DO WE STILL NEED FEMINIST ART?
published in: in: (H)Art #49, March 2009, published in: kunsthart.org/en/16/24/do-we-still-need-feminist-art
When I curated a small group show with four female artists for a Berlin gallery in December 2008, it was foreseeable, and in fact, it did indeed happen, that this show was received as ‘women's' resp. ‘feminist' exhibition - despite the conceivably broad title, ‘Recently Seen and Admired'. Needless to say that an exhibition with only male artists would never be understood as ‘men'-show - very likely most people would not even notice that there are no women among the participating artists.
It is still common that you don't even find one woman in even bigger group exhibitions, or maybe one (which then quite often is - most likely - unjustly regarded as the 'token woman'). In the case of the above mentioned exhibition, most of the works featured - in the most diverse ways - a female figure and thus naturally touched questions regarding gender relations and determinations. Without a doubt, these questions are part of being a human. However, it is still common to find in descriptions of a depiction of a woman the emphasizing of the ‘female', whereas one usually reads about the ‘depiction as a human' when it comes to a self-portrait by a man. As opposed to ‘self-portrait as male' which immediately would be connoted as related to issues of the ‘gender studies'. One aspect of this is that every single successful female artist rather sooner than later finds herself labelled as ‘feminist' artist. Artists such as Cindy Sherman can tell a thing or two about this phenomenon.
Once more it becomes clear that "man defines woman not in herself but as relative to him; (...) She is defined and differentiated with reference to man and not he with reference to her. (...). He is the Subject, he is the Absolute - she is the Other.", as Simone de Beauvoir put it in her ‘The Second Sex' which is today as up-to-date as it was then, 1949.
Already at this point I like to state that it is still important and necessary that women and men in art and elsewhere discuss questions of gender and sex. Therefore it is more than pleasing that - after the rather apolitical decade of the nineties - in the past few years, one could observe a new wave of art exhibitions that dealt with gender-related issues, e.g. ‘WACK Art and the Feminist Revolution' (Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles 2007), ‘Global Feminisms - New Directions in Contemporary Art' (New York: Brooklyn Museum 2007), ‘Kiss Kiss Bang Bang' (Museo Bilbao 2007) or ‘re.act.feminism' (Akademie der Künste, Berlin 2008), to name just a few. All of them focussed on the history of feminist art of the 20st century, and although it is always a pleasure to experience works by Valie Export, Hannah Wilke, Ulrike Rosenbach, Marina Abramovic and actions by the Guerrilla Girls, these exhibitions which looked back might leave the viewer anxiously wondering if the big times of feminist art are possibly over.
There may be people who would argue that feminist art is not needed anymore. However, in light of the above sketched conditions and given the ubiquitous noticeable imbalance between men and women in job, daily life and art market - but also given the necessary and already occurring revision of the man's role! - feminist art, or rather gender-related art is still needed as it always has been, like all political art for that matter.
The curators of the exhibition ‘Cooling Out On the Paradox of Feminism' (Kunsthaus Baselland et al., 2006) described one relevant problem of feminist art as follows: "(...) it seems as if the women's movement has become a victim of its own success and has brought about its own demise, as mostly young women (...) don't actually seem to notice the areas in which they are still substantially disadvantaged. Hence, they often display negative knee-jerk reactions to and a hostile attitude towards mainstream feminism or affirmative action and quotas for women (...). For this reason, the term feminism has come to be negatively connoted."
Probably it is this negative connotation that subducted the political dimension and its social relevance from the ‘third wave' of feminism (from the nineties until now), in contrast to the ‘second wave' (from second world war until the early eighties). So most of the feminist efforts in the artistic field, like the Riot Grrrls, remain without noticeably political drive beyond the art world.
