Keywords: feminist art essay, art and feminism, feminist art
– The feminist art movement that officially began in the 1960’s- refers to the efforts and accomplishments of feminists who made art reflecting women’s lives and experiences. In doing so, it brought more visibility to female artists, and was a very influential political statement in itself. It was a movement that consisted of various artists and general public alike, who all fought for the same things, equality, women’s liberation and women’s rights. Artists that made more than their fair share of political statements through their art were the likes Ghada Amer and Barbara Kruger. The issues that they addressed were ideologies commonly held in society, and were issues that they intended to change. In this case, the challenging task that the artists dealt with in the following works, is the issue of equality between males and females, through examining the issue of the ‘predominant male gaze’ -acknowledged all throughout Feminist art history. In La Jaune, 1999, Ghada Amer addresses the idea of the ‘male gaze’, and the representation of the ‘female identity’. With We Won’t Play Nature to Your Culture, 1983, Barbara Kruger uses direct address exploring the ‘gendering way of looking, and focusing on the predominant ‘male gaze’ and works to favor the ‘female gaze’.
“Most Feminist Political theory, in contrast, sees women and their situation as central to political analysis; it asks why it is that in virtually all known societies men appear to have more power and privilege than women, and how this can be changed.”
The issues that feminist artists fight for have been around for many centuries, but only up until the 1960’s had it truly been acknowledged. Although during the years 1850 to 1914 had the first official wave of feminism occurred, the feminist movement gave way to several woman activists part taking in the political actions performed by all female organizations scanning across the globe, that also gave way to the three -then- newly founded, very influential groups of woman who protested and demanded there be equality between men and woman in all aspects of life. First to be acknowledged are the Suffragettes, who triggered off other woman movements campaigning for women’s suffrage, namely the National Union of Woman’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), and from the rights movement in 1848, the Woman’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), (McQuiston, 1997, p. 18). These political groups utilize manual mass production of political posters in order to spread their messages, and like the discussed works of Amer and Kruger, their artworks addressed the ‘gendering way of looking’, (King, 1992, p. 135). In saying that, these are works of the two artists that are primarily concerned with patriarchy in the viewing of their artworks to do with the representation of the female identity, and what they can do to change this ‘gendering way of looking’.
“It wasn’t until the social revolution of the 1960s occurred, and within it the second wave of feminism, that woman themselves once again used communication media and other innovative formats to produce their own visual and verbal messages for ‘women’s liberation’. ”
(McQuiston, 1997, p. 19)
Barbara Kruger is one of the more acknowledged female artists that do this; use visual, and verbal messages to communicate their ideas. All throughout the three waves of feminism, the ‘male gaze’ has remained a dominant universal issue, intensifying through out the years through that of bold statements made by artists like Barbara Kruger herself. The concept of the ‘gendering way of looking’ became a visual construct through the way the male visual ideology treats woman as an object of art to secure the artist as primarily male (King, 1992, p. 135).
“Whilst some feminists have argued to be included in ‘malestream’ ideologies, many have also long argued that women are in important respects both different from and superior to men, and that the problem they face is not discrimination or capitalism but male power.”
(Bryson, 2003, p. 3)
Through the artwork, We Won’t Play Nature to your Culture, 1983, Barbara Kruger directly approaches the concept of the dominant ‘male power’ and redirects this power to favor the female audience. She communicates her belief in refuting the idea of men being the producer of culture, and women merely being a product of nature. This is exactly what the visually imagery and text in this work demands, and her direct approach in attempting to do so will let us assume that Jacques Ranciere would agree -that Krugers’ use of text would be effective in this situation- as he once stated: “One must recognize that the first tool used to subjugate another is also the first great equalizer: Language.” (Chan, 2007, p. 260). Put simply, Kruger’s approach to reach equality in the ‘gendering way of looking’ has placed both male and female viewers in a place of lesser patriarchy, but further favors the ‘female gaze’ through her bold statement ‘We -meaning women- Won’t Play Nature to your Culture’.
The fact that “[m]en still [had] greater power to look” (Allen, 1992, p.5), had Kruger responding with We Won’t Play Nature to your Culture, directly addressing the female audience, instilling the female ‘point of view’ with more validation in comparison to that of the ‘male gaze’. This then shows the attempt that Kruger is making to change the concept of ‘the gendering way of looking’, and instead of catering to ‘male gaze’, she indirectly does this, but in favor of that of the ‘female gaze’, thus giving females the dominance in spectatorship.
“[â€¦] It has an immediate, emotional impact. It can be interpreted as holding a complex comment on the place of scenario and representation in male-female relations under patriarchy. She builds on the feminist analysis of representation as political [â€¦]”
(Mulvey, 2009, p. 134).
