Feminist art can be defined as art by women consciously made in light of the strides women have made in feminist art theory since the early 1970s. Many in the feminist movement have wondered out loud about the social and economic factors that have prevented talented women from achieving the same status as their male counterparts. Many questioned the language of art history with its gender-loaded terms such as "old master" and "masterpiece." They wondered why so many men painted paintings of nude females. It was quite clear to the feminists that Western art replicated the relationships already embedded in society; men look at women, women watch themselves being looked at.
From the late 1960s, when the feminist art movement started its major development, women have been interested in what differentiates their art from that of men. Although the feminist art movement began in the United States, Germany and Britain, it spread rapidly to other countries.
Feminists have noted that all through history males artists have portrayed a patriarchal social system in art. In other words, most art depicts father-centered figures that dominate females. Feminist art notes that the predominance of art made by and for males is significant in the culture's male-dominated heritage, sometimes denigrating females. Males very often maintain art studios that exclude women from training and practicing as artists and a gallery system that has kept women from exhibiting and selling their works. Up until recently museums have hardy exhibited collections by female artists. One thing feminists have not taken into consideration was the fact that most women's lives evolve around being mothers, household workers and caregivers. There is also a common misconception that women are genetically inferior to men.
Prior to the late 1960s, most women artists who were trying to join the male-dominated art world were deterred from putting feminist meanings into their work. They tried very hard to make their art free of any gender bias. Just by looking at it, the mark of a female artist could not be seen in their work.
Simultaneously with the rise of feminism in the 1960s, several countercultural movements also arose. At that time the United States was experiencing tremendous social upheaval with the Civil Rights Movement, economic prosperity, the Vietnam War, experimentation with mind altering drugs and the arrival on the market of oral contraceptives. Many other countries were also experiencing various sorts of social unrest during the same period.
Sometimes gender issues are not of concern to female but also to male artists. Feminist art has certainly developed from the concerns, some of which are sexual, of artists of one gender. Very often feminist issues have been about women's power in areas of which sexuality, including reproduction, plays a significant part.
The feminist art movement started with the theory that women's experiences can be expressed via the medium of art, where for the longest time they had been trivialized or ignored. In the United States, early advocates of feminist art had a vision of a complete turnaround in art. They sought a new framework in which art would include women's experiences as well as those of men. Feminist artists, like those in the women's liberation movement, realized very early on that it would be rather difficult to change society.
Theorists and art historians discuss whether feminist art was a particular step in the history of art or a general shift in approach and method. Some have wanted to compare feminist art to surrealism, describing it not as an art but rather a way of making art. Feminist art asks many questions that are also part of postmodernism which rejected the strict form and style of modern art. Feminist art questions whether the historical canon of the West, which is largely male-oriented, really represented a universal overview. By questioning the seeming universality of the male experience, feminist art laid the way for also querying the exclusivity of white and heterosexual experience.
Many historians have described pre-feminist women artists as the link between various male-dominated art movements. This only strengthened the feminist argument that women do not seem to fit into the categories of art that were set up for male artists and their work.