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“That’s one of the wonderful things about tenure—it really does give you the academic freedom to do the kind of work you believe in,” says Mary D. Garrard. She and Norma Broude, art history professors at American University, have used that freedom to champion women’s art, and most recently to co-edit a volume titled The Power of Feminist Art: The American Movement of the 1970s, History and Impact.
This anthology—the editors’ third collaboration—glorifies the ’70s, a decade that saw an organized feminist art movement take shape. It was then that Garrard and Broude met as members of the Women’s Caucus for Art; the former was the organization’s second national president, while the latter was its first affirmative-action officer. Garrard, who these days describes herself and Broude as “mainstream feminists,” believes that the book is “a milestone for the generation of the ’70s because many people…see that something they made happen has been honored and recognized. For a new generation, it’s brand new—they didn’t know they had a history.”
Broude concurs. “There are cycles, particularly in women’s history, that the backlash settles in and memories get blocked in less than a generation,” she says. “One of the reasons that happens is we’ve been deprived of our own history—it hasn’t been there in the books.”
Over the past three decades, much of feminist artists’ work has been documented only informally. And until women can access the work of their foremothers, Garrard and Broude emphasize, the same movement will restart, and stall, over and over again. There are clear similarities between today’s feminist themes and those chronicled in the backward-looking The Power of Feminist Art; the now-defunct Women’s Action Coalition (WAC), begun in the ’90s by artists in New York, had its ’70s parallels in such radical groups as Women Artists in Revolution (WAR). Although skeptics may remark that it’s easy to name prominent artists like Cindy Sherman, Jenny Holzer, or Audrey Flack, such women are perceived as loners among male stars rather than members of a unified women’s art movement.
In Power, Garrard and Broude give examples of cooperation among women artists; the editors’ interviews with Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro, for instance, focus on early-’70s experiments in women’s art education. Through their own writings and essays by 16 other women in the arts, the editors explore figuration, decoration, the use of personal content in artworks, the categories of art and craft, and questions of quality—all issues raised by ’70s feminists. Plus, Power, being a coffee-table tome, includes plenty of color and black-and-white images to stir those who just like to look at the pictures.
Broude worked with the Harry N. Abrams Inc. publishing company in the past, and she says the idea for Power was well received, particularly by Abrams President Paul Gottlieb. But, interjects Garrard, “while Paul Gottlieb is a wonderfully enlightened person and it took his support of the book to make it go, at the same time what you have now in publishing…is a lot of women in middle management and editorial positions.” True, men still hold publishing’s plum jobs, but Garrard feels that the women’s support was “what made a difference.”
If the book was cheerfully accepted at Abrams, its publication was not without international roadblocks. Once the art and text were in place, Abrams sent the book to Japan to be printed, and that country’s censors were not pleased with the contents. They particularly objected to Judith Bernstein’s Two Panel Vertical (1973), a charcoal drawing of two giant, phallic screws, and Linda Nochlin’s photo Buy My Bananas (1972) in which a naked man holds a tray of fruit at thigh level, mimicking a 19th-century French painting of a nude female resting her breasts among some apples. The Japanese printers, says Broude, “printed and shipped the books to the United States, but there was another batch to be shipped to Great Britain, and for some reason they balked….Abrams had to have those offending pages taken out with a razor blade in Japan and discarded, and the books were then taken to Hong Kong, where the pages were reprinted and tipped back into the book.”
It was the male nudity, not the equally graphic female nudes, that bothered the censors, Garrard recalls. “It does reveal the extent to which the attitudes about sex and gender are not equal,” she says. “If we’re going to have female nudity, we should be able to have male nudity.”
But if women presenting images of nude men offends some audiences, women controlling their own sexuality is just as sensitive an issue. Garrard mentions Judy Chicago’s 1979 sculpture The Dinner Party, a photo of which illustrates Power‘s back cover. The piece, comprised of banquet tables and 39 individualized place settings honoring Sappho, “The Fertile Goddess,” and other legendary women, includes embroidered placemats and customized plates, each featuring petallike forms that are easily interpretable as genitalia. In 1990, Chicago was prepared to donate the piece to the University of the District of Columbia, but controversy over the content—and over what housing the work would cost the university—doomed the deal. (Chicago’s work now languishes in storage in New Mexico.)
Thus do the landmarks of the ’70s become the obstacles of the ’90s. “Today it’s different because of resistance even to the word “feminism,’ ” says Garrard. “Also, it’s not a moment of cultural rebellion. You kind of have to have an atmosphere of resistance. The women’s movement in some ways was generated out of the civil rights movement of the ’60s. These things come in cycles.”
“Until November, everybody had a sense that there was a tremendous resurgence of feminist activism,” Broude adds. “The day after the election, all of that disappeared from the press….[but] we do have a new generation of women who want to know their history, who are ready to become activists again.”
Garrard’s hopeful. “Maybe the strongly conservative Republicans…will provide a clarified opposition,” she muses. “I think that’s been a problem in recent years for would-be feminist activists that it wasn’t clear who the enemy really was.”
Or perhaps the feminist front has shifted to other countries. “Ideas that were in the air in America in the ’70s are pertinent to what’s going on in Eastern Europe today,” Garrard considers. “There’s a great deal of enthusiasm for bringing women artists over there to talk about how you start things up. It’s where they are now.”
Regardless of where the action is, Broude and Garrard aim to educate historians and artmakers about their ’70s roots. “Feminist art is not some exotic branch on the tree of art,” Garrard concludes. “It really set off some profound changes in the art world today.”
Norma Broude and Mary Garrard, along with artist Miriam Schapiro, discuss feminist art at 7:30 p.m. Monday, Jan. 16, at the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s Hammer Auditorium, 17th & New York Ave. NW. $16.