Frontiers in Feminist Art History

By Fields, Jill | Frontiers - A Journal of Women's Studies, May 2012 | Go to article overview
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Frontiers in Feminist Art History


Fields, Jill, Frontiers - A Journal of Women's Studies


If we can bring in women's history, we can bring in women's future.

Judy Chicago, 1976

In the televised reality competition series Work of Art: The Next Great Artist, young artists compete each week in various challenges testing their abilities to make art on demand within a limited time. I just watched the recently concluded second season's episodes over a couple days while recovering from the flu. Over and over again the contestants' enthusiastic and affluent art auctioneer mentor, the series' stylish and wealthy art and fashion scene host, and the show's successful and at times perceptive art world judges--a critic, a gallery owner, and a guest who is often an artist himor herself--encouraged the artists to make work based upon their personal experiences; to experiment with a range of materials and methods, including performance art; and to challenge themselves by confronting emotional obstacles to their work. Those who did so were rewarded with prize money, "immunity" from being dispatched in the next week's episode, and appreciative praise from the judges during their "crit." Not surprisingly, the final three contestants in their last challenge to determine who would win the grand prize of one hundred thousand dollars and a solo exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum of Art all made art that centered on explicitly represented personal feelings and experiences, especially mourning, loss, and longing.

Women artists have done well on Work of Art, which has as one of its executive producers Sarah Jessica Parker of Sex and the City fame. Though I've yet to see a challenge for the artists to create feminist art as the show has done for pop art, confrontational art, and portraiture, some of the female contestants have focused on gender issues and the body--often their bodies--in the work they make on the show. The Brooklyn Museum of Art's extraordinary Sackler Center for Feminist Art may go unmentioned despite the museum's prominent role in the series, but the feminist art movement's influence is clearly present in the aesthetics and approaches upheld in this reality show and the serious attention given to its female contestants.'

The absence of explicit acknowledgment of feminist art's impact upon contemporary artwork and practices is a wider phenomenon. Judith Brodsky and Ferris Olin fear with reason that "feminist innovations have become so thoroughly embedded in contemporary perspectives that their role in introducing these ideas is in danger of being erased." (2) Though relatively ignored as a movement by high-profile museums for a long period, during the past five years a number of major exhibitions in the United States and Europe have reassessed the innovations, impact, and legacy of the feminist art movement that began in the 1970s. In 2007 WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles and Global Feminisms--along with the permanent installation of Judy Chicago's The Dinner Party (1974-79)--at the Sackler Center for Feminist Art gave feminist artists and their movement a renewed and enhanced level of recognition from coast to coast. Subsequent feminist art retrospectives were held in the Netherlands, Russia, and Spain, and exhibitions of women artists' work that had languished in museum basements followed at the Pompidou in Paris and the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Despite the pleasures viewing these shows afforded, whether or how such exposure transforms standard narratives of modern and contemporary art history remains to be seen. (3)

These recent feminist art exhibitions have coincided with emerging studies of the US women's movement that provide new evidence and reconsiderations of its history. Some of this research explores the efforts of activists outside major centers like New York City to explain more fully how the far-reaching effects of feminism were initiated and enacted across America in places like Dayton, Ohio, and Gainesville, Florida.

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