Body Issues: Feminist Artists of the 1970s Used Art to Condemn Sexual Violence

Alina Cohen
Jan 14, 2020 4:43PM

Suzanne Lacy, Three Weeks in May, 1977. Photo courtesy Suzanne Lacy Studio.

Everyone has a body. Aside from all our biographical data—age, sexual orientation, ethnicity, nationality, religion—we’re all just structures of skin and bones, with blood coursing through us. This fact has long enchanted artists, who have responded to their bodies, and those of others, through painting, sculpture, new media, and performance. Art history is ripe with people making sense of the embodied experience: from stick figures in caves to Michelangelo’s David (1501–04), from Marina Abramović’s The Artist is Present (2010) to video games that interrogate humanity. As our future on this planet becomes increasingly uncertain, ideas about the body—and what it can withstand—are ever more relevant. In this column, I’ll look at new publications and exhibitions and speak with writers and artists to analyze how art influences our understanding of the body.


For centuries, artists celebrated rape in allegorical paintings. Roman mythology, after all, cites two stories of rape as absolutely foundational to Western civilization. A member of the Etruscan royal family decided to rape Lucretia, inciting a rebellion that led to Rome’s establishment. And Roman men raped the Sabines because there weren’t enough Roman women with whom they could procreate. The Sabine women’s offspring allowed the republic to thrive. Artists including Titian, Rembrandt, Nicolas Poussin, and Jacques-Louis David commemorated these violations in their paintings. Looking at their canvases, and considering the tales behind them, you’d be forgiven for thinking rape was a romantic, dramatic encounter that ultimately led to the betterment of society.

To the contemporary reader, that is (or should be!) an infuriating conclusion. The implicit lessons—that women must be pawns in men’s political games, that women’s lives and desires should be sacrificed in favor of a common cause—are the purview of proud misogynists. Yet throughout much of Western art history, women’s objectification was both aesthetic and legal. “Rape was a crime of property, and specifically a crime against the woman’s husband or guardian,” writes Nancy Princenthal in her new book, Unspeakable Acts: Women, Art, and Sexual Violence in the 1970s (2019). Princenthal explores how feminist artists, from the 1970s through today, have offered alternately grotesque, funny, vulnerable, and media-savvy counternarratives. Through radical performances, paintings, and photographs, artists including Yoko Ono, Suzanne Lacy, Jenny Holzer, Kara Walker, and Naima Ramos-Chapman, among others, have developed revolutionary new ways to speak about violence against women’s bodies.

Throughout the 1960s, the emergence of performance art offered women a potent new medium for discussing rape. Ono took both vulnerable and predatory positions in her work. In Cut Piece (1964), she sat on a Kyoto stage and invited audience members to snip away her clothing. While the piece may sound like an invitation for harm and an encouragement of passivity, Princenthal believes otherwise. “To shine a light on environments of sexualized threat is, at least implicitly, to refuse unquestioning acquiescence,” writes Princenthal. By taking control of dangerous environments, “artists help conceive a safer world.” For a 1969 film, Rape, Ono and collaborator John Lennon filmed a young woman as they chased her around London. The title underscores the boundary between a bodily threat and a violent actuality as it turns the camera into a weapon. Filming and chasing someone is not the equivalent of raping her, yet an artist—or anyone, for that matter—who wields documentary equipment can be a fearful aggressor.

Ono’s protofeminist work anticipated the burst of feminist art throughout the 1970s. In California, Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro co-founded the California Institute of the Arts’s Feminist Art Program and organized the legendary projectWomanhouse (1972). Situated in an abandoned Hollywood home, the installation gave its female participants space to make work and discuss gender-related struggles. Theatricality and spectacle reigned. Women adorned themselves with exaggerated stage makeup, wielded genital-shaped props, and acted out the process of giving birth.

Lacy, a student involved with the Feminist Art Program, took this dramatic, fit-for-Tinseltown approach a step further. She harnessed the camera, and media attention itself, in a brand-new way. Her socially oriented project Three Weeks in May (1977) featured performances, self-defense demonstrations, and artworks about Los Angeles’s rampant rape epidemic—in 1977, the LAPD received 2,386 reports of rapes and attempts. Lacy actively sought media attention and issued press statements. Six months later, she and fellow artist Leslie Labowitz staged In Mourning and in Rage, an explicit “media event” that comprised a symbolic funeral for the women who were rape and murder victims of the recent “Hillside Strangler.”Princenthal writes that each detail—“the literally larger-than-life actors; the anger-fueled sound bites; the clear symbolism of the funeral cortege; the control of the scene so that every photograph would capture what the artists intended”—was chosen in order to “carry a clear meaning via mass media.” Perhaps the first artist to ever harness the press in this way, Lacy took complete control of her messaging and its public image. Though women discussed violence and victimhood in her work, they ultimately appeared powerful and potent to the camera lens.

While Lacy took a hyperlocal approach to her subject, Holzer adopted an international view in her photography series “Lustmord” (1993–94). The German title of the work, which means “sex-murder,” “names an act of homicidal violence that is converted into sexual satisfaction,” Princenthal writes, “an inversion of the common understanding that rape is sex converted into a gratifying (for the assailant) act of violence.” A genre of German Expressionist work in this vein, by artists including George Grosz and Otto Dix, glorifies these acts.

In a particularly disturbing picture, Dix’s Sexual Murderer (Der Lustmörder) (1920), a diabolical man in a checkered suit holds a bloody knife in one hand and a leg in another. Hacked off, female body parts ooze blood around him. “They are among the nastiest things I’ve ever seen,” Princenthal told me. The sheer ingenuity and number of ways that men have delighted in depicting violence against women truly boggles the mind.

Holzer, a poet of an artist, reclaimed both the concept of “Lustmord” and the visual and written language used to discuss rape. Addressing the rapes against Bosnian women during the Bosnian War in the 1990s, Holzer created texts from the perspectives of a victim, a perpetrator, and an observer. She projected them on walls, photographed them as tattoos on skin, and etched them into metal bands that circled human bones. “I AM AWAKE IN THE PLACE WHERE WOMEN DIE,” reads one. Arguably as visceral and disturbing as depictions of violence itself, Holzer’s work reconsiders what kind of visual language we need when considering rape—must we show the act itself to convey its horror?

For a counterexample, one might look to Kara Walker’s black-and-white silhouettes, which regularly depict slave owners violating their charges. Both bodies of work are powerful; the divergence of Walker’s and Holzer’s aesthetic strategies evidences the growing plurality of voices and perspectives addressing rape. These complications may ultimately be a good thing. While feminism fractures, a growing number of women are able to enter the conversation.

“Until the last quarter of the twentieth century, the artists and writers who represented sexual violence were almost entirely men. And it was men whom they addressed,” Princenthal writes. She notes that these men’s work entirely elided the victims’ experiences. Over the past 50 years, daring, creative women have changed that.

The #MeToo movement has similarly helped women find language for their experiences, though Princenthal is careful to note its limitations. The hashtag hardly helps elucidate what “sexual violence” actually means, and entirely omits the fact that women living in poor, minority communities are the most vulnerable—not white women on college campuses, who are the most vocal about such issues. For artists, these gray areas aren’t problems, but invitations to address an endlessly complicated subject with unique, individual points of view.

One of the most recent artworks Princenthal includes in her book is Naima Ramos-Chapman’s short film And Nothing Happened (2016), which follows a young woman struggling to explain her assault and its emotional repercussions. The video exemplifies one of the greatest challenges, and most important issues, still facing women artists who want to address sexual violence in their work. “It’s still about finding language,” Princenthal said. That’s the point.

Alina Cohen