Circa 2009 or 2010, just a blossoming little feminist – first essay containing swear words – featured image Carolee Schneeman, Up to and including her limits, 1973
Concepts of Feminism in Art History
In the early 1970s, feminist artists believed that the feminist movement represented a “radical new beginning, a Part Two in the history of Western culture to complement the largely masculine history that would now become Part One”. Early feminists aimed to transform art and culture by introducing into it “the heretofore suppressed perspective of women”, and many hoped for a utopian “new world order” with equality between the genders, where true universality represented the experiences of both males and females. Feminist artists produced new and challenging works in an attempt to reverse the exclusion of females and their experiences from art history and society in general. Lucy Lippard argued in 1980 that feminist art was “neither a style nor a movement,” but instead “a value system, a revolutionary strategy, a way of life”. This ‘way of life’ proved to be immensely influential and controversial, with the production of radical works such as Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party (1978) generating much attention and debate, while attempting to explore women’s reclaiming of their sexual power, their unity through the common experience of femininity and enacting feminists’ desire to challenge the age-old “erasure of women’s participation in Western culture”.
“Why have there been no great women artists?” is a question all-too-often asked; however Judy Chicago suggests that “the more cogent question is why there are so many significant women artists who remain unknown or under-recognised?”. The rise of abstract art saw the number of celebrated female artists increase greatly, as women were allowed to “forge their own visual forms rather than trying to fit their experiences into an art language established by men” however feminist artists still challenged the art world itself, which for many years, “precluded the articulation of [the female experience]… sometimes by overt discrimination against women… but more often by subtly ruling their expressions incompatible with artistic quality or accomplishment”. Work such as Chicago’s The Dinner Party challenges the modernist conventions that “separate art form the rest of life”, and also constructs an “alternative narrative” alongside traditional Western history, a story of women’s history, asserting within her work a “feminist identity”. Feminist artists during the 1970s were challenging many aspects of patriarchal society, such as attitudes towards ‘conventional’ beauty and femininity, as well as attitudes towards women’s genitalia and sexual identity.
Work produced by feminist artists prioritised “experience and meaning over form and style”, and as such was often predominately concerned with issues of identity – especially a feminine identity in a masculine world. Many feminists produced work containing specifically feminine imagery, which significantly “cannot be transferred into a male metaphor or coopted by a sexist society”. Carolee Schneemann’s Interior Scroll (first performed 1975) overhauls “the myth of the stupid, weak or powerless beauty”. In the performance, Schneemann undraped herself “as if revealing a finished sculpture, and stood naked on a platform defining the contours of her body with paint. Gently and gradually she unravelled from her vagina a ten-foot-long scroll made of intricately folded papers… She had typed a text of her own words on the scroll, and assuming a series of poses, from awkward to acrobatic…she read the text aloud”
Schneemann’s piece deals with a range of feminist experiences and images. Firstly it deals with the politics of looking – by not only being the subject of the work, but defining her own shape with the paintbrush, she moves from being the object of the gaze, to claiming a gaze for her own, challenging the modernist concept of the beautiful nude whose sole function is to be looked at. It also challenges society’s attitude of disgust towards the female genitalia by elevating it to the status of a spiritual space. As Frueh points out, scrolls can contain “sacred texts. Schneemann placed her scroll in “vaginal space” and removed it from there, thus giving female genitals a public and spiritual voice”. The vagina is transformed from a “symbol of sexual essence” which delimits “imagination and behaviour”, to a “passage for information”. Schneemann’s actions in this piece challenge conventional ‘femininity’ by challenging its assumption of women as passive, objects to be looked at rather than individuals with the power to look for themselves, and also challenged “women’s low regard for their genitals”. Schneemann was among the important feminist artists who, to end society’s oppression of women’s sexual identity in an attempt to retain their ‘femininity’, asserted the “necessity of a “cunt-positive” attitude”.
