liberation – art world style

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 Just as it had for women coming out of the New Left, consciousness proved crucial to the discourse created by artists who organized within the women’s liberation movement.   In particular, because artistic genius was so strongly gendered male, feminist artists started with a false consciousness model to help women  overcome internalized oppression.  Artists, however, ultimately recast consciousness as sensibility arguing that feminist consciousness expressed artistically led to a female sensibility.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 2 For Judy Chicago in particular, it was clear that something about women’s self-perception kept them from becoming successful artists. “Crippled by female role conditioning” is how she described herself and by extension the socialization of women artists. As evidence of  overcoming this, she cited the “greater consciousness of my situation as a developing woman artist.”

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 In a 1969 speech at Pomona, Chicago,  who prior to women’s liberation had viewed herself as something of an “exceptional woman,” revealed that her career success came at the cost of a false consciousness, she terms it a “slave mentality.” Sexism “just never penetrated my consciousness”[1] until college … “but I still … these things started to happen to me … it still didn’t really affect me.  I still didn’t really understand.”

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 However, as she experienced not only discrimination, but a male-dominated art world that could not understanding her emerging feminist “consciousness” as expressed in her art, Chicago became determined to work with other women artists to help them develop a similar consciousness.  During the 1970-1 academic year, Chicago taught a  women-only art program.  In a special issue of the Los Angeles feminist newspaper Everywoman dedicated to documenting that program Chicago admitted that she picked students with the greatest “consciousness and awareness” because she believed that the quickest way to effect social change was for women with raised consciousness, the “strongest” she terms them “to get busy doing all the work as quickly as they can, to teach everybody who’s not as strong to be stronger however they can.”  As she joined other women “in fighting for my rights in the art world,” she saw herself as “acting out of a feminist consciousness before I knew what to call my point of view.”

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 Feminist artists were well aware of the arguments about the origins of women’s oppression going on in other parts of the women’s movement,   Chicago for example referenced it in a 1969 speech.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 Men controlled women because they were bigger, women reproduced as “their main function in life” and became cultivators to feed them  “but now what were carrying around is a whole carload of historical baggage that grows out of what was once a historical necessity that no longer is necessity” (9)

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 As feminist artists explored not only the “historical baggage” but legacies of female creators, the word sensibility repeatedly cropped up.  The notion of sensibility tied to the emancipation of women reached as far back as Mary Wollstonecraft.  As Mary Jacobus notes, Wollstonecraft attempted to “appropriate male “sense”-centered discourse patterns (read sense as reason) free of excessive (female) sensibility in the Rights of Women, [3] but Wollstonecraft reversed her approach in the Wrongs of Woman to craft a “self-consciously feminine” sensibility.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 In U.S. by late 18th century chief female virtues included “sensibility” according to Ruth Bloch tied to notion of women’s moral superiority, a  “superior sensibility of their souls” because they “felt” not only more, but more exquisitely and refined [4]   The difficult lay in rescuing sensibility from sentimentality, which bespoke Victorianism[4a].  This understanding of sensibility came with a strong essentialist strain, as arguments often linked women’s “sensibility” to her role as mother.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 This tension is evident as well in the writing of Virginia Woolf.  Woolf’s notion of sensibility proved the most influential for feminist artists who wanted to both challenge the oppression of women, while simultaneously rejecting much of what they saw as “masculinity.”   Miriam Williams has argued that Woolf understood  sensibility as political “closely tied to late eighteenth century  British political radicalism , marked by sympathies fro the French Revolution, emerging abolitionist and anti-imperialist sentiment, and not incidentally, the emergence of early feminism” (195)

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 Woolf offered 1970s feminist artists a way to understand how “human experience [is] most effectively and most truthfully represented through art, and to what ends.” [5] Woolf’s  “authority of personal experience” reflected the 18th century notion of “ ‘sensibility’ as a model for exploring and representing personal connection, social critique, and psychological interiority” (194).  The “radical power of sensibility” vied with the more problematic concept of “feminine sensibilities” used to dismiss women from politics (and art) by Woolf’s time, but by historicizing the concept, Williams argues, Woolf rescued feminine sensibility by linking women’s aesthetic expressions of personal emotion to a specific social context and critique.

