The unfinished revolution
The year 2007 was marked by an almost sudden burst of feminist and post-feminist exhibitions and projects worldwide. From WACK: Art and the Feminist Revolution and Global Feminisms in the USA to Cooling Out: On the Paradox of Feminism and If I Can’t Dance, I Don’t Want to be Part of your Revolution, in Europe. It remains to be seen if this renewed interest in feminist art practices was just a passing fashion, another facet of the recent trend towards re-examination and re-appraisal of the 60s and 70s or whether there is a real interest underlying this revival, with an accompanying urgency in bringing back to the fore some of the issues underlying feminism. Nevertheless, now seems as good a time as any to discuss the legacy of feminism, its achievements and shortcomings and the issues that concern women today, in art as well as society in general. The long-term project Der Strich – organised by women artists, with women artists – forms the kind of necessary counterpart to the recent plethora of feminist and post-feminist exhibitions; such efforts contribute to the continuation of the debate and aim to show that, in some quarters at least, the preoccupation with feminism is not a passing fashion.
Surprisingly, putting together an all-female show may even today raise an eyebrow, and even suspicion. Funnily enough, much of this suspicion comes from women themselves. I experienced this when organising such an exhibition entitled Fusion Cuisine for the Deste Foundation in Athens 2002, where I was often confronted by the question “But why only women?” When I replied “Why Not?”, no one could come up with a convincing argument except for the poor cliche that such projects ‘inevitably’ marginalise women artists (as if they hadn’t been marginalised without them). Why indeed are there exhibitions featuring only black artists, video artists, Chinese, Indian artists or artists from eastern Europe, for example? Clearly because even behind these generalising rubrics, there are issues to be discussed, ideas to be aired. No one will really ask “Why an exhibition only of Indian artists?”. But somehow, organising an exhibition of feminist art immediately puts one in the line of fire, on the defensive. At times, women artists themselves refuse to participate. I recall reading an article by a colleague who described Tracey Emin’s response when invited to such an exhibition; it was something like a categorical “I am not a feminist nor do I want to be identified with Feminism”, as if feminism were a disease one were in danger of contracting by mere association. 46 years after the publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique and with many gains admittedly made in the field of women’s rights (in the west, one should hasten to add), this view is quite astonishing, even more so when it originates from an accomplished, powerful woman, with nothing to lose.
Why is it, then, that female artists occasionally get so defensive when asked to participate in an all-women’s or feminist exhibition? It certainly cannot be because they associate it with that brand of bra burning, man-hating essentialist feminism which now appears as old hat as Vito Acconci masturbating underneath a ramp in a gallery, or Carolee Schneeman pulling a scroll out of her vagina, however radical both manifestations were in their day. And since the 1980s, a decade during which women artists reclaimed the representation of their image, what’s there to be afraid of? The problem is, perhaps, that feminism (or feminisms) has been plagued by too many negative stereotypes, but also that its development has been fragmented, to the extent that the term evokes too many different and conflicted agendas and ideological factions. As such no real definition of it exists that somehow fits our times and that women can identify with today. If we add to that the fact we live in post-political times, the feminist issue would appear to have lost its urgency, notwithstanding the female quotas that occasionally have to be met in the workplace and elsewhere. It thus remains an open-ended, unresolved issue in many respects because, on the other hand, no one can convincingly argue that its goals have been fully attained. Women still face the glass ceiling to varying degrees, and in some countries that ceiling is made out of reinforced concrete.
Nevertheless, those who still violently react to the ‘F’ word need to be reminded of what should be obvious: that the fundamental principles underlying feminism (whether first, second or third wave, post, pre- or para-) are of a humanitarian nature, advocating equality and justice for women where that is lacking. Therefore, when a woman proclaims she is not a feminist, it’s as if she is saying that she is not interested in her own rights and her own status in society. But as with most things in life, here too, hypocrisy and double standards abound; those women “who snub the label “feminist” or consider it a slur, synonymous with “unsexy,” will nevertheless support equal pay for equal work, oppose lenient domestic violence laws and generally support feminism’s other humanitarian aims.”
