Both a celebration and an elegy, The Power of Feminist Art will be indispensable to any reconsideration of 1970s art. It proudly reveals a myriad accomplishments and laments the passage of that activist era. But it does not tell the whole story.
Editors Norma Broude and Mary Garrard, professors of art history at the American University in Washington, D.C., assembled sixteen essays and two interviews, along with nearly three hundred illustrations, many in handsome color. They tell us in the preface that the volume's eighteen contributors were drawn from the "artists, critics, and art historians who participated in the events of the 1970s" (p. 8r Since then, several have risen to the top of their professions, and most of the names will be familiar to those who keep an eye on contemporary art and criticism. However, Lucy Lippard is not among them, although she was the first to write extensively about feminist art, and no one has contributed more to the literature on that subject.
Following the editors' general introduction, "Feminism and Art in the Twentieth Century," the book is divided into four sections of three to six chapters each. These sections respectively address education, activism, the varieties of feminist art, and the fortunes of the movement since about 1980. Sizable bibliographies for each of the chapters (not including the introduction) and a fold-out timeline are found at the end of the volume. The book unfortunately lacks an overall bibliography that might serve as a comprehensive guide to writings on feminist art. Readers interested in particular topics should be aware also that not all sources listed in the notes to each chapter appear in the bibliographies.
At the outset of the volume, the editors' introduction briefly surveys American women's accomplishments in art before the 1970s, situates the uniqueness of the feminist art movement in its connection to politics, explores the thorny question of essentialism, and discusses the changed nature of feminist art produced since the 1970s.
The first d/vision of the book is somewhat misleadingly titled "Seeds of Change: Feminist Art and Education in the Early Seventies." In fact, this section covers only Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro and their educational innovations in Southern California. Faith Wilding writes about "The Feminist Art Programs at Fresno and CalArts, 1970-75" from the vantage point of one who was a student in both. Critic Arlene Raven, who worked with Chicago in organizing the Feminist Studio Workshop, provides a detailed tour of Womanhouse, the major and best-known project of the CalArts Feminist Art Program when it was under the joint direction of Chicago and Schapiro. The third chapter comprises separate interviews by the editors with Chicago and Schapiro. They again talk about Fresno, CalArts, and Womanhouse, as well as their own work and aesthetic standards.
Mot of this material has been previously well publicized, and it is not subjected to original or penetrating analysis here. Although the shock value of Womanhouse presumably cleared many a head in 1972, more than two decades later it seems questionable whether other art produced in these short-lived California programs or the educational method based on consciousness raising has demonstrated enduring value.
This section on feminist art education provides only the most conspicuous example of the book's solicitousness about California. More than half of the contributors can be identified with that state, either as residents or participants in the CalArts experience. As well, nearly all the essays include material on California artists, movements, and/or institutions.
Part 2, "Building a Network: Feminist Activism in the Arts." consists of straightforward, informative surveys of the infrastructure of feminist art. Mary Garrard's "Feminist Politics: Networks and Organizations" begins with the initial period of excitement over "women's lib" in the late 1960s and traces how and why women came together to further their own goals, as well as what happened to such efforts over time. …