A FEMINIST INTERVENTION- Women Artists of the ’70s; PART ONE by Ruth-Eloise Lewis

I recently took a module with the wonderful art historian Griselda Pollock where she introduced me to the idea of a Feminist Intervention. Although Pollock applies this theory to the realm of art and art historical criticism, I think it is an idea that can be projected on to all areas of life: cultural, social, political or economical. Below is a short extract of writing I did during the module that I would like to share with you all. What do you think about a Feminist Intervention? Do you feel it is a concept that can be, and should be, applied to areas of our contemporary society? And if so, how?

A feminist intervention in at’s histories is a critical approach that challenges the ideologies and systematic hierarchies embodied in the traditional canon of Western art. When studying this naturalised version of the history of art, a narrative is assumed that breaks down and divides works into movements conditioned by style or form, for example cubism, modernism, abstract expressionism. A feminist intervention is used to question art history as an organised discipline, one that is primarily a masculine discourse, centred on the notion of the individual, gifted creative ‘genius.’ It is a representational practice that actively contributes to the structuring of gender roles, sexual difference and power relations. We are conditioned to appreciate the greatness of art, the astonishing realism, how the rendering of paint can create movement, shadows, juxtapositions between light and dark, texture and atmosphere. What is needed, however, is a study of the social, cultural and political relations surrounding art in a particular society and the ways these work to determine and condition our opinions and experiences. Most importantly, a feminist intervention exposes the dominant paradigm of sexual construction within this institution and how it has marginalised women. This construction of sexuality is primarily implicated in looking and the gaze- men are allowed to actively look, fantasise, speculate at a woman’s naked body in art, the woman becomes the passive reciprocator of the gaze, the object of desire. This creates a gender hierarchy of structured sexism and a production of difference. Women are seen by these academic disciplines as different, Other to man so she can therefore be controlled and restricted.

Women are erased and omitted from this version of art history, as Linda Nochlin argues in the 1971 article “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists? ” She calls for a paradigm shift for a feminist critique but warns against getting into a ‘no- win game’ of simply adding women into the story of art. Adding is not the same as producing. It leaves the masculine boundaries intact and acceptable. A feminist intervention in art’s histories raises awareness that there could be one than one single approach when talking about art. It firmly locates gender relations as a factor in cultural production and makes the question of gender central to the argument, emphasising that the art of the past are merely representations, coded in hierarchical, rhetorical structures. The spectator needs to become aware that he or she may be identifying with illusory, fictional worlds. An intervention questions the entire system and institution. It places art on a continuum with other economical, social and political practices. A deconstruction of this system then allows questions to be raised about a diverse variety of prejudices that it imposes on gender but also race and class.

A deliberate grounding of feminist art in socialised and subjective experience led to the most innovative and provocative works of the 1970s. The widespread use of the Pill partially began to allow women to explore their own sexual pleasure, however, cultural idealisations of the female form- in advertising, the media, pornography and art, were still dominant and degrading. As Lisa Tickner argues (Tickner, L 1978) women’s bodies were used to sell to men, they were available as a commodity for fantasy, an articulation of masculine sexuality and desire. No comparable tradition of erotic imagery was addressed to women or celebrated their own sexuality and experiences. Our own sexual experiences, as women, are differentiated from those of men, but equally as valid and important. Furthermore, the female genitals were completely absent in the traditional Western canon of art; smoothed over, erased, hidden from view behind the Venus Pudica pose. Alternative imagery of the female genitals did exist, enticing and perpetuating male voyeurism in the pages of Penthouse and other pornographic publications. The feminist critic Germaine Greer argued that due to this erasure, both men and women have a fear and genuine loathing of the female sex organs, which ultimately had an extremely negative effect on women’s perceptions of themselves, or in her words “the universal lack of esteem for the female organ becomes a deficiency in women’s self-esteem.”

What was needed was a rupture of the patriarchal litany that defined artistic and aesthetic values, a refusal of sexist ideology and a re-integration of the female genitals into art as a political, self-conscious gesture. An affirmative exploration of female sensuality through celebratory imagery of the female genitalia, asserting women’s ability to become makers of their own meanings.

A group of artists such as Judy Chicago, Miriam Schapiro, Hannah Wilke and Carolee Schneemann began experimenting with a new visual language with which to express women’s experience. This visual language is often labelled as ‘central-core imagery’ or ‘cunt art’ and aimed to replace connotations of inferiority with positive, assertive images. These artists even reclaimed the word ‘cunt’ which is arguably the most offensive and degrading word in our language, in order to create a positive feminist intervention. They explored notions of cultural ‘femininity’, often consciously using pinks, pastels or aesthetic images of the vagina and vulva as an act of defiance and a connection to a common awareness of the political Women’s Movement. The traditional doctrine of ‘separate spheres’ where women belonged to the private, not the public, world was examined and the personal became political. A woman’s body, and genitals, was a site of knowledge on her own terms. As Joanna Freuh states, these images spoke directly and primarily to other women, for arguably the first time, “we do not need to make vaginas in our art, but our making of representations as sophisticated, smart and blatant, as full of ridiculous beauty as the phallus, would contribute to the sexual, gender, and aesthetic purity that I believe women need.” This intervention conceived a new language of desire and proclaimed that living in a female body is different from looking at it, contesting the canons of modernism and formalism taught in art schools at the time. This type of art remains as valid and necessary today as it did in the 1970s.

P.S. I’ve included some images from the Guerilla Girls that sum up perfectly the hierarchies of art history (plus, that’s quite a lot of text to read !)

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