Feminist Theory is a main sociological theories. It shifts its assumptions, analytic lense and viewpoint away from the male point of view and towards that of the female experience in the goal of female (and male) empowerment and equality. Feminists of all kinds, agree for the most part that throughout history, societies patriarchal ideas have been imposed upon them. Which led males to be dominant in both professional and social circumstance. The key principles of focus within feminist theory include ‘discrimination and exclusion on the basis of sex and gender, objectification through the male gaze, economical inequality, structural oppression, and gender roles and stereotypes’, among others. There are many different types of Feminist theorists, such as radical feminist, socialist feminists and liberal feminists. While these sub-groups tend to argue, these theorists tend to agree on these five core ideas of Feminist Theory. Those being; working to increase change towards gender equality. More ideas include expanding human choice- letting women and men lead and develop the life they want. Another feminist idea is to invalidate gender restriction, which argues against laws that limit the income and pay, educational and job opportunities of women. The last two ideas are ending violence towards women and promoting sexual freedom, this entails that women should have control over their sexuality and reproductive rights
Feminist theorists analyse the position of women and men within society, purposely using that knowledge to better women’s lives and give them a voice. There are four main principles of Feminist theory that help bring attention to societal differences between Genders; Gender Differences, Gender Inequality, Gender Oppression and Structural Oppression. Gender Differences perceptively examines how a women’s social situations differentiate from that of the male experience and that there are different values associated with with womanhood.
Gender Inequality recognises that woman’s social situations are not only different but unequal to men’s. Some liberal feminists argue that women had the same capacity for as men for moral reasoning but that the patriarchy, has historically denied woman the chance to express and practice this reasoning. Gender Oppression distinguishes that women are actively oppressed, subordinated and at the extreme – abused by men for their gender.
Structural Oppression theories pose that women’s inequality and oppression are a direct result of capitalism, racism and the patriarchy. These theorist ideas are put in place to help explain the societal differences between women and men.
Key Thinkers and Writers
Over time many influential women have contributed and promoted Feminist Theory. Many women base their ideas around these key figures. Writers and activists have written important pieces on Feminist Theory such as Betty Friedan (The Feminine Mystique 1962), Simone Beauvoir (The Second Sex 1949) and Linda Nochlin (Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists 1971) and Germaine Greer (The Female Eunuch 1970).
Feminist Art Characteristics
Emerging in the late 1960s and early 1970s “Feminist Art,” A category of Postmodernist art linked to Feminist Theory became popular with women purposefully aligning their art practices with the beliefs of the Women’s Rights Movement with inspiration taken from Feminist Theory.
Bolstered by the belief that the ‘personal is political’ they started to create art that expressed their feelings as women artists in a mans world – these artists fought for recognition as women artists within the art community. Feminist art began with the idea that women’s experiences must be expressed through art, where previously they had been ignored and trivialised by thr artworld. They wished to create a conversation between viewers and artwork through the perspective of a woman and her experience
Key Artists of the early Feminist Art movement were: Judy Chicago, Barbara Kruger, The Guerilla Girls, Miriam Schapiro and Susan Lacy. There are some identifiable key aspects and characteristics of Feminist art; In the early 1960’s in American, art had rules and old hierarchies that determined what was suitable for the art world, as decided by men – and art created by women was rarely exhibited in art galleries. Feminist Art strived towards breaking these historical ‘guidelines’. Many Feminist Artists embraced feminine alternative media, including photography and collage (which were fairly ‘young’ practices) in the hope of rejecting the traditional male dominated hierarchical art. They embraced the use of feminine ‘women’s’ media like textiles, craft, and needlework. The art was often collaborative (in early stages) and/or had a strong female aesthetic – frequently using symbolism. It also challenged the notion of how the female body should be perceived by reclaiming the female body in the rejection of the ‘male gaze; and introduced domestic subject matter as a valid theme for art. Frequently, depicting the quotidian lives of women – in small, seemingly unimportant moments.
Some female artists pointedly avoided traditional male-dominated types of art, such as painting and sculpture- which were considered to be ‘fine-art’. Instead, they explored forms of contemporary art, including conceptual art and video: (Doris Totten Chase, Dara Birnbaum, Martha Rosler, Maureen Connor), along with types of body art (Carolee Schneemann, Marina Abramovic), performance art (Rachel Rosenthal, Yoko Ono). Other artistic disciplines explored by feminists include photography (Cindy Sherman, Nan Goldin), Photomontage (Anita Steckel), installation art (Judy Chicago), as well as design and graphic art (Sheila Levrant de Bretteville).
