- Art, Activism, and Feminisms:Sites of Confrontation and Change
Much has been written over the last four decades on feminism, art, and the critical relationship between the two. Art as political activism also has been the subject of many scholarly writings, and political artwork frequently intersects or explicitly engages scholarly writing. Much has been written, but much also has been left out, and readers seeking information regarding art informed by feminist concerns and intended as an intervention might be frustrated by current offerings. Texts that are simultaneously engaging, informative, and critically self-conscious of their place in a hotly contested, ideologically loaded—and potentially revolutionary—field, are rare. While content should be the primary focus when evaluating a book, an appealing book can be an important tool or ally, particularly in a course devoted to exploring how art can create, change, or jam culture; aesthetics become content within books on feminism, art, and activism. Even issues of cost, a perennial concern for college students, take on new significance in this context, for accessibility, the power to reach as large and varied an audience as possible, is an important component of art concerned with social and economic justice. Grounded in these thoughts, I began to look at each of the following four books for useful and inspiring discussions of feminists, who make art in order to intervene in, act upon, or change existing modes of culture.
I turned first to Art and Feminism by Peggy Phelan and Helena Reckitt. Published in 2001, the book is out of print but still readily available. With the majority of its pages devoted to images of work by dozens of feminist artists (all women), the book's structure is designed to support the claim [End Page 175] Reckitt makes in her "Preface," that "Art and Feminism suggests a relationship between the demands of feminist politics, the debates of feminist theory and the explorations of artists informed by these concerns" while "identify[ing] struggles and differences between feminist artists of different generations" (11). Given this focus on difference, it is not surprising that the editors' analysis is rooted in psychoanalytic theory, a point I will return to.
Phelan's "Survey" is a chronological exploration of the relationship between the terms "art" and "feminism," and the art produced by women interested in the rich space between theory and practice where culture is confronted, commented upon, and hopefully changed for the better. In the section "Works," which is subdivided into the categories including "Personalizing the Political," "Differences," and "Corporeality," the authors forge thematic relationships between works spanning the last four decades and between art and the critical and cultural frameworks it emerged from and against. This look at forces outside the usual cultural and critical frameworks is augmented in the section on "Documents," which includes a collection of artists' statements and other theoretical and critical documents, grouped under the same headings as the artwork. Both the headings and the essays that frame the groups of work situate the art within a specifically activist context, pointing out the pre-existing conditions in need of redress, the various strategies adopted by feminist artists to dismantle a patriarchal culture harmful to women, and celebrating the positive changes wrought by artists working from a set of feminist ideals. As readers learn on the very first page of the book,
[s]ome of feminism's most important political achievements have been indebted to artists, who have inspired new ways to think about the public and the private, the art object and the art subject . . . assumptions about gender . . . the implications of the marks of race, age, class...