To me one other problem seems to be the still widely-spread humourlessness or lack of self-mockery of decided feminist artworks. This is not say that feminist art ought to be funnier than other art, but quite often one cannot help but get the feeling that this lack of humour hides an uncertainty of the artist, the lack of self-confidence and belief in one's authority (as woman?). An outstanding exception is of course Pipilotti Rist (born 1962, lives and works in Zurich) whose colourful and serene videos are full of wit without giving away any of their aplomb and subversive power. On the contrary: her video ‘Ever is over all' (1997) which features a young woman who cheerfully bangs in car windscreens, being friendly greeted by a passing-by police woman, has become an icon of the otherwise so cool nineties. The same is true for the installations by Sarah Lucas (born 1962, lives and works in London) whose wickedly funny humour only increases their power and strength and makes them to brilliant artworks.
But there are also many female artists of the younger generation who often - if with regards to content or for strategic reasons - don't want to be categorized as feminist artists, whose work is powerful and relevant concerning feminist and gender-related aspects. They don't only follow their ‘second wave'-mothers but develop their legacy consciously and inventively, and with humour.
One example is K8 Hardy (born 1977, lives and works in New York), media artist, feminist activist and co-founder of the queer magazine LTTR, whose ‘Fashionfashion'-magazines take conventional fashion aesthetics ad absurdum. Hardy's self-portraits as rather quirky model make unique images, that challenge and revise traditional gender roles. Her self-portrait with bloodstained underpants touches still-existing taboos linked with the female body. However, the artist is "not out to prove any theories. (...) I think it is often assumed that feminist work is trying to prove something, which is bizarre to me. The assumption that feminism is inherently didactic or polemic is so patriarchal", as the artist puts it.
The aspect of queerness is characteristic of the ‘third wave' feminism and distinguishes it from the ‘second wave': transgender and queer aspects play an important role, as third wavers believe that all roles, that is female and male roles, need to be reconsidered and revised. According to the gender studies' notion sex is seen a social construction. Therefore, it should only be a question of time until feminist art or feminism is not only an affair for women. As racism needs to be fought by people of all races, sexism needs to be overcome by people of all sexes and genders.
It is remarkable that still today many female artists who are interested in feminist issues use themselves, or rather their own body, as centre of their work - as in the seventies, performance art still seems to be the favourite tool to make their point. Swedish artist Klara Lidén (born 1977 in Stockholm, lives and works in Berlin) is one of these artists; at least for their videos she frequently plays the leading part resp. the only part. The breaking out of given expectations and subversively applied civil disobedience are characteristic for her work, e.g. ‘Paralyzed' (2003), a video in which the artist jumps and dances through a local train, thereby performing a more than unconventional striptease, and in this way playfully undermining conventions and social rules.
There are only few young artists who deal with explicitly heterosexual issues overtly and without taking-on the perspective of the victim. Among them is German artist Freya Hattenberger (born 1979, lives and works in Cologne). In her video ‘Sirene' (2006), she performs, fully clothed and keeping a straight face, a veritable blow job on a microphone. The possibly erotic pleasure of watching is severely disgruntled by the whistling and beeping noises generated by the acoustic feedback caused by 'blowing' the microphone. The artist's whimsical smile towards the camera at the end of the 'job' seems to be directed to all, now probably quite confused, men, as well as to all deadly serious feminists - being aware of her own power, the siren triumphs.
These are only a few and only European resp. US-American examples of many feminist thinking female artists worldwide whose work promise an interesting and fruitful development of feminism in the visual arts, and beyond. It can only be hoped that more and more of these positions find their way into museums and onto the art market, not necessarily labelled as ‘feminist art' but more and more naturally as examples of artistic examination of being a human in this world. As all the mentioned works - and so many others - not only offer new insights for women but also for men, that is for everybody.
As conclusion I would like to recount an incident I experienced last autumn in a well-established museum for modern and contemporary art in Germany. On occasion of an exhibition I interviewed the just-appointed new director of the museum about his programme for the next two years. Among the five or six solo exhibitions he listed there was not even one with a female artist. (At least he considered Rosemarie Trockel for one group show.) Asked how it comes that he does not intend to show any female artist for the next one or two years, he - clearly only in this very moment becoming aware of the awkwardness of the issue - answered somewhat sheepishly that he hadn't even noticed that no female artist was in the programme. "But this of course is a coincidence. Honestly." - With this little story in mind, I can only say: Sisters and brothers, there is still a lot to do. Honestly.