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 This linkage of the personal, emotion and psychological interiority, to the political via social critique by women making art reflects how sensibility was used in the earliest day of feminist art movement, and how it became conflated with the idea of a feminine aesthetic.  It also reveals that the embodied aspect of sensibility did not necessarily rely on biological essentialism.

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 In 1972, Miriam Schapiro and Judy Chicago created a slide show of women’s art that they presented on both the West and East Coasts.  At the West Coast Conference of Women Artists, the first national gathering of women artists to come out of the women’s liberation movement, Betsy Damon reported in Women and Art that Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro “put forth their ideas about a feminine sensibility. After much research they have concluded that women repeatedly work with certain forms and attitudes, orifices, central images, a vantage point from inside out.”[6]

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 However, Alexis Krasilovsky’s report in the Feminist Art Journal doesn’t use the word “sensibility” but rather describes the aesthetic identified by Schapiro and Chicago:  “Miriam Shapiro and Judy Chicago gave a talk on ‘Central Core Imagery.’ They proposed the idea that abstract images can be powerful images for women’s feelings and anatomy. Even landscapes can be reconstructed in certain works in terms of femalenass. In addition, much of women’s art discloses a covering and uncovering motif.”

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 Tangled here in the reporting then are two ideas “feminine sensibility” and “female aesthetic,” and a conflation of “women’s feelings and anatomy”

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 C and S used a normative notion of women’s bodies as a starting  point for exploring their feelings. [something common in CR, which explored bodily processes as well]

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 In the first written version of their presentation, from  a March of 1972, although not published until later, Chicago and Schapiro asked

17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 What does it feel like to be a woman? To be formed around a central core and have a secret place that can be entered and which is also a passageway from which life emerges? What kind of imagery does this state of feeling engender? there is now evidence that many women artists have defined a central orifice whose formal  organization is often a metaphor for a woman’s body

18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 The operative word here that links to sensibility is “feel,” and Chicago and Schapiro’s use of affect to explore women’s experience was similar to that of consciousness raising, as they focused on  the “state of feeling.”  However, by describing what it is “to be a woman” as being “formed around a central core,” even if Chicago and Schapiro described the “central orifice” as “metaphor for a woman’s body,” resulted in many women interpreting their remarks as biological reductionism.

19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 0  

20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 0 No where in this piece do Chicago and Schapiro use the word sensibility. However, in other writings they do.   In Through the Flower, Chicago writes of a “female sensibility” that is emotive not formal. “in her[ Cassatt] work, I saw the same sensibility that pervaded women’s self-portraits,  a perception of women not as sexual creatures, but as real people” (155) allowing us to tease out what she means by sensibility.  Clearly it is not related to the aesthetic identity as “central core, ” which is not evident in Cassatt’s figurative work.

21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 0 Similarly,  Schapiro emphasizes the linkage to feeling in sensibility.

22 Leave a comment on paragraph 22 0  people forget that the origin of the word sentiment also gives rise to sentience and sensibility. And those are all words about feeling. So if you take the sentimentality away from women, you’re taking their feeling away, and you can’t do that to them, to us. You can’t take our feelings away.

23 Leave a comment on paragraph 23 0 This emphasis on feeling and experience, consistent as it was with the precepts of women’s liberation, did not divide women artists.   Even Cindy Nemser, who conducted extensive research into biases against women’s art in criticism, and became one of the most vocal and hostile opponents to the idea of a female aesthetic, was willing to concede to the existence of a “feminist sensibility” although she used the phrase explicitly to differentiate it from Chicago and Schapiro’s ideas.

