Feminism’s Long March

By Abigail Aolomon-Godeau

Art in America, June 2007

Pg. 63 Vol. 95 No. 6

All of a sudden, or so it seems, work by women artists is everywhere to be seen. Well, maybe not everywhere, but with “WACK!” currently on view at L.A. MOCA and “Global Feminisms” at the Brooklyn Museum, women artists—many still among the living—are now showcased in major museums on both coasts. A growing number of monographs and university courses are devoted to contemporary women artists, and art critics such as Holland Cotter of the New York Times have matter-of-factly acknowledged the centrality of feminist politics and feminist theory to much of the significant art produced since the 1960s. Related events, such as “The Feminist Future” (Jan. 26-27), the Museum of Modern Art’s first-ever public symposium on feminism in the arts, and a recent spate of one-person exhibitions and catalogues on some the the period’s key figures (e.g., Eva Hesse, Louise Bourgeois, Kiki Smith, Ana Mendieta, Valie Export) would seem to attest to the “success” of both women artists and feminist thought within the global emporium that is the contemporary art world.

Would this were so, as the authors of After the Revolution: Women Tranformed Contemporary Art (Eleanor Heartney, Helaine Posner, Nancy Princenthal and Sue Scott) carefully document in their introductory essay, the rise of women artists (leaving aside whether these are considered to be feminist artists or not) has been neither meteoric nor, evidently, unchecked:

Examining the number of solo exhibitions by women artists presented from the mid-seventies until the present, through a representative sampling of influential (commercial) galleries, we can see that the situation did improve until the 1990s, but that it appears to have reached a plateau. In the 1970s, women accounted for only 11.6 percent of solo gallery exhibitions. In the 1980s, the percentage of solo exhibitions by women crept up to 14.8 percent, and in the 1990s the number increased to 23.9 percent, but the percentage has dropped slightly, to 21.5 percent, in the first half decade of the twenty-first century. The current number of solo exhibitions by women artists is not notably better than the average of women’s exhibitions for the entire period under consideration, 18.7 percent. While the number of women artists’ exhibitions has doubled since the early seventies, it has really only kept pace with an expanded market: women still have roughly one opportunity for every four of the opportunities open to men.

The authors also indicate that in the realm of art publishing, the number of monographs devoted to women artists is significantly lower than that of books and articles dealing with male artists—three publications on men to every one devoted to women. Although unmentioned, prices attained by women artists are also roughly lower than those commanded by male artists, and it is a rare group exhibition that features more than 18 percent women artists. This seems especially true in Western Europe, where many curators and writers remain dismissive of anything that smacks of “American-style” feminism—an attitude particularly evident in the composition of large-scale group shows and in art criticism historicizing the 1980s.

This is not however, to deny the important gains that women artists have made since the 1970s. After all, Janson’s History of Art was an all-male preserve until integrated in its third edition in 1984. Ann Hamilton, Jenny Holzer and Nancy Spero have in the past decade represented the U.S. at the Venice Biennale. Cindy Sherman can certainly be reckoned among the most famous of the living artists, and many recent survey books dealing with contemporary art include sections, if not chapters, on feminism and its artistic influence.

How feminism is currently handled in generalist books on contemporary art is another matter altogether. There remain nagging questions not merely about the still-elusive goal of genuine parity for women artists but about nature, place and status of feminism in contemporary art practice and theory. (Does a workable definition of feminist critique even exist?) Moreover, there is still the challenge of positioning feminist art-making within a pluralist and increasingly globalized arena that is largely market-driven and often remote from the concerns of all but a tiny fraction of humankind.

Two recent volumes, both devoted to the work of women artists, highlight some of the tensions, problems and contradictions hovering around concepts such as feminist artist, feminist art, woman artist and critical practice. Although these issues are not directly addressed in either book, the instability or amorphousness of such terms when they surface in the texts indicates the writers’ uncertainty about their relation to the individual artist and the work she produces.

After the Revolution consists of a collective introduction by the authors and 12 individually authored essays on prominent women artists (Louise Bourgeois, Nancy Spero, Elizabeth Murray, Marina Abramovic, Judy Pfaff, Jenny Holzer, Cindy Sherman, Kiki Smith, Ann Hamilton, Shirin Neshat, Ellen Gallagher and Dana Schutz). Such a grouping seems implicitly informed by the requirement to accommodate “differences.” Artistic mediums are diverse (painting for Murray and Schutz, performance for Abramovic, installation for Pfaff and Hamilton, film/video for Neshat, and mixed mediums or photography for the rest). Age ranges widely (from the 90-something Bourgeois to the 30-something Schutz). Ethnicity and race are also varied (through the inclusion of one African-American, one Iranian and one Serbian). Each essay is constructed as an overview of a single artist’s production to date and includes discussion of her artistic formation and training, her formal and/or conceptual development, and her overarching themes, preoccupations and manner of working. Composed by experienced and knowledgeable critics and curators, all of whom are lucid and thoughtful writers, these profiles are uniformly informative, occasionally eloquent and especially insightful when examining individual works in the broader context of the artist’s oeuvre, in each case vividly evoked by the book’s copious illustrations.

