“Women’s Art,” for good or not, has often been differentiated from “Art,” which by default is art by men.
Mary Cassatt, though clearly of the Impressionist school, spurred the broad landscapes favored by her male counterparts. She focused on more intimate, interior spaces, often with images of women and children. Just like many female artists through history, much has been made of that being a result of her feminine point of view.
Other female artists, like sculptors Rosa Bonheur and Anne Whitney, gained attention in their lives for opposite reasons. Their work was noted for being indistinguishable from that of their male counterparts, when judged by style, subject matter, size, and mastery of materials.
There have been women who, like many female authors, presented their work under gender-neutral or male pseudonyms to avoid being judged by their sex. And, there has always been a huge discrepancy between opportunities for male and female artists.
The modern feminist art movement rose up from the political and social upheavals of the 1960s. Linda Nochlin’s essay, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” was published in the January 1971 issue of ArtNews magazine, and helped to solidify the movement. The essay, as well as the entire movement, continue to be controversial to this day.
Do woman need a separate movement to be recognized as legitimate artists? Is that not, in itself, a form of division? Do we want – or need – special criteria for judging our art? These are all valid and on-going questions. They may never be answered to universal satisfaction. In the meantime, art historians have had time to observe and analyze work that has resulted from – or since – the movement began.
Feminist art is body conscious. The human figure has reemerged, with imagery of the female body from a woman’s point of view. These are not gentle, fawning ladies; depictions of women appear strong, forward-moving, even angry. Feminine trappings are treated with tongue-in-cheek humor or extravagance.
Feminist art is personal. It is message-laden. It addresses individual stories as universal themes, through performance, story, and imagery. Often, the viewer is invited to become a participant, either by entering the scene or by adding to it.
Feminist art harkens back to craft. It has been noted that women have always made art, but that the work made by women was considered lesser. Thus, the many forms of stitchery, weaving and arranging that fell to women were titled “craft.” Judy Chicago turned that idea on its head with “The Dinner Party,” a massive art installation that combined needlework, embroidery and ceramics as well as an impressive history of women through the ages.
Faith Ringgold incorporates paint and brocade in large story quilts. In a sculpture series called Family of Women, she uses ceramics, sewing and basket-making techniques to create large standing figures. Ringgold uses satire and a loving eye to address the struggles of women as well as the civil rights movement in her work. Which brings up another important aspect of feminist art: it is often political.
Like many art movements, feminist art has many facets, but is impossible to stereotype. According to Linda Nochlin:
“Not all women artists are feminists; not all feminist artists wish to incorporate their feminist identity into their art works, and certainly, even if some of them do, none of them will do it in the same way.”
Ideally, in my opinion, feminist art will one day be relegated to history. It will be noted as an archaic but necessary step to achieving an all-inclusive art world.