Speaking plainly, I ask you: What exactly is feminism? For somebody in my generation (those born after 1977 or there about), Feminism ranges from being a human rights issue to being a dirty word. For many of my peers, post-feminism is easier to relate to, but no two minds can agree on what post-feminism actually means. So in looking at feminism in a post-ism age, how does this infinite fracture within feminism(s) reflect into our artistic practices?
There is certainly need for further inquiry when artists as wholly different as British sensationalist Tracey Emin and Australian post-colonialist Tracey Moffat can be lumped together simply because of anatomy. This was the case in a confusing guest lecture I attended some years ago at the University of Alberta. As an impressionable young student, I did not see any similarities between the works, but the discussion only wildly speculated on artistic intentions (oh, academia!).
Feminism is certainly a complicated animal. It has always been rooted in the personal, in the various realized experiences of the female body, unleashing the female self as a preface to social change. As a movement for rights and equality, feminism as we know it today has roots in the Victorian Era, which squarely places the foundation of feminism in the hands of an upper class sect, i.e. Christian and European. In the 20th century, feminism materialized as a global human rights issue and, like most human rights issues, there is still a long journey ahead. Feminism has grown and split into localized, nationalized, and racialized feminisms that speak to the multifaceted refractions of being a woman depending not only on ideological specificities, but also the colour of your skin and which area of the world you live in.
So how has any of this been reflected in the art world? Feminist art recently received a reprieve in the retrospective of WACK! curated by MoMA’s Connie Butler. The touring show traced feminist art through a predominantly historical lens and featured important, but mostly Caucasian artists that experimented with their bodies and sexualities. The show appeared as a time capsule of radical female artists, leaving me to wonder whether feminist art could still exist or whether it was a history lesson. Another exhibition, while lesser known but far more contemporary, was The Dunlop Gallery’s Pandora’s Box curated by Amanda Cachia. The international line up included the likes of Ghada Amer, Laylah Ali, Wangechi Mutu, and Kara Walker exploring issues of femininity without ever outwardly calling the show a feminist exhibition. In looking at the legacy of feminism in contemporary art history, there is no one certain style or philosophy, or even agreement as to who was and is a feminist, and that has certainly translated into diverse exhibitions and curatorial strategies too.
The one consistency is the under representation of women in galleries and museums. For decades, The Guerrilla Girls have been throwing up stats for years that show how drastically disparate the numbers are when it comes to women vs. men in the art world, and through it all the percentages have not improved. Sure, The Whitney Biennial for the first time in its 78-year history featured more women than men. As gender was not a defining issue in curatorial selection, was it then just mere coincidence? I’d love to say yes, but I know it to be untrue. Enrollment by women in art school have been steadily climbing, but where do all these young artists go after they graduate when women still make up less than 30% of most exhibition line ups? My generation who lives and operates in a post-ism world still can’t help but recognize this disparity, which leads to the bigger question of how we can be post-feminists when feminism itself has not exactly been resolved.
I don’t believe there to be a single answer, but acknowledging our experience and our history will only help inform us. My own turning point in rethinking feminism was through recently attending a lecture by Lucy R. Lippard on Eva Hesse entitled “Something Old, Something New: Eva Hesse Forty Years Later”. It’s been forty years since the New York Women’s Movement was founded and the key feminist exhibitions were first curated but as things were then as they are now: the definition of and identification with feminism is still not agreed upon and feminism in the art world still has a long way to go.
Lippard’s talk revealed that the ideas and influence of feminism are long from being mummified as footnotes. It was intriguing to hear her speak of Hesse’s works in terms such as the “female malaise” and “sensuous abstraction”, phrases that situate the work within a scope larger than any single artistic intention. Hesse herself never identified with feminism, though the burgeoning of must-read texts such as The Second Sex were certainly nearby; self-identification is only one piece of the much larger puzzle. Even if not named as feminist by the artist, can we not reclaim it as such?
Lippard then told an anecdote about speaking with her friend’s daughter. Lippard asked the independent young woman if she identified as a feminist, which for many these days is an awkward question at best. The younger woman said yes she did, that she stood up for herself and what she believed. Lippard corrected her by sharing that feminism is not about standing up for yourself, but standing up for other women.
To stand up for ourselves as well as for others has become a lost artform in a post-ism landscape, where individualism outshines us all. We may be beyond labels but, like Hesse or any artist who may or may not identify as a feminist, it is the reach of the work, and the pushing of limits and boundaries of one’s efforts, that makes art have an impact that rocks us to our undeniable cores.
At the end of her talk, Lippard shared a quote from Hesse that drifted along the lines of “life doesn’t last, art doesn’t last . . . ” but while we are here participating in both of these ephemeral states of expression, we may as well try to make it count for the better and for the next crop of post-individualists.
*First published and commissioned through MAWA.ca