Each artist and their artwork addresses Feminist theory in multiple ways. Judy Chicago’s artwork, ‘The Dinner Party’ (1979), has clear Feminist values attached. ‘The Dinner Party’ is a multi media installation consisting of 39 intricate place settings arranged around a triangular shaped table in the theme of a dinner banquet, each setting symbolically celebrates 39 notable women that made a significant positive impact on history- each table setting has varying styles of plates and table runners to represent each important women but the cups, utensils and table runners were all identical in size, representing that despite the fluctuating influence each woman had. They were all alike equal in struggle. The Dinner Party is arguably one of the most significant and recognized pieces of Feminist art to be made, notable in its incorporation of a huge collaborative working process, feminine and political symbolics, and the remarkable female movement it prompted in reaction to the work’s reprobation after it was taken down. The key idea Judy Chicago had was to to represent woman- each repressed by the patriarchy, by introducing the achievements of these woman and by representing their confinement in their situation, society could understand how a women’s experience has been left outside and unprioritized in mainstream civilisation in both art and history.
By demonstrating an openly female point of view through collaborative art, Chicago helped trigger the American Feminist Art movement and promote Feminist Theoretical ideal with her installation. Chicago put herself in her book ‘The Dinner Party’ : The goal of this symbolic history of women in Western civilization was and is twofold: to teach women’s history through a work of art that can convey the long struggle for freedom and justice that women have waged since the advent of male-dominated societies, and to break the cycle of history that The Dinner Party describes.
The artwork also celebrates the crafts that were deemed as unsuitable materials to destabilize the notions of ‘high-art’. It employs numerous forms of media such as ceramics, needlework and china painting that had been devalued as ‘Feminine Crafts’ and shunned by male artists and critics. For three years Chicago studied the historical art of china-painting, which she in turn taught to the women who helped her on the project. This idea of this working sisterhood and collaboration is a massive link between the Dinner Party and Feminist Theory. Nearly 120 women even some even men worked with her in collaboration to create this massive installation. Their contribution is depicted in the acknowledgement panels in the Brooklyn Museum installation, which depicts images of the many helpers that worked with Judy Chicago. This explores ideas of gender equality and shows visitors to the exhibition how many people are working together with the same ideals, to create feminist environment and hopefully encourage greater quality.
‘The Dinner Party’ also puts heavy emphasis on taking back the ‘Feminine’ , it includes heavy feminine symbolism all through the exhibition. The ceramic plates are decorated with vulva and butterfly like central core forms, the butterfly was an ancient symbol for liberation and the core forms were a representative of female identity and sexuality. The butterfly forms undergo a ‘metamorphosis’ as the painted and sculpted forms on the plate become increasingly more dimensional as time passed towards the present day. This is metaphorical for these represented women’s profound struggle for their rights and freedom from the oppression of patriarchal society where women were considered ‘second-rate’ to men. Chicago also wanted to portray the transition of society and how women are beginning to free themselves from society’s constraints as feminist theoretical ideas and the feminist movement triggered change in the banal roles of a women’s status and rights.
Feminist art was commonly symbolic or figurative such as this this. The art world had historically, followed the assumption that the male was the center of society (and the household) and the woman was second, or lesser to that. Women artists were considered too emotional and humdrum to be considered to fit into the world of fine art. However Feminists made a point of recognizing that the male artist made art only for a male audience, whilst they aspired to be inclusive to all viewers, and therefor Feminist Art fell into Postmodernism. A perfect alliance, since Postmodernism sought to react against high-art media and logic of Modernism. Feminist art was symbolic: Judy Chicago’s vulvae flowers and butterfly forms are symbolic of the “feminine” whether this was anatomical or rhetorical. The Dinner Party room was less an installation and more of a metaphor, symbolising a reverential temple for women, safe from the male domineering Christian ideals found in religion. Having a whole room dedicated to house The Dinner Party pays homage to the fight women artists had to kick up to gain access and acknowledgement to women’s art in galleries, having the The Dinner Party in a closed environment with dim lighting creates its own chapel, its own gallery specifically to the attainments of womankind.
Barbara Kruger’s work ‘Untitled (Your Gaze Hits The Side of My Face- 1981) addresses quite blatantly the concept of the male voyeuristic gaze and the instant objectification of said gaze when viewing a woman; in traditional fine art and in life. The ‘Male Gaze’ is seen from a Feminist perspective as a power that transforms women into commodities and objects without sentient thought. This black and white image of a female bust, with bold text superimposed on the left side. Starts a commentary on how a women’s position in the minds and views of men has become objectified. The Agitprop style, as type of russian propaganda art implies this message is explicitly political, this subtly references the Feminist trademark- ‘The Personal is Political. When combined with the magazine cover like layout and striking black and red colour palette- this commercial style is used because Kruger believed that in Western society control came from ‘signs and signifiers’ (media) around us.
