Art, Feminism, and Cultural Renaissance–A MAHB Dialogue with Katy Deepwell, Feminist Art Critic and Art Historian

Geoffrey Holland | November 30, 2023 | Leave a Comment

“I see feminist art as a series of conjunctive, slightly disconnected, often disjointed attempts to do many different kinds of things. Yes, there has been change. Yes, there has been movement. But I don’t see it as an evolution as in a model of progress always moving forward. Because there’s definitely been backlash at different times in the last sixty years; there’s definitely been hostility.” – Professor Katy Deepwell


Geoffrey Holland – What has your work as an art critic and historian revealed to you about the character of feminist ideals, and how would you summarize those ideals?

Katy Deepwell–Okay, first, to describe feminism in terms of ideals, or even possibly feminism as an idealism is rather odd to me. So, I see feminism as a political movement by, for, and on behalf of women which has many visions of possible futures for societies around the world. Feminism is an umbrella term. There are really multiple feminisms and there are different political persuasions within this umbrella term of feminism. Famously, these have been characterized as liberal, socialist, radical, and separatist. Many descriptors try and clarify the differences between feminisms. Most people think of feminism in terms of equality in the West, but feminism has campaigned for and led to many changes in women’s legal status: the right to vote, women’s rights as citizens and consumers, their standing in relationship to family, marriage, work, governance, and the law, but much more remains to be done. So, what does an art critic have to do with this? I see my own work as an art critic as part of the feminist movement coming out of the concerns of second-wave feminism, which started in the 1970s as a political movement. I write about the relationship between feminist issues and politics and the production of contemporary art. I tend to focus on art that has been produced by women. For example, I write about the politics of women’s cultural production in relationship to the myths about what it means to be an artist because what it means to be an artist has been framed in terms of great men. So, it’s not about finding great women to match the great men. That’s not the aim of feminism. The other dimension to it is even though I chose to write about mainly women, as hell hooks suggests, Feminism is for Everyone. And the vision of a transformation of many societies away from a patriarchal, hierarchical, oppressive, exploitative configuration towards what are some of the key aspirations of the United Nations Charter for human rights of freedom from insecurity, war, famine, and poverty, are shared by men and women globally.

The UN’s conferences on women provided the opportunity for many women’s art exhibitions to be organized by official government museums. In response to those officially sanctioned art shows, there were many resistances and protests to these efforts by women’s art groups. Some of this is mapped in the 2018 book that I edited with my Polish colleague Agata Jakobowska. It focused on All-Women Art Spaces in Europe in the 1970s. The United Nations’ attitude to culture is more about access to culture, and respect for cultural traditions, rather than about cultural production, as we know it in the art world. The gap between the aspiration expressed in the UN’s Charter for Human Rights and the reality today is considerable, as anyone reading any of the UN reports on women will quickly discover.

An art project that I’m quite fond of, which took place on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the UN Charter for Human Rights, was done by an artist called Monica Ross. She initiated 50 readings of the whole UN Charter for Human Rights in public spaces as art performances involving many different people reading it aloud as a commemoration of the work. It’s a commemoration of the UN Charter, and also an aspiration and a commitment for many populations in the world which remains unfulfilled. I’ve written about the gap between this UN conception of human rights as a global vision, where women’s rights are human rights as the slogan goes, and the second liberal conception of feminism, where the focus is on equality and representation. The liberal version of equality in terms of numbers is the dominant conception of mainstream feminism in the US, North America, and Europe.

The idea that equality for women has been reached in the global north and is somehow a problem only for the global south is ridiculous, as any analysis of women’s position in the labor market demonstrates. However, since the 1970s, women have set out demands for equal pay for equal work and campaigned for better quality and provision of childcare and children’s education. They’ve tried to end violence against women by public campaigns. They’ve argued for an end to discrimination and harassment in the workplace. They’ve argued for a re-evaluation of care and reproductive labor. They’re central to campaigns about modern slavery, and particularly, the environment. So, the focus of my work has been on discussing and bringing together the very different conceptions of what feminism is or might be in relationship to contemporary art. I see myself as a kind of facilitator of dialogues, whether it’s as the founder and editor for 20 years of n.paradoxa: international feminist art journal or in my other books and articles.

GH–Your principal focus is on contemporary art, and particularly feminist art. How did you come to choose that path?

