Art and Feminism: Then and Now is the first in a series of articles by Vicky Clark and Ann Rosenthal, funded by the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts.
“We need to remember across generations that there is as much to learn as there is to teach.” – Gloria Steinem
Like many of us who have weathered the vicissitudes of feminism over the last 50+ years, Gloria Steinem has been looking back and forward simultaneously. We have argued and fought for equality; we have learned from both our successes and our mistakes; we have affected change. Yet we appear to be fighting some of the same battles as the rhetoric heats up again in the current war on women. It seems like just yesterday that Betty Friedan pointed to the dissatisfaction of women trapped within the ennui of the suburbs, where women wanted choices, but many of our victories are in danger as traditional values reassert themselves.
There is a critical mass of women who have lived feminism, who can articulate its history and comment on its status. There are also many new voices, a growing number of younger women who self-identify as feminists after a period when many felt that the fight was over. What do these two groups have to say to each other, especially about women in the arts? We, an artist and a curator, want to stimulate an exchange about women in the arts in a series of articles. We have posed a set of questions to women connected to the arts in Pittsburgh, and their responses will supplement our own ideas about the past, present, and future.
We work, obviously, from the perspective of our own experiences as women in a male-dominated world. Starting with our coming to terms with the reality of being considered unequal to men and our exposure to feminism, we’ll talk about our practices as artist/curator/teacher/writer/activist within the developing discourse over the last several decades. Then we’ll move on to today. But we realize times have changed, and we want to see what women are doing now, how practices and ideas have shifted, so we can bring the then and now together in a more informed way.
So we start with the personal.
Vicky A Clark: I am a child of the 60s, part of the anti-war mass protests and a product of the sexual revolution and drug culture. I actually believed that I could change the world because at large rallies and concerts, it seemed as though we came together as one. The world did change but not enough. As I matured and worked in a variety of institutions, I learned to mute my complaints, to couch my arguments in more acceptable language and situations, and to be more strategic than strident, In other words, to seek to make a difference in more personal ways. I began to live my beliefs and to insert the subversive, both intuitively and strategically, in unexpected ways. I reconsidered the definition of what is appropriate. To work within an increasingly polemical artworld and global politic requires courage, insight, and tenacity. The volatility of those worlds charged me with freedom and hope. I married my work to my life as I operated in and out of context. I feel like we are at the beginning again. While I look back and wonder what I would change, I look for new approaches and ideas, for ways to build on the past while moving toward the future.
Ann Rosenthal: I came to feminism late, having rejected all things female in the wake of losing my mother as a child. The world of feminist art found me, however, when I was recruited by the Southern California Women’s Caucus for Art (WCA) to work on their newsletter. As women artists were asserting their experience as valid content for art, I was unearthing my own voice. I learned that women artists have prevailed throughout history, despite their erasure by male art historians. I discovered that the second-class status of women was not a personal failure but was social and systemic. The rallying cry of those decades was ‘the personal is political.’ Nowhere was that more apparent than in the work of women artists.
In 1995, I attended the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing with a delegation of 100 women artists (above) through the WCA. Again, my world was cracked open. I heard first-hand the dreams and challenges facing women around the world. I learned that women in the U.S. are better off than most, but it’s not just about us—feminism is global. Social movements have a way of embedding themselves into the cultural fabric, their origins becoming lost, but I have not forgotten. The feminist art movement expanded the forms and content for art. The research of women art historians gave my generation courage and inspiration by daylighting our heritage as women artists. Twenty years later, I remain dedicated to what I believe is the promise and potential of feminism: to expose sexism, racism, and naturism as manifestations of the same disease, while holding fast to the wonder and diversity of life on this planet. In the wake of climate change, we need deep thinking and profound creativity. The work of feminism and art continues.
About the Writers
Dr. Vicky A. Clark is an independent curator, writer and scholar of contemporary art, based in Pittsburgh. Dr.Clark founded the Forum Gallery at the Carnegie Museum of Art and produced International Encounters: The Carnegie International and Contemporary Art, 1896-1996. She was the driving force behind the reemergence of the Pittsburgh Biennial and the Artist of the Year exhibitions at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts. Dr. Clark has published extensively, taught art history at many area universities, and curated over 50 exhibitions. Her favorites include Recycling Art History, Comic Release: Negotiating Identity for a New Generation, and The White Show: Subtlety in the Age of Spectacle. She just co-organized the first Art+Feminism’s Wikipedia Edit-a-thon in Pittsburgh.
Ann Rosenthal brings to communities over 30 years experience as an artist, educator, and writer. Her art installations address the local manifestation of global concerns, including climate change, food safety, and nuclear waste. Her work, in collaboration with Steffi Domike, has been shown locally at the Andy Warhol Museum and the Mattress Factory, across the U.S., and internationally. Ms. Rosenthal’s essays and work on eco/community art have been published in several journals and anthologies, most recently in Regenerative Infrastructures (New York: Prestel, 2013). She teaches foundations, art history, and environmental art courses in the region and online. For 2016, she initiated and is directing LUNA (Learning Urban Nature through Art), an after-school program in the Larimer neighborhood of Pittsburgh, funded by a Remake Learning grant from The Sprout Fund. She received her MFA from Carnegie Mellon University in 1999.
This series is generously sponsored by the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts.