We Need a New Kind of Feminist Art

Tess Thackara
Dec 20, 2016 3:23PM

Installation view of Pipilotti Rist, Open My Glade (Flatten), 2000, at New Museum, New York, 2016. © Pipilotti Rist. Courtesy of the artist, Hauser & Wirth, and Luhring Augustine. Photo: Maris Hutchinson / EPW Studio, courtesy of New Museum. 

A quote that Catherine Morris, the Brooklyn Museum’s Curator of the Sackler Center for Feminism, often turns to is one by the artist and writer Emily Roysdon. “We are not protesting what we don’t want,” Roysdon once said in relation to her queer activism, “we are performing what we want.” The idea of creating the world you want to live in, on a microcosmic level, is one that’s central to feminist theory, the history and methodology of which is closely intertwined with queer and Civil Rights activism. It’s a principle that has a better-known, bureaucratic relative in the concept of affirmative action—a strategy for progressing toward a world in which equal opportunity is a reality for people of all races, genders, sexual orientations, and classes.

It’s also a method that Morris has employed in her role at the Sackler Center, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year with a series of exhibitions titled, “A Year of Yes: Reimagining Feminism.” When we met at the museum on a recent afternoon, I asked Morris how the anniversary, and the Sackler’s mission as a whole, looked different post-U.S. election. “We might have been thinking more about a celebration, and now we have a sense of urgency,” she said. Referencing the Roysdon quote: “Maybe we need to protest what we don’t want again—and louder.”

In 2016, the art world has been busy engaging in both of those feminist modes: protesting the systemic and historical biases toward male artists, and performing an art world in which men, women, white artists, and those of color have equal representation. Protest came with the Guerrilla GirlsWhitechapel Gallery takeover, in which the collective analyzed demographic data sets across European institutions, ultimately showcasing the continuing prevalence of white male privilege in the art world. It also came with a flurry of all-female group shows—at Hauser & Wirth, the Denver Art Museum, Sprüth Magers, Cheim & Read, and Maccarone, among others—which implicitly took a political position (or exploited a trend, depending on your point of view) by opting to focus exclusively on women artists.

And after the U.S.’s first glimpse of a female president was eclipsed by the victory of Donald Trump this past November, protest of further institutionalized misogyny came in the form of women’s meetings and art events that rapidly transformed into convenings for activism. One such event took place at the Brooklyn Museum. A panel held just two days after the election of Donald Trump was originally intended to be a tribute to Marilyn Minter, pegged to her retrospective at the museum, one component of “A Year of Yes.” Instead, the event became a collective outpouring of grief and support. Attendees, including myself, found solace and strength in a room of people who valued the feminist power and truth in Minter’s audacious, uncomfortably photorealistic close-ups of female figures and body parts.

Then there was the performance of equality. As Frances Morris took the reins at Tate Modern ahead of the institution’s Switch House launch, she announced a bold new rehang, in which women would have far greater (though still not equal) representation alongside men. When the newly expanded Tate Modern opened in June, viewers could also explore formidable solo shows given over to the work of Georgia O’Keeffe and Mona Hatoum. And there were high-profile solos shows of female artists elsewhere in the art world this year. 101-year-old Carmen Herrera gained long overdue recognition at the Whitney. The New Museum heralded the work of Nicole Eisenman and Pipilotti Rist. They were but two among numerous other institutions.

A swathe of strong female solos should be a given across the annual art world calendar. And there’s no doubt that women’s representation in the art world has improved enormously since the beginnings of the feminist art movement in the late 1960s. But the intentionality around this year’s focus on women is testament to the fact that equal representation still doesn’t come naturally. At press previews across New York, for instance, directors and curators explicitly called attention to their efforts to spotlight women. Pipilotti Rist, at the media preview for her New Museum show, felt compelled to note that her studio staff was 80 percent female and that her exhibition “Pixel Forest” was a “complete female production.”


For a while, some (myself included) worried that this feverish attention to women’s practices was a sign of a fad, a mere flash in the pan that would lose steam, failing to bring with it meaningful structural changes. One thinks of the academic Andrea Geyer’s persistent reminder—through the work she does to archive women’s history in the New York art world—that our society is engaged in a kind of cultural amnesia when it comes to women’s achievements. Men’s achievements, meanwhile, are more sticky, to use the parlance of digital media. Their work has no trouble becoming quickly inscribed into the historical canon.

I wondered, too, as women and artists of color have done for decades—and as Holland Cotter questioned in his piece for the New York Times, “Are All-Women Shows Good or Bad for Art?”—whether shows segregated along gender or racial lines are really the way forward. Georgia O’Keeffe famously refused to participate in all-female shows; while the African-American artists Romare Bearden and Hale Woodruff voted to discontinue an exhibition of black artists in 1947 on the basis that it hindered the acceptance of their work on a purely artistic level. The writer Sarah Boxer wrote in the Atlantic recently that a year of women arrives about once every decade. This would suggest that these periods of art world egalitarianism fail to grow roots. They come and they go, and we forget, once more, to give women equal airtime. Then, years later, the triumphant celebration of women and the all-female group show (a format that has been around for several decades at this point) return with a renewed sense of novelty.

