Theory Lecture 5: Feminism

First wave feminist art was born out of the paradox of conceptualism: The emphasis on artist idea entailed drawing on extra-aesthetic information, bringing in other fields such as sociology and philosophy. This strive for objectivity was treated as a condition of things rather than the process it was. Removing the body of the artist meant the work was completed by the viewer, being the antithesis of the feminist approach that emphasised body politics.

Adrian Piper - Hypothesis: Situation #14 - 1969
Adrian Piper – Hypothesis: Situation #14 – 1969

This object and body obsessed art was typified by John P. Bowles in his examination of Adrian Piper: ‘An Object encountered including an individual person is defined by an infinite and unique set of characteristics’. The human object, Piper viewed almost as a burden. In the piece ‘Food For the Spirit’, Piper meditated and photographed herself each time she felt lost whilst reading Immanuel Kant’s ‘Critique of Pure Reason’, the often nude photographs in low light seem to put her body on trial for limiting her mind’s comprehension whilst examining the text.

Adrian Piper - Food For the Spirit (Detail) - 1971
Adrian Piper – Food For the Spirit (Detail) – 1971
Judy Chicago - The Dinner Party - 74-79
Judy Chicago – The Dinner Party – 1974-79

Judy Chicago’s masterpiece ‘The Dinner Party’ is seen by many as being a great embodiment of feminist art and yet by others as being crude and detracts from the movement. On the surface, the piece looks at 39 women from history and mythology who perhaps had not seen the attention they deserved. It celebrates this, invoking their sexuality with provocatively designed vagina-esque plates as well as providing a unique table cloth for each of the diners. The work represents also skills that are traditionally attributed to women: Weaving, sewing, table setting, hosting dinner parties, cooking, napkin arrangement etc.

Yet beyond this lie accusations of racism and the mis-representation of women, within the piece itself. The only black women invited to the party was Sojourner Truth, further to this, claims of desexualisation of black women were made as Truth’s plate is the only not to feature a vagina-like form. Secondly the piece is attributed solely to Judy Chicago when many argue it to be a collaborative work, having involved many women artists to create. It is levelled by critics such as Maureen Malarkey that this misrepresentation of women is demonstrative of the problem the piece wished to address.

The piece itself was representative of a more existentialist art, reducing the body to its physicality, noted by the use of the vagina to separate these women by their names from a societal ideal.

Julia Kristeva identified 3 phases of feminism in her essay ‘Women’s Time’, those being: The first wave of the suffragette movement, the second wave of women’s liberation and a third she proposed as being the global shift from gender to plural sexualities.

Mary Kelly - Post Partum Document (Detail) - 1975
Mary Kelly – Post Partum Document (Detail) – 1975

Mary Kelly’s Post Partum Document takes into consideration the various aspects of the mother-child relationship. Kelly documented every aspect of the day, including interactions between the children and parents and used nappies and the food eaten that day for 6 years. She further went on to make a parody of the Rosetta Stone, translating the child’s writing.

This examination of a human as the art object itself was further realised by Adrian Piper, in her catalysis series, she attempted to turn herself into the the art object, removing herself from her body and doing irrational things to achieve a response.

Categories: Research

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