KD–Well, I went to art school, and before I went to art school, I read several very important feminist books. Among them were Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex from 1949, Rosie Parker and Griselda Pollock’s, Old Mistresses: Women, Art, and Ideology, which was published in 1981, and Lucy Lippards, From the Center: Feminist Essays on Women’s Art, which was published in 1975. These were all very inspirational to me and led me to organize my first women’s art conference after my first year in art school, where I had some women teachers, but the majority of the staff were men. And although I had some excellent women teachers, the teaching focused only on men as artists worthy of study. This is still a very common curriculum problem for women in art schools. Very little feminism or feminist theory was and is taught. I felt that it was important that the women students, and women artists, who I knew in London had a national opportunity to debate these issues. So, I joined a network that already existed called Women’s Art Change. I organized one of their conferences at St. Martin’s in London, where I was a student. Although I was a student studying painting, I realized I was more interested in how art is part of a larger conversation about life meanings, ideas, and belief systems, as much as it is about what art is, or can be.

My orientation towards contemporary art was because of my own training as an artist. But I realized I was more interested in writing about these questions than making art. And part of that was because so few people were art critics compared to the volume of artists in the art world. And then I went on to work for a women’s art organization (founded in 1981). I became a trustee of that organization, which is called Women’s Art Library, which built up an archive about the history of women artists and contemporary women artists in London. I was a trustee for four years with that organization, and the second major conference I organized was for them. It focused on feminist art criticism, and ultimately, it became a book that I edited, and published in 1995. For about 20 years, it was a key textbook about debates on feminism in the UK for students in art schools. It was also translated into Spanish a decade later, and it had a big influence in Spain.

GH–When did feminist art first become an identifiable style, and what was happening culturally to make it viable?

KD–The first thing I must say is that feminist art is not a style. That’s quite a hard thing for people to understand because everybody is used to talking about modern art movements as if they were a style. So, we talk about Futurism, Cubism, and Abstract Expressionism as styles. But feminist art is not a style. It’s a phenomenon. It’s a phenomenon because women artists came together in the 1970s, in great numbers, to discuss their own experiences as both women and artists. Part of the history of the United Nations Women’s Conference was that it had a global reach that was inspirational to many women in many countries.

For example, in 1975 a Mexican feminist art movement emerged, because of the first conference in Mexico in 1975 for the World Conference of the International Women’s Year. It also inspired people in Austria, Australia, in Germany; many different groups were founded as a result of those conferences. Not just that, it was really about women artists coming together in response to what was happening in the women’s liberation movement. They were starting to think about women’s rights, women’s identity, women’s subjectivity. And they were realizing, just like me, in the mid-1980s, we were all in the same position. Art education continued to be dominated by men, many women lacked role models, and they knew few women artists, dealers, curators, or critics in the art world.

Today, that situation has largely changed. It changed because of the women’s art movement in the early 1970s. In both the USA and Europe, art formed in relationship to the Women’s Liberation Movement led to a large number of exhibitions, galleries, women’s arts organizations, protest groups, films, festivals, women’s museums, magazines, publishing houses, and many, many books, and articles. So, it’s not a movement with a single founder, an initiator, or a pioneer, because there are many people who have been involved. I became interested in mapping some of these group initiatives in the mid-1990s. I decided to use the internet because it was the most progressive tool. I believed in the internet as a place for alternative knowledge to be disseminated. And I founded this thing, which has now become the Feminist Art Observatory because I wanted everyone to know about and to have access to this kind of information. So, it’s not the case that there are a few rare women, there are hundreds of women working in this field. And it’s not a case that there are only a few feminists whom everybody must take account of. There’s a long history of different collective and collaborative endeavors by many women across the world over the last 60 years.

GH – How has feminist art evolved in the most recent decades?

KD–So, again, we’ve got the movement metaphor, and this is accompanied by the assumption that there must be an evolution in the movement. But I see feminist art as a series of conjunctive, slightly disconnected, often disjointed attempts to do many different kinds of things. Yes, there has been change. Yes, there has been movement. But I don’t see it as an evolution as in a model of progress always moving forward. Because there’s definitely been backlash; there’s definitely been hostility. There’s definitely been a lack of interest in feminism at different times over the last 60 years in different cultures and different countries. I think it’s more important to think of it as just as politics have changed in the last 60 years, so have the forms of art that feminism has engaged with changed in the last 60 years.

