“Yes, I am coming back from far, far away. And my crime, at present, is my candor.” – Luce lrigaray1

The crime of feminism is candor: women speaking out to represent themselves in a culture in which to be feminine is to be silent, demure, undemanding, to be the object not the subject, to be the passive not the active.

What relevancy does feminist art theory have to your lives as artists who work in clay?

One: The personal is political. Your private/public life and your work have an impact on and are impacted by culture. As art producers and as human beings, you cannot live outside of history. Feminist research speaks of the unconscious codes constructed by a dominant Eurocentric Caucasian male culture, and how art is not merely mirror of these codes but helps to construct our beliefs as natural and inevitable.

"All art ... has a political existence, or, more accurately, an ideological existence. It either challenges or supports (tacitly perhaps) the dominant myths a culture calls Truth." – Martha Rosler2

Two: You are affected by the same asymmetric bias that posits woman as "other"(i.e., second best) to man. Feminists disavow the simplistic, restrictive thinking behind the classic Modernist dualities, learned as male/female, high art/low art, fine art/craft, good/bad, white/black, mind/body, strong/weak. This bias divides and conquers, isolates and marginalizes. Male, white, mind, and fine-art are made synonymous to high-good-strong; leaving female, black, body, and craft to be read as low-bad-weak.

Dualities leave out the richness, multiplicity, complexity, and individuality of all who exist between the two extremes. It is as if North Pole/ South Pole could describe the entire planet. Historically rooted in European colonization of "others," dualistic thinking is a dilapidated vehicle, inadequate for carrying us safely into the next century.

Contemporary feminist artists and art writers are divided by a very loose construct of time and ideology into a First Generation and Second Generation. The First Generation began in the late 1960s but is considered to be the primary voice for the 1970s decade. Similarly, the Second Generation was already in evidence by 1978, but it is associated with the 1980s. Both co-exist today.

 

THE FIRST GENERATION

In the late 1960s the Women's Movement grew out of the Civil Rights Movement, the Chicano Movement, the Anti-Vietnam War Movement, and the Free Speech Movement. In the process of be­coming politically vocal, women began to hear their own voices. They also garnered some practical skills: how to lobby, how to register voters, how to protest, how to assemble a march, how to picket, how to write slogans, how to paint posters and murals, how to organize around common goals.

Women's labor, vitality, and ideas were crucial to these equal rights/equal access movements. But the goal was still "liberty, equality, and fraternity". This is not to devalue important civil rights issues that remain at risk today. It is simply to note that once women began to study the structure of power and the inequalities of a patriarchal cultural system, it became impossible to ignore their own repression at home, at work, and in public/cultural life.

The early 1970s were marked by an optimistic, almost utopian faith in the ability of women's art to empower women personally and politically. Museum shows excluding women were picketed. Women's consciousness-raising and study groups proliferated. A new, woman-centered art flourished, validating such ideas as:

- female body imagery,

- goddess imagery,

- revaluation of personal narrative, revaluation of crafts, recovery of past mistresses (feminist term for historically successful/prominent women artists),

- devaluation of the idea of "individual solitary genius".

The legacy of the 1970s women's art movement is more than a compiling of individual success stories, the traditional bedrock of published art history. Its triumph was in the establishment of a feminist community, collective action, and collaborative works. Media manipulation and performance became radical new art forms. Feminist programs, cooperative galleries and alternative spaces were founded; many survive today despite the recession and the repressive atmosphere of the Reagan years. The 1970s were marked by women supporting and validating women and women's art production. This had to come first, because their value was denied or invisible to the male-dominated art institutions.

Art critics such as Lucy Lippard were critical to the dissemination of information about women-centered art. Traditional methods of criticism were inadequate and inappropriate. "Lippard was the first writer to attempt to devise a specifically feminist art criticism. Her critical methodology, however, has been to 'have no critical system' because she sees theory and system as authoritarian, limiting, and patriarchal. ... (Her) fundamental contribution to feminist art, and to political art in general, has been her devotion to ferreting out and writing about art outside the 'establishment'.”3

In 1971 Linda Nochlin published the now-classic article “Why Are There No Great Women Artists?"4 Her thesis was that there was no point in asking this question because women were locked out of the social processes that manufactured "greatness". She wrote:

"Art is not neutral; art history is not neutral.