(1) Though this truism should not have to be re-iterated, feminism is still necessary in the cases where women are disadvantaged or disenfranchised; in that sense, its end point is far from view. Pronouncing feminism dead, however, as some quarters of the media and academia have done occasionally is – to say the least – not only ridiculous, but also dangerous. Assuming feminism is outmoded, that it has passed its shelf life date is also seriously flawed; since when do human rights issues of any kind have an expiry date? We don’t ever think of burying the issue of childcare, sexual harassment in the work place or domestic violence, for example, or the continuous striving for racial equality. Feminism should be viewed in the same way insofar as it promotes equality on a wide range of issues that affect women. As long as there is injustice, racial and gender inequality in the world, feminism will be a necessity. As Roberta Smith correctly points out, “The word feminism will be around as long as it is necessary for women to put a name on the sense of assertiveness, confidence and equality that, unnamed, has always been granted men.”
(2). Dismissing it and undermining its importance is therefore a profoundly uncivilised and unethical position to adopt. So what happened between the 60s/70s and now, and how come feminism came to be considered passe? Carol Armstrong offers one convincing explanation, “Well, for one thing, the ’80s [happened], and with that decade various forms of backlash. For another thing, all these wild cultural adolescents became well-groomed middle-aged people and lost their creative zeal. For yet another thing, it all went academic, theory became doctrine, feminism turned into postfeminism, the humanities went posthuman, and art went anti-art. A lot of the energy of those decades simply turned negative, and then that negativism was enshrined, institutionalized, and inoculated against self-critique.
(3). Many people assumed that the battle had been won, considerable advances had been made, sexual liberation achieved, so what more did women want, anyway? And of course, how many men seriously supported the feminist cause, which would have advanced further if it hadn’t been predominantly propelled by women, and thus inevitably segregated on one level.
In the past, one of the problems of feminism was that it tended to put all the blame on ‘the patriarchy’ for all the wrongs that women faced. While there is a considerable degree of – centuries old – truth in that, there has been much less discussion about what women themselves have done or not done to further the feminist debate, since the pioneering efforts of the first feminists. Perhaps an additional reason that the feminist debate has stagnated – at least in the field of the visual arts – is the attitude we women have ourselves. Assuming, wrongly, that feminism has met its goals or falling into the trap of believing that in being associated with it, we are in danger of being marginalised from the field of power play and recognition, we have been shooting ourselves in the proverbial foot ever since (for further reading into this subject its worth looking into Christina Hoff Summers 1994 book Who Stole Feminism: How Women Have Betrayed Women). The notion of ‘sisterhood’ or ‘girl power’ is a real myth, if ever there was one, except perhaps where it concerns occasional tea party, the bar crawl or ‘ladies who lunch’. Apart from the concerted efforts of the feminists in the 60s and 70s, with all the problematic essentialist rhetoric – and individual efforts since then – the solidarity and collaborative spirit that put the momentum into feminism as well as feminist art has all but fizzled out, superseded by our arch-individualistic culture and the professionalisation of the art world, where career comes before anything else, feminism is considered old-fashioned and unsexy, and collective action now seems to concern a small group of old school, left wing idealists.
Even though very few women will ever admit to it, the fact of the matter is that many women artists and curators feel more comfortable – safe, even? – sticking with the boys than helping each other, though both could be possible. Has there ever been an equivalent of the ‘old boys network’? It wouldn’t be such a bad idea. And while segregation of the sexes is certainly not the premise of the ‘new feminism’ which preaches equality in all quarters – nor am I suggesting in any way that women themselves are the driving force behind sexism today – women in positions of power should be looking after the own kind a bit more if only because the glass ceiling is still there and yes, women still mostly have to try twice as hard (think Hilary Clinton). In that sense, a return to collaborative thinking and practice seems imperative. As Lucy Lippard has pointed out, “Collaboration has long been a weapon against the powerful sense of alienation that characterizes late capitalism, which divides and separates through specialization at the same time that it homogenizes. Putting things together without divesting them of their own identities is a metaphor for cultural democracy, the diametric opposite of a global corporate culture.”
(4) The loss of urgency and the collective momentum behind feminism also relates to other geo-political, cultural and other changes that have been wrought during the last twenty years or so. With the ‘war on terror’, the ‘clash of civilisations’, the religious divide between east and west and the huge environmental crisis facing the planet, feminism and the rights of women are no longer high on the agenda of the mainstream debate. On the other hand, while there is no shortage of women working on individual issues such as childcare, equal pay, or reproductive rights, these issues do not form part of a wider debate regarding inequality. As Natasha Walter suggests “because this wider picture has got lost, the struggles women face in their daily lives are seen as private, not collective. The language of choice – women choosing to get plastic surgery, women choosing to stay home with their kids – is spoken without any feminist analysis of the forces that drive these so-called choices. Even when people do recognise the economic, political and social inequality that still prevents women from making free choices, they tend to shrug their shoulders, to slip into cynicism and inertia… at the moment, women are being sold personal rather than political empowerment, and young women particularly are under the constant blandishments of a culture that tells them that the only way to feel empowered is through shopping and plastic surgery”
(5). Perhaps the current lack of politicality today is also the reason there currently is a recurrent tendency to revisit and quote the art of 60s and 70s – feminist art included – in artistic and curatorial practice, “The recuperation of feminism in art discourses and institutions is also, surely, in part perhaps about a desire to return to, and take wisdom from, the most successful political movement within the visual arts in the past 50 years during a time of political crises for the left. In the face of the explosive resurgence since 9/11 of American (and to a lesser extent British) imperialism and sectarian wars all over the world, this need to define some effective mode of political intervention in the face of global networks of power that seem inexorable and impossible to break down is surely in part what drives the sudden motivation to look back to a fantasized golden age when art and activism were intimately linked.”
