Art

Revisiting the Question “What Is Feminist Art?”

Building on an influential 1977 feminist exhibition, the Smithsonian’s updated edition takes a more inclusive approach, adding further nuance to the question of how and who gets to define feminist art.

Laura Kina, “Aram Han Sifuentes in her studio” (2019), various media, 8 1/2 x 11 inches (all images courtesy the Smithsonian Archives of American Art)

In 1976, activists Ruth Iskin, Lucy Lippard, and Arlene Raven sent pink postcards to hundreds of artists: “If you consider yourself a feminist,” the postcards’ prompt read, “would you respond by using one 8 1/2 x 11 [in.] page to share your ideas on what feminist art is or could be.” The responses were exhibited the following year at the Los Angeles Women’s Building in the original What is Feminist Art? exhibition.

Ana Mendieta, “Microscopic view of the umbilical cord” (1976), various media, 8 1/2 x 11 inches

In honor of the centennial of the 19th Amendment’s passage, an updated show with the same name is being presented at the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art and online, and places some of the 1970s responses alongside new works by contemporary artists who were posed the same question. The results range widely in form and content, from candid handwritten manifestos to provocative photo collages. Mary Edellson’s typed response begins, “I had so much trouble with this question that I tried typing on pink paper and that didn’t even help” (between 1976 and 1977). Laura Kina’s portrait depicts artist Aram Han Sifuentes (2019) at work on a protest banner that reads, “SHUT THE FUCK UP,” while Ana Mendieta responds with an image of an umbilical cord magnified underneath a microscope (1976). Together, these works give us insight into feminist art movements from the last 40+ years — their varied visions, accomplishments, and limitations.

Sheila Levant de Bretteville and Deena Metzger “Response to ‘What is Feminist Art?'” (1976–1977), collage, 8 1/2 x 11 inches

Many works from the original 1977 exhibition reflect concerns about an art world and larger culture that silences women’s voices and excludes their creative contributions. As performance artist Jerri Alyn writes in her response to the prompt, “I have become aware of how little room there is for me.” In a  typed statement (1977), early feminist art movement pioneer Judy Chicago describes a narrative about a woman entering an art museum, and feeling alienated by what she finds there: “She felt her vision of the world receding before the power of so many images which distorted her body, denied her mind and asserted her womanliness only as a passive presence, never as an active force.” Chicago’s piece calls to mind how much work still needs to be done around gender parity in the art world over forty years later: between 2008 and 2018, artwork by women represented just 11 percent of acquisitions and 14 percent of exhibitions at 26 major museums, according to a study by artnet News and In Other Words.

Still, other pieces from the ‘77 show explore the risk of “token acceptance” of individual women artists. Martha Rosler questions, in her manifesto response, “whether to be satisfied with gaining entry into the […] system that has made it part of its business to keep women out of the running, or to insist that the principles of these systems change” (1977).

Tanya Aguiñiga “Response to ‘What is Feminist Art?’ (2019), collage, 8 1/2 x 11 inches

More inclusive in terms of race, ethnicity, and gender identity than the 1977 exhibition which featured mostly white, mostly cis artists, the 2019 collection adds nuance to the question of how to define feminist art, and and emphasizes the importance of considering who gets to frame these decisions. As Howardena Pindell writes in a typed statement, “Feminists should not make the same errors as patriarchy: racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, ageism, and genocide” (2019). Featuring a photo of a group of women hugging, Tanya Aguiñiga’s collage (2019) draws attention to how, historically, feminist movements have often foregrounded the experiences of white women with text reading, “LABEL UNDER / IMMIGRANT, FEMALE, ARTISTS OF COLOR, / FUCK YOUR ERASURE / COLONIALISM, PATRIARCHY / ALWAYS DOIN FREE EMOTIONAL LABOR FOR YOU.”

Relatedly, textile artist LJ Roberts questions the exhibition’s lack of honorarium for participants, noting in a white typescript statement set against a black background, “As a queer, gender non-conforming, non-binary person in the arts […], being asked to produce work for free undermines critical goals that feminist art aims to achieve.” Roberts concludes, “This is feminist art (all too often)” (2019).

Nina Kuo, “Response to ‘What is Feminist Art?'” (2016), mixed media, 8 1/2 x 11 inches

The openness of the exhibition’s 8 1/2 x 11-inch page prompt — and the sheer variety of responses — captures an inclusive spirit that counters the “objective” truths of patriarchal knowledge; instead of just one definition, hundreds of them vibrate against each other energetically. “Feminist art has existed on this continent long before the need for the word feminism,” points out jeweler and metal artist Kristen Dorsey (2019), highlighting feminism as a historical continuum, and foregrounding the goal of making things better for the next generation.

Archives of American Art Interim Director Liza Kirwin explained over email to Hyperallergic that the exhibition’s organizers “wanted to encourage visitors across generations to consider the question from their lived experience.” This show reminds us that feminist art is multifarious, ever-expanding, sometimes flawed, and, like all social movements, slowly making progress with numerous mistakes along the way. It is “necessary but not sufficient,” as Terry Wolverton writes (2019), “The spiral never ends.”

What is Feminist Art? continues through November 29 online and at the Smithsonian Archives of American Art (The Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture, 1st floor, 8th and F Streets, NW, Washington, DC). The 2019 exhibition was curated by Mary Savig with a curatorial advisory committee including Nao Bustamante, Alexandra Chang, Jaclyn Roessel, and Legacy Russell. 

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