Although cultural debates regarding the possibility of a postmodern oppositional art tend to be critical of collage, feminist artists in a variety of media have frequently chosen this mode. Focusing on concrete examples, this essay attempts to provide the historical and theoretical framework needed to understand the oppositional nature of feminist collage.
Throughout the 20th century, a succession of revolutionary art movements have laid claim to collage, assuming special rights to the form and avowing its special powers. In the contemporary arts, collage is so prevalent that it is sometimes considered synonymous with postmodernism. Significantly, during the last three decades, feminist artists have particularly been attracted to this mode; indeed, the art critic Lucy Lippard has gone so far as to claim that collage is a predominant aesthetic in the feminist arts (25). Current debates regarding the possibility of truly oppositional art, however, often involve a critique of collage, questioning assumptions about its revolutionary "edge" and implicating it in concerns about the political limitations of any art embedded in postmodern culture. Allying feminist arts and agendas with collage would thus seem to pose a number of problems: insofar as the feminist arts assume a political stance and are directed toward a critique of contemporary culture, how can the practice of feminist collage be squared with the charge that collage is symptomatic of postmodern cultural fragmentation and that it is incompatible with art as political critique?
As I see it, what is needed to address this issue is an investigation of feminist art in various media, with a view to providing an adequate historicizing and theorizing of the development of feminist collage strategies as oppositional art. In doing so, it is important to refrain from claiming that collage in itself has any unique power as cultural critique, or that women have any essential relationship to collage. There is, in my opinion, no basis for equating a particular aesthetic form or strategy with any particular effect; the relationship between artistic object and audience is too complex to presume a given effect or meaning, and interpretation is in continual process as it is constructed through artistic strategies, critical theories, and cultural institutions. Furthermore, it would be naive to invoke an essentialist basis for a relationship between women or minorities and any particular art form or critical art. At the same time, one can argue that artists who are culturally marginal may find certain strategies particularly useful in representing that position, and evidence of this can be found in an analysis of the theories and practices of particular visual and verbal artists.
In order to pursue this investigation, I will begin with a brief overview of the general evolution of collage and the critical issues that have been raised concerning its oppositional value, including arguments and counterarguments. I will then trace the development of feminist theories of collage and explore collage techniques used by feminist artists in a variety of media: Miriam Schapiro (visual modes); Ntozake Shange (verbal/dance); Barbara Kruger (image/word); Kathy Acker (verbal modes), and Yvonne Rainer (film). In concluding, I will foreground the major implications of the work of these artists to elaborate historical and theoretical perspectives on the practice of feminist collage as oppositional art.
Collage had long been a technique in the crafts and popular arts in both Western and other cultural traditions when, in the second decade of the 20th century, Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque turned to this technique to pursue Cubist experiments in dismantling traditional realistic representation, using found materials and assembling fragmented elements through a method of juxtaposition. At that point, as art historians have declared and incessantly reiterate, collage became a "fine art. …