(6) It is precisely this kind of political consciousness that our times are lacking, and the necessity for that has become increasingly clear. By extent, the debate on women’s rights has to return to the political arena, and women don’t need to be apologetic about it, though they don’t have to put men into the corner either. It’s time for feminist practitioners, thinkers, artists to break past the negative taboos of ‘old feminism’ and the often wishy-washy attitude of ‘new feminism’ and realise that instead of throwing the baby out with the bath water, new models have to be envisaged and courses of action engaged in, with both sexes involved in the process.
As far as the small community of the so-called ‘art world’ is concerned, it’s good to see a gradual – if belated – acknowledgement of how feminist art of the 60s and 70s has played an important role in the way contemporary art has developed. It’s refreshing to see a number of scholars and curators finally acknowledge how indebted recent art history is to feminist art practices in terms of the discussion on the politics of identity and representation, autobiography, performance as well as the aesthetics of the abject and the grotesque. “Breaching taboos of various kinds, many of them linked to the representation of the physical body, women artists individually and collectively can be said to have worked to desublimate, de-fetishize and resignify the notion of “the feminine”; to have contested mass cultural fantasies of femininity; the status or identity of the artwork; the role of the artist and, hardly least, the meaning of the aesthetic tout court.”
(7) And who would now doubt that feminist art has also affected male subjectivities from Matthew Barney and Robert Gober in the United States to Henrik Olesen and Karl Holmqvist in Europe. The problem, however, is that the mechanisms of the art world are still far from progressing as far as the art did. As critic Jerry Saltz very correctly points out feminist art “may have changed the way art looks – but it didn’t quite change the way it works”
(8). Despite the marked increase in exhibitions featuring female artists, major museums still predominantly stage exhibitions of male artists (less than 5% of the solo exhibitions held by Tate between 2002 and 2005 were by women) and most very senior posts in the institutions are held by men. In Belgium, where I live (northern Europe, lest we forget), there isn’t a single female director in a significant museum or contemporary art centre. In the wider social sphere, women still earn less than men, still lack equal representation in government, still are confronted with sexual harassment or violence, and still sometimes struggle to to balance different responsibilities and meet often impossible standards. Yes, gender discrimination still does exist, as was confirmed by a recent study conducted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on the status of its women faculty in the entire university. That doesn’t exactly come as a surprise. What is more worrying however, according to this study, is the conclusion that this discrimination is of a subtle nature, or even unconscious, which makes it even more difficult to confront. As one of the members of the Guerilla Girls points out, “A lot of discrimination is unconscious, people just perpetuating the status quo”
(9). Having learnt our lessons in political correctness well, we opt to cloak the problem than confront it head on. It is this creeping silence that is, in my opinion, one of the most serious obstacles women face. If the problem is not vocalised, how do you fight it? The MIT study also demonstrates that even in the cases where women did achieve a certain academic status, they faced the problem of marginalisation in the work place, and how that frustrated, even thwarted, their career paths. “Marginalization is quantified by inequities in resources, access to leadership roles and exclusion from high-level decision-making processes.”
(10) So what is feminism today and how can it find back its voice of inspiration? For one thing, then, feminism is not only about equal opportunities but also about responding to the problem of marginalisation when those opportunities have been taken. In addition, it is about acknowledging the fluidity of identity, the complex feminine formation, and challenging the idea of the commonality of women’s experience. Female subjectivity thus has to be acknowledged and confronted as a key issue. At the same time, however, feminism today has to continue to contest the female stereotypes that abound, from ‘Devil-wears-Prada’ career bitches to submissive, pouting sex kittens; the media and fashion industries have certainly not played a very progressive role in dismantling either stereotype, and at some point they will have to radically reconsider their role and responsibility in this respect.
How can a workable definition of feminism be re-formulated today, one that is not vague and watered down, but also one that doesn’t blame men for all that’s wrong with the position of women? The kind of feminism necessary nowadays is certainly not the militant type that arose (out of anger and necessity) in the 1960s. We’ve come a long way since then, but perhaps not enough. Feminism today does not only involve advocating women’s equal rights, but also men’s, in fact the rights of all human beings. Feminism today does not mean disavowing femininity, and need not be embraced by women alone. But feminism today should not only be about reclaiming the image of femininity, disavowing media representations, and taking control of sexuality. It should support not only women’s rights, but equality across the board regardless of gender or class. In fact, the most convincing and lucid vision of feminism I have read about recently is in an article by Courtney E. Martin in the New Statesman. Martin argues that feminism should be defined by three major components: educated choice, genuine equality, and radical authenticity: “Educated choice: Both men and women need to have access to choices and, even more, they need to have the tools necessary to make good choices. It is not enough to just say that women should have access to abortions, for example. They also need to know all of their options and feel like they have a full understanding of the health risks and quality of life issues that each entails; they also need to have the economic provisions to make whichever choice fits their lives and values best.
Genuine Equality: We all deserve the same opportunities, the same access. This is a pretty straight forward concept in theory, but in practice, it is hellishly complicated. Take something like U.S. college admissions. Sure anyone can apply to Harvard, but not everyone comes from a family that can pay for an SAT tutor or has the cultural capital to encourage college. Until the U.S., and other western industrialized countries, recognize the way that networks and subtle class/race/gender dynamics influence supposedly non-discriminatory institutions, our work will not be done.
Radical authenticity: This facet of feminism gets talked about far too little in my opinion. A visionary twenty-first century feminism should aim to support both men and women to be their most authentic selves in the world, shedding prescribed gender roles and really getting in touch with their authentic desires, passions, and ethics. Feminist workplaces, for example, would nurture both men and women having present relationships with their children and fulfilling work lives. Men should be empowered to express a complex range of emotions, just as women must learn how to handle conflict healthily and assertively and take care of themselves, not just everyone else.”
(11). Indeed, it would be hard to argue against any of these arguments.
Espousing the feminine principle, therefore involves not only inventing what Lucy Lippard has described as “some new, more positive mythologies of Woman (and of other Others)”
(12) but bringing “the other sex into the fold of art and feminism, because, given that men represent roughly 50 percent of the population and still hold most of the keys to the city, if we don’t, we’re just preaching to the choir, and the choir is still in the ghetto.” (13). Considering and embracing this kinder, gentler and more inclusive definition of feminism may provide some light at the end of the tunnel in terms of the challenges we still face as regards gender equality but also global human rights.
- Katerina Gregos, Brussels, March 2009
1. Ana Finel Honigman,”Why is feminism out of fashion in contemporary art:?”, The Guardian, Thursday 8 March 2007. The sub-title of the article reads: “Women have reached unprecedented positions of influence within the art world but gender inequality is still rife”
2. Roberta Smith, “They Are Artists Who Are Women; Hear Them Roar”, New York Times, 23rd March 2007.
3. Carol Armstrong, “Global Feminisms”, Artforum, May 2007.
4. Lucy Lippard, “No regrets: an art critic looks back on the hard-won achievements of feminist art and the current state of its legacy”, Art in America, June-July, 2007
5. Natasha Walter, “My part in feminism’s failure to tackle our loaded culture: Young women are angry about a creeping silence on cultural sexism and persistent political and economic inequities, Thursday 26th January, 2006.
6. Amelia Jones, “The Legacy of Feminist Art” in Gender Battle, exhibition catalogue of the Galician Center for Contemporary Art (CGAC), Santiago de Compostela 2007, p. 300.
7. Abigail Solomon-Godeau, “Role Play: Feminist Art Revisited 1960-1980 at Galerie Lelong”
8. Jerry Saltz, “The Venus of Long Island City: P.S. 1’s survey of feminist art shows us the birth of just about every art trend that’s in vogue today”, New York Magazine, March 27th, 2008.
9. The Guerilla Girls on Feminist Art, N.PARADOXA (international feminist art journal exploring feminist theory and contemporary women’s art practices)
10. “MIT completes ground-breaking studies on status of women faculty”
11. Courtney E. Martin, “Is Feminism Dead?”, The New Statesman, 18th December 2007.
12. Carol Armstrong, “Global Feminisms”, Artforum, May 2007.