Yesterday I went to a panel discussion at Hillyer Art Space called The Feminist Art Movement. The panelist included Sybil Gohari, professor of art history at American University, Ying-Chen Peng, professor of modern Chinese Art History at American University, and Jesse Harrod, artist and professor of Fiber & Material Studies at Temple University. The discussion was moderated by Emily Hockett, a current intern at Hillyer Art Space.
What is feminism?
Gohari shared a recurring observation from her AU classroom: most of her students don’t identify as feminist and many can’t even define it. Gohari said while there’s a general trend to not label oneself as anything, there’s also a lot of confusion about what feminism means.
I wasn’t surprised. I think the trend away from labels has a lot to do with constant self-branding via the internet, social networks and the modern job search. Every day we make decisions about how to frame ourselves, not just in person but online. There’s this pressure to be both a part of something and totally unique. I can see how a feminist identity can complicate that, especially if it is misunderstood.
What’s strange is why feminism is still misunderstood. The panelist were very clear about their definition: Feminism is equality for women. This is how I’ve always understood feminism, and any time I come across someone that does not identify as a feminist, she/he is usually just confused about the label, but very on board with the concept.
What is feminist art?
When asked to define feminist art, the panelist couldn’t give a clear answer. The genre seems to really depend on time period and framing. There’s also the ability to re-read forgotten artists as feminist artists. They did seem to agree that feminist art is not limited to one medium or method and that the label changes depending on time period, how it is used and by whom.
The panelists talked about the varying degrees of feminist art and gave some examples of contemporary feminist artists. They discussed how styles that define feminist art have evolved and morphed over time and vary across cultures. What was most interesting is to hear that East Asian feminist art tends to be explicit and bodily, similar to 60s, 70s feminist art in the US, while contemporary US feminist art tends to be more post-modern and use materials in non-conformative ways, like all art does, but with an underlying tone of feminism.
Hierarchy of labels: feminist art vs. _____________
There was discussion about the hierarchy of labels, especially within the art world. Peng shared how Asian artists may be reluctant to identify as feminist because that would be their first identifying factor, with their international or global identity coming in second. This might make them less able to succeed in the global art market.
On the other end of the spectrum, Hockett, who sees her work as activism, shared that even if her artwork could be judged blindly, she’d still want to be known as a feminist.
This idea of the hierarchy of labels is really interesting. I struggle with this myself - as an artist, marketer, blogger, feminist, mexican-american, etc., etc. Which comes first? Does it matter? What is obvious and what needs to be continuously demonstrated?
It’s all Transrelational
I’ve been out of academia for a while, but there was a word that I think every panelist used many times that I took to mean everything is related. We are all multi-faceted and our identities not only blend and relate with other aspects of ourselves, but with other identities, other understandings of identities and the reflections of all of this in culture, media, institutions and history. I think the word was transrelational, but I didn’t write it down so I really don’t know.
What can we do to educate others about feminism & feminist art?
I’m a big fan of academic discussions and art talk, but I was glad when people asked questions about how to understand non-feminists, how to promote equality for women (feminism) and how (if) the internet can help all of this.
While the panelist were certainly symbolic of the ivory tower of academia in both their ways of speaking and examples (my sister, a non-cultural studies nerd like me, pointed this out) they did give some really useful tips that anyone can use (I took some liberties here):
- Revisit known and unknown artists. Maybe start with the ones you know, but you can also use the internet to uncover hundreds of female artists. Learn about them and see if there’s a feminist rhetoric that’s been brushed over.
- Publish. At first I thought this was really lame advice - write a book about feminism! But, then I thought, this is exactly what I do -- this may just be a blog, but it’s public work that hopefully some people will read. Whatever your thoughts are on feminism or feminist artist, share it in a public, published manner, however small or large your audience. Every little bit counts.
- Vote. There’s a big part of the US population that not only is probably confused about feminism, but is also not voting and in most need of equality for women. With an interesting 2016 presidential election kicking off, it’s a good time to start voicing your opinion through the ballot box.
- In Wonderland: The Surrealist Adventures of Women Artists in Mexico and the US by Ilene Susan Fort, Tere Arcq, Terri Geis, Dawn Ades, Maria Buszek
- Wack!: Art and the Feminist Revolution by Cornelia Butler and Lisa Gabrielle Mark
- Women of the Beat Generation by Brenda Knight
- Global Feminisms: New Directions in Contemporary Art by Maura Reilly and Linda Nochlin
- Pink Noises: Women on Electronic Music and Sound by Tara Rodgers
- The F Word: Feminism in Jeopardy by Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner
- Female Chauvinist Pigs by Ariel Levy
- China's Female Artists Quietly Emerge, NY Times, by Holland Cotter