In contrast, Contemporary British Women in Their Own Words, by Rebecca Fortnum, a painter and lecturer at the University of the Arts, London, is a far more modest affair. It consists of interviews with 20 artists, many of who are relatively unknown outside of the UK: Anya Gallaccio, Christine Borland, Jane Harris, Hayley Newman, Maria Lalic, Jananne Al-Ani, Gillian Ayres, Tracey Emin, Lucy Gunning, Jemima Stehli, Claire Barclay, Maria Chevska, Tacita Dean, Emma Kay, Sonia Boyce, Tania Kovats, Runa Islam, Vanessa Jackson, Tomoko Takahashi and Paula Rego. Here, too, there is a range of mediums, of ages, and of race and ethnicity. Each of the interviews begins with a photograph of the artist, but the book contains no other illustrations. We might ask, at the risk of tendentiousness, why the image of the artist is deemed more important than images of the art. And given the few resemblances (other than gender) between the artists in either of these two books, what determines why these particular women artists should be treated as an ensemble? Indeed, not a few of Fortnum’s chosen artists insist that they do not define themselves as feminists or feminist artists. In her introduction, Fortnum acknowledges that her selection process was not predicated on any unifying theme: “The artists were chosen to represent a cross section of practices from the UK’s art scene.” So the book is based on what for her is the self-evident interest of artists’ creative processes. “Articulate or otherwise,” she writes, “the mysterious relationship of an artist to their work can never be exhausted and is compulsive listening.” But given the type of generalized descriptions that arise in the interviews, this approach is not especially informative.

Writing in the foreward to After the Revolution, Linda Nochlin (who effectively inaugurated feminist art history in 1971 with her essay “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?”) states that the logic of such roundups is twofold:

Contemporary women artists as a group need to be singled out for critical attention. This is partly because their work has been less studied than that of some of their male colleagues and partly because only by taking them as a group can the range and variety of their stylistic and expressive projects be understood. For it is difference rather than similarity that is as stake here.

Yet the differences that are fully acknowledged by Nochlin and the authors are precisely what make the joint presence of these artists appear almost random.

This in turn raises the long debated questions of whether art made by women constitutes its own category and, if so, what characteristics–either positive or negative—could define such a category. For all their dissimilarities, both books seem to posit that women artists as women artists may be grouped together in some kind of collective persona. Such a rationale informed the establishment in Washington, D.C., of the National Museum of Women in the Arts (“dedicated exclusively to the exhibition, preservation, and acquisition of works by women artists of all nationalities and periods,” according to its website). One would be hard put to connect a painter such as Elizabeth Murray to a performance artist like Marina Abramovic, a formalist installation artist like Judy Pfaff to an unambiguously political artist such as Nancy Spero, unless one privileges gender over all other considerations.

Unlike certain other anthologies consecrated to women artists (for example, Catherine de Zegher’s Inside the Visible, 1996, or Helena Rickett and Peggy Phelan’s Feminism and Art, 2001) neither of these books is informed by a perceptible parti pris, other than the authors’ esteem for the artists they write about. Nevertheless, the title After the Revolution, affirming that feminism was once revolutionary but also indicating that we are now in the “after” stage, suggests what some Z might call a “post-feminist” position. This is clearly not the authors’ intent, but the temporal locution—“after”—remains problematic. Insofar as we are currently witnessing a backlash against many of the gains of the women’s movement (reproductive rights in particular, should one need an example), one might argue that, rather than living in the aftermath of the revolution, we are still experiencing its unfolding. That entails the emergence of the counter-revolutionary symptoms, such as the term “post-feminism,” itself, no less than the proliferation of religious fundamentalisms of all stripes. By eliding the distinction between woman artist and feminist artist, by largely ignoring any question of the politics of art-making itself, or indeed the institutions (both discursive and material) of the art world, After the Revolution and, more parochially, Contemporary Women Artists demonstrate the limitations of the category “woman artist” in the wake of the cultural transformations fostered by modern feminism.

As Nochlin herself argued in her founding essay, the import of feminism for women artists and for cultural production in general does not reside in supplemental measures that serve an existing apparatus. The assimilation of more women artists into either canon or market not only leaves unquestioned the terms governing both but implicitly endorses the established structures of legitimization and the market determinations that underpin those structures. For this reason, the consideration of women as artists entails some consideration of the larger factors—psychic, social, economic and institutional—that shape artistic production, notwithstanding the fortunes of any individual. The issue of whether a woman artist defines herself as a feminist is now somewhat beside the point. What is far more important is what the work is doing, how it operates in its context, whether it exceeds, disturbs, destabilizes or puts in question its commodity status as trophy, decoration or fetish.

In this regard, the influence of feminist thought on art is by definition a critical, a resisting, a dissident practice. Not least of the collective accomplishments of women artists who emerged in the 1970s is their demonstration of the pervasive gendering of all aspects of art. Thus, while there is obviously no such thing as a feminist style or ( in any simple way) a feminist art, there is perhaps an art of feminism, a widespread, international, constantly evolving set of practices that—whether or not they endorse notions of feminine specificity, whether or not they seek to invent artistic languages for sexual difference—have collectively sounded the death knell for the universal subject, the universal viewer, the universal producer and a universal art.

In the final analysis, the laudatory goal of acknowledging the contributions of women artists has its own pitfalls and limitations. Just as the “difference” once attributed to women’s art has historically functioned to marginalize or dismiss it, so too does recourse to a celebratory and pluralistic agenda minimize the no less significant differences within women’s art production. Failing to distinguish between affirmative and critical forms of art-making, between “conventional” and post-studio mediums, or between politicized and apolitical agendas is to implicitly affirm that women’s art-making is distinctive merely because it has been made by women.