I've been mulling over Mira Schor's piece in the most excellent Brooklyn Rail for a while now. She discusses "Global Feminisms," "WACK!," and the concept of feminist art in general, lamenting that women artists are reluctant to call their work feminist (a reluctance, however, that does not extend to declining an invitation to exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum or LA MOCA under the banner of feminist art). One of the most interesting passages is this, where she quotes telling excerpts from the WACK! exhibition catalogue:
It is quite interesting to track how many of the women included in WACK! were not, are not feminists in any active sense [...] “Many of [Marina] Abramovic’s best-known performances from the 1970s stand, in part, as critiques of the traditional role of women in the arts...Despite this, the artist has distanced herself from the feminist movement: ‘I have never had anything to do with feminism.” (WACK! p. 210); “[Louise] Bourgeois’s relationship to feminism is complex...‘There is no feminist aesthetic. Absolutely not!’” (220); “[Theresa Hak Kyung] Cha’s work is not overtly feminist but...” (223); “Perhaps indicative of her lifelong antipathy to categories, [Jay DeFeo] did not identify herself as a feminist” (226); “Although [Rita] Donagh was not intimately engaged with the burgeoning feminist discourse in 1970s England...” (229); “While [Lili] Dujourie has recalled feeling marginalized by her primarily male colleagues and acknowledged a debt to feminist film theory…she has also rejected a specifically feminist reading her of her work.” (231); [Louise] Fishman too was struggling to resist a movement that had supported her and through which she was able to develop her identity as an artist.” (236); “Although [Catalina] Parra does not identify herself as a feminist artist...” (280); “Although [Katharina] Sieverding does not explicitly ally herself with feminism...” (299).
I am a proud feminist, and a proud artist. Some of my work deals quite directly with feminist ideas. But it doesn't feel quite right to call myself a feminist artist either, and now I am examining this.
There are many ways I identify myself, depending on the setting. I am a Brooklynite, a mom, a tall person, a homeowner, a subway rider, a Caucasian, a Democrat. I would squirm at having any of these adjectives modify the noun "artist" in a description of my artistic identity. Mira Schor briefly notes the objection artists (really, everyone) has to being put in a box, and then knocks it down a bit too easily, I think:
All artists reject limited readings of their work. But when the work clearly deals with gender and gendered power relations, when it deals with femininity, when it explores female sexuality and the female body, when the work uses the vocabulary of gendered tropes developed by the first generations of the feminist art movement – the ones in WACK! and the ones left out of the history proposed by WACK!--how is it not feminist art? Why is it still such a problem?
Clearly, it is. These denials are a troubling indication that feminism continues to be perceived as a controversial and dangerous identification. Women still don’t want to be seen as feminist artists because that would limit them to being seen as women artists and no one wants to be seen as a woman artist. “Woman” still denotes second-class status within a (still male after all these years) universal. That this should be, or should be perceived to be, the case only proves that feminism is still a necessary political analysis of society and a powerful tool for mobilizing the production of art that engages with the question of gender and injustice on all levels.
I agree with her that the word 'feminist' is more fraught than it should be, and part of the problem is the specific label. But clearly a large part of the resistance is to any label at all. I welcome a feminist reading of my work, but I also want to encourage as many readings as possible. Any label can be a ghetto, except perhaps "brilliant artist."
Image above is from the inimitable Guerrilla Girls.