The use of appropriated imagery, and commercial printing techniques was a contrast and snub towards the ‘one-off’ original paintings and masterpieces created by male artists at the time- the use of Photography is also a feminist aspect, photography was at the time an unconventional material and has not been dominated by male users.
After Feminine stereotypes into perspective, the significance of the message Kruger is trying to send is quite heavy. The Male gaze invalidates women, turns them into objects or playthings. Therefor; women must fight to be recognized as people. Her representation of a woman in this case is a marble bust of impregnable marble – an actual object. But instead of objectifying her, the viewer becomes conscious of the female struggle ; women against the status quo; women against the patriarchy. Her rejection of patriarchal ideals in artwork is well thought out, through the appropriation of a photograph of a sculpture as a female-gendered object. The depiction of the woman as a statue furthers the idea that men imprison women within their femininity by telling them that they are nothing more than sexual objects to be visually appreciated by men.
By juxtaposing the word ‘hit’ with the image of the stone bust she is implying that the gaze is meaningless and does nothing, the statue is impervious to what we assume is a ‘male’ gaze. In this case ironically the stone “object” is ignoring us as she thwarts the viewer by looking powerfully away. By Krugers opposition to the objectification of women within this work, it opens up a conversation to the viewer on what women could be, if not just sexual object to be ‘hit’ by a man’s gaze. (Your gaze hits the side of my face) leaves this discussion open, allowing the viewers to decide and think for themselves what women could be, showing the extent of feminism’s influence on the artwork.
“Final Domestic Expose - I Paint Myself” (1982) by Jacqueline Fahey has been influenced by the feminist doctrine that repudiates the prevailing constant objectification of women in society, particularly in art. Fahey is showing a truthful artistic representation of a nude woman- herself in fact, her form is what one would expect from a middle aged woman mother who has given birth several times. Her body is naturally proportioned, and has not been made to look thinner, the folds of her stomach, that any woman would have sitting in such a position, have not been edited over. She has not attempted to smooth out any of what the male gaze has deemed unfavourable features on the female body. Fahey did this to expose the male gaze that ‘penetrates’ art, the idea that “what is right, normal, and the proper way of seeing things is male, upper class, and Pakeha”, as she herself stated.
When women are shown in art they are typically idealised, eroticised, and turned into sexual objects for the viewing pleasure of men. The elements that make them women, such as domesticity and motherhood are left out- their representation is purely aesthetically for men. This is something seen throughout the history of art, the female nude becoming a genre itself. Men see women as sexual objects, and so that is how they have been shown throughout history in art, with highly idealised and unrealistic bodies and poses.
Fahey’s work is strikingly personal, it is her body, her possessions and her two daughters depicted in the artwork. This personal narrative could be considered more of a documentation rather than an obviously feminist piece, however in her own words In a 1983 interview Jacqueline Fahey said ‘When I use the term feminist artist I mean I am a woman (and that helps), but by marrying, having children, and being confined by that experience, I am leading the life most women lead. I would even after that not call myself a feminist artist if I did not use that experience and physical world as the material to comment politically on that special way of spending one’s life. However, it’s not that I have consciously set out to do feminist paintings. It is how they have turned out and I am glad they turned out that way’. ,
Fahey also used unconventional craft materials in her work, like Judy Chicago. Whilst her painting is done in oils, which is slightly more traditional than the other two artworks she has layered collage over the artwork, including cutouts from magazines. Fahey’s juxtaposition of a ‘high-art’ media and collage- which is considered a ‘women’s craft or a past-time’ shows how she is breaking outside of the box and bring Feminist Art into the future.
Her subject matter, is crucial to the Feminist Art movement. She is depicting domestic life from a feminist perspective and as her own personal narrative, she sits in the middle of disarray- surrounded by her personal objects. Around her we see laungry jumbled up, colourful patterned clothing, makeup products, food and wine- which we typically associate with women preparing
In the picture we can also see two young children, her own daughters. Children have come to be associated with being raised typically by the mother, due to their traditional role in society as dedicated mothers and housewives in charge of staying home to raise and look after the children. Fahey is raising the importance of this subject matter and valides domestic scenes as valid subject matter, which were usually considered trivial. The shallow picture plane shoves the items in the viewer’s face; everything is on the same level and of equal importance, just as women and their experiences are equal to men. However this shallow space, alongside the all over composition, and patchwork appearance makes it something overwhelming and oppressive. This indicates the negative consequences of women being forced into these positions of ‘home-keeper’ when they do not wish to be.
