Here's a little taste of what I've been writing in grad school--- I miss writing here too so not to worry, there are other DIY posts coming but in the mean time, maybe enjoy something arty?
The first generation of feminist artists in the United States sought primarily to define and develop a ‘feminine’ sensibility and aesthetic, as distinct from the dominant male perspective that pervaded both the art world and society at large. This goal was supported by several tactics used to enable feminine identity building, including the reclamation and revaluing of feminine characteristics, the female anatomy, ‘women’s work’, and representations of women in history. To do this, artists embraced the female body, particularly vulvic or ‘central core’ imagery, as a source of power and strength. Female genitalia had long been spurned by the patriarchy as a source of shame, and in response many artists grounded their practice in the revaluation of this portion of the body. Moreover, this led to an interrogation and ultimate renunciation of the power of the presumed viewer or male gaze, in favor of an agentic control over a woman’s own sexuality. The focus on the female anatomy intended not just to emphasize a body part, which had not been appropriated by the patriarchy, but also to single out something that was essential to the female experience and what makes women distinct from men. Commenting on the use of the body as primary medium, feminist critic Lucy Lippard notes, “When women use their own bodies in their art work, they are using their selves; a significant psychological factor converts these bodies or faces from object to subject.” Moreover, a visceral, somatic representation of the female experience is foundational to early feminist art works.
Carolee Schneemann’s 1963 work Eye/Body exemplifies the first generation feminist artist’s use of her body as primary media. Schneemann, in the tradition of Fluxus performance art, specifically focused her body art toward reclaiming agency and re-valuing the female anatomy. In the work, Schneemann created an environment filled with broken mirrors, motorized umbrellas, and rhythmic color units. Schneemann covered her naked body in various materials including grease, chalk, and plastic. She created 36 "transformative-actions" consisting of photographs taken by another artist of Scheemann in her constructed environment. Included in these images is a frontal nude featuring two garden snakes crawling on Schneemann's torso.
This image is of particular significance for it’s use of serpent imagery, drawing on the mythos of the Minoan Snake Goddess, as well as her visible clitoris. Schneemann’s nakedness serves to jar the viewer into a two-sided experience of her performance. Disallowing the audience’s objectification of her body as they might when viewing a traditional nude of the Western canon, Schneemann forces the viewer to engage with her humanity. Her agency in this image gives the female form a subjectivity it previously lacked, firmly establishing her practice in opposition to the traditional representation of the female nude. Schneemann’s use of snake goddess symbolism is also fundamental to early feminist art practices. Feminist artists emphasized the erasure of women’s contributions from the canon of Western history by highlighting the accomplishments of women who had been otherwise forgotten. In an effort to both define and differentiate themselves, first generation feminist artists looked for a mythos that predates the exertion of patriarchy. To this end, Great Goddess cultures offered these women somewhere in history to ground their origins outside the boundaries of patrilineal society.
Additionally, seeking to elevate ‘women’s work’ to high art that had otherwise been relegated to the domestic sphere, feminists embraced alternative media like textiles, installation, film, and performance. The practice of first generation feminist artists was grounded in second wave feminist principles of collaboration and consensus and usually involved consciousness raising techniques. These artists were focused on intervening in the workings of social hierarchy and the patriarchy they saw at work in the world around them, to redefine the characteristics erroneously ascribed to women throughout history.
Judy Chicago’s installation work The Dinner Party (1974-79) prominently highlights these techniques. Chicago and her contemporaries deeply connected with origins that were free of patriarchal oppression and sought a vision of future liberation. Highly symbolic, the work consists of consists of a series of Entryway Banners, a ceremonial table representing 39 important historical female figures, Heritage Panels, which highlight the contributions of the 999 women whose names are inscribed on the Heritage Floor, and the Acknowledgement Panels that identify Chicago’s assistants and collaborators. Chicago’s use of a collaborative process as well as the symbolic “headless” table serves to reinforce early feminist ideals and is reminiscent of feminist consciousness raising techniques, and the building of constituency. Moreover, this work serves to interrogate what it means to be a woman in Western society, searching for meaning within an oppressive context and finding the essential characteristic that binds these women together.
The media itself also contributes to the essential-ness of the work. By using ceramics and needlework, Chicago used techniques that have been traditionally undervalued as crafts. Employing these media in a such reverent manner lifts the feminized art forms to the level of ‘high art’ as interpreted by mainstream Western art history. The setting of a dinner party, focusing on the ultimate feminine domain, the home and the serving of food, further invoke the feminized symbolism. This calls attention to the societal expectations of women and the domestic realm to which they were relegated. The tables are arranged in a “V” or triangular shape and the plates themselves also use vulvic forms, seeking a link to the sacred feminine of early goddess religions. Each setting is geared specifically for the contribution and the period of the woman it honors. The place settings begin with the Great Goddess and move through Herstory to Georgia O’Keefe, progressively moving from flat to high relief, each adding further dimension as though a great awakening was occurring.
