Women’s Liberation of Art

In a late 1960s/early 1970s Western context incorporating civil rights demonstrations, gay liberation, questioning of class privilege and new discourses on post-colonial theory, challenges to all existing social conventions and hierarchies began pervading society, politics and culture. The movement for the liberation of woman was a major part of such a social uprising. Concerns such as self-determination and representation of sex, class, racial, cultural and sexual identity were also increasingly apparent in art therefore.

This was a cultural era in which art historians and academics began theorising art as moving away from the modernist theories and practices which had previously governed mainstream culture in the twentieth century. It was therefore defined as post-modernism.

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(Elizabeth Catlett, ‘Homage to My Young Black Sisters’ (1968))

In terms of the production of art, many artists were beginning to address a variety of political, social and philosophical issues. Contemporary art was also being characterised as incorporating an assortment of radical new ideas and practices from performance to land art.

Artists themselves were also beginning to typify  those who had previously been marginalised due to sex, sexuality, locale, disability or ethnicity for example. In turn, those who had been physically and ideologically omitted from the systems and institutions of the Western cultural world began to inspire a whole diverse and complex philosophical movement on artistic expression.

As the latter twentieth century continued, many theorists and art historians, informed by anthropological and sociological studies and developments, have analysed the idea of cultural exclusion and oppression. Within this, with growing calls for women’s liberation, came a corresponding questioning of culture in terms of the role of gender and art.

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(Womanhouse (1972), feminist art installation and performance space organized by Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro)

‘Woman’s Art’ (1972) by Austrian artist and writer Valie Export, for example, was a manifesto that was produced for the feminist art exhibition ‘MAGNA’ in 1972.  Writing at the time, Export highlighted how historical and contemporary male control of female representation had created a reality shaped by men and informed by masculinity. She stated that ideas of womanhood had been created to suit a culture suppressing women’s own language and production. Export called for female self-awareness that challenged oppressive social expectations and artistic conventions. The writer demanded the right for women to develop an autonomous image of themselves in order to transform society.

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(Barbara Kruger, Untitled (Your body is a battleground) (1989))

The art historians Parker and Pollock, in their landmark book Old Mistresses: Women, Art and Ideology (1981), utilised feminist analysis to explore constructions of gender and art history. Such theorists not only identified female exclusion from representation as artistic producers, but also investigated how art is informed by particular ideological concepts involved in the construction of masculinity and femininity. This included exploring representation as indicative of an existing sexual and social hierarchy.

In turn, black feminist theorists such as bell hooks have discussed the particular oppression of black women in terms of gender and race in accordance with representation and access.  The issue of sexist and racist iconography in culture and the negative stereotypes of black females that have ensued, in addition to systematic exclusion on the grounds of sex and race,  have been identified and explored.

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(Adrian Piper, Catalysis III, 1970, from a series of conceptual performances in Manhattan that violated social norms of public behaviour. The artist addressed ostracism, otherness, racial “passing,” and racism)

Feminist theorists  defined the importance of analysis of the creativity of women in comparison to (white) male production of art. Interpretation was considered in conjunction with such concepts as, for example, ‘the male gaze’ and the idea of an ‘oppressed personality’ imposed on women, to reflect the limiting conditions on the production and reading of artworks.

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(Valie EXPORT, The Birth Madonna , 1976)

Defining the issue of marginalisation was certainly integral to this post-modern period. However, despite the rise in women producing challenging work as a result, art must be viewed within the wider context of a culture in which ‘woman’ is continuing to be (largely) “constructed by man” as Valie Export stated.

L.H.

 

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