- What's So Feminist about the Feministische Kunst Internationaal?Critical Directions in 1970s Feminist Art
In 1978, when the first installation of the Feministische Kunst Internationaal (International Feminist Art, or FKI) exhibition opened in Amsterdam, it was enthusiastically embraced by its participants—women artists from throughout Europe and the United States. However, its critical reception remains mixed, not least because it was not truly "international." Some perceived a dominance of issues raised in the work of the American participants, with all too frequent references to earlier appearances of feminist concepts in art in the United States than in most European countries. Perhaps more significant are the issues raised around the quality, subject matter, and execution of the work. Paradoxically, the exhibition is virtually unknown by American art historians despite its groundbreaking status for European women artists. Other elements adding to the conflicting position of the show were the heated debates that developed between some European and American feminist art activists over what constituted a "feminist" art (as well as the implication that all women artists must concern themselves with such issues) and the question of whether work should be judged by new standards of quality. This most important European exhibition of feminist art of the decade demanded that the work elicit a feminist content. Thus, this essay will reexamine the curatorial choices that shaped the character of the exhibition to reveal how feminist art was understood at this late-1970s moment and to expand our understanding of how some European artists, art historians, and curators defined and debated feminist art in this era.
Context: The Advent of the Women's Movement
Guided by the actions of women's movements, feminist art developed as a recognizable force in the 1970s. Diverse in its manifestations, the feminist art movements of the 1970s generally worked toward greater recognition of work [End Page 76] by contemporary women artists and those of the past, while protesting the lack of support from, and representation in, galleries, museums, art schools, and other art world institutions. A new awareness and valuation of traditional art making by women, which was conventionally relegated to the distinctly separate and less valued realm of craft, took place. Moreover, performance art and video attracted feminist artists of the period as they represented new mediums free of male-dominated styles and traditions. These endeavors often incorporated the consciousness-raising efforts of the new women's movements throughout the United States and Europe. For the purposes of this study feminist art can be defined as, but not limited to, artwork that exposes the prejudices against women in society, challenges representations of women in art, engages feminist issues or theory, critiques sociohistorical concepts of femininity, develops new media as a feminist trope, or presents new ways of working with traditional art materials. These general directions in feminist art practice in no way mean that there is or was agreement on what constituted a feminist art. Rather, questions over what was permissible or could be referred to as feminist were debated from the beginning in the United States and Europe. Furthermore, this project aims to build on what art historian Marsha Meskimmon calls a "critical global cartography of 1970s feminist art" in which a spatial, rather than temporal, history of feminist art would be produced and the dominance of Anglo-American scholarship on feminist art problematized.1
The years 1970 through 1974 marked the most active political period in the US art world with respect to women's issues—a time of strikes, marches, and protest letters.2 Women artists challenged the status quo in the art world by establishing new education programs for women and alternative exhibition venues that often functioned as spaces for lectures and debate.3 By the mid-1970s the prevalence of the feminist art movement in the United States contrasted with the less visible movement in many European countries, as the German art historian Anette Kubitza noted in 1996: "Although European artists often work together in groups or on special projects, and although there have been some landmark exhibitions of feminist art in Europe, there has not been a close-knit women's art community there."4 However, this...