In saying that, Kruger’s use of the female figure in this work embodies very strong political statements, as stated by Catherine King -in other words, but to the same effect-, where although Kruger is directly addressing the male audience, in We Won’t Play Nature to your Culture, she has in turn privileged the female audience and given them primacy of spectatorship, whom presumably share the same views as the artist herself (King, 1992, p. 187). Therefore, directly approaching the concept of patriarchy, and reverses its place in the viewing of this work. In doing so, also addresses the way in which male “representations of women, to ‘stand for nature’; take away women’s ability to see in their own right. [This image reverses] the advertising tricks used in designs [that are aimed at the female] consumer.” and as a result, now favors the ‘female gaze’ (King, 1992, p. 187).
“One of women’s greatest instruments for visual shock has been the female body itself, assigned political status for the first time by the Women’s Liberation Movement in the 1960’s. As the female body had been so often stigmatized, exploited in the misogyny, women suddenly took a firm stand and began to use their bodies to make political statements.”
(McQuiston, 1997, p. 14)
Although she wasn’t a feminist artist so to speak, Ghada Amers’ work, La Jaune, 1999, speaks loudly to the ideologies that feminist artists held, namely the concept of addressing the ‘male gaze’. Through this work, she works to communicate, and challenges us to rethink the way in which women are represented in society. Amer asks us to rethink the issue of presenting female sexuality in the media by focusing on a cultural aspect of the Western world -extracting pornographic imagery from sex industry magazines and representing them in copied and traced images (Aurricchio, 2001, p. 27). By doing this, Amer directly addresses the idea of the ‘male gaze’ through presenting women as sexual objects, as “[m]en still [had] greater power to look” (Allen, 1992, p.5).
“The 1990’s have witnessed an ongoing battle against oppressive representations of women in the media, as well as new examples of women using their bodies to create their own power-messages for political causes.”
(McQuiston, 1997, p. 172)
In response to the degradation of the representation of females as sexual objects, Amer is concerned with this being an issue in dire need of recovery. The idea that women, and the images of women, are constructed in order to be looked at by men -and was constructed with theories in art history, especially those about the female nude- was an idea that Amer sought to change (Allen, 1992, p. 4). So in saying that, Amers’ work is a direct attempt at making women prime viewers, and make it impossible for the dominant ideologies -such as the ‘male gaze’- of feminism to recuperate.
“[â€¦] figures are repeatedâ€¦ [of a female in a provocatively arousing position as if to show that a]â€¦ “typically female” pastime was literally playing with itself. An endless chain of masturbating women, veiled by a mass of cotton â€¦ as if attempting to evade the viewers voyeuristic gaze.”
(Grosenick, 2001, p.30)
Amers’ work slowly manifests itself and comes into being when you as the viewer come to the realization that the art works is not just tangled colored cotton, but that you’re staring at a painting of embroidered provocative female figures. It comes in and out of being as its’ cotton veil brings our perspectives as the audience, in and out of focus, acknowledging the expertise of the maker in the application of the materials evident in the work, then to acknowledge the imagery. Thus, instead of submitting to the ‘male gaze’, our attention as the viewer is redirected and aimed at acknowledging the making of the work itself and the craftsmanship of the artist.
Amers’ approach to the idea of reclaiming female pleasure- and in turn, intending to change the idea of the predominant ‘male gaze’- prevents the viewer from subjecting to the common ideologies that this work was intended to change, the ideology that “[w]omen are suppose to make themselves passively receptive, and men are supposed â€¦ to seek out their pleasures.” (King, 1992, p. 136).
The idea of reclaiming female pleasure embeds itself in La Jaune, and the two levels on which Amer interprets ‘pleasure’ help to convey this concept. As seen evident in the work is the physical pleasure, which is made to appeal to the ‘male gaze’, and reclaiming the feminine activity of sewing through the embroidery also evident in La Jaune. Although the representation of the female figure is displayed as an erotic object of desire (Grosenick, 2001, p.35), the veil of cotton that partially hides the imagery helps to guide the viewers’ attention evade the concept of sexuality and the work becomes a purely busy, colourful painting.
Politically speaking, the works by these two very different influential female artists speak to the universally held ideology of the predominant ‘gendering way of looking’, addressing the concept of the ‘male gaze’ through the representation of the female identity. The concept of giving female perspective dominance over that of the ‘male gaze’ is the main objective of the selected works that have been discussed in this essay. Through Ghada Amers’, La Jaune, 1999, she reclaimed the idea of female pleasure, acknowledged the ‘male gaze’ and commented on the degradation of the ‘female identity’ through her attempt to recover it. Barbara Kruger’, We Won’t Play Nature to Your Culture, 1983, did what all feminists tried to accomplish, she created art that directly addressed the issue of the ‘gendering way of looking’, and gave privilege to the ‘female gaze’ above the validation of the predominant ‘male gaze’.
Keywords: feminist art essay, art and feminism, feminist art