Lynda Benglis was another prominent feminist artist who chose to challenge specifically society’s conventions on femininity. Frueh suggests that “in order to overturn [conventional] femininity, feminist artists [such as Benglis] necessarily flouted good taste and feminine respectability by pointedly showing women’s desire for sexual and cultural power, manifested by… breaking the taboo of ladylike purity”. Benglis’s scandalous 1974 ad in Artforum is an example of this challenge to society’s expectations of and attitudes towards women. Benglis is photographed in a feminine “pin-up pose, a conventional invitation to aesthetic and sexual pleasure”, however she holds, in a “jack-off gesture, a huge latex dildo that seems to grow from her crotch”. This destroys the “visual pleasure associated with female beauty because she does not play feminine”, indeed some men and women were “repulsed by her twisting of gender”. Her refusal to conform to Western society’s expectations of her, as an attractive woman, is described by Frueh as an aggressive “fuck you” to her contemporary society and the art institution, which for so long imposed on women the role of being looked at rather than being able to look for themselves. Benglis’s image “merges masculinity and femininity in a way that society deems incompatible. Patriarchy’s demand for a difference between the sexes assures the inferiority of femininity and of women”.
Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party is a monumental piece which explores, among others, the idea of elevating the female genitalia to the status of a symbol for women’s shared experience of femininity, and the reclaiming of their sexual power and independence. The Dinner Party is a “monumental work of art, triangular in configuration, that employs numerous media, including ceramics, china-painting and an array of needle and fibre techniques, to honour women’s achievements”. The piece takes the form of
“an immense open table covered with fine white cloths…set with thirty nine place settings, each commemorating a goddess, historical figure, or important woman. This table rests on an immense porcelain floor comprising 2304 hand cast, gilded and lustred tiles on which are inscribed the names of 999 other important women.”
The piece has always been the centre of contentious debate, the very nature of which has, according to Jones “precluded the thoughtful examination of its effects”. While some criticise the piece as being racist (claims which Chicago defends by pointing out the lack of historical records of women of colour throughout history and the poor research methods available to her at the time of production), much of the criticism levelled at The Dinner Party has been aimed at its heavy use of labia-like forms. On each plate of the dinner setting, is a design painted and sometimes in 3D, most being reminiscent of female genitals. This alone has earned the piece such tags as “gynocentric” and has led to many “misogynist critics…ignoring or ridiculing” the piece. Female genitalia forms Chicago’s central imagery, and Langer points out that this is a concept which “patriarchal thinkers insist on reading as merely genital…Understanding, however that the Dinner Party is an explicitly “hagiological” piece facilitates a more in-depth interpretation of it”. Chicago’s piece, despite its vaginal iconography, is not purely about sex and the female genitalia: “It is not simply a matter of vaginal imagery but instead may be read as a sign of femaleness, a metaphor for female experience and aspiration”. In producing The Dinner Party,
“Chicago created a unified format for representing all thirty-nine women at the table: more or less centralised on specifically vulvar forms on the plates (which, for Chicago, use the metaphor of female sexual power to represent the shared experience of women attempting to gain internal strength to resist the oppression of male-dominated social institutions)”.
So while some may consider the piece to contain excessive vaginal iconography, this does not make the piece simply about the vagina. Despite criticism that pieces such as The Dinner Party falsely “universalised female experience through simplistic visual metaphors for the female sex”, feminist artists felt that they were instead “inventing a new form of language radiating a female power which [could not] be conveyed in any other way”.
