the other performance, Marina gave the audience the freedom to carry out whatever they want on her for 6 hours using 72 objects on a table while she stood still. The objects ranged from a rose to a loaded gun. She objectified herself. Marina said she’d take full responsibility on behalf of their actions, and because of that, people took things to drastic measures. Although people knew that they were being filmed and watched, and that they were doing those things to a real human being, they stripped her until she was completely naked, cut her, chained her, and sucked her blood. One person actually held a gun and tried to make Marina kill herself. After the performance finished and Marina moved, everyone got scared and failed to confront her. It shows how society does the worst to a passive victim, and that when the victim is no longer silent and that they’re ready to confront their abuser face to face, they get scared and run away. The performances demonstrate how people are so numb to the consequences of their actions. The horrific final results of the performances are the reason those artists performed them; to show how far people would go when they’re not held responsible. They exposed humanity, people’s destructive desires, and emphasized the sexist and racist violence against females. They showed how females used to be portrayed as objects.

Although some praised these performances, a lot criticized them. A lot considered them anti-feminist because these artists “brought it to themselves” and that their performances are not considered art, nevertheless feminist art; they didn’t think it was acceptable for these women to take such drastic measures to prove a non-valid point. In my opinion, this is art and the artists had to take those drastic measures to prove their point. The performances portray the restrains that society puts on women. They address serious issues such as sexual assault, gender subordination, violence and violation against women at the hands of society. They used those performances as a way to express how they feel in these discriminations and restrictions and how women were portrayed as objects during the years. It is feminist art and it shouldn’t be ridiculed and lessened because some people think that “they brought it upon themselves.” If people were treated equally and if people knew the struggles they put women through and the consequences of their actions towards women, then those artists wouldn’t have gone to these extremes and taken such drastic measures to prove a point and to show how society really is.

One of the most controversial works during the feminist art movement is “The Dinner Party” by Judy Chicago. It’s considered to be a symbolic commemoration and celebration of women in history. It consists of a three-sided dinner table with 39 places arranged on the table, each dedicated to a notable woman, with an additional 999 inscribed names of women on the heritage floor. Each place has light shed on it and a hand-painted china plate. According to Chicago in her article “The Dinner Party,” while working on those plates, she “developed an iconography using the butterfly to symbolize liberation and the yearning to be free.” The controversy emerged because the plates have painted female genitalia on them. Her artwork began to be described as “vaginas on plates” and it has been labeled as “disgusting,” “vulgar,” “disturbing,” and “shameful.” What strikes me is how people found this artwork shocking because it portrays women’s genitalia but they find it okay for men to paint nude women. Painting nude women was the “highest category of art.” It was very respected but when it came to a woman painting what looks like “vaginas on a plate” is disgraceful and wrong. Who even are the intended viewers for the nude female paintings? As a woman, what role should I take? The role of a male viewer or a female object and subject? We seem to have an interchangeable role oscillating between being the subject, object, and the viewer. The role of the viewer is very important in the arts and it should be questioned. The viewer has the capability of shifting and changing the art. It’s very disappointing to see such an astonishing artwork that has been thoroughly thought of and planned in every single aspect – plate, goblet, napkin, flatware, tablecloth, triangular cloth, the floor, and the symbolism of each – get devalued by naive critics who oppose this but support the paintings of nude women.

It’s important to understand that feminist art wasn’t a protest against males. It was a protest against the institution. Nochlin’s article helps shape the understanding of the feminist art movement and explains how social and cultural boundaries prevented women from taking part in the art world in several ways. Women didn’t have the same access to resources as men. Women lived a completely different life. They didn’t have the same expectations. Art was thought of as only a hobby to women; they were expected to drop their careers and give up their work as soon as they got married. They had to choose between work and marriage. Men thought that “the ‘real’ work of women is only that which directly or indirectly serves the family; any other commitment falls under the rubric of diversion, selfishness, egomania, or, at the unspoken extreme, castration.” Women have been kept away from the educational art systems, therefore restricting them and limiting their opportunities to becoming “great” artists. The only women that actually achieved professional artistic careers in the past were especially privileged because they were “either the daughters of artist fathers, or, generally later, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, had a close personal connection with a stronger or more dominant male artistic personality.” At the time, it was very unusual to find those women.

The problem with finding great women artists in the past doesn’t lie within the individual women or men. The problem lies within the way society works on a fundamental organizational level. When we’re looking in the past, we need to understand how the social, class, and gender structures were. If we don’t understand how they worked then we can’t make a fair assessment on the people who were operating in those structures in that time. We need to understand what was happening to know why people were acting in a specific way. Nowadays, there are a lot of things that we can and cannot do that relate to our gender. Some things that are expected of me as a woman might not bother me, and I might be okay with them happening, but they might be bothering someone else. That’s how we might be regressive and at the same time forward thinking about the role of women in arts or in society in general. Since the feminist art movement doesn’t have one style, doesn’t have a set of standard beliefs, and is not a unified movement, it’s important to remember the main purpose of it: equal rights. Although it’s difficult to obtain that equality, we should never stop fighting to overcome and abolish the irrational bias that people have against women and to grant them complete equality.


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