Feminist Art in a Patriarhical Society

Femininity, masculinity and, indeed, queer theory have, for years, been based on the essentialist binary opposites of male and female inherent in modernism. In today’s ‘Postmodernist’ world these gender definitions are increasingly under attack by feminist theory, gay studies and queer theory. Women are confronting issues of gendered oppression, men are confronting issues of sexism and homophobia, everyone is searching for ‘self’.

It is my intention in this essay to concentrate on feminist art, in particular, the art of Judy Chicago and Annie Sprinkle.
Feminist thinking today is influenced by the theories of postmodernism, in particular, that of the rejection of a social structure based on bi-polar gender stereotypes rooted in biology with a strong leaning towards patriarchy.

It must be understood that feminism is not one thing; it’s a catch-all description of a range of issues, theories and behavioural patterns. Feminism is also split into two main camps: The radical/political which claims equal rights with men on the basis that women are equal and can do anything men can do, given the chance, and a kind of spiritual/earth mother approach which claims that women are different from, and better than, men because they are life givers and in touch with the natural.
There have always been independent feminists as far back as the 6th century where Sappho wrote lesbian poetry, but the main problem for feminists in art was that the art world was massively dominated by men. Indeed, it must be remembered that for much of the last century the most influential guides for art theorists were; Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche and Sigmund Freud, all born in the 19th Century and all with 19th century attitudes towards women.

Jacques Lacan once said of women:

The place assigned women is one absence, of ‘otherness.’ Lacking the penis, which signifies phallic power in patriarchal society and provides a speaking position for the male child, woman also lacks access to the symbolic order that structures language and meaning. The role of women is to be spoken at rather than to speak.’

With male attitudes like this it was a long, hard climb for women to be accepted as artists, or feminist artists.
‘From its beginnings, feminist art confronted inherent contradictions. Feminists of colour, and lesbian feminists challenged attempts to identify an inclusive “female imagery” or female experience, arguing that such attempts collapsed female identity into a universalised category that was, in reality, heterosexual and white, not to mention middle class.’

It is the intention of the two artists that I have chosen to alter this anomaly and to give women their rightful place in the art world, that is, on equal terms with men.
Annie Sprinkle Ph.D. is a prostitute/porn star turned performance artist/ sexologist. For the last thirty years she has explored every kind of sexual form, producing films, photography, sexual workshops and college lectures. She obtained her Ph.D. in Human Sexuality in San Francisco in this year and won the Firecracker Alternative Book Award this year for her book, Hardcore from the Heart; The Pleasures, Profits and Politics of Sex in Performance.

Her art includes a touring performance whereby she shows her cervix to members of the audience with the use of a speculum and a torch. She has now designed a cervix web site so that more people than ever can view her cervix, something she calls the doorway to life itself.

In the film ‘Sluts and Goddesses’ Sprinkle takes the audience on a tour of sexuality, introducing female masturbation, female ejaculation and a female orgasm that is charted and graphed for it’s intensity that lasts for five minutes and ten seconds. She acts as host for 7 ‘sexual facilitators’ who are transformed into sacred prostitutes with the aid of make up, masks, wigs, body jewellery, body piercing, new names, sexual exercises and sex.

In her touring show, ‘Post-Porn Modernist’ she traces her own evolution from a shy, introverted Ellen Steinberg through porn star, prostitute and sexual adventurer to Anya, sex educator, holistic healer and Aids awareness spokesperson.

In her film ‘Deep Inside Annie Sprinkle’ there is a scene where Annie fingers a man’s anus whist describing to the camera what she is doing. This could be argued to represent subverting the ‘normal’ heterosexual idea of the male being the penetrator in sex and claiming a woman’s equality by role reversal.

‘It is possible to see this as simple table turning; the objectified woman fragments and objectifies the male body in turn. But perhaps more challenging to the conventional porno form is the fact that Annie maintains the first person address to a hypothetical client, speaking to the camera and thus raising new questions about the gendered nature of her address.’

The danger of pornography as art is in the fact that it begs the question, ‘is this art confronting male society with it’s feminism or is it just further degrading women?
‘Her work engages multiple discourses form pornography, feminism, art, spirituality, sex education, advertising, political activism, performance art, body play and the self-help health, prostitutes rights and safe sex movements.’

As feminism must be an ever-expanding discourse that responds to critical self-reflection and continuing political debate then it can be argued that Annie Sprinkle blurs boundaries of art and pornography, seduces deconstruction, reverses traditional subject/object viewing positions, demystifies sexiness and challenges the hegemonic categories of heterosexual males.