"The white Western male viewpoint is unconsciously accepted as the viewpoint of the art historian.

"To accept 'what is' as 'natural' is intellectually fatal.

"The Great Artist/Genius is a socially constructed myth generated by 'the entire romantic, elitist, individual-gloryifying and monograph-producing substructure upon which the profession of art history is based.'

"It was indeed institutionally impossible for women to achieve excellence or success on the same footing as men no matter what their talent, or genius.''­5

The existence of a few superstars among any minority group does nothing to change the basic thesis, since they are dismissed or co-opted as "exceptions".

Nochlin called for "a feminist critique of the discipline of art history" to "pierce cultural-ideological limitations, to reveal biases and inadequacies not merely in regard to the question of women artists, but in the formulation of the crucial questions of the discipline as a whole ....”6

Nochlin's article uncovered territory pivotal to the evolution of art criticism. Subsequent feminist writings often assume the reader has read this article first. Hers is the jumping-off place for feminist debate on "standards of greatness" and who is in control of setting standards. The First Generation tried to establish its own standards. The next generation will dismiss them as irrelevant.

The first stage of scholarly work was a revisionist rewriting of the all-male-club canon of art history. Feminist research uncovered the names of those women-artists-who-always-were. Employing the same language and methodology as traditional art research, women published rather straightforward anthologies and surveys. The value of this naming lay both in the establishment of an artistic matriarchy and in the individual study of these women's lives to discover how, despite restrictions, they managed to work as artists.

The next generation of feminists was to criticize this additive ap­proach as " ... ultimately self-defeating, for it fixes women within preexisting structures without questioning the validity of these structures .... (it) has come dangerously close to creating its own canon of white female artists (primarily painters), a canon that is almost as restrictive and exclusionary as its male counterpart."7

 

THE SECOND GENERATION

Here a fissure emerges. The generation gap is evidenced in "new" language and changing priorities. 1980 feminists talk a Postmodern language called Deconstruction. Their feminist elders accuse them of selling out to the system, of losing their women-centered values. The new generation accuses the first of being too narrow. As in all generation gaps, language is a major problem. Each accuses the other of speaking in the "patriarchal tongue".

First Generation feminist artists were relabeled "Essentialists". This is not a name they gave themselves; it is a simple media device for labelling a complex generation, most of whose members are still alive and working. Their descendancy in the media gave rise to another negative term, "Post-Feminism."

One generation did not supplant the other; both continue to produce art and art criticism. Both critique the patriarchy; it is their methods that differ. This is the age of pluralism.

"Nancy Spero, a First Generation artist, grounds her work in the condition of being female, in what woman is in relation to herself and to other women, while Mary Kelly, a Second Generation artist, considers how that self is constructed in relation to social, ideological, and psychological structures. Spero wants to take a moment of that fixed position and examine and/or celebrate it; (Second Generation artists) want to unfix the position entirely. They are mutually exclusive concepts, yet both are operable [my emphasis]. The level at which constructions are encoded is the level of common, shared experiences. One reveals the continuities between, the other exposes the discontinuities and disjunctions within.”8

It is not unreasonable for the First Generation artists to be sus­picious. Postmodernism, like Modernism, is still based in Eurocentric white male thought. It is an American hybrid of French philosophy (Foucault, Derrada, et al) and French psychoanalysis (Lacan revising Freud).

The language problem is exacerbated by its locus in academic institutions. Although women have still not achieved parity with men in academia, there are more women in research programs, a positive result of feminist politics. For the first time, there is a professional field of feminist scholarship. As more women enter the field, joining the men who also write on feminist theory, the research intensifies, becomes more complex and more demanding.

What should be a feminist success story is ironically reversed: women's intimate, first-hand experience is devalued in this process. Feminist theory is co-opted into the dominant, male-oriented professional dialect. Academic success is measured by one's research, as written and published in a conservative, prescribed format. This format is distinctly masculine: logocentric-centered on the science of correct reasoning, using the correct words – and teleologic – directed toward an ultimate purpose, especially as attributed to natural processes.

A positive result of the increase in feminist scholarship is its interdisciplinary approach. Scholars borrow as needed from developmental psychology, semantics, sociology, genetics, anthropology, and philosophy. Thus, French deconstruction philosophy first appeared in literature departments, next was used by film and photography critics, and soon entered the art historians’ discourse.

Back in the "real world," the postmodern tenets – "primacy of the text'' and the "death of the author" (i.e., the artist is irrelevant; the object tells its own story) – were dismaying to feminists who had struggled to empower themselves as "artists".

"The concept of greatness as something toward which artists aspire is too deeply ingrained to be easily divested."9

Feminist art writers seem to be trapped by words. At risk is the loss of the audience they seek to engage.

University of California linguist Robin Lakoff has postulated that women's use of language and the way women are related to in speech reflect and perpetuate women's powerlessness. Her studies show that to be successful as women, women learn communication from their mothers. However, to be successful professionals they need to learn a second, separate language. If they use women's language, they'll be liked as women but not taken seriously as professionals. Conversely, if they use professional language, they'll be taken more seriously as professionals but not liked as women.10

"Paraphrasing Helen Cixous," feminist critic Joanna Frueh wrote, "political liberation is unimaginable without linguistic liberation."11

Frueh is a good example of feminist critidexplorer seeking a route around the patriarchal language and form. She story-tells, weaves in other women's words/ideas, employs poetic language and builds a multi-layered, multi-textured verbal collage. In 'Towards a Feminist Theory of Art Criticism" she wrote: "Not long ago, some keepers of the wor(l)d told me that my thinking was disorganized, my writing pointless. I was hurt and angry. I loved my vagrant mind, but I needed to prove that I could think in a 'professional' mode .... 12

"Logocentrism produces closure, tight arguments. It sews up the fabric(ations) of discourse.

"Feminists with loose tongues embroider, patch new and worn pieces together, re-fabricate."13

 

THE ART OF SOCIAL RESPONSIBILITY, THE 1990S

"The figure who now most comprehensively and consistently illustrates the most radical position in feminist art history is the British art historian, Griselda Pollock."14

Pollock culls from Marxism, deconstruction, and Lacanian psychoanalysis to draw what she needs, but moves past their limitations to form her own more active "interventions in histories of art" (meaning, there is more than one history).

She writes: "The producer (artist) is formed by the social, economic and ideological conditions of her life; she belongs to certain communities, has particular interests and competences, speaks to and with specifiable groups within large groupings. The work is in part determined by that social locus of production which is quite different from conventional fantasies about the universal voice and visionary powers of genius to transcend the concrete differences in social life. Equally the work addresses not abstract categories – women, the people, the elite or whatever – but a socially produced and placed viewer who must mobilize her own social knowledges and competences or recognize where they do not match with those anticipated by the producer. Instead of confronting a work with the question, ‘What does it mean?’, we might be forced to ask ‘What knowledges do I need to have in order to share in the productivity of this work?' This becomes crucial for feminist interventions because their difference lies precisely in negating the knowledges and ideologies which are dominant and have become normalized as the common senses about art and artists, about women and societies."15

Besides analyzing historically placed artists, she calls for feminists to write in support of living women artists, especially those whose ideas illuminate feminist and social concerns.

'There is no doubt that femininity is an oppressive condition, yet women live it to different purposes and feminist analyses are currently concerned to explore not only its limits but the concrete ways women negotiate and refashion that position to alter its meanings [my emphasis].'16

"Postmodernism, post-feminism, all, we are told, is retro, passé, no longer relevant. But the changes for which the women's movement struggles have not come about. There remains violence against women, exploitation, increasing poverty and worldwide inequality. There is power, but there is resistance. These facts of social reality must not be swept away in the gloss and glitter of the spectacle."17

Here, in Griselda Pollock's work, we come full circle so we may move forward. Separating from the 1960s rights movements, feminists worked in the 1970s to rediscover and to recreate their own voices. In the 1980s other feminists deconstructed the language and images of power but their language limited them to a small community of art specialists.

