Seven Books on Women Artists & Feminist Art

Against Our Will: Sexual Trauma in American Art Since 1970 is a study of one of the planks of the second-wave of feminism: sexual violence. Rape, assault and subjugation are considered manifestations of the second-class status of women, so they are emblematic subjects for feminist art. Vivien Green Fryd writes: “Against Our Will: Sexual Trauma in American Art Since 1970 examines how and why feminist artists, working from the 1970s to the second decade of the twenty-first century, represented and challenged the dominant narrative about sexual violence against women. I demonstrate in this book that for more than forty years, a key group of American artists has insisted on ending the silence and contributed to an anti-rape, anti-incest counternarrative […]” This is a peculiar characterisation. Rape, assault, incest and marital cruelty have been subject to legal penalty and social opprobrium for many centuries. There certainly was a culture of reticence and aversion to discussion of sexual matters and family violence but that does not equate to approval for legal and moral infractions.

Fryd includes art by male homosexual artists in this discussion. The idea is that this art critiques systematic faults of a patriarchal society and therefore aligns with the feminist position. Fryd has chronicled the plethora of feminist performances and exhibitions relating to the theme of sexual violence but cannot detach herself from the subject. The author’s accounts of historical activity are accurate and informative but the narrative becomes partial when discussing recent events. Fryd’s discussion of Emma Sulkowicz (famed as “Mattress Girl”), a Columbia University art student who claimed to have been raped and turned the allegation into part of an art performance, is disingenuous. The university settled with the accused and exonerated him of the accusation. When, at the close of the book, Fryd’s avows that she hope her book has contributed to the feminist cause, no reader will be surprised at this expression of a campaigning intent.

Nancy Princenthal’s Unspeakable Acts: Women, Art, and Sexual Violence in the 1970s covers much of the same ground. Princenthal identifies 1970 and the few years following as a turning point in public attitudes to sexual assault. She nominates (in the American context) the sexual revolution, the women’s liberation movement and the Vietnam war as pivotal events socially and the rise of Conceptual Art, Body Art, performance, Land Art and allied movements as artistic currents that facilitated the adoption by women of the stories of rape and sexual violence. The unspoken element was the rise of Marxism in academia, with university lecturers pledging themselves to the New Left, which would use what we now call identity politics to advance socialism through lobbying for minority rights. It is within such a context that Feminist art would be artistically and politically sanctioned by the New Left. (It would be this very co-option that later gave rise to concerns voiced by some feminist academics.)

The line between sexual liberation and exploitation was a deliberately blurred one – and the inevitable consequence of deliberate transgression by activists at American universities. Within the counter-culture movements and terrorist groups, sex was offered and demanded in the service of the revolution. Princenthal exposes the cool dismissal of women’s issues by hard-line Marxists, the aggressive misogyny of Frantz Fanon and rape advocacy of Eldridge Cleaver and LeRoi Jones. The murders of the hippy commune/cult around Charles Manson were an expression of revolutionary violence, committed by a group including women willing to kill other women for thrills but ostensibly as part of a cultural war.

Princenthal, using quotes from primary sources and new interviews with participants, sets out some touchstones of literature on rape in the 1970s. She discusses early celebrated performances of Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece (first performed 1964) and those by Valie Export involving voyeurism and audience participation. Work by Marina Abramović, Vito Acconci, Ana Mendieta, Adrian Piper and others are mentioned and key performances and publications are deftly summarised. Performance art and the theatre of public protest have numerous parallels and in the case of politically motivated art the two intersect. The importance of collective action and staged spectacle are foregrounded as important components of feminist performances.

New York, New Wave discusses the influence of feminist art of the 60s and 70s on recent artists, explaining that the diffusion of politics and multiple creative approaches are more important that gender politics for today’s postmodernists. The illustrations provide a handy survey of art discussed. The book is clearly written and approachable.

The Art of Feminism studies women’s art from Victorian times to the present day. Although most readers will be interested in art from the 1960s onwards, the most interesting material is the art produced during the suffrage and world wars periods. Skill and ingenuity were used to advance the case for women’s rights in posters that are brilliant, effective and beautiful; that art contrasts with feminist art of recent decades, which is intentionally ugly, angry and confrontational. (The authors mischaracterise the anti-suffrage movement, which in part was an earnest attempt by women to protect their privileges (exemptions from the draft, jury duty and debt liability) which it was assumed would be lost if they were made equal to men.) Oddly, the leading women Abstract Expressionist painters are omitted underlining the political scope of the survey, which limits its usefulness. The quoting of “gender pay gap” statistics indicates the lack of clarity when it comes to political hot topics.

The Bigger Picture: Women who Changed the Art World inspires mixed feelings. It is an attractive and informative book (including brief questionnaires with living artists) that will appeal to younger children. It does a good job explaining art to children but some of the art is tiresome and obscure even for informed adults. It also fails to acknowledge legitimate objections to feminism in art. Feminism has not changed art practice other than by promoting existing attitudes and approaches. It has failed to produce much art of worth. Plausibly feminists could claim that these were never their intention. What they have succeeded in doing is entrenching politics in art. Feminism has also shone a light on women artists (past and present) but at the cost of turning women artists into tokens.

The subtitle of “400 artists, 500 years” gives the outline of the dictionary Great Women Artists. This attractive hardback devotes one large-format page to a substantial illustration, biographical data and a paragraph devoted to a different artist. There is much material here that is unfamiliar – some of it very weak – but there are some real finds among the lesser-known figures: Ellen Altfest, Louise Jopling, Katsushika Ōl, Zinaida Serebryakova, Uemura Shōen. The artists share nothing in common except their sex.

Breaking Ground: Architecture by Women follows a similar format, with one to four pages devoted to buildings by women. The book contains a great breadth of architecture in diverse buildings, styles, sizes and locations. For those not following architecture, the names will be unfamiliar even if some of the structures are already known. Architecture allows less potential for expression but the startling, impressive and inventive designs – marrying function and aesthetics – are more satisfying than the majority of the art in Great Women Artists. Of the two books, it is Breaking Ground that is the more surprising and delightful book. This is a beautiful and essential book for anyone interested in modern and contemporary architecture.

 

Sophia Bennett, Manjit Thapp, The Bigger Picture: Women who Changed the Art World, Tate, 2019, hardback

Kathy Battista, New York, New Wave: The Legacy of Feminist Art in Emerging Practice, IB Tauris, 2019, paperback

Helena Reckitt, The Art of Feminism, Tate, 2019, hardback

Vivien Green Fryd, Against Our Will: Sexual Trauma in American Art Since 1970, Pennsylvania State University Press, 2019, hardback

Nancy Princenthal, Unspeakable Acts: Women, Art, and Sexual Violence in the 1970s, Thames & Hudson, 2019, hardback

Rebecca Morrill (ed.), Great Women Artists, Phaidon, 2019, hardback

Jane Hall, Breaking Ground: Architecture by Women, Phaidon, 2019, hardback