Feminism & Art

First Things First...

This class will look at how feminist thinking has impacted the arts—both by looking at the work of women artists influenced by these ideas since the 1960s, and by considering how a feminist lens can change the way we look at art made throughout history, and even the category of art itself. Because this is a vast project, this lesson uses just one or two artistic examples per theme, and offers them in relation to subjects likely to have come up in past lessons, in order to engage students in critical thinking rather than attempt a historical narrative.

Themes:

  • Constructs and Performances of Masculinity and Femininity
  • The Personal is Political—and Art is Personal and Political
  • History, Myth, and Narration—Deconstructed and Reconstructed

Chronologically, “Feminist Art,” a category of art made by women consciously aligning their art practices with the politics of the Women’s Rights Movement and feminist theory, emerged in the late 1960s and early 1970s. This means a class on feminism will come quite late in the semester, if not on the last half of the last day, if at all. A lecture on Feminist Art can be a good opportunity to reflect on the narrative of art history that has unfolded over the course, and point toward ways that more advanced courses or continued study in art history might critically complicate that story.

Consider past material covered with the class—how have women appeared within the course? As subjects mostly, as patrons occasionally, and very infrequently as artists, writers, or figures of power. How much have we learned about the lives and impact of women throughout history from online resources used over the semester, like the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Timeline of Art History or the BBC’s The History of the World in 100 Objects? Why might that be?

Use this prompt to start a discussion about the many ways gender bias can affect our understanding of history. Ask your students to take a few minutes in groups to answer the question above, referring to concrete examples from the course, before coming back together as a class. As a group, try to compile a list of the material/economic/societal role limitations faced by women in different periods, as well as the biases of historians and contemporary evaluators of “importance” who often believe that their criteria of what is important is universal, without recognizing how their judgment is shaped by the particularities of their privileged positions. Also note biases of categories and values, such as the hierarchy of painting (with genre/women’s scenes at the bottom) or the hierarchies of mediums themselves, with painting “crafts” at the bottom.

Another effect of gender bias in our accounts of history can be illustrated by a slide from the Prehistory lesson, showing a contemporary white male professor demonstrating how cave painters would blow paint around their hand, together with a discussion of the recent scientific analysis showing that these “signatures” of the early cave painters were mostly made from women’s hands.

Show students the slide, and ask them if they remember it (if it appeared earlier). Ask if anything struck them as strange about it when they first saw it. How about now, in the context of this class? If you don’t get any answers, you can start prompting them to think about who was likely to commission or use the image (scientists, professors) and how closely the “stand-in” figure for the original artists of all of human history looks to the stereotype of a professor or scientist, visually suggesting the women and minorities were unlikely candidates to fill either role. Then pass out or hyperlink to an article reporting on the new findings and have the class read it quickly. What strikes them about the article—what kinds of assumptions underlie the surprise it expresses? How are the slide and the tone of revelation in the article connected?

Background Readings

Yoko Ono, Cut Piece, 1964, Performance.

Some background readings for teachers that are both foundational feminist art historical texts and address various applications of the topic outlined above (women artists, art historical value judgements, subtle inscriptions of power and difference on contemporary artist biographies) include:

Linda Nochlin, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” ARTnews (January 1971), 22–39, 67–71.

Griselda Pollock, “Feminist Interventions in the Histories of Art” (1988), in Eric Fernie, ed., Art History and Its Methods (London: Phaidon Press, 1995), 296–313.

Anna Chave, “Minimalism and the Rhetoric of Power,” Arts 64:5 (January 1990), 44–63.

If the survey text book includes a section on feminist art, you can include that for students’ background reading, though it is likely to be quite short. As preparation for class discussion, the Brooklyn Museum’s Curatorial Overview for Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party gives not only great background on the work, but a good overview of the art context from which it emerged, as well as numerous feminist strategies used in this and other feminist works over the decades. If this is the reading assignment, the lecture section on The Dinner Party could be redesigned so that students are responsible for presenting on specific ideas (historical revisionism, women’s work, “central core” imagery, etc.). For a shorter and more general introduction, Blake Gopnik’s review of the exhibition WACK! is a lively polemic, and can be used to prompt debate or inspire “review-style” writing assignments.

