Art and Feminism
Helena Reckett and Peggy Phelan (eds.)
“Alluringly open, deceptively simple, art and feminism is a seductive subject.” Thus writes Peggy Phelan at the outset of her survey in this brilliant overview. However, Phelan also indicates the difficulties in exploring the seductions of this important topic, writing “(f)ull of strange overlays and shadows, the history of feminist art is often recited but still perplexing”.
It is hard not to agree with Phelan’s assessments. It has been a horribly difficult task to capture the very real variety and often elusive meaning of feminist art and there have been many very spectacular failures in the past.
Yet, to my mind, Art and Feminism seems to succeed in bringing together major works, theory and a renewed scrutiny of art and feminism(s) in a very balanced and indeed, rather virtuoso manner. It is a very fine exhibition of scholarship and like all such demonstrations, it renews the subject under consideration.
The book is an overview of art and feminism from the 1960s to the start of the twenty-first century. It is extraordinarily and almost mind-bogglingly well-researched. The editors have tried very hard to reflect the diversity of female artistic responses at any given time and they have been victorious.
As a result, they have been able to make many interesting new connections. They have also gathered such a good deal of material that they have given even the most experienced of art-voyeurs much to mull over.
There has not been a tired celebration of ‘mistresses’ of art like Judy Chicago and Cindy Sherman, but a very fair division of publicity and analysis. The works discussed cover most conceivable artistic formats and include photography, installation pieces, film, performance and handicraft as well as the more predictable paintings and sculptures that usually dominate the artistic overview.
This eclecticism of Art and Feminism is by no means lacking in substantiality. There are, in fact, three hundred high-quality plates with the most significant works of over one hundred and fifty major artists. Amongst these, there is material that has often gone unnoticed because it has resisted documentation. Yet this overview has taken great pains to catch everything and one even finds the published installation shots and preliminary drawings. This range of illustration clearly marks Art and Feminism as greatly beyond all previous publications on this subject matter.
Perhaps the single greatest strength of the overview, however much it is based in real art itself, is the way in which it renews the theory of art and feminism. From Germaine Greer to Simone de Beauvoir, the book includes many important previously unpublished artists’ statements, interviews, manifestoes, project notes and theoretical writings.
There are also parallel texts from other cultural, philosophical and literary sources along with reviews and articles by key critics of each period. The analysis of pieces also has a strong and meaningful theoretical basis.
Reckett has resisted the pitfalls of orthodox accounts and written about art in a very different manner. Instead of concerning herself solely with what has been seen in the frame, she “has focused primarily on what lies outside the frame of patriarchal logic, representation, history and justice – which is to say the lives of most women” (Phelan).
Art and Feminism is then, for me and for serious scholars, critics and artists a very fine resource. It is a place to which one may return again and again and fine each time something new.