Feminist Art 2007 A Political Analysis
Let us look at the two new feminist exhibitions WACK at the LA County Museum of Art and Global Feminisms at the Brooklyn Museum. To a certain extent the covers of the two catalogs tells us everything that we need to know. On one cover is a detail of a video by the artist Boryana Rossa from Bulgaria from 1999 which explores “extreme psychological and physical situations. Fear of the unexpected is displayed in this video of the screaming faces of two young women” 154
On the other hand a landscape of naked women, blown up from a collage by Martha Rosler, a socialist, class conscious artist whose capitalist critique in the series is lost in this cover which appears to be mainly exoticism, objectifying and orientalist
The title of this work is Hot House or Harem. made in 1966 - 72
Here is a brief quote from the press releases of
WACK, the exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, which focuses on the 1970s era of feminist art in the US.
“The Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) presents the first international survey of a remarkable body of work that emerged from the dynamic relationship between art and feminism in and around the 1970s. WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution—on view at The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA March 4–July 16, 2007—brings together the work of 119 artists from 21 countries to examine how the feminist movement fundamentally changed the way we see and understand art.
Second, at the Brooklyn Museum is an exhibition that aspires to be global.
Brooklyn Museum press release
“Global Feminisms, a large-scale international survey of contemporary art, will inaugurate a major new exhibition and study center devoted to art created from a feminist perspective. Signaling an intent to take the study of new, often-critical visual expressions in new directions, the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum, the first facility of its kind in the United States, ventures far beyond American and European borders for the inauguration presentation
Global Feminisms assembles works in a range of media by more than 100 women artists, most of whom are under 40 and two-thirds of whom have never before presented work in New York. Some 50 countries are represented, including a good number that seldom figure in the contemporary art discourse, such as Sierra Leone, Kenya, Russia, Yugoslavia, Costa Rica, Afghanistan, Indonesia and Taiwan”
So the emphasis in both exhibitions is global geography as a type of shopping list of "others," but the fact is that looking at the art, you can see the White, US, young third wave curator at work. There is a sameness about the art So we turn for clarification with the question
How do these exhibitions define feminist art?
The WACK catalog states “While the term “feminism” can be broadly defined, scholar and author Peggy Phelan states, “Feminism is the conviction that gender has been, and continues to be, a fundamental category for the organization of culture. Moreover, the pattern of that organization favors men over women.” Embracing this definition, WACK! argues that feminism was perhaps the most influential of any postwar art movement—on an international level—in its impact on subsequent generations of artists” Note that the dialogue is between feminism and art, not between feminist politics and art, or politics and women, or, in the context of the early 1970s, between women, race, class and war. All of these ideas are banished in favor of a show that looks at women in and of themselves as exploring new media in which they can display themselves.
The curator states “a curatorial analysis of relational analysis allows us to re read political activist religious anticolonialist environmental and other work as a type of ‘Subterranean feminism’39
( from Ella Shohat, pioneering feminist art critic from Lebanon. . strategy quote the person you are leaving out.
The WACK exhibition has a lot of themes
“ The themes are: Abstraction, Autophotography, Body as Medium, Body Trauma, Collective Impulse, Family Stories, Female Sensibility, Gendered Space, Gender Performance, Goddess, Knowledge as Power, Labor, Making Art History, Pattern and Assemblage, Silence and Noise, Social Sculpture, Speaking in Public, and Taped and Measured.”
Labor is represented be three artists,
Abstraction by about 11
The domination of abstraction underscores the exhibitions allegiance to the mainstream, to capitalism, and to market forces. Abstraction is the art that sells, that is popular with wealthy people who want to decorate their houses. Placing two artists of color in the Pattern and Assemblage category erases what they are talking about, in favor of how they are making art, another favorite mainstream strategy.
A small reference to the collective of black women from the 70s “Where we At” in Los Angeles is represented by a poster, rather than including the artists in the exhibition
In the Global Feminisms catalog the definition of feminism is:
“In Global Feminisms, we are attempting to construct a definition of ‘feminist’ art that is as broad and flexible as possible,” says Reilly. “Linda and I kept asking what it means to be a feminist in radically different cultural, political, and class situations. And we found not one definition, but many; hence, the term ‘feminisms.’” Note this is a non definition. There are categories in this exhibition as well, but they are only generally referenced in the catalog, so there is no way to know which artists are assigned to which category without going to the exhibition. According to the review in the New Yorker today, the categories are Life Cycles, Identities, Politics and Emotions. But the main theme of the exhibition according to Peter Schejdajhl is “the redolence of an almighty cultural agency that overleaps borders, blurs personalities and purees ideas, the art school.” ( 73.
I agree with Schejdahl that there is an almighty cultural agency at work here, but it is bigger than art school, it is capitalism. What is actually represented in these two exhibitions is art that is marketable, slick, mostly generalized representations of women detached from real world issues. There are a few exceptions in the Politics category Emily Jacir, Tanja Ostojic, Parastou Forouhar, but they are isolated, uncontextualized, and abstracted. The New York exhibition focuses on gender construction in global feminism, closely affiliated to the essentialism it claims to reject, - the images of nude and naked women from around the world.
Women of color in both exhibitions are a minor note, working class women are absent, politics of women’s bodies such as abortion rights, illegal trafficking in women, child care, sexual abuse, rape, all are marginalized, not to mention anti war art, torture, civil rights, all of the myriad of political issues that face us today. The occasional artist included who has addressed these issues, has work chosen that focuses on the female body itself, rather than political issues. The artist Suzanne Lacy for example has addressed rape in a potent work from the 1970s, but that is not her work in the exhibition. Martha Rosler has done work that juxtaposes war and American consumerism, but her work chosen is about the female body, a very early body of work.
Global Feminisms chose to focus on gender construction in India, rather than the powerful political art by many artists there. The same is true of Turkey, the one artist included has a photograph of a naked breast with milk dripping out of it, even though the naked female body is virtually absent from Turkish contemporary art by men or women.
Some essayists from outside the US do reference political issues and political artists
In the WACK catalog there is only Nelly Richardthe premier art critic from Chile Writes on “Fugitive Identities Dissenting Code Systems Women Artists During the Military Dictatorship in Chile.”
These works carry a much larger meaning than that of artists working in a safe US art studio. For example Richard states “what makes the work interesting is the acumen of its makers to shift from the view of marginality as external to power to the margin as a location for interrogating the symbolic effects of power. ( 416)
In the Global Feminisms catalog there are several women who write about art outside the US.
Virigina Perez Ratton writes about "Central American Women Artists in a Global Age" She features the work of Regina Jose Galindo for example, who does performance art that addresses “violence, whether political or criminal, public or private.” (139)
Charlotte Kotik looks at Post Totalitarian Art in Eastern and Central Europe, she summarizes
“ It remains true that in post Communist societies, women are still largely objectified, sexual innuendo continues to be a conversational norm and sex trafficking flourished to an unprecedented extent. “ 157
But the flavor of these exhibitions is third wave, apolitical, terrified of real issues. As I said the covers tell the story hysterical, feminine, out of control, or naked.
If we look at an issue of Heresies magazine from 1980 we see all of these dimensions in feminist art. If we look at the work of Sue Coe or a California Artist Nancy Worthingon, we see potent political commentary. These exhibitions avoid all of that and simply focus on medium and body. In spite of their many categories and claims, both of these exhibitions boil down to a new colonialismafffiliated with the orientalism and oppressions of the government’s current policies.