Video resources fall into two categories—about artists’ practices, like Art21, which features feminist-associated artists such as Nancy Spero, Kara Walker, and Kiki Smith, and museum-produced videos, like this great interview with Wangechi Mutu; as well as the wealth of original performance art and video works available on YouTube and UbuWeb. (Another incredible video resource, the uncut interviews used for !Women Art Revolution, are hosted by Stanford and perfect for crafting a class report/research assignment.)

Most concise and great for a pre-class overview might be the Tate’s recently posted “Where are the Women?” featuring Girls star and aspiring painter Jemima Kirke. At the end of the video, she raises the issue of “revisionist art history,” noting that how best to address women’s erasure from history is still hotly debated. This is a debate that you could choose to have at the end of class or via a written response afterward.

Content Suggestions

Glossary:

Deconstruction: a method of critical analysis of philosophical and literary language that emphasizes the internal workings of language and conceptual systems, the relational quality of meaning, and the assumptions implicit in forms of expression. (via Merriam-Webster)

Feminist art: work that is rooted in the analyses and commitments of contemporary feminism and that contributes to a critique of the political, economic and ideological power relations of contemporary society. It is not a stylistic category nor simply any art produced by women. (via Grove Art Online)

Historical revisionism: the reinterpretation of orthodox views on evidence, motivations, and decision-making processes surrounding a historical event. Though the word “revisionism” is sometimes used in a negative way, constant revision of history is part of the normal scholarly process of writing history. (via Wikipedia)

Performativity: an interdisciplinary term often used to name the capacity of speech and gestures to act or consummate an action, or to construct and perform an identity. Performativity reverses the idea that an identity is the source of more secondary actions (speech, gestures). Instead, it inquires into the construction of identities as they are caused by performative actions, behaviors, and gestures. Performativity problematizes notions of intention and agency; it complicates the constitution of gender and subjects. (via Wikipedia)

Postmodernism: a host of late-twentieth century movements, many in art, music, and literature, that react against Modernist tendencies and are typically marked by revival of historical elements and techniques. Postmodernism is often associated with deconstruction and post-structuralism because its usage as a term gained significant popularity at the same time as twentieth-century post-structural thought. (via Wikipedia)
Feminism first manifested in the arts as a sudden eruption of questions and criticism—an awakening among women artists, writers, and thinkers who believed they had serious grounds upon which to challenge the notion that women were naturally less talented, less motivated, or less interested/interesting than men. Instead they argued that women had been systematically and structurally kept from paths of achievement, but also that even when they overcame those limitations, their achievements were in other ways co-opted, ignored, or erased; and finally, that the notion of achievement was itself relative and defined by male values.

Over the course of this class, we’ll look at how this thinking impacted the arts—not just art made by women, but the entire field—as it was forced to rethink some of its basic tenets and most cherished beliefs about itself. Instead of being seen as simply tracing, preserving, and celebrating the great cultural achievements of humankind, feminism forced art theory and history to consider the roles they might have played, by separating art as a special, elevated category of human production predominated by male artists, critics, and patrons, in creating the impression that women were inferior, not just in the arts, but in all elevated aspects of human achievement.

The key ideas of this lecture can be explored in an hour and fifteen minutes through a variety of examples listed below by theme, including:

Constructs and Performances of Masculinity and Femininity

To understand the disruption that feminism caused, it is helpful to think about the context of American culture just before feminism gained momentum. On one hand, the 1950s and 60s in America had perhaps some of the most rigid ideas of what was appropriate and acceptable behavior for each gender since the Victorian era, and in post-war America, the rise of TV and mass media culture allowed those ideals to be naturalized and widely disseminated, regardless of how attainable or true they might be to people’s actual experience. For example, the idea that all women could or should be happy housewives was a powerful message across the nation, despite the fact that women had proved capable of working in a variety of fields during WWII, and that poor women and women of color were never really factored into this fantasy of femininity.

At the same time that people’s expectations and experiences were being highly policed according to gender, the values of high art were focused on the universal, transcendent potential of abstraction—the idea, as we talked about in relation to Abstract Expressionism, that art was meant to be a purely visual medium, only about itself and its own potential for innovation, and as such an expression of human creativity, freedom, and existence in abstract and universal terms. Art “about” something specific was seen as trivial and the implication was clear that those who weren’t moved by abstract art were just not culturally evolved enough to appreciate it, rather than that it might not be as relevant for some people’s experiences as for others’.

