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NWSA Journal 15.2 (2003) 135-143

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Rethinking Feminism and Visual Culture

Jessica Dallow

Art and Feminism edited by Helena Reckitt and surveyed by Peggy Phelan. New York: Phaidon Press, 2001, 304 pp., $ 69.95 hardcover.
Feminism-Art-Theory: An Anthology, 1968-2000 edited by Hilary Robinson. Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 2001, 706 pp., $83.95 hardcover, $36.95 paper.
Feminist Visual Culture edited by Fiona Carson and Claire Pajackzkowska. New York: Routledge, 2001, 322 pp., $22.95 paper.
With Other Eyes: Looking at Race and Gender in Visual Culture edited by Lisa Bloom. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999, 268 pp., $49.95 hardcover, $19.95 paper.

Why are students today so afraid to identify themselves as feminists? When we address feminism and art in my contemporary art and theory courses, I commonly hear two negative responses. The first invokes the stereotype that feminists, particularly feminist artists, are bra-burning, militant man-bashers; the second is that feminist art and criticism is no longer necessary. In fact, my most homogeneous group of student artists (half men, half women, all white, and from middle-class families) argued that even studying the topic was moot because everything had changed; all was fine between the sexes in our new era of post (or post-post) modernism--an era where everyone's interpretation is allegedly valid, and marginal art and identities are not so marginal anymore. Because these ideas seem to be the current trend among students, these anthologies, published between 1999 and 2001, are significant. Overall, each volume uniquely re-politicizes feminist art and theory and emphasizes its influence on contemporary critical discourse in one or more of three ways: first, they redress how feminist criticism and theory has often become diffused into that of postmodernism by historicizing feminist intervention in the arts; second, they show feminism's pervasive role in all aspects of visual culture; and third, they explore feminism's interconnections with race, class, and sexual orientation.

Helena Reckitt's Art and Feminism and Hilary Robinson's Feminism-Art-Theory both collect a multitude of artist statements, art historical analyses, interviews with artists, and critical writings on art and feminism by women such as Mira Schor, Coco Fusco, Griselda Pollock, Linda Nochlin, Adrian Piper, Hélène Cixous, and Lucy Lippard, written between 1963 and 2000. Robinson's text divides its essays into chapters with related, but fairly rigid titles such as "Claiming Identity, Negotiating [End Page 135] Genealogy," "Body, Sexuality, Image," and "Activism and Institutions." Reckitt's volume also includes texts by men, including Jean Baudrillard's lush description of French artist Sophie Calle's 1983 performance Suite vénitienne and Bill Arning's praise of American Elaine Reichek's weavings. Although Robinson's text provides a greater diversity of essays, Reckitt's volume is lavishly illustrated.

Art and Feminism is part of Phaidon Press's recent Themes and Movements series, which includes other titles such as Land and Environmental Art, The Artist's Body, and Arte Povera. The Phaidon book contains three main parts: a survey essay by feminist performance theorist Peggy Phelan, a works section with lavish color photographs and explanations of the artworks, and a documents part--104 texts that complement the works illustrated. Rather than organizing the latter two sections by artist or writer, the editor has divided them into interconnected themes: "Too Much," "Personalizing the Political," "Differences," "Identity Crises," "Corporeality," and "Femmes de Siècle [a clever pun indicating a promising future]." This structure is useful, although a bit confusing, because many artists and writers appear in multiple places, thus emphasizing the tone and breadth of women's creativity, but also the overlap and difficulty in pigeonholing women's art into any narrowly defined categories. The authors make interesting and often disturbing visual juxtapositions, placing Hannah Wilke's photographs of herself dying of lymphoma next to a picture of Orlan, undergoing plastic surgery to transform herself into a famous work of art. One artist's pain is self-inflicted; the other is not. Both seem catastrophic. Other juxtapositions are more predictable like Lorna Simpson's Back next to Adrian Piper...


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