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What Makes Contemporary Art Feminist? An Art Genome Project Case Study

Few identifiers in contemporary art have been as fraught as the term feminist art. What does it mean, who defines it, and how does it relate to past accomplishments of the feminist movement? The Art Genome Project’s Ellen Yoshi Tani analyzes some major themes and asks, is there a unifying principle of contemporary feminist art?

Feminism in the 21st century bears a broader, deeper, and more diverse range of voices and interests than ever before. Its agenda and definition remain unclear for many reasons, including philosophical contradictions, conflicting generational interests, and varied relationships to the legacies of the second-wave feminism of the 1960s and ’70s. Big-ticket goals like social, political, and economic equality, as well as women’s legal control over their own bodies, still unify the feminism of now and then. But if feminists in the 1960s and ’70s rejected the paradigm of beauty as inherently at odds with the pursuit of intellectual equality, contemporary feminist art embraces beauty and brains, finding agency in the option to have both. Moreover, it reflects a more globally informed and multicultural perspective that seeks to account for differences in race, nationality, and class.

How, then, do we begin to delineate a constantly expanding term? Given the ongoing efforts of subsequent generations of activists, thinkers, writers, artists, politicians, mothers, and sisters (as well as a long list of unsung heroes and heroines in the practice of everyday life) to re-define what it means to be a feminist, it may seem a fool’s errand—or an exercise in hubris—to align it with a taxonomy such as The Art Genome Project. But to be discoverable online, art needs classification, and thus a working definition. What follows is an exploration of the shades of meaning and the varying visions behind the term Feminist Art, as it was understood in the 1960s and ’70s, and as it is evolving today. As such, it will requires further critical assessment and revision as historical developments inform our understanding of this practice.


First-wave feminism won political suffrage for women in the early 20th century; yet, impasses to full political participation, as well as systemic political and socioeconomic inequality, remained. Inspired by the Civil Rights movement, feminist leaders in the 1960s and ’70s took critical aim at both systems and institutions that sustained gender inequality. Championing the phrase “the personal is political,” notable feminist voices of this so-called second wave of feminism like Betty Friedan (The Feminine Mystique, 1962) and journalist Gloria Steinem (who founded Ms. magazine in 1972) called for equality in the workplace and at home. The soon-to-be global movement succeeded in achieving longstanding societal and political changes, and feminist art developed as one cultural branch of second-wave feminism.

Supporting cultural production as a form of activism, feminist artists took politics to the realm of aesthetics on the basis that art reflects and sustains social formations of gender and power. They sought an alternative philosophy to that which had established the existing norms of artistic genius, beauty, and attitudes toward the body, and they actively demonstrated for greater representation within museums and access to educational opportunities. Their artwork often leveraged traditionally domestic practices such as craft techniques or found objects to destabilize traditional notions of “high” art. Judy Chicago, one of the most well-known proponents of feminist practice, did much to codify (and, by extension, criticize) the visual language of “the feminine” (check out her interview with Artsy’s chief curator Christine Kuan here). Mary Kelly laid bare the labors of the maternal body in Post-Partum Document, a diaristic chronicle of the artist’s relationship to her newborn son, vomit, poop and all. Lynn Hershman Leeson’s “Construction Charts” overlaid diagrams on women’s faces detailing their potential improvements under plastic surgery, while Barbara Kruger’s appropriation of mass media images, combined with charged language, openly critiqued the gendered quality of consumption. In a 1971 essay in ArtNews, Linda Nochlin asked the question that would shape feminist art history: “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” The answer, she argued, was not that women are less capable of greatness than men but that structural inequalities, including restricted access to artistic training and patronage, precluded women’s full participation and autonomy as artists. Nochlin’s focus on the practical logic of talent development, rather than inherent inferiority/superiority, challenged patriarchal ideology in a manner that aligned with the then-current aims of feminism.