Feminism is present in every form of art: paintings and sculpture, installation, printmaking, photography, performance, art, public art projects, new media art, video art, video installation, and huge multimedia installations. These are all works that are read, understood, or interpreted as feminist, and not all of them are by women. Whether the intent of feminism is detected in the approach to the subject chosen by the artist, the way that media is used, public statements made by the artist, or how the work is received, means that what is so-called “feminist” about artwork is something that has to be discussed and debated. It’s not just there in the intention of the artist, and neither is it a given or a property of art itself, as in a type of work. What we can say about feminism as a phenomenon in relationship to art is that it has introduced many new subjects that were rarely addressed before the 1970s, often under the idea that the personal is political, which is another important feminist slogan. The personal is political means that even though an individual’s personal experience, self-knowledge, or awareness may be singular and unique to them, feminist politics starts when this is recognized as a shared experience for women because the issue is part of a larger political question requiring action or change. So, some examples of these subjects might be women’s experiences of childbirth and motherhood, and women’s experiences of sexuality, including menstruation and pregnancy. The overburden–double burden–of caring responsibilities that women have in this world, as expressed from a woman’s point of view. There are also campaigns against, or works that talk about, follow, or say something about the abuse of women, in domestic violence, in violence on the streets, or in the sex industry. It’s also in works that might criticize the use of women’s bodies in advertising and consumer product placement, in activism against discrimination against women in the workplace, and in works that might focus on relations between generations of women as grandmothers, mothers, and daughters. So, these are some of the feminist subjects which before the 1970s were not major subjects in art.

GH–How have feminist artists contributed to achieving equal rights and a greater voice for women in shaping human cultural trends?

KD–I didn’t know really how to answer this. I don’t think equal rights have been a major goal behind the production of feminist art. Yes, there have been feminist art pieces, which are definitely a protest against the lack of equality in the art world. There’s a very interesting group of women in Sweden, who are in the 50 Feminist Art Manifestos book that I edited, called the ‘Yes Association’. They drew up a contract for equality in how exhibitions and museums should be organized. Interestingly, their protests started because a major museum decided to organize a feminist show. So, this was an art protest in relation to the organization of a feminist show. However, there is a long history of feminist protests on a small scale in relation to the art world. Here are some examples: Lucy Lippard, Faith Ringgold, and Michele Wallace were amongst a larger group of artists, who in the early 1970s were complaining against exhibitions held at the Whitney Museum, which included few or no women. So, they set up a campaign to have 50/50 male-female artists and black/indigenous artists showcased in Whitney Museum exhibitions, and they protested with placards outside the museum. Another example: In 1968, W.I.T.C.H., a group of women who dressed up as witches, for a protest and a performance placed a hex on Wall Street. This was in the days before the protests against G8 Summits. This was also in the days before ‘Occupy’. There was a group of women, WHEREISANAMENDIETA? who decided to protest the death of Ana Mendieta at her former husband Carl Andre’s exhibitions, because they believed that he was involved in her death and that this was a case of violence against women. This campaign has been running since her death in 1988, the most recent protests were in 2016-2017.

You could think of the artist Nan Golding’s campaigns against the Sackler Foundation’s profits from the drug oxytocin being invested in art museums, as a kind of soft power for the Sackler Foundation, which has led to many museums withdrawing them from sponsorship acknowledgments. So, these are all art world events and protests.

The interesting thing is that often when people are asked what the impact of art is, it’s usually the impact of art in political terms. It’s usually about the censorship of art, and its removal from exhibitions. So, art often says very controversial things. Governments, and organizations, and religious communities often don’t want these artworks to be shown or seen. There are also some very famous case studies where women artists’ work has been taken down from exhibition; it has been censored because of religious groups or politicians objecting to it. Monica Sjoo’s painting God Giving Birth, made in 1968 but exhibited in the early 1970s, was a painting that the police in Britain were told was blasphemous and asked to remove from the exhibition. Tanya Ostojic in the 1990s, when the European Union was expanding due to Glasnost, made a billboard poster of herself in the position of Courbet’s Origin of the World but with her body draped in the EU flag. This was a hugely controversial image at the time, a work that was censored. So, there are lots of ways in which feminist art has been the subject of outrage, when in fact, it hasn’t been outrageous. Judy Chicago’s, The Dinner Party, for example. It’s an artwork, where a US Republican senator claimed in Congress that the work was pornographic because the dinner party plates use core imagery, vaginal imagery. So, it’s okay for women to be sex objects in the pornography industry, but it’s not okay to have a plate with an abstraction of a vaginal image on it in an art gallery.

