The art world at large has been abuzz over the past few months about the seeming re-emergence of feminist art. Three weeks ago, the Brooklyn Museum of Art inaugurated its Elizabeth Sackler Center for Feminist Art, which featured Judy Chicago’s feminist sculpture “The Dinner Party” on permanent installation. The same day, the Brooklyn Museum launched a major exhibit titled “Global Feminisms,” which featured a survey of feminist art made since 1990 from all over the world. In early March, another major exhibition of feminist art, “Wack! Art and the Feminist Revolution,” opened at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles.
These two shows are noteworthy because they are the first shows of their kind to go up in the past 10 years. Feminist art saw its heyday in the 1970s and has largely been overlooked or dismissed in the intervening 30 years. In addition, the exhibits are notable because female artists are so rarely represented in major group exhibitions. For example, in the Greater New York show put up at PS1 in 2006, women artists made up only 33 percent of the artists exhibited, though women make up a majority of emerging artists. In addition, a survey undertaken by the feminist performance art group Brainstormers of the representation of women and men in Chelsea commercial galleries found that over half of the galleries show over 60 percent male artists, some as many as 80 percent or higher.
The question that exhibits of this kind raise is whether it is productive to promote a division between political or feminist art and all other types of art. Do these exhibits allow often-overlooked artists a forum? Or do they further ghettoize the works of politically conscious artists by constraining them to such a specific category?
Moreover, art shows with such an explicit curatorial focus promote an overly simplistic reading of the art, both by creating a rigid framework with which to view the works, as well as ignoring a lot of subtly feminist art. A show that features feminist art implicitly suggests that making work that deals with issues of gender, sexuality and womanhood is somehow different from any other art that responds to and is drawn from our cultural environment. All art is indebted to its artistic and historical context, yet we don’t pigeonhole Picasso’s work as being about only World War II, David Hammons’ work as commenting only on poverty in New York City or Diego Rivera’s very political murals as addressing only socialism.
Most feminist art shows would dismiss the works of minimalist painter Danielle Mysliwiec because nothing in her paintings obviously advances a feminist cause. Rather, Mysliwiec’s feminism is embedded in her minimalist undertaking — minimalism is a traditionally male-dominated area of art — as well as the delicate allusions to lace and other feminine objects found in her works.
My fear is that feminist art shows only look for feminism on the surface of the work and give little or no credit to the great deal of feminist rigor that serves as a foundation for many female artists. Making art as a female presupposes a certain level of feminism. Though women constitute the majority of art students, the commercial art market and elite arts institutions remain boys clubs. The Yale University Art Gallery serves as a good case study: Jennifer Gross, curator of the Modern and Contemporary Department, is often considered a feminist art curator because she exhibits and collects an equal proportion of male and female artists, even though she never does so with a consciously women-friendly intent.
The other critical consideration when thinking about this type of art is whether the art is made in service of a political message, or whether the political agenda is simply an outgrowth of the art. For example, posters made by the Guerilla Girls are art, yes, but more importantly, they are meant to be aggressively political. The artistic and aesthetic elements of the posters are only in the service of advancing a very particular goal. A sculpture artist like Betye Saar would argue that the politics explicit in her art are a natural extension of her assemblage process.
I don’t mean to condemn the efforts of the Brooklyn Museum or of MOCA. It is important for artists who consider themselves feminist to show their work and to have a platform to organize and network. Furthermore, it is about time that a major arts institution installed a show that focuses on contemporary women artists. But this should not encourage the art world to prescribe certain working methodologies to women artists or essentialize women artists as feminist artists. Women can and should make art about whatever they choose and be judged on the aesthetic and social value of their work.
Adda Birnir is a senior in Morse College. Her column appears on alternate Tuesdays.