From the Guerilla Girls to “The Dinner Party”: A Short History of Feminist Art
February 12, 2020
Female artists like Kara Walker, Yayoi Kusama, and Marina Abramovic may dominate the art world today, but it wasn’t always that way. In the 1960s, despite the fact that women made up the overwhelming majority of students at art schools, only 5 percent of them had their works in galleries and only 3 percent in museums. And, in the Whitney Annual Exhibition of 1969, less than 6 percent of the featured artists were women, while female artists produced a stronger, but still minimal, 22 percent of the works displayed the following year (Tickner).
The statistics demonstrate how female artists were grossly underrepresented (Marter) in the art world and how the industry was extremely male-dominated. It also reveals how female artists struggled for equal opportunities. This sparked female artists to speak up and use art as a medium to express their feelings about living in a gender-biased society. Several female artists also used their art to change the contemporary world by rebelling against traditional, male concepts of art (Feminist Art). In the wake of Feminism’s “Second Wave” and the corresponding women’s movement that arose in the mid-1960s, Feminist art emerged as an important part of the history of the art world (Marter). Using their voices, knowledge, actions, and, most importantly, their artwork, female artists were able to communicate their message of gender equality to the public (Marter).
The feminist art movement from the 1960s to the 1980s saw the birth of the Guerilla Girls, a group who described themselves as the “conscience of the art world” (Smith) and who advocated for gender equality in the art (GUERILLA). The women wore gorilla masks to keep the members of their organization anonymous so that the press and people would focus on the issues they advocated for. The masks’ outrageous visuals helped the Guerilla Girls expose gender and racial bias in politics, film, and art (GUERILLA). Posters were the main medium the Guerilla Girls used to portray their messages. The first poster was printed in 1985 and was called “what do these artists have in common?” and highlighted the dearth of female artists in gallery work (Smith). In 1986, the Guerilla Girls released another poster called ““Dearest Art Collector” (GUERILLA). This poster was sent to various well-known art collectors who owned few works by women artists. With its handwritten cursive letters on powder-pink paper with a frowning flower, the poster represented femininity and exemplified the sarcastic scorn that the Guerilla Girls are known for. This was then transcribed into different languages and sent out of the United States to art collectors around the world. Ironically, by sending these posters out to these gender-oblivious art collectors, they became a part of those collectors’ art collections.
Most of the Guerilla Girls’ posters from 1985 to 1988 did not include any images, only text. However, in 1989, they started to use images to help reveal the gender inequalities in art institutions (Do Women). The Public Art Fund (PAF) in New York asked them to design a billboard, and the Guerilla Girls created “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. museum?” which is one of their most famous posters (Guerilla). The Guerilla Girls’ idea for this billboard came from their visits to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. While there, they counted and compared the number of female nudes and the number of male nudes in artworks displayed in the museum. To symbolize the drastic differences in the numbers of female nudes and male nudes, the Guerilla Girls transmuted a popular nude in art, La Grande Odalisque by Jean-August-Dominique, by replacing the woman’s head with a gorilla mask. This change “redefined a symbol of feminine sensuality into a hybrid monster that seems to roar out the title question” (Do Women).
As the poster states, not only were there significantly more female nudes than male nudes, but there were also more works by male artists than female artists in the Modern Art section. Unfortunately, the poster was rejected by the Public Art Fund (Do Women), but the Girls continued to spread their message on their own. They rented advertising space on New York City buses in order to show the poster. With its bright colors and bold texts, this poster was one of the most iconic works made by the Guerilla Girls (Do Women). After their first poster was publicized, the Girls began producing more posters to spread their messages and morals. As one stated, “We believe in an intersectional feminism that fights discrimination and supports human rights for all people and all genders” (Guerilla).
Barbara Kruger, a feminist, activist, and American artist, also played a significant role in the feminist art movement. Advertising is the technique and artistic style Kruger applied in her works to depict subject matter, such as by using a punchy text with red borders on a large black and white image. Most of her well-known works are photomontages that critique consumerism and consumer fulfillment and works promoting women’s rights (Kruger). Kruger developed many of her graphic design skills and techniques in her work as a former magazine artist and an expert in advertising. Untitled (I shop therefore I am) is one of her early works which showed the significant influence advertising had on her artistic style and, most importantly, it depicted Kruger as a feminist artist. The message that Kruger portrayed in this work is related to women in the media. As the advertisements for women’s products in the media were usually created by men, Kruger captured the idea of men’s assumptions of women’s aspirations and ideals. She questioned the belief that women only need material objects to be satisfied and believed that men were keeping women under control by these means (I shop therefore I am).
Between the 1960s and 1970s, feminists were fighting for legalizing abortion. Their efforts resulted in the 1973 Supreme Court case, Roe v. Wade, which ruled that it is constitutional for women to have abortions under the Fourteenth Amendment (Denslow). Nonetheless, the anti-abortion conflicts in 1989 threatened the Roe v. Wade decision and triggered the first Women’s March on Washington. As both an artist and feminist, Barbara Kruger used her skills to produce works that examined inequalities. Kruger created Untitled (Your body is a battleground) specifically for the Women’s March. Untitled (Your body is a battleground) was printed in the form of fliers and distributed around the march (The History). The vertical split on the woman’s face showed the photographic positive and negative which represented the inner struggle of good versus evil (Untitled). Barbara Kruger successfully used dramatic imagery and an irreverent graphic aesthetic to portray her messages, which provoked a public response (Untitled).
Besides the Guerilla Girls and Barbara Kruger, Judy Chicago was one of the pioneers of feminist art in the 1970s. Chicago sought to challenge the male domination of visual arts by focusing on female subject matter (Judy). Chicago’s most recognized work is The Dinner Party, an art installation of a ceremonial table with thirty-nine different plates representing Western historical female figures (The Dinner). Between 1974 and 1979, Chicago created this large art installation to “recognize women’s contributions to all areas of society and amend their relative absence from the grand narrative of history” (Malafronte). It is a reminder of the hardships endured by women and how hard women in the past worked for freedom and gender equality.
The thirty-nine “guests of honor” on the ceremonial table has their own embroidered name and an illustration of their achievement alongside the painted china. On The Dinner Party table, there are thirty-nine hand-crafted glass plates decorated with butterflies or flowers symbolizing the vulva. The floor is inscribed with 999 mythical and historical women who are worthy of recognition (The Dinner). Another purpose of this piece is to also acknowledge the artistic value of ceramics and painted china and textiles which had been relegated from native women’s life (Malafronte). The Dinner Party is arguably the most important work in the feminist art movement because of its confrontation of the tradition of fine arts by representing how women have been suppressed by patriarchal society (The Dinner). It is considered a “milestone” for feminist and 20th-century American art and has inspired many people by making them question male-dominated history and sparking conversations about political art, female representation, and feminism (Malafronte).
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