Womanhouse: Making the Personal Story Political in Visual Form

Article excerpt

"I wonder if we are unique. I mean the minority we exemplify. ...A woman is sidetracked by all her feminine roles from menstrual periods to cleaning house to remaining pretty and "young" and having babies. She's at a disadvantage from the beginning."(1)

When the late artist Eva Hesse wrote those words in 1965 she foresaw the concerns that would lead to innovations in art-making and exhibition opportunities that would constitute a feminist art "movement" during the following decade. The feminist art movement, like the women's movement of the sixties and seventies in general, was built upon theoretical principles that both depended upon and promulgated narratives of women's experience. We can see the term "narrative" in two ways here: interpersonally, as stories that are shared between two or more individuals, and rhetorically, as themes that create shared realities for larger groups and societies. Both definitions of narrative found expression in some key works of the feminist art movement in the 1970's.

In feminist practice, storytelling was a significant activity that took the form of consciousness-raising, a procedure that identified women as victims, rejected male-inspired identities, and fostered the concept of sisterhood to develop a new sense of woman's worth (Campbell, "Oxymoron"). The procedure of consciousness-raising centered on sharing personal experiences, empathizing with others' experiences, and creating an oral testimony, a litany that formed the premise of a collective identity (Hancock) and constituted an "informal rhetoric" (Bate 311). Thus, the storytelling feature of consciousness-raising served as the principle point of a rhetorical process that Campbell describes as unique in its movement from expression to dialogue to rhetorical argumentation. The process begins with a story, shared interpersonally, with which all women are invited to identify, and results in an ultimate narrative about the political/structural problem of the subjugation of women. Thus, "all of the issues of women's liberation are simultaneously personal and political" (Campbell 399).

Some of the women engaged in feminist consciousness-raising were artists who brought the theoretical principles of feminism to their work, challenging the male-dominated museum and gallery system that was seen to exclude women unjustly, and creating art works that invoked feminist principles in visual form. Whereas high art typically used women as subjects for aesthetic examination from a male perspective, art works by feminist artists used the Self as their subject matter, exploring the inner lives and personal experiences of women, focusing especially on domestic activities that had been devalued by society (Lippard, From the Center). Many artists incorporated traditional craft techniques such as quilting and needlework into their work, raising such techniques to high art status. Subsequent researchers have identified both storytelling and a concern for the "internal" or domestic as part of a female discourse style (Bate; Campbell, "Style and Content"; Cirksena and Cuklanz; Elshtain; Hall and Langellier; Kramare; Pearson, Turner, and Todd-Mancillas; Sterk).

Foss and Foss have justified women's non-discursive activities as rhetorically analogous to traditional platform speaking. As Elshtain has noted, "Women were silenced in part because that which defines them and to which they are inescapably linked - sexuality, natality, helplessness, vulnerability - was omitted from political speech" (15-16). Feminist artists, following from the rhetorical practices of the women's liberation movement, made the personal political. Artifacts created by feminist artists thus constitute a narrative in the definition offered by van Dijk: influencing "emotional or aesthetic reaction" and containing "broader social, political, or cultural functions...contributing to the reproduction of knowledge, beliefs, attitudes, ideologies, norms, or values of a group or society as a whole" (124-5). …