GH–Over the coming decades, do you see feminist art elevating not just an equal voice for women, but also a worthy partnership with men?

KD–This is another difficult question. If women have a voice, does this really undermine men? Is power really so limited that only a few great men can speak? If women get to the top, does that mean men are weaker? If women join the top 100 influencers for art, politics, for business, does this reduce the power of men, or does it simply redistribute the power within those systems of evaluation?

Art has very limited power to change the world. It can inform how we think about the world. It can change how we see the world’s problems. And it can remind us of other ways of thinking, being, and acting. This is how art can work. This is what art can do. There’s a larger problem with this idea of power, which is that we have a system, at the moment, which is hierarchical, capitalist, and globalized. We have all supported and been complicit in building and entrenching this system, in which there is an unequal distribution of power. Our competition to succeed in this fuels inequality. We in the West/North outsource the labor in production to developing countries, we maintain extractive systems developed in the colonial era, the gender segregation of labor markets where women are still underpaid, undervalued, disregarded, silenced, ignored, to a much greater extent than men in most societies around the world, as there are also plenty of men, who have those discriminations placed against them. Some women in the world have no independent income. They’re denied access to the labor market. They cannot travel without the permission or company of men. They have no opportunities for education and are wholly under men’s control. Their autonomy is limited.

Yes, some women are already partners of men or with men. Marriage still exists as an institution, and women work in many professions, trades, and jobs with men. Women’s fight to stop being second-class citizens in the world was about claiming their autonomy, in decision-making and how the world is organized. If they still see themselves as a “support” for men or “supporting” the current arrangements in how the world is organized, then changes to the political/economic/social system will not happen. The art world is no different as a workplace where discrimination happens and the question of whether these social/administrative/financial relations are fair and equitable is not resolved. On the world stage, life is still, more often than not, male-dominated. Wars are still masculine affairs, where women’s and children’s victimhood is constantly projected as the measure of suffering caused by male actions. Would there be fewer wars with women on the political stage in greater numbers? Or women as fighters in the armies of the world? Would there be less wars? I don’t know. I don’t think it’s a question of numbers. And I don’t think only limited numbers of people – the elites – can control the world. I want a more democratic, more collaborative, more distributed situation in the world. That’s quite a different vision from the hierarchies of power we have now.

GH–Can you name a feminist artist who has inspired change as a transformative cultural force in this early part of the 21st century?

KD–Well, I think I’ve made it pretty clear, there isn’t one. But hundreds, even thousands of women artists. I don’t see it as a case of a handful, or one or two pioneers. I could give you many, many examples of interesting women artists whose work provokes, challenges, and forces us to rethink our perspectives on life. I’ll give a project that has been very transformative, but it’s actually not from the early part of the 21st century. It’s actually from the 70s. In 1972, Judy Chicago and Miriam Shapiro were working on a CalArts teaching program and with their students created The Womanhouse Project. They took over a derelict building in Los Angeles. They turned it into a living installation of artworks in the house, using the fabric of the house – the structure of its rooms – to make many works that reflected the situation of women at home, and women’s identity.

The Womanhouse Project has been very transformative as a cultural force, both in education and as a role model, and also as a way of inspiring collaborative projects amongst women. The individual artists in the project went on to do many different things, and The Woman’s House Project itself became an inspiration for several other women’s house projects around the world. One of them was held in Glasgow in the late 1990s/early 2000s. In that case, a group of women decided to set up a community social hub in a housing estate in Glasgow. They began by doing a very similar project focused on the cultural association between women, housework, home, and domestic labor. All of that work was critical of the norm that this is the natural sphere for women or women’s roles.

GH–What other feminist artists in this modern era stand out as culturally influential?

KD–We don’t tend to use the word ‘modern era’ to talk about contemporary art. We use the term ‘global contemporary’. It used to be the case, under the modern era, that exhibitions of modernist works would largely have mainly European, perhaps one or two Latin American countries, and definitely America and Canada in that show. There were probably about 20 to 30 countries in the largest modernist exhibitions. If you had a large international exhibition today, the whole situation has expanded massively.