By showing this topic, and painting it in oils; a form of artistic expression usually reserved to ‘high’ subject matter, Fahey is raising the importance of womanhood to a ‘high-art’ level and choosing to reject patriarchal ideas about what art should be. She’s refusing to let domesticity, which has become such a large part of women’s lives, to be pushed to the side in favour of more machismo choices.
To conclude, It is clear Feminist Theory has impacted these artworks in some way. Each artist has incorporated clear feminist idealoligies into the creative process. All three of these works combine the female form, domesticity and the objectification of the male gaze.
Primarily each of these works responds and counteracts the male gaze by portraying female beings from the view of females themselves. As the umbrella of Feminist theory is so broad each work significantly differs from each other in meaning and media despite having similar subject matter. Chicago honours the accomplishments of women and acknowledges their positive impact on history. Her outlook on feminism is very positive, it invites the viewer into a sacred space in the hope of celebrating the accomplishments of women through time with an grand installation created majorly by women. Kruger reflects the gaze back upon us and underlines societies misogyny towards the female appearance, Kruger’s work is strikingly harsh as she invites the world to check themselves in their treatment of the Woman. Her agitprop style advertisement layout of her work is intended to be broadcasted to society and deliver a message and Fahey gives an uncensored and idealised view of the female body as she stares right back at the viewer- Her depiction of herself nude and unrealised calls out the stigma of that the female body should be erotic and sexualised, as commonly portrayed in paintings by male artists . By pointing out the bizarreness of this normalcy Fahey is conveying the feminist principle of rejecting the ‘male gaze’ and objectification of women.
Each artist had been uniquely influenced by feminist theory. Judy Chicago was creating ‘The Dinner Party’ with a feminist agenda- she was highly influenced by the Feminist Revolution and aspired to have more inclusion for women artists. She hoped for The Dinner Party to promote female accomplishments and break the cycle of the subjugation of women, as put in her own words: ”Instead we are condemned to repeat what others have done before us and thus we continually reinvent the wheel. The goal of The Dinner Party is to break this cycle”. Her idea was to create new options for women artists. “.I set my sights upon becoming the kind of artist who would make a contribution to art history..
Barbara Kruger’s influences came from the media and graphic designer jobs she held before becoming an artist, in the 1960’s she worked as a designer at women’s magazine Mademoiselle. Her eye catching work is reminiscent of the languages of marketing and selling in the media industry. The work sells us a message, reminding society that women are not objects, and should not be perceived as such.
Jacqueline Fahey’s influences were quite different compared to the other artists. Unlike them she did not grow up in American but was born and raised in New Zealand, where the Feminist movement took slightly longer to reach. Whilst highly In the late 1950’s she dramatically revealed the isolation of women in the domestic home and insisted the theatricality of the domestic life was a valid subject for art.
‘The Personal is Political’ is a quote that gained recognition through the Carol Hanisch essay . It quickly became a slogan of the Feminist movement and refers to the social structure in which women are actively oppressed, both in a professional and domestic environment, in which the personal experiences of these women relate to the key ideas of feminism. Structural Oppression -the exploitation and debasement of women.
These three formerly mentioned artists take female personal situations and make them political by the way the ways they are portrayed which creates a sense of female collaboration against the patriarchal ideas. Chicago shows how the personal experiences of thirty-nine exceptional women from all walks of life can come together to create an overwhelmingly enlightening experience. It makes women feel like they are a part of something inclusive, influential and reverential. Fahey’s neutrality in her artwork gives her the potential to be interpreted as both feminist but also not because of the more fine-art techniques she employs in her work, which makes her art more elastic in interpretation. This could be because unlike the other two artists, she was situated in New Zealand where the Feminist movement took longer to arise and was significantly underrepresented in the NZ Feminist art world. Chicago’s work overtly expresses a great deal of attitude and biting critique towards the male ethics. Kruger’s poster is the most confrontational with biting critique towards the patriarchal art world with a large verbal message exclaiming: “Your Gaze Hits The Side of My Face”, and in some ways this could be considered most personal- pure em. Chicago summarised the goal of all artists as she put “I believe in art that is connected to real human feeling, that extends itself beyond the limits of the art world to embrace all people who are striving for alternatives in an increasingly dehumanized world. I am trying to make art that relates to the deepest and most mythic concerns of humankind and I believe that, at this moment of history, feminism is humanism.” — Judy Chicago