Introduction The rise of the feminist art movement, sometimes named second wave feminism, began in the late 1960’s in America, alongside anti-war demonstrations and civil rights movements. People were becoming more aware of the way the society and the government worked, and wanted change. Women have always been a centre focus of art throughout history, but always as an object to be admired and observed, the majority of the time portrayed by male artists who show the women in their work as sexual and fragile subjects.
During the 20th century this was normal and not questioned, but it was this work that would eventually contribute to the uprising of the feminist movement within art and society, as female artists were not pleased about not being acknowledged as serious artists and being misrepresented as only objects to the art world. This led to female artists creating bolder and increasingly taboo work in the 60’s as well as breaking the tradition of the objectification of women within art and society. This wave of freedom encouraged a mass of female artists to rebel against the traditional mind set of society, creating a new path for the female subject in the art world. With this freedom came huge societal changes for women, the 60’s brought forth the birth control pill and in 1965 all states acknowledged that it is a woman’s right to have access to oral contraceptives, then in 1973 abortion was made legal. The definition of feminist art is difficult to pin point as many people have different opinions. For example, a lot of people believe that any art created by a woman is feminist art, others think that it is art made with the theme of the anti-male attitude. A prominent artist of the movement, Suzanne Lacy, stated that the goal of Feminist art was to “influence cultural attitudes and transform stereotypes”.
I define feminist art as art that rebels against sexist tradition and encourages freedom for all, men and women. Pioneers of the Movement As feminist art was emerging in the early 60’s many artists who were focusing on the theme rose to fame within the art world and media. For a lot of these artists they were more infamous than famous as a lot of critics were disgusted with many pieces of work produced as the work did not conform to the traditional standards of art that people were used to. Judy Chicago is known as one of the pioneers of the feminist art movement and began creating work in the mid 60’s as well as co-founding and instructing the ‘Feminist Art Program’ which was the first of its kind in America. Aiming to change the way women were represented within art, Chicago created work that focused on the subject of females. Her most famed piece of work, ‘The Dinner Party’ (Figure 1), is on permanent display at the Brooklyn Museum.
The work is an installation piece and shows a large triangular dining table with 39 elaborate places set out, each space is for a significant woman, historical or mythical. The ‘guests’ at the table include the likes of Virginia Woolf, Susan B. Anthony, Sacajawea and Georgia O’Keeffe.
Each place is visually different but all have a hand-painted china plate, ceramic flatware and chalice, and a napkin with an embroidered gold edge. Each plated depicts a brightly coloured vulva form. The table ware is all laid out on top of highly detailed embroidered fabric runners, again each one different. The table is stood upon what is called ‘The Heritage Floor’ which is created using over 2000 tiles with the names of women who have made a positive and valuable change in the world. This piece of Chicago’s work is acknowledging and praising the great achievements of women throughout history, which when compared to the achievements of historical men, are swept under the rug. The frank use of the colourful, bold vulvas were extremely taboo to the audience and caused an upset within many high-class art communalities.
This upset only proved that what Chicago was trying to say through her work was true, that the traditional art and media where not acknowledging the achievements of women but rather paying more attention to the parts that are deemed less desirable. She also used forms of art that were deemed as crafts and hobbies for females rather than actual art forms that where to be taken as seriously as other art mediums, like traditional painting for example. It was the needle work, embroidery and fabric embellishment used within the work that was saw as a craft at the bottom of the hierarchy. By using these methods of art, she is making a wider statement again about the things women do and achieve being underappreciated by society. (Figure 1) Judy Chicago, ‘The Dinner Party’, 1979. Another female artist who is renowned for being a pioneer of the feminist movement is Hannah Wilke, at the beginning of her career in the early 60’s Wilke focused on creating sculptural forms out of terracotta clay.
She would sculpt small scale vulvas and it was this work that first gained her attention, as she is one of the first artists to use vaginal imagery within their art works. Taking advantage of the fact that people were paying attention to her work, Wilke aimed to create work that shocked the audience more so than her ceramic vulvas. This led to her using her own naked body as the canvas for her work. In a collection of photographs titled ‘S.
O.S – Starification Object Series’ (Figure 2) posed as the nude canvas with her small vaginas stuck haphazardly on her body. However, Wilke used chewing cum to create the vulvas for this series rather than ceramic, stating ‘I chose gum because it’s the perfect metaphor for the American woman, chew her up, get what you want out of her, throw her out and pop in a new piece’.
Within this photography series Wilke pokes fun at mainstream images of women, her poses imitate those of glamorous women in the media, such as pin up girls and beautiful women used in advertisement campaigns. She is showing that the ideals of female beauty are ridiculous, as she is displaying herself as an object of desire but also making herself look foolish.