The feminist artists of the 1970s produced a body of work which significantly impacted the art world at the time and for many years to come. Their direct challenge of the conventions of both society and the art world led to their strong criticism by those unprepared for their shocking methods and new attitudes. This essay has discussed just a handful of the significant feminist artists of this period, and just scratched the surface of their then-revolutionary body of work. Since the works of artists such as Carolee Schneemann and Lynda Benglis, who used their own bodies in their art led to the body becoming “an image, an idea, and an issue of continuing significance in women’s art”. Feminist artists were among the first to examine ideas about femininity and produce art about those ideas and their effects on women. They “attempted to cure self-repulsion through self-love, they reclaimed female genitalia from degradation in word and image”. The positive images of the female body they produced are “a critical part of feminist aesthetics of the 1970s” and showed that “women could become makers of meaning as opposed to being bearers of men’s meaning”. Feminist art was also one of the first movements of the postmodern era to explore identity. Pieces such as The Dinner Party aimed to unify women not only throughout history, but within society, and to promote the experience of being female as being equal to that of being male. The feminist artists of the 1970s, while being criticised and scorned at the time for their extreme methods and attitudes, successfully left their mark aesthetically and philosophically on not only the art world, but Western society as a whole. Their concepts and attitudes may not be considered so extreme now as they once were, yet they have not faded in importance.
Ed. Jones, A., Sexual Politics: Judy Chicago’s “Dinner Party” in Feminist Art History, Regents of the University of California, Los Angeles, 1996
Ed. Broude, N., Garrard, M., The Power of Feminist Art: The American Movement of the 1970s, history and impact, Harry N. Abrams inc, New York, 1994
Chicago, J., The Dinner Party: From Creation to Preservation, Merrell Publishers Limited, London, 2007
Ed. Raven, A., Langer, C., Frueh, J., Feminist Art Criticism: an Anthology, UMI Research Press, Michigan, 1988
Ed. Stangos, N., Concepts of Modern Art: From Fauvism to Postmodernism, Thames and Hudson, London, 2006
 Ed. N. Broude, M. Garrard, The Power of Feminist Art: The American Movement of the 1970s, history and impact, Harry N. Abrams inc, New York, 1994, p10
 Ed. A. Jones, Sexual Politics: Judy Chicago’s “Dinner Party” in Feminist Art History, Regents of the
University of California, Los Angeles, 1996, p26-27
 J. Chicago, The Dinner Party: From Creation to Preservation, Merrell Publishers Limited, London, 2007, p258
 C. Reed, Postmodernism and the Art of Identity, in Concepts of Modern Art: From Fauvism to Postmodernism, ed. N., Stangos, Thames and Hudson, London, 2006, p273
 Ed. N. Broude, M. Garrard, The Power of Feminist Art: The American Movement of the 1970s, history and impact, p10
 C. Langer, Against the Grain: A Working Gynergenic Art Criticism, in Feminist Art Criticism: an Anthology, ed. A. Raven, C. Langer, J. Frueh, UMI Research Press, Michigan, 1988, p123
 J. Frueh, The Body Through Women’s Eyes, in The Power of Feminist Art: The American Movement of the 1970s, history and impact, ed. N. Broude, M. Garrard, p192
 Ibid, p193
 ed. N. Broude, M. Garrard, The Power of Feminist Art: The American Movement of the 1970s, history and impact, p192
 J. Frueh, The Body Through Women’s Eyes, in The Power of Feminist Art: The American Movement of the 1970s, history and impact, ed. N. Broude, M. Garrard, p193
 Ibid, p194
 Ibid, p193
 Ibid, p194
 Ibid, p193
 Ibid, p194
 J. Chicago, The Dinner Party: From Creation to Preservation, p10
 Ibid, p258
 Ed. A. Jones, Sexual Politics: Judy Chicago’s “Dinner Party in Feminist Art History, p24
 J. Chicago, The Dinner Party: From Creation to Preservation, p18
 Ed. N. Broude, M. Garrard,The Power of Feminist Art: The American Movement of the 1970s, history and impact, p123
 C. Langer, Against the Grain: A Working Gynergenic Art Criticism, in Feminist Art Criticism: an Anthology, ed. A. Raven, C. Langer, J. Frueh, p120
 Ibid, p123
 Ed A. Jones, Sexual Politics: Judy Chicago’s “Dinner Party in Feminist Art History, p24
 Ibid, p100
 Ibid, p13
 Ed. N. Broude, M. Garrard, The Power of Feminist Art: The American Movement of the 1970s, history and impact, p190
 Ibid, p192
 Ibid, p190