The Feminist art movement emerged in the late 1960s

The Feminist art movement emerged in the late 1960s. It began with the idea that women’s experiences could be expressed through art, as they were previously ignored or thought of as unimportant. This was a time amidst the fervor of anti-war demonstrations, civil rights, and the gay rights movement. Female artists were seeking to change the contemporary world in which they were enveloped and driven by a male-dominated society. The goal of the Feminist art movement was to “influence cultural attitudes and transform stereotypes.” It created opportunities that previously did not exist for women, and paved a pathway for activist art and identity art in the 1980s. Within the Feminist art movement, women discovered the possibility of completely changing their society. Feminist artists were able to use performance art, video, and other artistic expressions to give a female voice to art criticism.
Art critics played a major role in the Feminist art movement. They called attention to the fact that women artists were omitted from the canon of Western art. Female art critics were important advocates who sought to rewrite the male-dominated criteria of art criticism as well as aesthetics. The majority of women artists were invisible to the public eye before the Feminist art movement. Women were often denied gallery representation and exhibitions based on their gender. In order to combat this, feminist artists created alternative venues and worked to change established institutions’ policies to promote women artists’ visibility within the market. They found alternative materials that were connected to the female gender to create their work as well. This included textiles, performance, and video art which did not have the same historically male-dominated precedent that painting and sculpture carried. Women sought to expand the definition of fine art and incorporate a wider variety of artistic perspectives. Art critics such as Linda Nochlin, Arlene Raven, and Lucy Lippard were able to change the way people viewed women as important figures in society through women’s artwork and exemplary writings. Artwork during this time was still being critiqued by men. This is when feminist art criticism was birthed and paved a way for female voices to be heard. Thus, feminist artwork and feminist ideas analyzed by art critics Linda Nochlin, Arlene Raven, and Lucy Lippard helped change art history during the Feminist art movement.
Linda Nochlin was one of the most prominent art critics during this period. She was an American art historian who received her Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy from Vassar College in 1951. After receiving her master’s and doctoral degrees, Nochlin returned to Vassar College as an instructor of art history. When she taught at Vassar, she spear-headed a course solely looking at female artists. The subject of the course was “The Image of Women in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries.”
She published her thought-provoking essay, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” in 1971 in ArtNews. Nochlin argued that significant societal barriers prevented women from pursuing art. This included educating women in art academies and the “entire romantic, elitist, individual-glorifying, and monograph-producing substructure upon which art history is based.” She also argued, “The problem lies not so much with the feminists’ concept of what femininity is, but rather with their misconception–shared with the public at large–of what art is: with the naive idea that art is the direct, personal expression of individual emotional experience, a translation of personal life into visual terms. Art is almost never that, great art never is.” She focused on semiotics. Semiotics is the “study of signs.” It is a field “using structure and is interested in interpretive communication systems.” Linda Nochlin believed that the making of art involves a self-consistent language of form which is dependent on and given conventions which have to be learned or worked out either through teaching, apprenticeship, or a long period of individual experimentation. Also she pointed out that art is not a matter of gender but of the socioeconomic, psychological, and cultural conditions which make it impossible for great individual artists to exist. This particular view of art that Linda Nochlin laid out can be seen in The Dinner Party.
The Dinner Party (Fig. 1) by Judy Chicago is one of the most well-known pieces of feminist artwork. The installation consists of a large banquet table with place settings for thirty-nine notable historical or mythological women. The settings have gold ceramic chalices and porcelain plates painted with butterfly and vulva-inspired designs representing Mother Nature, the vagina, and life-giving properties of being female. Artist Judy Chicago offered “unabashed femininity on the plate rather than a meal cooked by a woman whose identity would be cloaked passively behind her food offering.” In addition to the place settings, there were names of 999 women painted on tiles below the triangular table. In this piece, Chicago, through the combination of intricately wrought textiles, tile, and porcelain, reclaimed the realm of “high art” to what traditionally had been relegated to a lower status of women’s work.
Linda Nochlin argued that The Dinner Party (Fig. 2) swallows the bait and attempts to answer the question of how to dig up examples of insufficiently appreciated women artists throughout history. She noted in The Dinner Party that the plates suggested the power and beauty of a woman’s bodily difference, while the runners beneath them represented the changing and often crushing social realities of women’s lives. This is related to semiotics which is the study of signs and the field which uses structure and is interested in interpretive communications systems. A specific feminist strategy in The Dinner Party is the “celebration of vaginal iconography, which is, of course, the most controversial of its components. Chicago specifically chose to use vaginal or ‘central core’ imagery for each of the plates in order to demonstrate that the one thing that united these forgotten historical subjects at the table was that they all had the same genitalia.” Chicago aimed to celebrate the mark of women’s “otherness” and replace connotations of inferiority with those of pride. She wanted also to create a “new visual language” to express a woman’s experience. Additionally, Linda Nochlin had supporters who also believed The Dinner Party to be a celebration of female identity and iconography.