  • Jackson Pollock at work in his studio, 1950. Photograph by Hans Namuth
  • Carolee Schneeman, Eye Body: 36 Transformative Actions, 1963, Paint, glue, fur, feathers, garden snakes, glass, and plastic with the studio installation “Big Boards.” Photograph by Erró

(For further discussion of these works, see this interview.)

Depending on your preference, perhaps present these two images side by side without identifying captions at first, and invite the class to respond to what they see on screen. Begin with a compare and contrast discussion of Schneeman’s image in relation to Pollock’s, which will presumably be familiar and recently covered material.

What are we looking at in Schneeman’s image? Multi-panel collaged paintings, with elements of the real world (á la Rauschenberg) included in the structure. In each of the series of photos, the artist’s naked painted body is presented as part of the tableaux. Schneeman’s artwork becomes unstable, an evolving set of potential images activated by her performance, and her body and its difference refuses to be transcended—her body is embedded, encrusted in the surface of the work just as Pollock’s masculinity had been read into his paintings, but without ever having to make itself visible.

You may remember that we talked about the way Pollock drip paintings were interpreted as ultimate modernist paintings all about painting and flatness, as psychological deposits of artistic angst or quasi-spiritual existential pourings of his inner being, but also as Action Paintings: the canvas as an “arena on which to act.” In Pollock’s context all of these interpretations were cast in the most masculine terms—bravery, facing the abyss, attacking an opponent (notice it isn’t a stage for dancing, but an arena, like a boxing match). The next generation of artists would be inspired by the idea of the body itself becoming part of the work, or the medium of art itself, but feminist artists in particular would focus on the performance of the body as not just any body, but always a gendered body that is read differently, expected to have certain qualities and behaviors, and therefore bound to interact, perform in, and experience the world differently. This fact that the artist’s body plays a part in his/her work, as well as the idea of art as a performance rather than an object, are taken to their literal culmination in the series of photographs directed by artist Carolee Schneeman called Eye Body: 36 Transformative Actions (1963).

  • Carolee Schneeman, Interior Scroll, 1977, Performance

(See here for further information.)

Carolee Schneeman, who trained and thinks about herself primarily as a painter, has continued to work in ways that blur the boundaries between static and durational formats. She was at the forefront of Happenings and performance art in the early 1960s, performing in works such as Claes Oldenburg’s Store Days (1962), Robert Morris’s Site (1964), and directing and performing in her own exuberant Meat Joy (1964). She then began making experimental films that were hand-colored, highly textured, and mixed abstract and very specific, highly personal imagery (most famously, Fuses, 1965). While her work is now considered groundbreaking, during the early part of her career she faced a lot of discrimination from the avant-garde film world, which was even more of a boys’ club than painting. Like painting under the influence of Clement Greenberg, art films had taken the idea of medium-specificity to its extreme, so that the most highly praised films were about technical aspects of filmmaking, like the zoom or editing, or about the conditions of projecting film, like light and darkness, or dirt accumulating on the surface of the film strip.

Schneeman’s most widely reproduced work, Interior Scroll (1977), is a performance during which she unravels and reads a text from her vagina. Through the images alone, this piece seems to be very rooted in the experience of the body, about nature and fertility from the womb, but the text Schneeman reads has nothing to do with vaginas, wombs, or fertility, as you can see from the excerpt on the screen [perhaps ask students to read aloud, or the instructor can read aloud and ask for an interpretation/summary in response]. The text is really a snarky, pointed response to the gendered value systems of the art world, which may pose as neutral but were set up to privilege male voices and only allow women to speak if they agree to speak like men. Schneeman is challenging what seemed to her (and others) as the suspicious side-effect of Greenbergian Modernism and the minimalism and linguistic conceptualism that followed. That is, the time when it was first possible for women and minorities to find voices in the larger culture and access the refined halls of high art conveniently coincided with a push for art to have no narrative, to be something purely aesthetic or conceptual about the nature of art, rather than the story of the artist; or to be entirely about the viewer<‘s interpretation of an abstract, analytic proposition instead of reflecting the artist’s personal experience.

  • Yoko Ono, Cut Piece, 1964, Performance

(Extended discussion here, artist’s reflections here)

  • Vito Acconci, Following Piece, 1969, Performance

(Smarthistory essay here)

Performance became a favored medium for feminist artists because it was both new, without a long history that excluded them, like painting’s, but also because it always foregrounded the degree to which experience is based in bodies that are differentiated by gender, as well as race, class, and other such socially divisive categories. These two powerful performance pieces emerged at almost the same moment from what we might say was a gender-neutral interest in Conceptual Art, that is in making work using instructions as a way of relinquishing or limiting the artist’s control over the work. Yoko Ono’s instructions for her piece read: “Performer sits on stage with a pair of scissors in front of him. It is announced that members of the audience may come on stage—one at a time—to cut a small piece of the performer’s clothing to take with them. Performer remains motionless throughout the piece. Piece ends at the performer’s option.” Vito Acconci’s piece is based on the self-determined rule that he would pick a stranger walking along a public street and follow them until they went into a non-public place, an activity that could last anywhere from a few minutes to eight hours.

How would you interpret each of these pieces separately—what kinds of metaphors and philosophical ideas do each mobilize? How does that giving up of control signify differently? How do the artists’ gendered bodies affect how we read these pieces? How are their symbolisms and affects different?

Both investigate issues of control and ego as well as the relationship between the individual and others in a social/relational field, but in comparison also suggest oppositions such as passivity versus aggression. It is interesting that Acconci’s idea of giving up control looks like stalking, and Ono’s looks like submission. Is this because of the way they constructed their experiments to circumvent control, or because of the way we read their bodies in action? It could be a little of both. Ono’s piece can be performed by a man, and when it is it reads very differently, though never ominously like the photos of Acconci. But when it is Ono on stage, the implications resonate in a variety of directions, and many do relate to a certain kind of body—interpretations related to sexual violence or female objectification are common; evocations of sensitive imagery from World War II of Japanese civilians with their clothes shredded by the atomic blast and from the escalating Vietnam War are also put into play. Yet, Ono also wanted to challenge Western, masculine value systems that see submission as weakness, and she speaks eloquently about being influenced by stories of the Buddha and attempting to “produce work without ego in it…Instead of giving the audience what the artist chooses to give, the artist gives what the audience chooses to take” (statement by the artist).

 

The Personal is Political—and Art is Personal and Political (whether it’s obvious or ideologically naturalized)

By investigating how different types of bodies have different experiences in the world, and lead to different interpretations and responses to artworks, feminist artists helped make visible the powerful insight of the slogan “The Personal is Political,” which was used widely by the Women’s Rights Movement. As women around the country came together to talk about what felt like isolated, private experiences—from sexual abuse to dissatisfaction with housework—that society tended to cast as individual failings on the woman’s part, they realized their “personal” problems were in fact widely shared, and politically structured aspects of society.

Likewise, women and minority artists started resisting the idea that art would only be valid if it wrestled with concepts that transcended the “personal,” especially if speaking of personal, but shared, experiences had the power to unite classes of people who felt isolated by the silence surrounding anything that differentiated their experience from the “universal.” For if art was to be important to people’s lives, shouldn’t it be able to address highly personalized and yet widely-shared experiences such as sexism and racism? If art was always appealing to the universal human, it was bound to ignore the specific challenges and exclusions placed on certain categories of humans. Also, the question was raised whether there was really anything universal and neutral in art related to mathematical logic or formal abstraction, since these were all areas that had been dominated by and played to the (socialized) strengths of upper class, white men. Maybe Minimalist sculpture was just as personal for the men making it—speaking to the industrial towns they came from, their technical training and fondness for engineering, spare aesthetics, and a denigration of emotionality.

  • Adrian Piper, Mythic Being: Cruising White Women #1 of 3, 1975, Photograph of performance
  • Adrian Piper, My Calling Card #1, 1986, Lithograph

(For more information on Piper and/or a great opportunity to discuss Wikipedia and how it creates and polices its content, see her removed and reconstructed Wiki-bio.)

As a light-skinned, mixed-race woman working first in the style of Conceptual Art, with artists who were interested in art as logical proposition and art as language, Adrian Piper was uniquely placed to press against the presumed universality of these abstract propositions. While Conceptual artists saw their work as political in its resistance to commodification and easy consumption, Piper started to invoke more personal, what we might call “identity” politics.