But then Trump happened, and the world looked quite different. With the election results—and the threat of an administration hostile to women’s and minority rights—came a sense that dedicating spaces exclusively to the cultural achievements of women and minorities was not only necessary, but vital. “In the past, a valid question I’ve often raised is how long does the Sackler Center for Feminist Art need to exist?” Morris mused when we met. “How long do we need these spaces that are dedicated to particular political purposes? After this election, I feel like that’s not a question that’s even on the table. A sense of urgency is what enters the conversation, and thinking expansively of feminism as a human right.”

Feminism has been hotly contested this year, too. When Gloria Steinem, one of America’s most famous feminists, scolded young women who don’t support Hillary Clinton, for example, her admonishments not only fell on deaf ears, but also caused many female Bernie Sanders supporters to dig in their heels more vigorously. Younger generations, it turned out, weren’t existentially moved to action by the prospect of a female presidential candidate. They valued issues of wealth distribution, corporate accountability, and access to education more than, or on an equal footing to, women’s issues. Or, perhaps, millennial women took their rights and freedoms for granted, unattuned as they were to the hard-won fight that preceded their arrival in the world.

And then, of course, there was the fact that white women voted for Trump in greater number than for Clinton, suggesting either that more women than we realized have internalized the values of the patriarchy—preferring to have a man in charge—or that more women than we realized value their racial identity over their gender identity. They identify as white first, and female second. This particular exit poll helped to fuel charged discourse around the swiftly organized Women’s March on Washington, scheduled for the day following President-elect Trump’s inauguration.

The march has drawn widespread support, but also criticism over the perceived exclusivity of the event’s messaging. Are women of color sufficiently represented? And what about the queer and trans communities? Some have cast doubt as to whether the march represents a truly diverse range of experiences and priorities, from top to bottom, and criticized the organizers for their appropriation of the name of an earlier Civil Rights march. (Three women of color, Linda Sarsour, Carmen Perez, and Tamika Mallory, have since emerged as leaders of the march, and it’s poised to draw tens of thousands of protesters from across the country.) Simultaneously, articles such as this one denouncing white feminism and summarizing key black feminist concepts have circulated around social media, giving much-needed insight into the experience that women of color face—of being twice-oppressed.

In short, older, white forms of feminism won’t do in today’s world.

Change 3: Faith Ringgold's Over 100 Pound Weight Loss Performance Storyquilt
ACA Galleries

So where do we go from here? How can feminism evolve to meet the demands of our current social and political climate, and our changing notions of racial and gender identity? And how can the art world help drive those changes? For one thing, feminism and feminist art must include women of color, as well as a far more expansive notion of gender identity. And it’s incumbent on feminist leaders to make that happen.

At a recent “talking circle” hosted by Steinem in the former Manhattan women’s prison where the photographer Annie Leibowitz is currently showing her latest series of iconic female portraits, a trans woman stood up and asked how individuals like her could be viewed as women and not ostracized. Steinem responded that gender is about self-identification, implying that one can claim one’s place at the table. This, it seems to me, is an inadequate response. White, cisgender women must actively reach across the aisle and make it a priority to ensure that all that want to have a voice in this discussion do.

We would also do well to prioritize the needs of those who face oppression not only due to their biological gender, but due to their race, gender identification, or sexual orientation. It’s worth noting that the Steinem/Leibowitz event was attended almost entirely by well-to-do white women, who have relatively little to fear under a Trump administration.

One answer to this is to include women who have been underrecognized in the telling of feminist history. A show that Morris is working on at the moment, to open in April 2017, will do just that. Titled “We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women 1965–85,” it will examine the way that second-wave feminism coincided with the Civil Rights movement and the Black Power movement, and include the work of artists like Faith Ringgold, who straddled both the Civil Rights and feminist movements. “She was an activist and very engaged with thinking about both Civil Rights and feminism, and how she could integrate the two, because she needed them both,” Morris told me.

Another is to frame the experiences of women according to other conditions. In the wake of Trump’s victory, class is one that particularly begs for our attention. The artist A.L. Steiner noted in the latest edition of Aperture magazine, “On Feminism,” that capitalism often subverts the goals of feminism, pitting us against one another, leaving many contemporary feminisms “bereft of values,” “a mere reflection of patriarchal domination.”

Are we doing enough to give voice to the experiences of low-income women? Are we doing enough to empower girls and young women to express their experiences and gain confidence and validation through art? Are we ensuring that queer and trans communities have cultural access? The excellent exhibition of LGBTQ prisoner art currently on view at the Abrons Art Center, curated by Tatiana von Furstenberg, for instance, should be viewed as a powerful act of feminism. “Feminism needs to be something that includes everybody,” Morris said, “it’s not just a women’s issue.”

The art world must reflect this more expansive, diverse form of feminism, finding commonalities across races, genders, and classes. We must both draw connections between the work of women and other oppressed groups, and spotlight their diversity and specificities. Some have tried to argue that it’s time to put identity politics to bed; it’s not. The experiences of many people in this world are still shaped by the way they identify themselves, or the way others identify them. But we need a vastly expanded notion of the conditioning factors that make up our realities.

Constant vigilance and creativity are needed to counter the efforts of retrograde white men who seek to curtail women’s freedoms, and to ensure the path to equality for all. The arrival of Trump is a step back, but it’s also an opportunity. Let the sense of urgency awoken by his election be rocket fuel that propels us into 2017 with more feminist fervor than we’ve ever had before—an energy that drives us to reach out to the most oppressed among us and makes them, and their artistic voices, our priority.

Tess Thackara