Women’s Artistic Liberation
The Feminist Art Movement began with the idea that women’s experiences must be expressed through art, where they had previously been ignored or trivialized.
Early proponents of Feminist Art in the United States envisioned a revolution. They called for a new framework in which the universal would include women’s experiences, in addition to men’s. Like others in the Women’s Liberation Movement, feminist artists discovered the impossibility of completely changing their society.
Linda Nochlin’s essay “Why Are There No Great Female Artists?” was published in 1971. Of course, there had been some awareness of female artists before the Feminist Art Movement. Women had created art for centuries. Mid-20th century retrospectives included a 1957 Life magazine photo essay called “Women Artists in Ascendancy” and the 1965 exhibit "Women Artists of America, 1707-1964,” curated by William H. Gerdts, at the Newark Museum.
Becoming a Movement in the 1970s
It is difficult to pinpoint when awareness and questions coalesced into the Feminist Art Movement. In 1969, the New York group Women Artists in Revolution (WAR) split off from the Art Workers’ Coalition (AWC) because the AWC was male-dominated and would not protest on behalf of women artists. In 1971, female artists picketed the Corcoran Biennial in Washington D.C. for excluding women artists, and New York Women in the Arts organized a protest against gallery owners for not exhibiting women’s art.
Also in 1971, Judy Chicago, one of the most prominent early activists in the Movement, established the Feminist Art program at Cal State Fresno. In 1972, Judy Chicago created Womanhouse with Miriam Schapiro at the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts), which also had a Feminist Art program.
Womanhouse was a collaborative art installation and exploration. It consisted of students working together on exhibits, performance art and consciousness-raising in a condemned house that they refurbished. It drew crowds and national publicity for the Feminist Art Movement.
Feminism and Postmodernism
But what is Feminist Art? Art historians and theorists debate whether Feminist Art was a stage in art history, a movement, or a wholesale shift in ways of doing things. Some have compared it to Surrealism, describing Feminist Art not as a style of art that can be seen but rather a way of making art.
Feminist Art asks many questions that are also part of Postmodernism. Feminist Art declared that meaning and experience were as valuable as form; Postmodernism rejected the rigid form and style of Modern Art. Feminist Art also questioned whether the historical Western canon, largely male, truly represented “universality.”
Feminist artists played with the ideas of gender, identity, and form. They used performance art, video, and other artistic expression that would come to be significant in Postmodernism but had not traditionally been seen as high art. Rather than “Individual vs. Society,” Feminist Art idealized connectivity and saw the artist as part of society, not working separately.
Feminist Art and Diversity
By asking whether male experience was universal, Feminist Art paved the way for questioning exclusively white and exclusively heterosexual experience as well. Feminist Art also sought to rediscover artists. Frida Kahlo had been active in Modern Art but left out of the defining history of Modernism. Despite being an artist herself, Lee Krasner, wife of Jackson Pollock, was seen as Pollock’s support until she was rediscovered.
Many art historians have described pre-feminist women artists as links between various male-dominated art movements. This reinforces the feminist argument that women somehow do not fit into the categories of art that were established for male artists and their work.
Some women who were artists rejected feminist readings of their work. They may have wanted to be viewed only on the same terms as artists that had preceded them. They may have thought that Feminist Art criticism would be another way of marginalizing women artists.
Some critics attacked Feminist Art for "essentialism." They thought each individual woman’s experience was claimed to be universal, even if the artist had not asserted this. The critique mirrors other Women’s Liberation strugggles. Divisions arose when anti-feminists convinced women that feminists were, for example, “man hating” or “lesbian,” thus causing women to reject all of feminism because they thought it was trying to foist one person’s experience onto others.
Another prominent question was whether using women’s biology in art was a way of restricting women to a biological identity--which feminists were supposed to have fought against--or a way of releasing women from the negative male definitions of their biology.