The Tensions of Feminist Art
The Feminist Movement has both helped and hindered women in the arts. It has directed serious critical attention to the work of women artisits and forced the public to accept them as professionals: So it's been a psychological boost to women struggling to make a success out of an artistic career. But at the same time the Movement has hurt the cause of women artists by fostering a special feminist artistic style for feminist artists. It has separated the self-assertive feminist viewpoint from the mainstream of artistic tradition, and honored women artists for their success in this special area--not for their success in the art world as a whole. By creating a special category for women only, the Feminist Movement has encouraged the public to judge women artists only in terms of other women. Women artists deserve better. They deserve critical consideration as artists, not critical consideration as women artists.
Feminist art can't be a negation of everything men have ever done. No artist can be uninfluenced by the artistic traditions of the past--which have been shaped by men. So feminist art isn't characterized by a clear-cut stylistic independence. New York Magazine recently published an article about some New York women who claim to create feminist art. They express their liberation from the male-dominated world of art by depicting female erotica. Art which expresses a women's sexual liberation must be feminist, because sexual liberation is a big part of what Feminism is all about. But a woman doesn't have to paint self-portraits, kitchen sinks, or female genitalia to be a feminist artist.
Feminism is a state of mind, not a specific artistic subject. It is a psychological and political awareness, not a politically relevant kitchen still life. Feminist art is nothing more nor less than art by feminist women.
The Radcliffe Institute opened its own art gallery last week with an inaugural exhibit by eight former Institute Fellows. The gallery is feminist in its ideology and the art is all by women. But there is nothing uniquely feminine about the art: you can't just look at it and know that it's been done by women. The artists in the show are united by their affiliation with the Institute and their commitments to their own professional careers. There is no apparent connection between the style, subject matter, or medium of their work. Janet Abramowicz makes compositions out of wood and metal, Joanna Brandford is a weaver. Lois Charney is concerned with color theory in her abstract paintings, Juliet Kepes makes Japanese-like brush paintings and Marian Parry does tiny Steinbergesque drawings.
The Radcliffe Institute has been plugging away at the problems of professional women since 1961. Acting Institute Director Susan Lyman said that by opening the gallery the Institute is trying to "spearhead an increased access to academic and economic opportunity for a group of gifted women who have been notably overlooked and underpaid in our society." Long-term plans for the gallery include several one-woman shows, a photography exhibit, and a juried show open to all women in the greater Boston area.
Women artists are acutely aware of the cultural biases that act to impede their careers. Marianna Pineda, a sculptor participating in the gallery's current show and an Institute Fellow from 1962 to 1964, is an established local artist by any standard. She has had three one-woman shows, and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts owns two of her pieces. Despite her success she still feels artistic institutions discriminate against women. "Art schools are filled with women," she said, "but most of the instructors are men. Women are taught that art is a lady-like pastime, and few of them are encouraged to go on professionally." She added that when women do go on they are rarely taken seriously by gallery directors.
Flora Natapoff, coordinator of the Institute gallery and an instructor at Carpenter Center, has been an artist for fifteen years. She points out a more basic problem. "Little girls aren't allowed to be aggressive or experimental," she said, "but that's what you need to be an artist." But Natapoff's work is assertive. Her big bold collages of cityscapes capture the tensions and forces of the urban environment, and fight against the demure feminine stereotype.
Marjorie Portnow, the only woman in the show who is an Institute Fellow this year, is 31, single, and has been painting for 10 years. She's gotten grants to finance her work, exhibited her paintings in a New York gallery, and is supplementing her Institute stipend by commuting to a teaching job at Queens College. But she's had a hard time coping with her success, and she thinks it's because she's a woman.
"Those studies about women fearing success are really right," she said. "I once got a grant to spend the summer at an artists' colony, where all I had to do was work. It was a terrific opportunity and a great honor to have been chosen. But when I got there I just fell apart. There was this tremendous pressure to achieve, and I suddenly felt I had to choose between my career and my femininity. I couldn't handle the pressures."
Portnow thinks such problems develop because women aren't thought of in terms of their work. She said that in high school her identity was cast in purely social terms. "It hinged upon how pretty I was, how many friends I had, and how many boys I went out with," she said. "There was a real dichotomy between the smart, successful woman and the sweet feminine one."
In order to resolve the conflicting tensions between her commitment to her career and her perception of her role as a woman, Portnow has decided not to have children--she remains single because she is afraid her work would suffer from the personal compromises marriage and children demand.
Most of the women in the Radcliffe Institute show are married and have children, though they have felt the same tensions Portnow describes. Pineda gave up sculpting for two-and-a-half years after one of her children was born. She decided that leaving her work was a great mistake. Several years later, after another child was born, she got a grant from the Institute that helped pay for child care and studio supplies, allowing her to continue her work part-time. "My work is important," she said, "but human relationships must always come first."
But even when women artists are able to cope with a family, their family commitments tend to delay their artistic development. The Institute plans a special show for next year that will focus on late bloomers--women whose artistic styles didn't mature until late in their careers because they couldn't devote much time to their work until their children were grown.
It is good that the Radcliffe Institute has acted to call attention to the special problems that women artists face. This first exhibit is uneven, but it is especially admirable because it shows us art--not just women's art. The gallery could have put together a collection of politically feminist art and called it the kind of women's art that needs to be supported. But that would have been defeating the whole point. In order to succeed women artists have to cope with uniquely feminine problems, but they don't have to produce a uniquely feminine art.
The inaugural exhibit of the Radcliffe Institute Gallery, at 3 James Street, will be open Monday through Saturday, from 1 to 5 p.m., through April 13.