Later feminist artists, however, began to question the essentialism and singular identity built in the first generation in favor of more whole representations of female identity. Second-generation feminist artists shifted toward more individual concerns and focused less on a general, unified feminist message. Feminist artists of this generation were still committed to gender equality in the art world and society, but chose different tactics to achieve this goal. Moreover, in order to seek the destruction of male-dominated societal precepts, they focused less on the differences between men and women, which was associated with their foremothers. Instead, they continued the dialogue between artist and viewer via an embrace of mass media tactics with a combination of alternative media practices and the use of a postmodern lens to further subvert the patriarchy. Artists like Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer focused on mass communication that drew on the visual vocabulary of advertising, both in their use of graphics as well as their distillation of complex social and political critiques into catchy slogans. The use of appropriation and advertising techniques in feminist art practice grew out of a reaction to the conservatism of the Regan administration and the self-centered consumer culture of the 1980s. Critically, second-generation feminist art practice centered on investigating identity, the body, and society through psychoanalysis, a significant pivot from the visceral lens of earlier practices, signaling an embrace of postmodern theory.
Barbara Kruger’s style is emblematic of the shift in second-generation feminist art practice. Kruger’s background in graphic design and advertising combined with the influence of Jean Baudrillard’s philosophy regarding mass media consumption and the simulacrum, as well as Jacques Derrida’s concern with deferred meaning and the deconstruction of text led her to explore an aesthetic which questioned the nature of originality as well as the structures of power that control language and its meaning. In so doing, Kruger merged slick graphic design, appropriated imagery, and bold phrases to engage the viewer and encourage an interrogation of contemporary circumstances. Her iconic aesthetic consists of highly legible fonts and a narrow palette of red, black, and white yields work that is both artistic expression and a protest against postmodern life. With laser-like precision, she makes use of her media background to sell an idea, rather than a product.
One of her early works, Untitled (Your gaze hits the side of my face) from 1981, makes use of wit and direct commentary to communicate directly with her viewer. In her characteristic black and white, Kruger has imposed bold, legible text vertically on the left side of a found image of a female bust statue. This work draws particular attention to a concern of Kruger and her contemporaries, the male gaze. The found image of a statue comments on the objectification of women by male viewers both in art and culture at large. It also calls attention to the imprisonment of women by the constructs of gender and femininity, as nothing more than sexual, inanimate objects to be used and consumed by men without their own agency or depth. By contrast however, the expression of the statue herself is not one of submission, but strength with her face defiantly turned away from the presumed male viewer. The statement, from the perspective of the female subject, is reminiscent of biblical edicts of ‘turning the other cheek’ to those who would harm you. This further highlights Kruger’s defiant rejection of the male gaze. The text as well points to the ways in which language “manipulates and undermines assumptions of masculine control over language and viewing, by refusing to complete the cycle of meaning, and by shifting pronouns in order to expose the positioning of women as other.” A point that stands in contrast to another of Kruger’s works where the presumed viewer is certainly female, Untitled (Your body is a battleground) from 1989, a work designed for a reproductive rights protest.The subject’s face is vertically split in two revealing both positive and negative photographic exposure of the image as she stares straight ahead through the print, frankly addressing the viewer through her gaze. In this work, Kruger addresses the feminist struggle for bodily agency, connecting the physical body of an implied female viewer, bucking the traditional gaze, to contemporary conditions that necessitate feminist protest. The 1989 work seems to be merely a continuation of the first, a face in the process of turning defiantly to confront patriarchal power structures.
While many feminist artists in the second-generation heavily critiqued earlier practices for their essentialism of the female body and the ghettoizing notion of a unified ‘female’ aesthetic, these later practices were built on the identity building and consciousness raising efforts of the 1960s and 70s. The process of identity building can be seen on a continuum, in this case evolving from a practice rooted in visceral revaluing of the body toward an intellectual reclamation of language. For both first- and second-generation feminists, the goal was clear: to vehemently seek gender equality and to be in control of their representation. Chicago herself understood the importance of knowing and understanding what had come before, “Because we are denied knowledge of our history, we are deprived of standing upon each other’s shoulders and building upon each other’s hard earned accomplishments. Instead we are condemned to repeat what others have done before us and thus we continually reinvent the wheel.” While the critiques of first generation art practices are valid, it would be a disservice to dismiss these contributions, as they were a critical step in the process of gender equity.
 Lucy Lippard, "The Pains and Pleasures of Rebirth: Women's Body Art," Art in America 64, no. 3, pg 79.
 Whitney Chadwick, Women, Art, and Society, World of Art. New York, New York: Thames and Hudson, 1990, pg 382.
 Judy Chicago in Louise Bernikow, The American Women's Almanac: An Inspiring and Irreverent Women's History (1997), pg 185.
I'm hoping to experiment with adding some relevant art critique to this blog from time to time-- so let me know what you think! xoxo