Now, we’re talking 70 to 90 countries in a major international exhibition, like Global Feminisms (Brooklyn Museum, 2007) or Empowerment (Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg, 2022-2023) or in international art biennials, like Venice. So, the scale of the global contemporary has completely shifted how we think about who are the influential artists today and from which part of the world they come. Another example: there is an international project in Paris organized by the woman curator, Camille Morineau, called Aware, it is an online archive of women artists. This website has over 1000 profiles of women artists today, all of whom she regards as culturally influential. Or you could look at Women’s Eco-Artists Dialog (WEAD), which is centered in the USA, where there are over 600 women artists in their directory.

GH–How has art reflected the cultural acceptance of gender identities beyond either or?

KD–The idea that there are binary distinctions between men and women or nature and culture has structured the whole of scientific and Eurocentric thought; the fact that this exists has been the object of much critique in feminist theory. This gender order is a system of discussion and knowledge production that wasn’t invented by feminists. The aim of feminism is to analyze, subvert, or challenge this gender order. And that also means challenging Eurocentrism and Colonialism. It means challenging the binaries, which structure thought, including the master/slave, self/other, male/female, nature/culture, and organic/man-made dialectic. It means reinventing how we think about the world.

Simone de Beauvoir said ‘One is not born but becomes a woman’; it’s not a biological problem. Helene Cixous argued there are four sexes, the third and fourth are gay and lesbian, and the lesbian is not a woman. That’s another controversial kind of feminist idea. Donna Haraway is critical of the Anthropocene and proposed the Chthulucene to rethink the relationships between humans and the range of species as well as organic matter in the material world and deal with the changes wrought by environmental disaster and her work has been hugely influential in both science and the humanities. A lot of feminist philosophers have argued over the relationships between biological sex and gender in the last 60 years, because sex has been seen as a given biological difference, and gender has been presented as a cultural difference.

Feminists do not regard biology or gender as fixed in a pre-ordained order where what is male has superiority over what is female or nature is trumped by culture. It’s also not the case in feminist thought that biology is considered fixed and only gender is mutable. The feminist conception of the body and its representations in art is all about fluidity, change, mutability, psychosocial experience, how we perceive the internal as opposed to the external, and how women are objectified, as opposed to what they subjectively feel or experience. So, art is not only about making a projection of an identity in and through a styling of oneself. If it was that, it would be extremely poor art. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of that about. Think, for example, about the selfie or culture of public sharing that goes on, where everybody shares images and the food you eat; meetings with friends, outfits you’re wearing, the rooms you live in, the cars you drive, where you’re at–this is a huge styling of “self” in front of a camera to project an image of self to others. These kinds of expressions are ubiquitous trends in contemporary life, and they’re part of a long history in photography, about the camera’s gaze on self and Others.

What makes art different from popular cultural expression in this Instagram era? Art intervenes in the culture. It changes the scale and the perspective; it deconstructs the making of the image and re-constructs it differently. Art questions the norms and values in these photographs. It doesn’t reproduce them. It’s not about images of perfection or beauty. It’s actually about challenging the way we think about and the way we look at the world around us.

GH–Looking at the cultural trends, endlessly evolving, what are your thoughts about where feminist art is headed?

KD–I’m not a prophet or a seer. I’m not gazing into the future all the time. Nor am I a journalist projecting the next trend or trying to speculate on the next trend. I’ve seen the substantial transformation of the cultural sphere and its attitudes toward the production of women artists during my lifetime. We have gone from a situation where women were mostly marginalized, to being a normal part of the art world. This is not a trend or a fashion, it’s a revolution, a new situation in culture that should not be lost. Women’s contribution to culture over the last 150 years has been considerable. An expanded awareness of this has transformed and enriched our understanding of what humanity is capable of. Will this transformation continue? We need more research projects. We need more people writing about art. We need more space and recognition given to artists of all and any sex/gender/race/ethnic identities and abilities who are contributing to a future that is life-affirming and sustainable.

Katy Deepwell is a Professor of Contemporary Art, Theory, and Criticism at Middlesex University, London. She is the founder and editor of KT Press. Her recent edited books–covers below– include Feminist Art Activisms and Artivisms (Valiz, 2020), De-/Anti-/Post-colonial Feminisms in Contemporary Art and Textile Crafts (KT press, 2023), and 50 Feminist Art Manifestos (KT press, 2022). She recently edited a 2023 special issue, Around/Beyond Feminist Aesthetics for Arts (MDPI).

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