- Feminist Activist Art:Losing the Edge?
Not only does the phrase "feminist activist art" not appear in these three books about the visual and performing arts at the turn of the twenty-first century, but, except for a handful of essays in Goodman and de Gay and a scattering of images from the 1960s through the 1990s in McQuiston, feminist thought is not prominent and feminist artworks are not reproduced. While not overtly feminist, most, though not all, of the texts collected in these volumes, do show signs of having been influenced by feminist theory and feminist achievements in the arts but, in general, the feminist movement in art of the past 30 years is a ghostly presence. Although this lack of emphasis in books purporting to address art and social change is troubling, there are aspects of each book that could be useful to teachers and students of Women's Studies who want to consider activism in conjunction with both feminism and the practice of art.
Lizbeth Goodman and Jane de Gay's The Routledge Reader in Politics and Performance is intended to complement Goodman's earlier anthology, Reader in Gender and Performance (1998), which directly and extensively addressed feminist approaches to performance. Billed as the first comprehensive collection of selected texts that range across politics, ideology, and performance, the reader begins with the writings of early twentieth-century theater giants such as Artaud, Grotoski, Stanislavski, and Brecht. The book then traces seven currents in theater, performance art, cultural studies, postcolonial studies, sexuality, and gender studies through the mid-1990s (the book went to press in 1999). Goodman, Director of the Institute for New Media Performance Studies at the University of Surrey and author of Contemporary Feminist Theatres (1993), invited eight practitioner-scholars to edit and introduce the texts within thematic sections [End Page 156] in order to highlight specific debates. All 46 essays treat performances of a very wide variety, including traditional theater on the stage as well as very direct examples of the "performance of every day life." An example of the latter, raised by Sue-Ellen Case, involves "role playing" on an internet chatroom: she asks how she can go into a lesbian internet chatroom and be sure that everyone there is a lesbian rather than a right-wing spy masquerading as a lesbian in order to gather information.
Goodman and de Gay's book would work best for graduate classes in theater or performance art, but some essays might be placed on reserve for undergraduate women's studies classes to serve as examples or to provide a conceptual context for the consideration of overtly feminist activist work. For example, I would recommend for this purpose, "Critically Queer" (2000, 167–71) from Judith Butler's Bodies That Matter (1993) in which she argues that it is important to "lay claim" to contested terms such as "women," "lesbian," and "queer;" (and, I would add "feminist") because, she contends, identity categories are necessary for affiliation, which in turn is a prerequisite for political action. These terms, loaded as they are, can never fully describe or constrain the individuals who claim them, and, for Butler, a key task is to "work and rework them within political discourse" (170). Butler sees these terms as never-settled points of departure for "that which is never fully owned, but always and only redeployed . . . in the direction of urgent and expanding political purposes" (170): the political work of feminism is literally never done.
Nick Kaye's excerpt, "Telling Stories: Narrative Against Itself," (Goodman and de Gay 270–6) from Postmodernism and Performance (1994) resonates well with Butler's insights about identity in "Critically Queer" and could be assigned with it. Kaye considers the complexities of identity found...