Feminist Art and Womenhouse

1. Based on your recent readings, what, according to Judy Chicago, is “central core imagery”?

For Judy Chicago centeral core imagery is the unique creativity that personally belongs to an artist. It is the ability to let go of the restrictions that society places on an artist and instead gives freedom. Judy created this concept after a long time of restricting herself. She dicusses how in Los Angeles she would of never been taken seriously if she let her true artistic traits show. Thus, she trained herself to create art that produced a certain and specific outcome. She spent a long time trying to display her central idea though a hidden language or code of some sort. When she started to let her true self produce artwork she was frightened. She had the notion so engraved in her head that female art was ugly and wrong that she couldn’t accept her natural creativity. She realized that many women stop here and don’t fight through this challenge. However, the issue at matter is not about any type of talent. The true success in art is being able to acknowledge one’s own creative voice and the great deal of power it comes with. For so long it had been engraved in women’s heads that female power is some type of destructive force. However, here Judy Chicago is giving new meaning to female power through this centeral core image. She is shedding light on how beautiful and important it is for female artist to let their real intent shine in their artwork. For her she achieved that level of confidence through the support of other women artist who shared similar experiences. To get more specific, Judy Chicago’s goal was to take back to women’s body. She wanted to exert female sexuality in positive and powerful way. Her intended method was to reverse the devaluation that has been created by the patriarchal society. This was the core thought, to present the power of the vagina and womanhood.

2. What is the critique of essentialism often applied to 1970s feminist artists? (Briefly summarize the problem of “essentialism”) 

The major critique of the feminist artist during the 1970’s was that the category of women art seemed to be very confining to the same subject matter. However, artists like Judy Chicago had a contrasting view and found these these traits to be liberating. She wanted to transform this negative conotation that critics gave in regards to the women anatomy into something positive. This is the problem with essentialism, all the negative connotation that fuels it can easily be reinvented into a positive rebuttal. For example, the word cunt is used by men to alienate women by making them feel like lesser human beings. However, feminist have taken in upon themselves to reclaim what was once a derogatory term into something that should be celebrated. The root argument in fighting essentialism is celebrating the female body and its biological powers. Another issue is it no where says the patriarchal male society is right. The terms and traits that they have put upon women aren’t some sort of magical truth. After all this, it should be surprising that in the 1970’s women started to fight back. With how illogical the reasoning behind essentialism it is only reasonable the women would get sick about hearing lies about their biological features. Hence, the only thing to do is rebel and take these terms and reinvent them into something motivating and liberating.

3. According to Norma Broude and Mary Garrard’s introductory chapter in The Power of Feminist Art (p.10-29), it is important to differentiate between biological essentialism, cultural essentialism, and political essentialism. Why? How can this help expand our appreciation of feminist artists? To illustrate the answer, choose one piece of well-known Seventies Feminist Art and apply three different readings: biologically-essentialist, culturally-essentialist, and politically-essentialist.

Feminists Norma Broude and Mary Garrard take a unique approach to discuss the misconceptions about essentialism. They note how crucial it is to separate the three different types of essentialism. When looking at feminist art of the 1970’s people often generalize essentialism into the most common category of biological essentialism. It is an easy target for some to say women are different or lesser due to the obvious notion of a different genetic makeup. Thus, since all women are biologically the same, essentialism claims that all their art will follow the same pattern and nothing unique can be produced. However, the point being made here is that it is in whoever’s best decision to rather consider cultural and political essentialism instead. This is because these two give a better grasp on what feminist art is about rather than the close-mindedness of biological essentialism fallacies.

Cultural essentialism has played a huge role in the history of feminism which sometimes is overlooked by that of biological essentialism. It is better known as the socially constructed meaning of femininity. It seems that cultural essentialism has not took a back seat in history as it is just as prevalent today a it was in the 1970’s. Society is constantly engraving it into women’s head that they have to fit this specially constructed role. It gets rid of any individuality among women as they all compete with one another to fit this specific mold. However, political essentialism claims to have the ability to solve the problems that cultural essentialism proposes. This is where value is added to popular icons used in feminist art work. In other words, this enables essentialism from causing the problem of the negative connotation of female art.