Piper started by performing strange actions in public, like Acconci, as a way to investigate social interactions—for example, going out with a rag stuffed in her mouth or covered in wet paint and wearing a wet paint sign. But it quickly became clear to her that there is no neutral body, and so working with one’s own body is to work with identity, identity constructions, and social definitions. Piper was at the forefront of turning performance back on itself, as a commentary on the ways in which all identity is performance, and as a tool for considering how we all play roles for each other based on social expectations that exist prior to realizing what we might consider our unique, innate, or self-determined personalities.

In Mythic Being (great article on this here), Piper overidentifies with the role most feared by the art world—instead of being the token, unthreateningly pretty, light-skinned African-American girl, she would show up as a revolutionary-looking, urban black man with an Afro.

Piper did performances dressed as the Mythic Being, going to gallery openings, dancing at the bus stop, and walking the streets muttering lines from her diary to herself over and over. In Cruising White Women (1975), she performs the stereotype at the root of the racist fear of black men on the sexual prowl for white women, and returns it as commentary. Through photos for a gallery-going audience, she showed them their own world-view as caricature and impersonation, a performance she put on to meet their paranoid fantasies. And what could be more personal—both the way people are type-cast and judged by their appearances, and the reactions of the traditional gallery-going audience to the eruption of politics in their pristine white spaces?

In a later work, Piper again used artistic intervention as a tool for combating her real-world experiences with racism and sexism, producing “calling cards” that she would hand out discretely in social situations, which call people out on racist or sexist behavior.

  • Martha Rosler, Bringing the War Home: House Beautiful (Giacometti), 1967–72, Photomontage
  • Martha Rosler, Body Beautiful or Beauty Knows No Pain (Cargo Cult), 1967–72, Photomontage

(Further discussion here; overview/review of artist’s retrospective here.)

So “The Personal is Political” can mean that our personal experiences, and the world that shapes them, is inherently and overtly political, and it can be the ground for political movements and the reason for political change (as in the Women’s Rights Movement, seeking political responses to women’s inequality). But “The Personal is Political” also means that each of us, as an individual, exists in a political nexus, acts as an economic, social, political being, and is part of the body-politic that acts on our behalf—whether in local or international matters. In the context of the Civil Rights Movement, the Anti-War Movement, the Women’s Movement, and the counter-culture, sexual liberation, and leftist politics of the 60s and 70s, “The Personal is Political” also meant that the micro-level choices each of us make on a daily basis are unavoidably political at macro-level, and need to be examined. As feminist art pushed against abstraction to re-introduce subject matter and overt political critique into work, the critique of sexism could be seen in relation to other kinds of political critique.

The late 1960s and early 1970s magazine collages of Martha Rosler center around American capitalism and the degree to which desire, as guided by mass media imagery from magazines, TV, film, and advertising, drives consumption. On the one hand, this system helps create and then profit from our pursuit of restrictive, highly gendered, and generally unattainable social ideals. On the other, it necessitates the aggressive economics of globalization and spurred the politics of the Cold War, in which any country (like Vietnam) that didn’t accept American economic imperialism would face American military imperialism.

Rosler’s collages about the false promises of advertising use the photomontage technique pioneered by Hannah Hoch and other Dadaists to create uncomfortable juxtapositions. On the left, a luxurious, art-filled, serene interior, sold by magazines such as House Beautiful as the ideal home for which we should all strive, is shown to be surrounded by fields of dead Vietnamese from Life Magazine. What are the details of this living room that carry meaning and how might this carefully selected interior help the artist make her point, or deepen that point? A Giacometti sculpture, often interpreted as an existential cry against WWII, becomes just decoration, a commodity for these art-collectors—or can’t they see the relation between European deaths and Vietnamese deaths? A Modernist painting on the wall also problematizes the idea that Modernist painting is the best hope for politically avant-garde or revolutionary potential in art; as it easily becomes beautiful decoration for rich people’s homes, its past radicalism dissipates with time.

Rosler’s collages also play on the idea of the Vietnam conflict as the “living-room war,” so-called because it was the first war widely covered and broadcast by TV news to a growing majority of Americans with TV sets in their home. The question of how one could see such images of carnage, however, from the comfort and safety of the American home and not be moved to action is one that these collages seem to ask but are unable to answer.