Today there is a renewed call for social responsibility. Feminist artists and critics are at the forefront of the current movement for art "in the public's interest" (Arlene Raven's term). However, it is important to recognize that these women are now leaders/innovators precisely because they have been doing this work all along. For more than twenty years feminists have continued to work on public issues within their constituent communities.

Today feminist art strategies are proving essential to public-interest art strategies: a commitment to a non-art constituency/audience, an inclusionary rather than exclusionary process; community involvement/participation; a community-based site for the work as opposed to an art-world site; frequent collaboration; a mass media (press conference) component; and an underlying critique of the patriarchal power structure.

Feminist art critics are active collaborators with artists and com­munities, as opposed to the prescribed "norm" of aloofness. They write as social advocates for artists – women and men – who work against issues as diverse but interconnected as sexism, racism, ageism, censorship, homelessness, ecological destruction, and political oppression.

It would be a mistake to end by saying that socially conscious art was The Feminist Art Form. It would be akin to saying all women are the same women. We value our ethnic diversity, our sexual diversity, our artistic diversity, and we're working on learning to value philosophical diversity.

Feminism continues. It remains a viable political position: "the personal is the political."

Because women and men continue to come up against the most invisible, subtle, and internalized forms of censorship, we can no longer afford to call candor a crime. Candor is a personal source of strength, and a political necessity.

 

 

FOOTNOTES

  1. Irigaray, Luce (translated by Gillian C. Gill). Marine Lover of Friederich Nietzsche. New York: Columbia University Press, 1991, p.4.
  2. Rosier, Martha. "Lookers, Buyers, Dealers, and Makers: Thoughts on Audi­ence." Exposure 17, no. 1 (Spring 1979).
  3. Gouma-Peterson, Thalia, and Patricia Mathews. "The Feminist Critique of Art History," The Art Bulletin, Vol LXIX, #3, September 1987, published by the College Art Assn. of America, p. 343.
  4. Nochlin, Linda. 'Why Are There No Great Women Artists?" in Art and Sex­ual Politics, Why have there been no great women artists?, Ed. Thomas B. Hess and Elizabeth C. Baker. New York: Art New Series, Collier Books, Macmillan Publishing Co., 1973 edition (copyright 1971).
  5. Ibid., p. 37.
  6. Ibid, p. 2.
  7. Gouma-Peterson, op. cit., p. 327.
  8. Ibid., p. 348.
  9. Ibid., p. 327.
  10. Beneke, Tim. "The Language Thing, A Conversation With Cal Linguist Robin Lakoff," The East Bay Express, Vol. 13, #37,June 21, 1991, p.1, pp. 12-13, pp. 17-19. Books by Robin Lakoff: Language and Woman's Place, 1975; and Talking Power, 1991. She's also co-authored Face Value, 1984; and When Talk Is Not Cheap, 1985.
  11. Frueh, Joanna. "Speakeasy," New Art Examiner, Vol. 18, #10, June/Summer 1991, p. 13.
  12. Frueh, Joanna. "Towards a Feminist Theory of Art Criticism," Feminist Art Criticism, An Anthology, Ed. by Arlene Raven, Cassandra L. Langer, and Joanna Frueh, Ann Arbor/London: U.M.I Research Press, Studies in the Fine Arts: Criticism, #27, p. 159.
  13. Ibid., p. 162.
  14. Gouma-Peterson, op. cit., p. 355.
  15. Pollock, Griselda. Vision & Difference – Femininity, Feminism, and the Histories of Art. London/New York: Routledge, 1990 printing, copyright 1988, p. 183.
  16. Ibid., p. 84.
  17. Ibid., p. 17.