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An art piece of the 1970’s that exemplifies this is Miss Chicago and the California Girls. It is composed of the feminist art students of Fresno State.  Right from the first glance it is clear that this piece is making a great deal of social commentary. Looking first at biological essentialism it is seen that each artist photographed brings their own flare to the poster. They portrayed themselves in “costume images” giving individual titles to themselves such as Whore, Bride, and Victorian Lady. Each of these titles were hand picked to show the individual perspective each women artist has, not some confined limit set by genetics. Cultural essentialism is the most prominent aspect in this piece. The ensemble choice of combat boots, bikinis, and sleazy makeup makes that clear. The purpose of doing so is to invert the images of women that everyone grows up with. For ages, young girls have grown up with the idea of beauty pageants. Thus, this poster is displaying that in a parodical manner in which the stereotypical women is being vastly exaggerated. With this the political essentialism is shown by taking typical icons of femininity such as being fashion obsessed, adornment, body shaping, and seduction and turning them into empowering aspects of the art work. They have fun with these frivolous terms and turn them into a statement that they strongly believe in.

4. Drawing from “The Feminist Art Programs at Fresno and CalArts, 1970-1975” by Faith Wilding (PFA, 32-47) and “Womanhouse” by Arlene Raven (PFA , 48-65), discuss Womanhouse (what/when/where/who/why)? What methods were utilized to generate content for Womanhouse? Choose 3 works from Womanhouse, 3 different artists. For each, address: How is the work “feminist”? How offering a critique of ambient sexist culture? What is the specific subject of critique? How different from other representations of women? 

Womanhouse was not your ordinary art installation. During a single month in 1972, twenty one feminist art students from Cal Arts put on a collaborative art exhibition in a residential home in Hollywood. The basis for the project was to depict the every day housewife. These art students were directed by none other than Judy Chicago and Miriam Shapiro. The house was lent to the women by the city and was destroyed as planned after they were done. Even though the Womanhouse was physically destroyed the impact its made on shaping peoples perspectives and legacy has left in remarkable. The methods that were used to generate the content of Womanhouse include the notion that there was yet to be a standard set to fully explain the struggle of a women artist. Womanhouse became that space for female artists to let out their expression and try to explain the struggle in a form that masses could understand. With the work that these students put in and the success of the show they were soon considered professional artists themselves.

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The Linen Closet by Sandy Orgel is one of the only two pieces of art in Womanhouse that shows a human figure. The artwork contain a nude female mannequin that is positioned in seperate shelves in a closet. Specifically, one shelf cuts right across her throat to depict this metaphorical suffocation. The broken apart body is supposed to convey this image that the women is trapped in the linen closet. All the linens here are neatly folded and perfectly pressed. So, in a metaphorical sense it is seen here that the artist is trying to imply that all a woman has is her flawless linens. Rather, she is trapped in this world or cycle that has been deemed a women’s natural duty. She has been pressured to take on this specific identity that most women eventually end up feeling trapped in. This suffocation ultimately leaves most women feeling hopeless and subconsciously contributing to the never ending cycle. The artists intent here is to critique the position of a woman as a homemaker. Orgel separates herself from other artists by having one of the mannequin’s legs out of the closet encouraging women in this position to take a step forward and liberate themselves. Rather, “Come out of the Closet”.

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Another image in the Womanhouse was Menstruation Bathroom by Judy Chicago. Here Judy Chicago takes on the task of making art about the taboo subject of a women’s period. What should be a celebrated moment in a girl’s life as she enters womanhood has rather become this moment of shame that girls are taught to hide. It is engraved in girls heads that the menstrual cycle is something dirty and digesting which needs to privately be taken care of. The way Chicago visually fights this notion is by depicting this cleanly pure white bathroom. The counter space is filled with a large variety of feminine hygiene products. However, to ruin this serene moment is a trashcan overflowing with used feminine hygiene products. Both the overwhelming amount of hygiene products and overflowing trashcan portray this message that a women’s period isn’t anything she should feel the need to hide. Chicago is rather embracing it as something all women go through in which it is foolish to make someone feel shameful for.

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A third image shown in Womanhouse is Leah’s Room by Karen LeCoq and Nancy Youdelman. During the time in which Womanhouse was open, a young women would sit at  the vanity and apply makeup. Slowly you would see the transformation from what this women looks like biologically into this culturally created “character”. This action leads the mind to begin to sterotype the night life of Leah by who she is making herself into. However, at the same time it is supposed to be the embodiment of all housewives of the time. This same that women are meant to feel with the natural process of aging. There is this notion that women are to hide their aging with makeup to the best of their ability so they can always look youthful and appealing to the man’s eye. This has thus created competition between women to be the winner of male attention. The intention of the artists of this piece was to show how foolish it is for women to feel intimidated by this male standard of beauty. No one would want to be the women portrayed repeatedly apply make up all day long. When it is done so repeatedly like that, the desperation of the action begins to appear.

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