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Art and the women's movement

September 21, 2007 | Page 9

BILL NEAL looks at the political issues at play in an exhibit of feminist art.

OVER THE summer, the art world was buzzing about feminist art. A cover story in the June/July issue of Art in America accompanied several high profile shows and openings.

In the absence of any large-scale, ongoing struggle for women's rights, and in the face of raunch culture and the new sexism, the attention is welcome.

WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution was one of the shows generating the attention. It started out with a highly attended run at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) and is now opening at the National Museum for Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C.

The show represents 118 women artists from the period 1966 to 1980, in other words, the period of the rise and decline of the women's liberation movement. The artwork has all the vibrancy, conflict, enthusiasm and unevenness of any authentic political struggle.

Perhaps no art movement of any period was so intertwined with a political movement. This shouldn't be surprising given that some of the tasks of the feminist movement were to rethink the lived personal experience of women as the product of an oppressive system, identify the mechanisms of that oppression and express defiance and resistance.

What to see and read

WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution is currently appearing at the National Museum for Women in the Arts, then goes to the Ps1 Contemporary Art Center in Long Island, New York in February 2008.

For an overview of the history of the women's movement, read The World Split Open: How the Modern Women's Movement Changed America, by Ruth Rosen. Sharon Smith's Women and Socialism outlines the theoretical questions confronted by the woman's movement.


Art became one of many outlets for this multifaceted project. The show is huge, 430 works, much of it video. Multiple visits would be required to get it all.

Nevertheless, the abundance adds to the feeling of dynamism and revolt that characterizes the period. The work is in no way unified in style or approach, but manages to pull together as overlapping sets of concerns.

No viewer lacking art background should be too intimidated to go to the show. Although there is a lot of challenging work, some even shocking, there is also plenty of stuff that is accessible, thought provoking and hit-you-in-the-stomach powerful.

For example, Nancy Spero's intense "The Torture of Women" uses sparse, personal and mythological images interspersed with reports of specific torture techniques used on women detainees of various Latin American regimes. The piece reverberates in unsettling ways in the era of "extraordinary renditions."

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MUCH OF the work is focused on the way women are physically represented (or misrepresented) in popular culture. This group of work prefigures Barbara Kruger's famous 1980s slogan "Your Body is a Battleground."

Works like Ann Newmarch's screen prints about the way woman are bombarded with images of their "inadequacies" are one example. She juxtapose images and words from women's magazines that portray products or behaviors that will "improve" the reader, with the image of a burdened women and the phrase "We must risk unlearning all those things that have kept us alive for so long..."

Another artist, Sanja Ivekovic, places underwear advertisements with models in typical (and unnatural) poses next to photos of herself in clothed, mock simulations of the ads. It makes for a poignant, but also comical, meditation on the artificial manner in which women are represented to themselves.

Less playful is Yoko Ono's famous short performance, Cut Piece, where audience members were invited to voluntarily cut pieces of her clothes while she was wearing them. At the beginning most people (mainly men) made small cuts.

As the piece goes on bigger, more revealing cuts were made, and one man in particular gets disturbingly aggressive. Her slight flinching and nervous movement of her eyes right before the film ends reenacts the social vulnerability of women in a sexist society.

Through pamphlets, posters, magazines, video and photographs, the show gives a feel for how activist many of these artists were. Women artists, critics and historians took part in numerous protests at major museums that highlighted the notorious gender bias of the mainstream art world.

Efforts at organizing venues for viewing art by women, especially the Los Angeles "Woman House" project, are also on display. Posters from the Native American Spiderwoman Theater group and brochures from the Where We At Black Women Artists collective are just some of the supporting documents that complement the show and give a fuller view of the participants.

Although lacking in the art by most of the U.S. contributors, artists working in Britain made a particular point to emphasize class as a component of women's oppression. The powerful film Nightcleaners documents an important early 1970s union drive to organize women workers that clean office buildings after hours.

Not a straightforward documentary, the film focuses more on the emotional and political exchanges between the workers, the organizers, the union representatives and the boss. It makes for a powerful collage of the way struggle changes people.

The show has not been without controversy. Feminists have criticized the show for lacking any overarching argument explaining the purpose of the show. Why these artists in this show and what is their relation to the word "feminist" in the show's title?

Since the show provides little of this, viewers are left to guess what the connections are, other than being female. Not surprisingly, the "revolution" in the title isn't explained either.

The show's title "WACK!" does little to clarify the question. Weak explanations by the show's curator aside, in today's urban vocabulary "wack" means "messed up" or "crazy." Given the history of associating women with hysteria this is hardly flattering.

Worse, though, is the catalogue for the show. The art reproduced is excellent and well captioned. The artist biographies are great. The essays are mostly academic and generally not for the casual reader (who reads these things anyway?). The problem is the cover art.

Supporters of women's liberation may be somewhat surprised to find a wrap-around dust jacket made up of nothing but naked women cut out of Playboy magazine. The piece is from the show and is part of a series of collages by Martha Rosler about the different exploitative ways in which women's bodies are presented in society.

But taken out of this context and reproduced as the cover of a large book repeats the problem Rosler critiques in the first place! Worse is the unavoidable identification of the 100-or-so naked bodies with the 100-or-so artists in the show, an insulting and degrading commodification, even if unintentional.

No postings on the LA MOCA Web site had more responses than the subject of this cover. Fortunately, the cover is removable (and presumably flammable).

On the other hand, the MOCA Web site was a great supporting resource for the show. It featured bulletin boards, downloadable lectures by feminist critics and historians, and enough reproductions to get the feel of the diversity, energy and politicized atmosphere of the show.

Sadly, the D.C. stop is deprived of this kind of support. The dull National Museum of Women in the Arts site has one Web page featuring one of the most abstract and apolitical pieces in the exhibition. It is almost as if the D.C. organizers decided to promote the show drained of the things that makes the show exciting: politics, social examination and healthy debate.

Never mind the Web site. Going to the show will remind you of what a mass movement feels like and how it can spur a thorough rethinking of social conventions. The process on display is messy, motivational, contradictory, absurd, disturbing, wonderful, frustrating and inspiring.

Though it lacks a coherent analysis and contains many of the weaknesses of the feminist movement of the '70s, it also has the authentic striving for liberation that young women and men growing up today have never experienced. That alone makes it worth the price of admission.

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