24 Leave a comment on paragraph 24 0 However because Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro used the phrase “feminine sensibility” when they presented what they also at times described as a “female aesthetic,”  a sensibility “war” emerged in which the two terms and their different ideas, were often used interchangeably, as though they were synonymous.

25 Leave a comment on paragraph 25 0 “the question of how women artists define the art we are now doing was the aspect of feminine sensibility that provoked the most heated discussion, at times assuming the proportions of a national war between California and New York.” (FAJ Vol 1 no 2, 9)

26 Leave a comment on paragraph 26 0 Even among the members of Redstocking Artists dissent existed.  In the first issue of Feminist Art Journal (April 1972) Janet Sawyer and Pat Mainardi represented opposite viewpoints on the question of “A feminine sensibility?”  Sawyer answered as if sensibility represented personal experience “actual images from a female’s unconscious” elaborated as a sort of Jungian collective “women’s unconscious” , counterpoised again conscious expression of women’s experiences under patriarchy, which Sawyer believes could be painted by men via “second hand knowledge.” Mainardi argued as if sensibility was aesthetics, condemning “the right wing of the women artists’ movement” for their efforts to “codify” a particular imagery.  Instead Mainardi juxtaposed this “opportunist” feminine sensibility against “feminist art”  which she defined as “political propaganda art” that “owe[s] its first allegiance to the political movement  whose ideology it shares.”

27 Leave a comment on paragraph 27 0 The schism represented by Sawyer and Mainardi’s divergent view points must have contributed to the dissolution of collective producing Women and Art with the anti-women’s sensibility contingent moving to the Feminist Art Journal.  However, in their last issue, summer/fall 1972, Women and Art published an open forum “What is feminist art? Is there a feminine sensibility?” which reflected both the conflation of the two questions and revealed a lack of consensus.

28 Leave a comment on paragraph 28 0 Marjorie Kramer offered a statement most associated with the anti-women’s sensibility position “As for the question of feminine sensibility or women’s sensibility (which is a completely different matter from Feminist Art), I don’t think there is any such thing.” Kramer completely rejects the notion of a different “subconscious” as outlined by fellow Redstocking Artist Janet Sawyer.

29 Leave a comment on paragraph 29 0 However, some contributions equated sensibility with the experiential, emotional, affective manifestation of women’s oppressed status.   Chris Martin argued for sensibility as related to a form of consciousness “up to this point, feminine sensibility has been for the most part slave sensibility. But we are no longer slaves … It is within our power to transcend the negative stigma attached attached to the term ‘feminine’ or the interpretation of the symbols.

30 Leave a comment on paragraph 30 0 Joyce Kozloff also reflected the notion of feminine sensibility as related to emotions and to the political task of reclaiming that which has been denigrated as “feminine” “there are qualities of mood, touch and feeling in the work of many women artists which are very special and not often seen in `male art.’  I realize that this is an unpopular attitude because these very qualities have always been used `against’ us – it was bad to be delicate or sensitive or lyrical.”

31 Leave a comment on paragraph 31 0 In the fall of 1972 in the Feminist Art Journal, Mainardi reviewed the current status of the sensibility war in which she appears more moderate[7]  she summarized general agreement on eight points including the relationship of sensibility to the tentative exploration of “female culture.”  Mainardi quotes from Faith Ringgold’s contribution to the Women and Art open forum

32 Leave a comment on paragraph 32 0 Faith Ringgold: To say that art does not have a gender is to say that art doesn’t  have a culture.  Essentially this is the same argument as the one over whether there is such a thing as black art. One can argue whether there is a black art or not, but certainly one must admit that there was such a thing as African art.  And cultures have always had art that was unique to, or a direct product of that particular culture at that particular time in its history.  …  Women might entirely assimilate into the male culture or they will begin to recognize their own culture, change it, modify it, free it; and out of that new unrepressed female culture must necessarily come a new unrepressed female art.” (22)

33 Leave a comment on paragraph 33 0 Meanwhile in Los Angeles, the group most associated sensibility and culture  began its own periodical. Womanspace Journal, like Women and Art, existed for only three issues.  First appearing in  February/March 1973 Womanspace heralded the arrival of an independent art center where women would exhibit their art, support one another, and produced feminist art history and art criticism.