Lucy Lippard was another activist, feminist, art critic, and curator who wrote many books and articles on contemporary art. Lippard began contributing to publications such as Art International and Art Forum. She also founded the Art Worker’s Coalition, a group seeking vast changes to the art world. Furthermore, she was a founding member of the feminist journal Heresies and most of her books on art reflected her activist policies. Her approaches to art were to think through “the effectiveness of art on the American political and cultural margin is inclusive.” Fellow art critic Arlene Raven stated that Lucy Lippard believed that art was thoughtfully “constructed as appropriate for large or small audiences, well-funded or grassroots projects, art in the streets or in museums, may be equally able to be politically effective and a benefit to the public interest.” Lucy Lippard’s contribution to the Feminist art movement was to redefine how exhibitions were created, viewed, and critiqued during the era of transition.
Lucy Lippard argued that feminist art was “neither a style nor a movement but a value system, a revolutionary strategy, a way of life.” Her reaction to The Dinner Party was strongly emotional. She stated, “The longer I spent with the piece, the more I became addicted to its intricate detail and hidden meanings, and defended the work as an excellent example of the feminist effort.” Lippard was a strong advocate of this artwork and helped to bring the Feminist art movement from the margin of the art world to the center of social concern. She argued in her essay, “The Women’s Artist Movement – What’s Next?” that there is an art unique to women and inaccessible to men. She stated in this essay that a woman’s “political, biological, and social experience in this society is different from that of a man.” Moreover, she said that “art that is unrelated to the person who made it and to the culture that produced it is no more than decorative.” Lippard believed that certain elements such as “a central focus, parabolic baglike forms, obsessive line and detail, veiled strata, tactile or sensuous surfaces and forms, associative fragmentation, and autobiographical emphasis, and so forth- are found far more often in the work of women than of men.” In addition, she noted that anyone who has studied the work of women artists must acknowledge its veracity.
Arlene Raven was an art historian who published seven books on contemporary art and written criticism for the Village Voice. She also wrote for a variety of newspapers, art magazines, exhibition catalogues, and scholarly journals. She was an architect for the educational programs of the Feminist Studio Workshop and a pioneer in progressive education. Moreover, she was a founder of the Women’s Caucus for Art, the Los Angeles Woman’s Building, and Chrysalis magazine.
Arlene Raven’s approaches to art criticism were feminist. She discussed a diversity of concerns that included spirituality, sexuality, the representation of women in art, women as art-makers, ethnicity, language called post-feminism, and critics of the art world. In her essay “Word of Honor”, she states, “Today art criticism seems less and less connected to art. Instead, ideas bump against ideas in complicated, self-referential ‘critical’ sentences.” Also she states, that “those who are dealing with the praise-and-blame school of contemporary art criticism wax sentimental, eyes on the art market, when they lay out unacknowledged biases as a gold standard in their spoken and written work.” This raised a question of what was the point of criticizing art if the critics were not reaping any benefits from it. Raven suggested that there is something that can be added to the experience of artworks-data and insights that place them in literary, geographical, historical, critical, political, and thematic contexts. She focused more on the verbal components of an artwork that often introduced social issues and became metaphorical parts of speech. This blurred art and art criticism.
Arlene Raven stated that she struggled to gain an understanding of an artist’s intentions and to assess their fulfillment within the audience. This was one of her driving forces when critiquing The Dinner Party (Fig. 3). She had to gain an understanding of Judy Chicago’s intentions as an artist in order to critique this work of art. Arlene Raven notes in her essay “Word of Honor”, that Judy Chicago was a social activist which meant her intentions for The Dinner Party were to uplift women and recognize them for their accomplishments. Raven’s critique of The Dinner Party was that it honored great women who contributed to cultural history but instead of being cherished by their cultures, were ignored, maligned, or obscured. She thought that Judy Chicago’s artwork stood against history repeating itself. Furthermore, Raven praised The Dinner Party because it brought up social issues. One of the main social issues was recognizing women of color. She pointed out that The Dinner Party noted them for their contributions rather than being discriminated for the color of their skin. Arlene Raven, Lucy Lippard, and Linda Nochlin all viewed The Dinner Party in different ways but had a positive outlook on the questions it raised as opposed to negative undertones about the still present male patriarchy in society.
The Feminist art movement began with the idea that women’s experiences must be expressed through art even though they were previously trivialized or ignored. Now feminism has changed the definition of art in what it can do and what it can be. It has widened the boundaries of art so that women of all ages and backgrounds can express themselves and be heard and known through their artworks today. The Feminist art movement changed the way men viewed a woman’s place in society. Artwork is shown from different views and angles when looking at various art critics such as Lucy Lippard, Linda Nochlin, and Arlene Raven’s views on pieces of artwork. Their contributions are pivotal to female contributions today. The Dinner Party was an excellent representation of the “persistence of women in their struggle to achieve an equal chance to determine their own destinies and to be acknowledged for their full contribution to the survival and thriving of the human race as a whole.”
Feminism today has a lively presence in the media because of the famous art work and feminist art critics during the Feminist art movement who fought hard for women to be looked at as equal in the art world. Whether in politics, the media, academia, or private households, women’s liberation became a hot topic. There are many instances where the Feminist art movement created opportunities for women that did not exist previously. While the majority of women artists were invisible to the public prior to the movement, they have been placed in the spotlight due to the hard work of feminist artists and art critics such as Chicago, Nochlin, Raven, and Lippard. These critics speaking up is the reason we are having conversations about women’s artwork today.

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