- Bridging Feminist Art, Activism, and Theory:A Review of Three Contemporary Texts
Suzanne Lacy provides a framework for conceptualizing feminist activist art in a letter to Patricia Hills, editor of the anthology Modern Art in the USA: Issues and Controversies of the 20th Century. Lacy asks, "How can we work as artists on a broader scale, to create change that will penetrate and affect the institutions, public spaces, and political processes that make up our public culture" (Hills 2001, 452)? This political goal has overwhelmingly driven feminist activism of the last century. Yet, as Lacy suggests, a wider horizon challenges feminist art practice. To date, feminist art-making has played only one role within an expansive field that necessarily includes feminist theory, cultural criticism, and art history.
The numerous texts published on feminist art/theory within the last ten years suggest that any singular account of this dense nexus proves daunting. In an increasingly theory-driven moment, we are still sorting out the question: where and when do theory, art-making, and activism, meet? Or, one might ask where, and when, can they be separated?
Although none of the three very different texts under consideration here provide direct answers to these questions, they illuminate distinct modes of engaging them. Two of the texts are anthologies: The Feminisim and Visual Culture Reader assembles 62 significant writings on feminism's convergence with visual culture in the Anglophone world in the latter twentieth century, while Modern Art in the USA: Issues and Controversies of the 20th Century is a more varied collection of essays by artists, curators, and critics reaching back one hundred years. As a counterpoint to these volumes, Insurgent Muse: Life and Art at the Woman's Building tells of one woman's experiences in a vibrant center of pioneer feminist activism that centered on art, the Woman's Building in Los Angeles.
Part coming-of-age and part coming-out tale, writer Terry Wolverton's memoir, Insurgent Muse: Life and Art at the Woman's Building, provocatively chronicles her involvement with the Woman's Building. Founded [End Page 166] in 1973 by artist Judy Chicago, graphic designer Shelia Levrant de Bretteville, and art historian Arlene Raven, the Woman's Building sprang out of the need for a public center for women's culture and a desire to bring women artists into the mainstream. It consisted of spaces for a women's art school (the Feminist Studio Workshop or FSW), three art galleries, the local chapter of the National Organization for Women, a feminist travel agency, the Sisterhood bookstore, and an auditorium for women's theater productions.
Wolverton journeyed to the West Coast in 1976, severely depressed and seeking a place to belong. Sunny and progressive Los Angeles proved radically different than the chilly urban landscape of Detroit where she grew up. As a student in the FSW, she discovered a nurturing community of women and plunged headlong into a whirlwind of historic projects. She worked tirelessly on performance art events, initiated art and writing workshops, led consciousness-raising groups, and organized women's art exhibitions. Throughout the late 1970s (and into the 1980s), she spearheaded and collaborated on some of the most critically significant projects of the nascent feminist art movement—the Lesbian Art Project (LAP), which she founded in 1977 with Arlene Raven, the Incest Awareness Project, An Oral Herstory of Lesbianism, the Great American Lesbian Art Show, White Women Against Racism, and the Vesta Awards. Throughout the Woman's Building's existence, Wolverton wore many hats, first as a student, later as a "teacher, program director, exhibiting artist, publicist, typesetter, newsletter editor, grant writer, board member, development director, and eventually, executive director" (2002, xvii).
Although Wolverton's story is somewhat one-sided and...