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Push-Pull of Feminist Art

Four respected figures in feminist art share their opinions about what has happened to the movement in the years since Judy Chicago's controversial 'Dinner Party' was first assembled in 1979.

April 21, 1996|Suzanne Muchnic

Rachel Rosenthal: I just feel that the whole feminist thing has been a process, that it's about process, it's systemic and it really doesn't deal with aesthetics anymore. I think it was shoehorned into dealing with aesthetics. In the '70s, because of the influence of people like Mimi [Shapiro] and Judy [Chicago], we were given certain parameters that were formal and were supposed to represent a feminist sensibility, but all of that seems totally beside the point.

What has been so important in the rise of the '70s movement and its continuance is the fact that so much attention was paid suddenly to a whole view of the world. That is what has permeated not only art--male as well as female art--but also the processes of social interaction and all the ways people address issues. Those were the great, great contributions and they have continued ever since.

Fiskin: Having spent almost 20 years teaching in art school--and this is still a very big issue at CalArts--it seems to me that Rachel is right. It's not a formal issue at all anymore, but there still are issues of content that are being fought over and pushed and pulled. Sometimes it seems to me that the people who think of themselves most formally as feminists overlook the ways in which feminist content can be in somebody's work.

QUESTION: Judy and Rachel, you are both artists who were involved early on with Los Angeles' feminist art activity. How has that experience affected you and your work?

Fiskin: I was educated in connoisseurship, which meant that I was educated in looking. In terms of my attitudes toward feminism or being a woman artist, I never had a problematic attitude, except that I knew from the beginning that it was a problem in the real world and that it should be addressed there. I was always on the side of women having power, and I think the best way for women to get power is not always inside the art work because that's ascribing more power to what art can do by itself than it has. So I've been more interested in feminist action.

I think I get a skewed image from being at CalArts because in the art school there are now more women teaching than men and in the photo program we're about 50-50. I couldn't believe that was true of the rest of the United States, so I asked a friend who has a relationship with the Guerrilla Girls to provide me with some statistics. As of 1993, across the country in art schools the faculty was 80% male and 20% female--still. If that kind of information isn't getting out, if the statistics on how many women are being given shows--and in which museums--aren't being publicized, you can make all kinds of feminist art and nothing's going to change.

Rosenthal: I have no education, I have no degrees, I have absolutely no background in universities or colleges or an academy of any sort. Whatever I know, I picked up--like a monkey--and my point of view is very, very different from many of the things I've heard you [other panelists] say because naturally my knowledge is not in the places that your knowledge is. I just want to set the record straight about experiencing that period and my development as an artist. When the early '70s came, I was still in the throes of wasting all my energy and time wondering if I could be a woman and an artist. You have no idea what I went through.

Fiskin: I didn't even have a question about it; the answer was no.

Rosenthal: Exactly, darling.

Fiskin: Except when it started to change.

Rosenthal: In the early '70s, I went to a conference at CalArts and for the first time in my life I saw the antidote of the poison--which was simply that for 2 1/2 days we sat in the dark and we watched slides of women's work. It was really like falling off a log, like a burst of consciousness, and I said to myself, "For the first time in my life, I can live my life as a woman and as an artist." It absolutely validated me. It revolutionized everything that I was, that I believed, that I did. And I left my husband, as we all did.

But the point is that it had such an extraordinary impact. I started to read books. I started a consciousness-raising group, I began to really look at my life, who I was, my work. I mean it totally, totally opened my eyes, and it didn't do that in a narrow way at all. It was a very big picture. All of the work that I did subsequently--and had done before but hadn't recognized it as such--was about understanding where we are as a species, not as a gender.

QUESTION: How has the movement evolved since then?

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