women in art

I went and saw the documentary film, !Women Art Revolution, today with my friends, Jessica and Lydia. Lydia is an art advisor and suggested the outing to the IFC theater. I am glad she did.

The film by Lynn Hershman Leeson was a great refresher on the feminist art movement of the 60s, 70s, and 80s. It re-introduced me to artists like Judy Chicago (whose Dinner Party is seen above), Carolee Scheemann, and Ana Mendieta. It also reminded me of the Guerrilla Girls, an anonymous art activist group that played a considerable part in my undergrad education thanks to my awesome professer, Julia Franklin. (Below is one of the Guerrilla Girls posters that they created to bring awareness to the lack of female artists in major institutions.)

I enjoyed the movie. It refreshed my thinking in regard to recent art history and feminism. It showed how systematically the contribution of female artists has been excluded from art history and how much work women have done in an attempt to reduce sexism and discrimination in the art world. It was a good reminder of the importance of supporting female and minority artists, but it also reminded me why “feminism” seems to be a bad word for some women in my generation.

I consider myself a feminist. (I believe women — and all people — should have equal rights and opportunities and be able to choose their own paths and fulfill their potential in any way they choose. I also believe that women should have equal representation in our government.) But I can also see why others may not. Sometimes the feminist movement can come across as militant and hateful toward men. And even if that is absolutely NOT the central focus of feminism, I can see how women who love and admire the men in their lives (like I do) and who do not have the desire to be confrontational may have a hard time identifying with the movement.

!Women Art Revolution addresses this conflict and the problem of the less-than-positive view of the feminist art movement by younger generations. Contemporary artist, Alexandra Chowaniec, is quoted explaining that “there’s a fear within my generation that identifying with feminism is a limitation and not a foundation.” A hope expressed in the film (and which I share) is that we can work to re-define “feminism” so that it can be a more uniting and inclusive term.

The film is not perfect, nor is it an exhaustive history of women in art, but it expresses a very important point of view that is still very relevant today. All people are of value and everyone has the right to fight to have their voices heard – that is the message I take from the film. I hope !Women Art Revolution will be shown in all art history classes alongside all of those male-dominated text books.

Shades of Alice, a piece in the collection of the American Craft Museum, New York, by Faith Ringgold, one of the artists interviewed in the film.


Read more about !Women Art Revolution at ArtInfo and the NY Times. All of the footage shot for the film, including the hundreds of hours that weren’t included in the final cut, can be viewed here. And, definitely check out the new RAW WAR online archive of art by women. There is still work to be done.

7 Replies to “women in art”

  1. thank you for posting this i am going to spend sometime going thru checking out all that footage.

    i am reading this book: http://www.girlstothefront.com/
    and the whole preface is about the late 80s and early 90s and how young women were basically just getting some reproductive rights and marches on washington to have birthcontrol available to them. The really really sad thing about this, is that it is 2011 and nothing has really changed, perhaps in places it’s even gone backwards.

    Also it took someone in washiington dc, the feds, to tell mitch daniels and his good ol boy tactics that he can’t take away services for women. What gets me is that this guy has a wife and TWO DAUGHTERS. His daughters aren’t even phased by the kind of message their dad is sending out about women.

    gah i could go on and on…
    also i like to listen to a certain talk radio station for the show coast to coast at midnight each nite (to fall asleep to) it is a non political show. But the radio station is very very conservative and all the republican radio peeps are on it. They play snippets of these shows during “commercials” when you stream it on the internet. There is one for local radio personalities called Ro and Roper who are based here in chicago. They play this snippet about how women are nationally paid less than men, yet there are more women in college. So one of them says i don’t get it, what i boils down to is WOMEN, YOU NEED TO GO INTO YOUR BOSSES OFFICE AND JUST DEMAND MORE PAY. i hear this snippet at least 5 times a night every week. It makes me cringe. It’s starting to make me want to write the program director. JERKS.

  2. The film also pointed out how difficult it was for women to take on their marginalized status in the ’60s, at the height of Minimalism. The prevailing belief that concept and content were diametrically opposed gave little room for women to express a message that could be understood by the masses.

    What wasn’t said, but what I extracted from the film, was that women’s art was forced to be political before it could be individual. In order to have their voice, they had to topple the Institution.

    What needs to happen is a thorough, and continued cross-disciplinary investigation of the various forces at play. The fact that we are still afraid to say Feminism is an issue. Who defines/has defined the word, and why is it so threatening?

  3. You are right, Lydia. The conflict between minimalism and feminism was a central theme of the film. I understand how the political and emotional content expressed in feminism is very opposite of the intellectual purity of minimalism, but I personally like art from both categories and wish that it didn’t have to be an “us or them” decision.

    One of my favorite painters is Agnes Martin, a female minimalist… who was not addressed at all in the film. In fact, no popularly recognized female artists (other than maybe Judy Chicago) were discussed in the film at all. hmmmm.

  4. Apropos to this, I read this passage from Iris Murdoch’s novel The Message to the Planet last night:

    “Sex is a fundamental energy which produces everything that’s good, it joins flesh and spirit, it’s the only spiritual thing that is available everywhere. Painting is based on sex. Why are there no good women painters? After all they’ve had every chance to practice that art! It’s because women don’t have sexual fantasies.”

    Most of Murdoch’s characters get a comeuppence by the end of the novel, and I expect the character who said this will as well. (I’ve not finished reading it.)

    The British writer V.S. Naipaul has stated publicly that there are no women writers who can match his worth as a writer. He’s been roundly criticized and dismissed for his comments.

    Here’s a link:


  5. ugh. I tried to read that article about Naipaul, but his quotes were making me feel ill. Who ishe to judge that women have a narrow view of the world? He cannot see the world from their eyes! I think he is showing his ignorance and self-centeredness – i.e. you don’t know what you don’t know.

    Anyway, it reminds me of an essay I read in school that I wish I could find again. In it, a distinguished female curator was asked to curate an exhibit of all female artists (I think at the Met) and she had full access to their archives. At first she becomes frustrated because she views the work by women as inferior and believes she cannot curate a quality exhibit… but throughout the essay she comes to realize that perhaps society has taught us (even women) that the male viewpoint is more valid, so subject matter of the home or children, or women’s work (like quilting) is trivial. By the end of the essay, she has grown to value this work more, but still admits that it is hard to fundamentally change her perception of art history.

    It breaks my heart that even the quilters of Gees Bend (and countless other examples of female artists) had to wait for a male curator to validate them.

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