Judy Chicago uses feminist art in a totally different way to Annie Sprinkle. She is probably the foremost feminist artist in the world today producing a prodigious amount of work most of which is controversial and challenging to the male dominated industry.

Chicago is a foremost exponent of feminism in the world today, she taught at the first ever feminist art course at Freshno State College back as long ago as 1971. She is an artist, feminist, educator and intellectual and is teaching at Indiana University where she received a Presidential Appointment in Art and Gender Studies.

Chicago, like Sprinkle, is not afraid to use the imagery of woman’s sexual organs in her work, but whereas Sprinkle sees this as a demystifying of the sex of woman, Chicago sees it more as a challenge to subvert the patriarchal obsession with phallic forms and has developed an art using ‘active vaginal forms.’ A central core imagery using many layers producing what some critics called ‘literal vagina depictions’ rather than metaphoric celebrations of female power. In fact British feminists Griselda Pollock and Roszika Parker argued:

‘The iconography of Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party, specifically for its vaginal imagery is retrograde because it sets itself up for exploration: It is easily retrieved and co-opted by a male culture because it does not rupture radically meanings and connotations of women in art as body, as sexual, as nature, as object for male possession.’

Her ‘Red Flag’, a photographic representation of a woman removing a bloody tampon was the first work of art to show this commonplace, although controversial, event in women’s lives. Chicago was amazed to find that many people did not know what the red object was; some thought it a bloody penis, showing how unwilling many women, and men, are to look at personal, but everyday functions, or in her own words, ‘a testament to the damage done to our perceptual powers by the absence of images of female reality.’

Probably her most famous, and notorious, piece of work is ‘The Dinner Party,’ a monumental testament to women’s historical and cultural contributions. It is a work of art, triangular in configuration, 48 feet on each side combining ceramics, china painting and needlework. An immense table covered with fine white cloths and set with 39 place settings, thirteen on each side, commemorating a goddess, a historic personage or an important woman. On the porcelain surfaced confined with the boundaries of the triangular table the names of 999 other women from history are inscribed.

One of the criticisms aim at this work was the use of needlework, china painting and such which some critics viewed as ‘craft’ not art. In her defence Chicago claims that women have traditionally used such techniques to achieve their art, with sewing, piercing, hooking, cutting, appliquéing and the like, activities also engaged in by men but assigned in history to women.

‘Chicago’s work is sometimes criticized as being inherently kitsch, an accusation that springs largely from her use of decorative elements, which are an anathema to modernist critical doctrine. In fact, she employs these supposedly kitsch elements for complex reasons. Like Jeff Koons, she manipulates our feelings about demotic artefacts. In addition, and far more often, she uses imagery that may be thought of as kitsch simply because they are appropriate-the most direct way of saying what she wants to say. If she has a grievance against what she thinks of as ‘masculinist’ art, it is to be found in its denial of basic human emotions.’

This piece of art has engendered probably more responses than any other piece of work in feminist history, as many against it as for it. It has been criticised as smacking of Renaissance workshops where one master artist and countless anonymous helpers produce the art. Chicago counters this by listing all the names of the helpers at the entrance to the gallery.

What most clearly distinguishes The Dinner Party from other postmodernist, feminist works is the visionary element, and it is this that it’s detractors, both antifeminist and feminist, find offensive. ‘How dare a woman try to set society to rights? How dare she claim that she knows truths that we don’t? How dare she be so insistent about her right to tell them? These are hanging-or burning-offences well beyond the boundaries of the art world.’

In conclusion, although some feminists define pornography as the graphic sexual explicit subordination of women in which women are dehumanised sexual objects it can be argued that Annie Sprinkle, with her postmodernist art, not only attempts to break down barriers among people but also challenges the boundaries, both assumed and arbitrary, between pornography, art and everyday experience. She amplifies woman’s insistence on defining their own normal social and sexual categories refusing to absorb into models of heterosexuality.

Judy Chicago uses her art in an attempt to re-write art history, to counter the objectification of woman and her aim appears to use the power of art as a vehicle for intellectual transformation and social change.

It could be argued that today, postmodernist issues have usurped the feminists standpoint and that everyone is searching for ‘self’, not just women, but the reality is that society is still dominated by men and the need for feminist artists like Sprinkle and Chicago is paramount if feminist art is to stand equally alongside that of the masculine.

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