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At the end of the 1970s, second wave American feminists were asking what their movement—which in under two decades had gained enough traction in postwar America to reshape the roles of women in American society forever—could become in the future. There were signs that they were losing ground: In 1977, the Equal Rights Amendment stalled three states shy of full ratification. That November would see both the National Women’s Conference and its vocal, Phyllis Schlafly-led opposition. Soon, bruising arguments over the ethics of pornography would unsettle feminist consensus and signal an end to the second wave. Around the same time, nearly 200 working artists replied to an invitation that read, “If you consider yourself a feminist, would you respond by using one 8 1/2 x 11 inch page to share your ideas about what feminist art is or could be.” Ruth Iskin, Lucy Lippard, and Arlene Raven, who solicited the responses, organized their small survey of feminism in the art world into a 1977 exhibition at the Los Angeles Woman’s Building. Today, those papers belong to the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art, which has curated them for the new exhibition What is Feminist Art?
The exhibition is animated by new responses that the Archives solicited from both original participants and a new, diverse array of artists examining gender and power in 2019. What is Feminist Art? places artists’ 1977 and 2019 answers side by side and features single submissions from the ’70s and the present day—in total, nearly 75 historic and contemporary responses are displayed together. The exhibition offers no commentary other than introductory wall text, the thoughts of artists’ 1970s peers, and the reactions from our contemporaries. The absence of gallery text beyond an overview is a necessity in such a small space, but it has an egalitarian effect. Each woman has the same room—the surface of one 8 1/2 x 11 inch piece of paper—to articulate themselves. And many do articulate; a majority of the works in the exhibition use prose, though some of the most intriguing replies use solely visual language.
Friction has always been the most generative mode of feminist philosophy, and in both the historic submissions and the contemporary ones, the most productive answers to the “what is feminist art” question challenge its premise entirely. “I want my work to be viewed and experienced by you for what it is and not what I am,” Siri Berg wrote in her 1970s submission, and her mind hasn’t changed in her contemporary response. “Why should we even have to have such a thing as ‘feminist art’? We are all people,” she writes in 2019. “I just want to see myself in this world and exist without having to worry if I’m a man or a woman.”
But the exhibition, in trying to uncover what feminist art is, answers Berg’s question of why do we need it over and over again. In her 2019 submission, Martha Rosler writes that “feminist art does not have to be ‘about’ women—yet it is hard to imagine that, no matter what its appearance or subject, feminist art does not reflect a woman’s subject position, her point of view.” Berg argues that there is a universal humanity that transcends identity divisions like race, gender, and class, but she wrongly assumes that feminists disagree with that premise. Instead, feminist art exists because of women’s subordinate treatment for millennia despite their universal humanity. In Rosler’s terms, her artistic point of view is not the same as a man’s because of this difference.
But what that answer misses, and what mainstream 1970s white feminism missed, is that “woman” is not a universal identity. The most disappointing failure of the 1977 exhibition was its overwhelming whiteness and the presumption that any coherent definition of feminist art could be sourced almost entirely from straight, white American women already entrenched in their artistic practices. In 2019, the curators attempt to address this failure by intentionally soliciting work from women of color, and their answers expand the exhibition’s answers and its possibilities for interpretation. Amber McCrary invokes the specter of colonialism; Laura Kina depicts the artist Aram Han Sifuentes, known for her protest banners, at work on a banner that says “SHUT THE FUCK UP;” Tina Takemoto titles her piece “Queer Feminist of Color Art;” E. Jane says “as a Black genderqueer femme, I think I make Womanist art,” Womanist being a term Alice Walker coined in 1979 after the initial exhibition.
The most impressive piece, LJ Roberts’ submission, is made more impactful by its unremarked-upon inclusion—no caveats, no excuses, no explanations. “Artist fees/honorariums were NOT offered to artists and cultural producers asked to participate in the project,” it says in white text on black paper. “Also of note is that the Archives of American Art is requesting that all ‘documents’ received for the project, ‘What is Feminist Art,’ be donated to the permanent collection.” Roberts goes on to detail how their position as a non-binary queer person in New York City makes producing art for free always a net loss for their art practice. Their marginalization makes juggling life, work, resources, and political commitments more complex than it is for those in positions of privilege, they write. According to Roberts, the act of submitting this document “is feminist art.” It’s not a testament to the curators’ bravery that Roberts’ condemnation is included. If anything, it’s a reminder that the only feminist imperative is to question power. Self-congratulation is not on the agenda.
At the Archives of American Art Gallery to Nov. 29, 2020. 8th Street and F Street NW. Free. aaa.si.edu.
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