HOW MIGHT WE ASSESS FEMINISM'S INITIAL IMPACTS ON ART, ITS SUBSEQUENT HISTORICIZATION, AND ITS CONTINUING INFLUENCE? ARTFORUM ASKED LINDA NOCHLIN, ANDREA FRASER, AMELIA JONES, DAN CAMERON, COLLIER SCHORR, JAN AVGIKOS, CATHERINE DE ZEGHER, ADRIAN PIPER, AND PEGGY PHELAN TO CONSIDER THIS QUESTION IN AN ONLINE ROUNDTABLE ASSEMBLED IN AUGUST. THEIR RESPONSES--REFINED BY THE PARTICIPANTS AND PRESENTED IN THE FOLLOWING PAGES--SUGGEST THAT FEMINISM AND FEMINIST DISCOURSES AS THEY HAVE FOUND EXPRESSION IN CONTEMPORARY ART ARE AMBIVALENT ("IN THE FULLEST SENSE OF THAT TERM," AS PHELAN PUTS IT), MULTIFACETED, AND EVER EVOLVING.
Contemporary art and art criticism are unimaginable without feminism.
As a participant in the women's art movement of the late '60s and early '70s, I have decidedly mixed feelings about the historicization of feminism. It is difficult to see lived experience transformed into historical text. Things that seemed open and dynamic are now pinned down and displayed like butterflies in a case. Of course, there is also the tendency to idealize the past, to see the women's art movement as totally united. This was not the case: Although all of us were for justice, equity, and a fair shake for women artists, critics, and academics, our views we extremely varied, and we were often at odds with one another. I, for instance, disagreed with the perhaps unconscious essentialism of those who propagated Central Imagery as a compositional characteristic of women's art, or believed in Great Goddesses, or saw women as victims.
Today, it seems to me that the fundamental differences within feminism exist between those artists and critics who think of "woman" as a fixed category and those who think of it as something more fluid, constructed, and variable. There is also a difference between those who think of feminist art and art history as critical practices and those who think that pure, "positive" images of woman are possible--that there is some essence of femininity out there to be captured. Perhaps '70s feminism, powerful and necessary though it was, is now outmoded; feminism has transformed and is itself transformed in contemporary practice. Feminist politics today is far more multivalent and self-aware; the battle lines are less clearly drawn. The binaries--oppressor/victim, good woman/bad man, pure/impure, beautiful/ugly, active/passive--are not the point of feminist art anymore. Ambiguity, androgyny, and self-consciousness, both formal and psychic, are de rigueur in challenging thought and practice. But there is no point in asking how relevant feminism is to art practice, history, and criticism today, since feminist consciousness is pervasive even when unacknowledged or demeaned. Feminism is not only overtly present but has over the past thirty years irrevocably changed the way we think about art, the body, the relationship between the viewer and the artwork, and the standing, the various media.
Despite its import, there remains a general lack of interest in feminism in American museums, which is unfortunate, to say the least--but which is only part of more general refusal by museums to deal with anything controversial. (The Brooklyn Museum, which is opening an important center for feminist art with a regular exhibition program, is a rare exception.) It is hard to imagine an American museum putting on a show like Louvre curator Regis Michel's "Possess and Destroy: Sexual Strategies in Western Art" (2000), which demonstrated that much of the great drawing of the past is based on cruelty toward the female body. The show included Renaissance artists, continued through the nineteenth century with Ingres and Degas and ended with Picasso. Of course, most of their pieces, drawn from the Louvre collection, were beautiful. Michel's show and catalogue essay made you think about this strange, contradictory relationship--between morality, as it were, and aesthetics--which has long marked the high and low culture of our civilization. …