- Considering Feminist Activist Art
So it's a good time to consider distinctions between activist art and a progressive high art—that is, an art designed to participate directly in structural change and one that criticizes existing structures from more of a distance.—Lucy Lippard, 1984
The art world's recent surge of critical interest in the respective claims and objectives of collaborative, "relational," and activist forms of art demonstrates that the debate over the aesthetic and social value of politically oriented art has remained active since Lippard's consideration of the topic 25 years ago.1 This special issue of the National Women's Studies Association Journal on feminist activist art contributes to this debate by highlighting an area of feminist artistic practice and scholarship that is decidedly affirmative of art's potential to effect social change. The writings contained within this volume not only exhibit a strong conviction about the importance of the specific practices of feminist activist art but also demonstrate an activist bent themselves.2
Since its emergence in the 1970s, feminist activist art has consistently exhibited a diversity of subject matter and form that defies attempts to pigeonhole the practice. Feminist artists have pursued activism around a wide range of issues pertaining to race, gender, and sexuality and their intersections with social, political, and cultural forms of oppression. They have utilized a rich variety of media and approaches, including performance, installation, organized public disruption, guerrilla postering, billboards, video, radical forms of pedagogy, and other creative uses of public space that emphasize collaboration and coalition-building.
Although the diversity of media and method deployed in feminist activist art defies definition, there is a core set of ideals that have remained historically central to the species of feminist activist art highlighted in this special issue. Feminist activist art is characterized here as simultaneously critical, positive, and progressive. By critical we mean work that seeks to expose underlying ideologies or existing structures that have a negative effect on women and their lives; by positive we mean work that takes a stand, expressing its maker's faith in achieving results or positing alternatives; by progressive we mean a belief in the feminist tenets of equality and inclusiveness, a better world free of sexism, racism, homophobia, economic inequality, and violence. These ideals distinguish feminist activist art from myriad other forms of activism (some of which also utilize visual or performance forms). For example, anti-tax or anti-choice initiatives are "positive" in the sense that they seek to achieve a goal, such as the elimination of taxes or denial of a woman's right to an abortion, but these initiatives are neither critical nor progressive. [End Page vii]
The forms of feminist activist art featured here also can be distinguished from forms of activist art that, although both critical and progressive, privilege open-ended critique over a positive form of politics. Examples of such open-ended work would include Jenny Holzer's LED text displays or the guided tours of the Center for Land Use Interpretation, both of which approach politically volatile issues or perspectives from a decidedly more oblique angle than do the artists discussed in this special issue.
As such, the material brought together here provides an opportunity to reflect upon a particular tradition of feminist art, one which shares characteristics with other forms of women's counterculture that first appeared in the 1970s in the United States and Western Europe such as feminist music and poetry (the latter often regarded as the "medium of the movement").3 These feminist art forms stressed performance and group reception and foregrounded the values of collaboration, participation, empowerment, consciousness-raising, and the belief in art's ability to create change. To be sure, many of these values were broadly employed by artists of the 1960s and 1970s, reflected in the strategies and goals of the civil rights movement and in the organized opposition to the Vietnam War in the United States.4 However, these values took on a new relevance within the feminist art movement, leading to the development of one of the most complex, innovative, and globally diverse movements in the history...