The intervening years since second-wave feminism saw the word “feminist” aligned with stereotypes of militancy, man-hating, whining, and ugliness. When Beyoncé “came out” as a feminist in January 2014, even penning a short essay called “Gender Equality is a Myth,” some cultural pundits celebrated her destigmatization of the word, while others accused her of undoing years of difficult activism. Could feminism’s core politics endure this kind of rebranding? Undeniably, the media—particularly visual media and the internet—has fueled the revival of feminism’s core issues. The “raucous tussling” of feminists in the age of social media (as described by Rebecca Traister and Judith Shulevitz from The New Republic) now takes myriad forms: “sometimes a maddening mash-up of activism and journalism, quick-tempered 140-character exchanges, and more huffing and puffing than action. But cacophony is endemic to social movements, and can be productive.” Or, take Tina Fey’s wry summary: “you can tell different generations of women by whether or not they wear that Hillary Clinton blue power suit or the reappropriated Playboy-symbol necklace worn ironically.”

These changes reflect the complexity of difference and identity formation, a shift that has been fueled by scholarly work in the areas of queer theory, gender studies, critical race theory, and feminist studies, many of which grew out of reforms in higher education in the wake of the political movements in the 1970s. Feminist artists often pointed to the ideology of consumption and commodification, fueled by mass media, to highlight the objectification of women’s bodies and selves. But the visual consumption of women’s bodies in the media and political debates over how to control them has only grown in the age of the internet. How do feminist artists now critique a system of which they are undeniably a part? How do they relate to histories of feminist art and male-dominated histories of modernism? What new subject matter or strategies do they embrace? And most importantly, what is the critical agenda of this practice?

I can conclude little other than that contemporary feminist art, while exhibiting no stylistic unity, can tell us a lot about the complicated negotiations facing artists engaged with female identity today. The questions above are in some ways unanswerable, since categories, like any word, tend to take on a life of their own. Perhaps feminist art in the 21st century has more to do with identifying as a feminist, and often with identity more broadly, than with a set of universally shared goals or a concrete agenda. Below I discuss some artistic strategies, culled from conversations with other members of The Art Genome Project, that illuminate the concerns and approaches of contemporary feminist art. This is by no means a comprehensive set of tendencies, but it does represent the synthesis of much recent debate surrounding some 2,000 works by almost 300 artists on the Artsy platform. I like to think of each example as a case study—often representative of larger trends, but in each case unique—against which to test the question: what is contemporary feminist art?

1. Appropriating canonical artworks.

I’ve noticed numerous examples of artists appropriating canonical works of art in order to subvert their authority: see the mischievous interventions of Joanna Vasconcelos, whose crocheted urinals critique Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain (1917), or Brazilian painter Camila Soato, who riffs on Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam (c.1511) with a bold irreverence in Imundas e Abençoadas.

Brooklyn-based artist Mickalene Thomas depicts historically unconventional subjects in traditional portraiture settings, exposing the power of portraiture and the race- and gender-related histories that informed its conventions. In doing so, she questions the operations of portraiture and how it confers authority, status, and significance on its female subjects. Thomas’ work merits lengthy discussion because it considers not just the female subject, but the black female subject, and the doubly marginalized position that women of color often experience socially and culturally.

In A Little Taste Outside of Love (2007), which mimics the figure of Ingres’ Grande Odalisque (1814), Thomas asks her viewer to imagine an art historical canon in which the black female figure was upheld as the highest standard of beauty. Thomas’s revisionist response to standards of beauty in Western art history is powerful: Ingres’s harem girl held viewers rapt with her shocking nudity and direct eye contact, seductively cast over the shoulder. A Little Taste Outside of Love retains these two formal tropes in its black figure, whose Afro and psychedelic background suggest the era of “black is beautiful.” Yet Thomas smartly evolves Ingres’s orientalist fascination with the seductive figures and settings of the exotic East, presenting us instead with another more contemporary “exotic” other, the black female nude, exaggerated by the spangly animal print and jungle-like wallpaper of her boudoir.

