Art History, Feminism, and Wikipedia
Could Wikipedia be a new frontier in art history?
What might the Internet’s most popular general reference and free-access encyclopedia (not to mention the fifth-largest website in the world) offer a centuries-old academic discipline? How might its participatory model – the fact that anyone can access and edit most of its articles – generate new stakeholders in and audiences for our field? These questions, focused as they are on access and participation, are fundamentally feminist, and resonate with Griselda Pollock’s thoughts on women, art, and ideology. She tells us:
To discover the history of women and art means accounting for the way art history is written. (…) A central task for feminist art historians is, therefore, to critique art history itself, not just as a way of writing about the art of the past, but as an institutionalized ideological practice which contributes to the reproduction of the social system by its offered images and interpretations of the world.[i]
Published in 1983, Pollock’s words were prescient, because they anticipate opportunities for constructive critique afforded by Wikipedia’s modus operandi.
Many readers of AHTR Weekly are already familiar with a promising initiative that has been gaining momentum since 2014. To refresh your memory, Art+Feminism is a grassroots campaign that launched in February 2014 to improve both the quality and quantity of Wikipedia articles on women in the arts and to help close the gender gap among Wikipedia editors. This two-part objective lends itself to a feminist teaching of art history, because it is both revisionist and inclusive in a way that expands and amends art history as an “institutionalized ideological practice.” Put differently, how might Art+Feminism catalyze (feminist) art history for a younger generation, namely for our students?
When I first learned about the Art+Feminism Wikipedia Edit-a-thon, I was skeptical, then intrigued. Since I started teaching art history in the mid-2000s, I routinely warned students against using Wikipedia as a research source. I argued that the information gleaned there was pre-digested at best, and outright false at worst. (Never mind that I often refer to Wikipedia for general reference!) The reality is that, according to a recent study, just over 98% of undergraduates report using Wikipedia as an information source in their research. Spurred by this reality along with my quiet realization of the double standard I had developed regarding Wikipedia, I sensed an opportunity to engage my students – and myself – in the work of sourcing, curating, and contributing knowledge to an open-access encyclopedia. Riffing on what Anthony Molaro has dubbed “information activism,” I wanted to imagine with my students what art history would look like “if we pursued vigorous advocacy of knowledge gained through study, communication, research or instruction.”
Theory meet praxis. When I started participating in my local Art+Feminism meetups in early 2014, I was teaching Women in Art, a course I offer regularly in the College for Women at St. Catherine University. An amateur Wikipedia editor at the time, I was reluctant to fold Art+Feminism into the curriculum in an official way, so I included it as an addendum in the form of a live experiment at the end of the semester. I hosted an edit-a-thon at my school and required my students to attend, both in lieu of a regular class meeting and after a tutorial session by a local Wikipedia ambassador, who walked them through how to edit a Wikipedia article as well as the key Wikipedia editing principles including neutrality, notability, and citation. Their task was to either create or enhance the article on the contemporary woman artist they had chosen to write about in their semester-long research paper assignment.
[Students participating in the first Art+Feminism Wikipedia Edit-a-thon at St. Catherine University (April 26, 2014). (Author’s photographs)]
The results astonished me. Students rallied to the cause and spirit of the Art+Feminism initiative, eager to share the knowledge they had gleaned from the sources they gathered on their artists and buoyed by the thrill of seeing (most of) their edits immediately go live on Wikipedia. It was fitting, then, that at this inaugural meetup, one of my students created the Wikipedia page for the artist Patricia Olson, a feminist painter and founding member of the Women’s Art Registry of Minnesota. Olson’s painting from 2004 entitled Feminist Revisioning greets me and my students in the atrium of the Visual Arts Building. By drawing attention to, on the one hand, the shadow work of gendered labor and, on the other, the symbolic power of the sword, Olson provides a layered and nuanced visual exhortation to advocate for the kind of social change that Art+Feminism aspires to.
[Patricia Olson, Feminist Revisioning, 2004. Oil on canvas. Collection of the artist (Reproduction used with permission from the artist)]
Writing in 1974, just three years after the publication of her groundbreaking essay “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?,” Linda Nochlin observed the following:
feminism forces us to be conscious of other questions about our so-called natural assumptions. That is one way in which feminism affects cultural institutions: it sets off a chain reaction.
It is an apt metaphor – the chain reaction – for the potential power of the Art+Feminism initiative in the art history classroom. I have heard from several students, who recently took Women in Art, that they continue to edit Wikipedia, and I have even seen a few at subsequent Art+Feminism meetups. Moreover, the founding organizers of Art+Feminism recently reported that participants in its last major edit-a-thon event created nearly four hundred new articles and improved over five hundred articles. As a cultural institution, Wikipedia is in some ways a reflection of inequality in our society that is, at the same time, open to change. How might we leverage this opportunity to interrogate received ideas about art history while facilitating the open-access to and participation in a shared body of knowledge?
In conclusion, what I offer here is an assignment template that you are welcome to borrow and revise as you see fit. (It is based on a beta-version of the assignment I used in Women in Art in the spring of 2015 that replaced the conventional research paper I previously assigned for the course.) Divided into three parts – including a comparative analysis, a visual analysis, and an annotated bibliography – it is a semester-long assignment that culminates in an edit-a-thon I host at my institution. My objective as an art historian is to introduce students not only to the pleasures of “information activism” as Wikipedia editors, but also to some principle methods of our field including feminism, cultural studies, and reception theory as well as formalism and biography/hagiography. For additional ideas and inspiration, I recommend perusing the Art+Feminism meetup page, which provides an abundance of user-friendly resources to help you tailor the initiative to your teaching style and preferences. The next major Art+Feminism Wikipedia Edit-a-thon event will take place during the weekend of March 5-6, 2016 in anticipation of International Women’s Day on March 8. Look for – or, better yet, host! – a meetup in your community.
As an example of socially engaged art history, Art+Feminism imagines art history in the public domain. Think of the chain reactions if we regularly edited Wikipedia articles in our own scholarly bailiwicks? This question occurred to me at a meetup earlier this year, when I discovered that the Wikipedia article for Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon did not include a single reference to feminist interpretations. I countered that oversight by adding a couple of sentences to the article that still stand as of the publication of this blog post. Though it is a modest addition, it was inspired by Art+Feminism’s remarkable initiative, which has significant implications for the future of our field.
[i] Griselda Pollock, “Women, Art and Ideology: Questions for Feminist Art Historians,” Woman’s Art Journal 4, No.1 (Spring-Summer 1983), 40.
 Linda Nochlin, “How Feminism in the Arts Can Implement Cultural Change,” Arts in Society: Women and the Arts (Spring-Summer 1974), 82.
 Siân Evans, Jacqueline Mabey, and Michael Mandiberg, “Editing for Equality: The Outcomes of the Art+Feminism Wikipedia Edit-a-thons,” Art Documentation: Journal of the Art Libraries Society of North America 34 (Fall 2015), 194.