On the right, the beauty rituals of perfect white models are pasted onto shipping containers being loaded by dark-skinned men from places far away onto cargo ships, linking capitalism’s success in focusing women on the relentless pursuit of physical perfection with the relentless pursuit of cheaper labor markets in the third world.

Through these collages and her video works, Rosler makes clear that the personal couldn’t be more political. The stereotypes and ideals society lays out for women and men not only shape us as individuals, but this shaping process is guided by the interests of the larger political and ideological situation. Here you could mention the video Martha Rosler Reads Vogue (1982) as a prompt for a writing assignment responding to and analyzing the video’s various critiques and strategies.)
History, Myth, and Narration—Deconstructed and Reconstructed

The ability to analyze, critique, and re-think this shaping process underpins another strategy and segment of feminist art and theory. Feminist artists, other critical postmodern artists, and many artists working today have realized that individuals come to understand themselves and their world in relation to narratives and images that pre-exist them, and that they are shaped by the biases and interests of society. Thus their work came to focus on the narratives that shape us, investigating how these can be updated, diverted, or disrupted. Historical revision, as we talked about at the beginning of class, and as you read about in relation to Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party, is one response to the erasures and absences in history that might make women believe in their own inferiority.

  • Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1974–9, Ceramic, porcelain, and textile

(Website is here.)

If you had the students read the curatorial overview on the website, use this as an opportunity to stop lecturing and have them explicate the important aspects of this project. To make this more manageable and make them feel more responsibility, you could assign summaries for different sections to different groups in the previous class, i.e., one group shares background on the artist, another shares why the use of textiles and porcelain were important, another explains “central core” imagery, etc. Or, you can guide a discussion broken up into pieces: what are the subjects or issues raised by this work? What are the goals it pursues? How does the form of the work, the mediums and iconography used, and the method of display relate to its subjects and its goals?

To give historical context, remind students that this was before women’s studies classes, at a time when one of Chicago’s college professors felt comfortable declaring that women had made no important contributions to history, and when the best compliment most art teachers would bestow on their female students was that they “paint so well, [one] can’t tell a woman did it.”

When Judy Chicago became an art professor, she decided to work with a group of female students to investigate questions such as: what would a woman’s art look like if she wasn’t trying to make it look like a man’s? How do we build a visual language of our own, when the entire history of art, the entire range of visual culture has been defined by and organized around the ideals and achievements of men? Why have women’s creative work and the mediums available to them—tapestry and textile, ceramics and pottery, and other crafts—been demeaned, and can we bring them into the high art classification? And why does history only consider individual achievement, focusing always on lone producers and innovative sudden creation, instead of communal, traditional, and evolutionary achievements building on continual progress through the work of many? (This is a more accurate understanding of historical movements, after all.)

So after creating the Feminist Art Program at California State University, Fresno in 1970, Chicago started to work on a project in 1974 that would seek not only to revise the male-centric Western canon, but to challenge many of the values that went along with it. The Dinner Party uses “central core” imagery instead of phallic forms to unify the table and the plates. The work was produced by a community, with many hands and helpers involved, and showcases crafts associated with women’s work.

Not only a massive artistic undertaking, it was an intense historical research project that helped uncover and share knowledge about over 1,000 women whose stories had been lost. Remember, this was before Google, so finding each name and information on these women was more than a click away—and yet, in early 2014, the Brooklyn Museum sponsored a special Wikipedia Edit-a-Thon to add many of the women from The Dinner Party to Wikipedia. The most common source for quick knowledge on a subject, Wikipedia is created by volunteer submissions and each article requires easily sourced materials, meaning the site often reproduces the biases of traditional histories and the volunteer-editors, who are predominantly male.

  • Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Stills #7 and #21, 1978, Black and white photographs

(More about this project is here, and a Smarthistory essay is here.)

Instead of trying to correct the record of a biased history, many critical artists, especially in the later 70s and 1980s, became increasingly interested in trying to deconstruct the way stories—historical stories, media stories, news stories—all work to shape how individuals present themselves and conform to or perform as certain roles.