2. Revisiting feminist art.

Feminist artists also rather daringly appropriate the work of earlier feminist artists, often with a heavy dose of irony and kitsch. Polish artist Julia Curylo carries on the feminist investigation into male-dominated constructions of art history by appropriating iconic works from female artists. Reprinting these images onto oversized, inflatable plastic “chicks,” her sculptures— such as Chicks, Barbara (KRUGER)—demonstrate the cheeky attitude of contemporary feminist practice. It may seem counterproductive to fuse feminism with kitsch, but kitsch assumes a mainstream, successfully established canon—testifying, perhaps, to feminism’s successful permeation of mass media and culture.

3. Historical interventions. 

Israeli photographer Michal Baratz Koren re-stages narratives of the lesser-known, but significant, women of the Old Testament. Based in Tel Aviv, Koren imagines these women as powerful figures, investing them with an agency that often seem to lack in Biblical narrative. Inspired by the large-scale tableaus of the Renaissance and Neoclassical period, Koren stages her sitters, most of them family and acquaintances dressed in flea-market garments, in traditional compositions elevated by lush, soft lighting akin to that of Jacques Louis David, Jean-Léon Gérôme, or Raphael. Bathsheba (2014) imagines a moment before Bathsheba’s famous encounter with King David (who is commonly depicted in the act of seducing her), where she, draped in pearls and surrounded by attendants, is the one who commands the tools of seduction.

4. Identity in the age of mass media.

South African artist Candice Breitz is interested in the construction of identity—how we become who we were, are, and will be; the mysteries of subjectivity; and investigations into gender. In her seminal Mother and Father (2005), for example, she appropriated movie scenes of men, like Tony Danza and Harvey Keitel, talking about fatherhood (for Father), and women, like Susan Sarandon and Meryl Streep, talking about motherhood (for Mother). The work revealed that each gender discussed its role and experience of parenthood in a limited scope and along stereotypical gender lines. 

Breitz’s Britney Spears Monument  (2007) stems from a series depicting fans of music stars, including Iron Maiden and the Grateful Dead. To find her subjects, the Berlin-based artist placed advertisements in a German-language newspaper looking for fans of each musician, and brought them together for a group portrait. The “Monuments” are complex and uncomfortable to look at; Britney’s fans, for example, look simultaneously joyful and absurd. Dressed up in sexy stage costumes and striking her signature poses, they live out their celebrity fantasies by embodying the star they admire. Are we to laugh at them or commend their uninhibited self-expression? Closer inspection reveals subtle surprises in gender behaviors: one man wears a bright pink thong, another seductively strokes a toy snake. Although Breitz’s first line of inquiry is the role of mass media in how we become who we are, these subtle disruptions of traditional gender roles constantly assert their presence in her work.

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If the aforementioned examples share anything, it’s that many contemporary artists know their feminist history, and they understand that standards of taste, beauty, relevance and value have long been debated without women’s voices. Yet, those standards remain powerful in the art world. We see, on the one hand, a freehanded conceptual approach to feminism: Michal Barat Koren’s Bathsheba appropriates a key strategy of feminist art—revisionist history—but still partakes in pictorial conventions of lighting, composition, aesthetic beauty, and costume. Mickalene Thomas purposefully points to the object of feminist art historical critique, the female reclining nude, in her citation of the Grand Odalisque, but she preserves the material splendor associated with that painting in her use of rhinestones and rich patterning.

And if unattainable fantasies (such as impossible standards of beauty, passive female sexuality and all the dreams and values that upheld gender hierarchies) were the prime target of an earlier generation of feminist critique, contemporary feminist art extends its scope to address the complex political terrain of feminism in the 21st century. These examples willingly seduce with their visual allure, a quality historically associated with femininity and original sin. By simultaneously espousing and critiquing ideals of beauty and rapture, these artists draw you into the room, only to expose that room as warped and unstable, constructed with an outdated set of tools. Having fundamentally changed the way we understand what we thought we knew, contemporary feminist art offers up its own version of history and representational space. As such, it may sometimes be wary of unattainable fantasies more broadly, and even those of feminism itself.  


Ellen Yoshi Tani, Contributor to The Art Genome Project. Research assistance provided by: Olivia-Jene´ Fagon, Jessica Backus, and Amy Raffel.