As an artist I have always been interested, inspired, and conflicted about the Feminist art movement and its relationship to my own practice. I have gone through the stages of making extremely overt feminist work about body image, body violence, and the role of the female, to rejecting the word feminist in my work, to where I am now. In graduate school I struggled a bit with my first wave feminist professors and their rejection of making work about femininity or that revealed the vulnerability of being a woman or exposed the female body. And as a professor myself when I was teaching undergrads as a new wave feminist with students about 10 years younger than me, I tried to understand and figure out how to give my female students the power to use their bodies and experiences of sexuality without exploiting themselves or serving to the male gaze. To me feminism is a very complex and personal word and through all the stages of love and hate towards it I am proud to call myself a feminist but also proud to call myself feminine.
In this journey as a feminist artist I seek out artists and panels that talk about their relationship to feminism, etc. So I was curious to go see a panel discussion that was recently as the Soho 20 Gallery, a women’s gallery in Chelsea, What’s old is new again, the legacy of the 1970’s artist movement. The panel was “led” by an older generation feminist Harriet Lyons with 4 younger generation artists speaking. Thought it was an interesting event I have to say I was very disappointed. The title of the discussion implies it was to be about how the legacy of 1970’s feminist art actually affects current artists working today. Harriet never talked about that simply reminding us of the important figures in the movement and her role, something we all already knew, and beside one of the younger artists none of them directly talked about their relationship to feminism, their influences from the 1970’s, or the role of it in today’s art world- though their work was obviously rooted in the feminist experience or feminist identity. Orly Cogan one of the presenters stated that she felt it was obvious enough in her work- and it is and if it had been just a general lecture or panel that would be enough, but considering the actual advertised subject of the discussion I wanted more of it to be about this in a more direct way.
The best moments were definitely when it was opened up for the audience to ask questions and a bit more of a discussion started to happen between the artists. Some of them discussed their strategies of navigating the art world as a woman, and some of them shared stories to demonstrate how the art world is still significantly biased. But again it got off track when the discussion of making a living and money came up all of a sudden we were talking about percentages and how many male artists make 6-7 figures to how many women do. To me this is an entirely useless conversation I don’t need to make $200,ooo a year to be an artist and very few artists make a wealthy living off their art. I am interested in discussing the day-to-day reality of being a female artist. I think instead of focusing on the far off goal or desire of being a Kiki Smith type character it is much more productive to talk about how do you make it into the studio and get your work out there on a daily basis.
I think the feminist discussion too often becomes about looking at what “they” have that “I” don’t. Be that men or more successful female artists. It should be about how do we continue to rise women up- regardless of if the playing field is even or not. If it is not the only way we can change that is to rise women up and if it is we still want to provide the support and community for women to stay there.
As the discussion went on an audience member implied that the political or activist work was more important or more valid as feminist artist, this shocked and frustrated me. I completely respect and admire artists that work as activists through their work and think this is an essential art practice but this is not the only way to make a difference in people’s outlooks and opinions. And seriously how many times to we have to hear the infamous ” the personal is political” to accept, honor, and support it. Orly also stated in her speaking that she felt often women where their own worst enemies being cut throat competitive to each other or nor supporting one another as artists in their collecting, running of galleries, or artistic communities. I could not agree with this more and think that if women supported women we would make a huge change in our own success.
Whenever I can I go to the AIR round table discussions a small group of 1st, 2nd, and 3rd generation feminists talking about their experiences of being a female artist. I always leave these events feeling supported and confident as a woman and to me that is because we are all honest about our experiences and we do not spend time wishing for things, blaming anyone, or being totally unrealistic. I mean yeah, I would love to have a career like Louise Bourgeois but I would also love to have a life that simply lets me continue getting to the studio and making and sharing work until I die.
I think it is unfortunate that some old school feminists seem to often get stuck in their ideas and fears in a way that holds the discussion and themselves back, I think it is unfortunate that many feminists have a bitterness towards their careers, and I think it is very unfortunate that so many younger artists do not want to allow their work to be connected to or defined as feminist.
I am not really sure what my goal is in writing this other than to express my opinion. I hope you will express yours too.
The artists who spoke as panelist are represented by the images accompanying posts. They were all interesting speakers making work worth researching.
Joetta Maue is a full time artist primarily using photography and fibers. Her most recent work is a series of embroideries and images exploring intimacy. Joetta exhibits her work throughout the United States and internationally, and authors the art and craft blog Little Yellowbird as well as regularly contributes to Mr. X Stitch. Joetta lives in Brooklyn, NY, with her husband, baby son, two cats, a goldfish.