Cindy Sherman’s multiyear project Untitled Film Stills consists of almost a hundred photographs, each of which appears to be a still from a movie featuring a lone female protagonist. What information can we gather from each image? What do we think we know about these women? What about the movies they are in? Why do we think we can make these guesses? The clichéd nature of these images remind us that the outward signs we are reading—clothing, poses, lighting, framing—are legible because they are familiar, shared by our social conditioning. Therefore, just as publicity stills can rely on these signs to tell audiences what to expect, we as individuals learn and then position ourselves in relation to these kinds of signs, or performances of personality. This performance, and its flexibility and manipulability, are made clear by the fact that Sherman was the model for all 80+ of the images—doing her makeup and costuming and setting her stages so that she could be thoroughly convincing as each and every one of these women in entirely fictional and unrealized film projects.

By showing the same person, these are “self portraits” of the artist, but without ever showing the “real” Cindy Sherman, they call the idea of a stable, set, “real” individual into question. Andy Warhol, who had his own critique of media culture, famously said in a 1966 interview, “I don’t know where the artificial stops and the real starts.” Here we see the impossibility of constructing an authentic identity outside of all of the artificial images that we are fed, which provide models of womanhood, American-ness, whiteness, success, seduction, etc. that we use to construct identity.

[Optional:] As Joseph Kosuth’s One and Three Chairs showed us (if this work has been covered), we can’t identify a real chair except in relation to the word “chair,” which is an ideal with no equivalent in reality. Similarly, we understand ourselves and others in relation to abstract ideas that can never avoid simplifying or idealizing the thing they refer to.

Sherman’s project offers new insights into how we think about ourselves as individuals and as part of a larger society. We dress a certain way to be perceived as X or Y. Women in particular at this time were asked to fulfill incongruous roles—the sexual playmate and the housewife, the secretary and the devoted mother—and would find that even within one’s individual life, even if the social restrictions on women lessened, they weren’t then free to find some true, authentic self or true essence of womanhood beneath all these clothes and roles. Rather, individuals seemed to be accumulations of roles, of performances, of signs we’ve learned to give off that tell people what to think about us. And while bodies may be biologically assigned as male or female, the performance of femininity or masculinity is something we learn, like we learn language, as babies mimicking what we hear around us. Therefore, there could be no essential or universal experience of what is it to be a woman, because how women and men are asked to perform changes depending on the context in which these signs are learned.

However, with the rapid expansion of media images in the 20th century—photographs, then movies, then TV, especially in the Western world and America in particular—there became the ability for industry to control and capitalize on this shaping of identities, proliferating available roles but also homogenizing the signs and styles that go with those roles. In many ways, it was this homogenous and oppressive vision of the perfect housewife that had caused so many women in the 50s and 60s to feel suffocated, and ultimately rebel en mass in the Women’s Movement. Arguably, Sherman’s work suggests that that goal of critical feminist art is not to find an essential, shared characteristic, style, or iconography that speaks truthfully or authentically of womanhood or woman’s experience, but to realize how ideas of femininity are constructed and disseminated in the media age, find ways to uncover the mechanisms of control, and in doing so, undermine their effectiveness.

  • Barbara Kruger, Untitled (We Won’t Play Nurture to Your Culture), 1983, and Untitled (We Don’t Need Another Hero), 1987, Photostats

(Further discussion is here and a good overview and images are here.)

Similarly, Barbara Kruger’s iconic red and white posters use the visual language of marketing and magazine design to counter the very ideas it is usually used to promote—consumerism, power relations, stereotypical gender roles, the cult of individual achievement, autonomy, and upward mobility—which mark the American ethos, especially during the revived conservatism of the Ronald Reagan years. Having worked as head designer for Mademoiselle magazine, Kruger subversively tweaks the combination of familiar (often nostalgic-seeming), found black-and-white images and slogan-style text bars which are typically used to aggressively sell products but also calibrated to subliminally sell ideas about who you are as a reader, audience, consumer, etc. Kruger makes clear the way advertising asks us to position ourselves in relation to the ideas it is selling by always using ambiguous personal pronouns (we, you, they, us) in her texts. This means that the “We” in “We don’t need another hero” is determined by the imagination or inclination of the person reading it. Is the “We” spoken by the little girl in pigtails, by women as a category, by all people who read the poster, by all anti-heroes? Who is the “You” in “We won’t play nature to your culture”? Whose culture and why is it separate from nature? Who would be asked to play nature and do you include yourself in that group or the other?

Kruger doesn’t identify her work as strictly feminist, but about all of the power relations that affect us as subjects and about which we need to think critically. Another way that her work performs this expansive criticality is by not being contained within museums or galleries, but often appearing as billboards, on buses, city streets and in other public places, and on consumer products like t-shirts and matches that can move about and interrupt our daily acceptance of the status quo.

This expansion of feminist critical strategies to encompass an elaborate nexus of power relations affected by a range of identity-formations (gender, race, class, sexual difference) and geopolitical positions, and a desire to intervene in public, non-art spaces and systems, increasingly mark the work of contemporary artists. These artists often are less inclined to call themselves feminist artists, but nonetheless unabashedly work with and build on strategies, subject matter, artistic mediums, and theoretical approaches that blossomed at the intersection of feminism and art in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s.

At the End of Class...

Use the segue at the end of the lecture to get the class to summarize strategies, subjects, mediums, and theoretical approaches found in the works covered in class. Encourage students to write them down so they have a list to refer to later.

Depending upon whether you want to use the post-class assignment to flesh out historical feminist work, or point the way forward, you could ask students to use this list to discuss the feminist approaches and intentions of video work or performances available online, or to consider how feminist strategies and techniques are expanded by contemporary artists to critically address other issues besides gender.

For the first approach, students could analyze Martha Rosler’s Martha Rosler Reads Vogue, which touches on many themes of the class, or pick another work from the great, often YouTube-linked Bodytracks Timeline. You could ask them to identify feminist strategies, themes, and critiques present in the work, as well as to respond to it from a contemporary perspective. Are the issues still relevant? How are they affected or not by the themes the artist raises?

For the second approach, addressing contemporary modes of artistic critique related to feminism, perhaps give students the choice of working with one of the three extra slides included at the end of the powerpoint. They can use the artists’ interviews linked below to support their arguments.

  • Coco Fusco and Guillermo Gómez-Peña, The Year of the White Bear and Two Undiscovered Amerindians visit the West, 1992–94, Performance at museums

Fusco and Gómez-Peña pretend to be newly discovered members of an indigenous tribe, perform racist clichés, and are displayed in cages as African and New World people were shown in Europe.

Interview with Fusco and Gómez-Peña

  • Kara Walker, Gone, An Historical Romance of a Civil War as it Occurred between the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart, 1994, Cut paper on wall

Walker uses delicate outlines and the old-time nostalgia of silhouette cut-out arts to retell fraught narratives of Southern plantation life. Her works surprise the viewer who looks closer to find twisted racial caricatures and sexual escapades that lurk behind grand myths and heroic tales like Gone with the Wind.

Interview with Kara Walker

  • Mickalene Thomas, Le déjeuner sur l’herbe: Les Trois Femmes Noires, 2010, Rhinestones, acrylics, and enamel on wood panel
  • Édouard Manet (1832–83), Le déjeuner sur l’herbe (Lunch on the Grass), 1863, Oil on canvas

Mickalene Thomas inserts into the history of painting black, sexually self-possessed women who are the objects of her desire and also stand-ins for herself. What are the differences between her work and her source (Manet’s painting Lunch on the Grass)? In her work, she replaces two men with women, so the trio is self-assuring and based on equality, rather than a hierarchy of gender, class, and race. The figures are all clothed, but sexy, enjoying their sexuality but not cheapened or for sale, catching the viewer’s gaze with equal assertiveness.

Interview with Mickalene Thomas

For a ready-to-go lesson plan on Mickalene Thomas, consider using this teaching resource developed by the Brooklyn Museum’s Education Department for Thomas’s 2012–3 solo exhibition, Origin of the Universe. In particular, the debate at the end works well as an end-of-class activity.

Saisha Grayson-Knoth (author) is a PhD Candidate at the CUNY Graduate Center and an Assistant Curator at the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum.

Jon Mann (editor) is a graduate teaching fellow at Lehman College, a PhD Candidate at the CUNY Graduate Center, and a lecture contributor and editor at Art History Teaching Resources.

Kaegan Sparks (editor) is a PhD student at the CUNY Graduate Center and a Publication Associate in Critical Anthologies at the New Museum, New York.