Comps Reading 2: Power of Feminist Art

Withers, Josephine. "Feminist performance art: Performing, discovering, transforming ourselves." The Power of Feminist Art: The American Movement of the 1970s, History and Impact (1994): 158-173.

“Feminist Art is neither a style nor a movement but a value system, a revolutionary strategy, a way of life”   -Lucy Lippard, 1980

My second comps reading book was a chapter from The Power of Feminist Art, the impressive art/text book, with a beautiful Frida Kahlo painting on its cover. While I was only assigned the chapter on performance art, I also read the introduction. What follows is a brief overview of this vast historical text book, along with a list of artists mentioned within its pages, as they apply to my overall research on the female body in 20th theatre and performance art. 


“Through feminism, women were among the first to arrive at the realization that the self may only exist in the social framing, and so the cliché of the individual vs. the society, which has been a malemyth all along, was brought into question by feminist women , who now saw the categories as not only interdependent but also problematic” (22).

Without introducing its readers to a problematic ‘origin’ story, the introduction to The Power of Feminist Art provides a few unique starting point to consider feminism in art throughout history. A history of feminist art mirrors a history of feminism itself. As such, the editors begin by locating the emergence of the personal as political in feminist politics. The introduction also points toward the Arts and Crafts movement in England, as well artwork done during the suffragette movement as possible sites of emergence. And while there are many female artist doing work unconnected with the feminist movement (Lee Bontecou, to name one), they suggest it is in the 1970s that women’s art is connected, for the first time, to the agendas of social politics and art. In other words, it is then we begin to see the ‘feminist’ in feminist art emerge in a conscious and explicit way. The introduction provides a survey of different female artist working from the 1970s to approximately the 1990s, locating a certain trends in their work, as well as addressing ongoing concerns. Trends include: 

  • use of alter egos (22)
  • a focus on the body through dieting and fasting (Faith Ringgold, Adrian Piper and Eleanor Antin). This analyzes the societal expectations that literally shape the body and exploring interesting themes of body as sculpture, and female control of the body
  • inversion of gender roles
  • goddess images and rituals
  • public art— blending the personal with the public/political. 
  • sensory/tactile/pink artwork (24)
  • vagina imagery (24)

A common concern addressed in the intro, and one that continues today, is that of essentialism in feminist art. This is especially a concern when analyzing artist who focus on the female body. ‘Essentialist art’ arose in the 1980s, and was foregrounded by artist such as Judy Chicago (Cunt Art) and Miriam Schapiro. The fear (as expressed by Patricia Mainardi) is that this approach restricts (or reduces) women to their female anatomy. The authors attempt to reclaim this reading of essentialist art, contextualizing it within the repression of female sexuality in the 1950s and 1960s. They quote Adrienne Rich, who eloquently argues: “[p]atriarchial thought has limited female body to its own narrow specifications. The feminist vision has recoiled from the female biology for these reasons: it will, I believe, come to view our physicality as a resource, rather than a destiny” (24). While Chicago’s work certainly responds (for better or worse) to the freudian line that biology is destiny, the authors seems more inclined to read redemptively these presumed essentialist works. They see the body as a tool that can be used by artists, in the endlessly complex toolbox that is the social world. Indeed, they go even further: “the 1970s feminist articulation of a body-based female aesthetic gained political credibility and power when coupled with a self conscious definition and revival of a female tradition in art” (28). As such, through a historicization of identity within a female art tradition, essentialism can be political. 

FEMINSIT PERFORMANCE ART: Performing, Discovering, Transforming Ourselves

“Perfromance is a paradigm of feminism itself,” Josephine Withers explains at the beginning of this chapter. “[D]espite the claims of it’s detractors [it] has never been a monolithic movement nor a single philosophical system” (158). What Withers intends to foreground here is the multiplicity, varieability, and indeed the interdisciplinary with which feminist performance artists approach their craft. There is no ‘one’ reason feminist performance arts come to be. And while there are many themes which link their work, what truly distinguished feminist performance artist, according to Withers, is a “desire to communicate an alternative vision of themselves, and the world they live in” (160). What follows in this chapter is a survey of feminist performance artist, and their major works. For the sake of the limited space in this post, (a mere surey in itself), I will list them below. 

Some key questions that speak across some of these works: What is the difference between ritual and performance? What is the boundary between life and art? Personal and political?

  • Carollee Schneeman, Interior Scroll (161, 163)
  • Yvonne Rainer (160, 161)
  • Pauline Oliveros, sound experiments (160)
  • Adrian Piper, Catalyst (turning body into an art object) (161)
  • Laurie Anderson, Duets on Ice (161)
  • Donna Hesse, Spider Woman (163)
    • “knots and webs a mediations and energy connection 
    • “Revenge Taker”
    • The coming out of Spider Women
  • Betsy Damon, 7,000 year old woman (164)
  • Linda Montano, Art in Everyday Life (164)
    • Chicken Women 
    • Mitchell’s Death
  • Faith Ringgold (164)
    • White Face
    • “The Wake and Resurrection of the Bicentennial Negro” 
  • Martha Rosler,  Vital Statistics (165)
  • Elanor Antin,  Invented Biographies (167)
  • Martha Wilson & Jackie Apple, Claudia (167)
  • Faith WIlding, Waiting (188)
  • Ablutions