34 Leave a comment on paragraph 34 0 Womanspace, and its successor, the Woman’s Building, have been strongly associated with Chicago and Schapiro’s idea of central core imagery, however close readings of Womanspace reveal little adherence to it.  Instead the authors argued for a socially constructed understanding of women’s art that relied on both an artist’s self-consciousness and her historical consciousness of women’s oppressed position .[8]  In “A Space of our Own , Its meaning and implications” art historian Ruth Iskin invoked Woolf to advocate for women artists own space and economic independence, as well as a new vision of art.  Iskin argued that Womanspace would allow women artists  … to present themselves on their own terms to the world at large … stimulating further  development of feminist consciousness (10).  She explained that Womanspace as “outside” the art world provided a sort of relief to “throw that world into critical perspective without actually devoting  its energy to  a direct battle  with that world” (11).  In this formulation, women making art is a feminist act in and of itself as it reflects their perspectives of feminist consciousness

35 Leave a comment on paragraph 35 0 Raven, in a long piece about consciousness in women’s art argues

36 Leave a comment on paragraph 36 0 “The very word feminine, in fact, which refers to the characteristics of a biological female, is a fluid term which is effected by the historical moment to which it is applied. “Feminine” characteristics change according to the political, economic and social needs of a world which demands a woman to display them.”

37 Leave a comment on paragraph 37 0 While defending feminine as a construct that varies over time, Raven explicitly rejects the notion of a female aesthetic as fixed or singular, a viewpoint imputed by critics.

38 Leave a comment on paragraph 38 0 “Form language can also evolve in this fluid way. … we cannot conclude that the female image is the circle, because women’s tendency toward circular construction can take any number of visual forms. … Not only can a woman’s form language evolve, but forms themselves also have a historical life.”

39 Leave a comment on paragraph 39 0 Aesthetic too are historicized, and thus mutable.  If a common form emerges among women artists, it is related to their social situation because “women are outside of the mainstream of cultural activity.”

40 Leave a comment on paragraph 40 0 The differences in women’s art are never biological for Raven.  Even in discussing works by Chicago and Shapiro, Raven emphasizes construction and historicization.  In discussing Schapiro’s OX, Raven invokes Sojourner Truth’s famous Ain’t I a woman speech to argue  ‘OX” is an animal “NOT used for its reproductive capacity but for her labor: its reproductive biological structure is not its functional  destiny.”  By incorporating her femaleness with her artistic identity, Schapiro claims a “ human identity – intrinsically fused with her female identity.”

41 Leave a comment on paragraph 41 0 Similarly, when discussing Chicago’s Pasadena Lifesavers Raven pointedly rejects biological essentialism.  Raven interprets the content as  “the dissolution of forms as the  a total sense experience, focused neither on the eye,the body, or the mind [traditionally spectral, visceral, intellectual responses to art].  Dissolution of form is a metaphor for the dissolution of the self  that a woman feels at the  moment of her orgasm”

42 Leave a comment on paragraph 42 0 this dissolved self is a recuperation, “allow]ing us to be whole” of the divided self Raven sees as the result of women’s oppression.   Women is denied a “human identity” which functions as a universal cover for male identity, and instead develops a “female identity.”

43 Leave a comment on paragraph 43 0 In the first issue of Womanspace Journal, (1973) Raven had explored the meaning of women’s “consciousness” arguing that women must first develop an internal consciousness, a self-awareness.

44 Leave a comment on paragraph 44 0 “Women have been known as Nature herself, not … those who overcome Nature and thus evolve humanly”

45 Leave a comment on paragraph 45 0 Raven’s formulation is a familiar one, made famous by Sherry Ortner in her essay “Is Female to Male as Nature is to Culture.  Culture in this sense consists of dominating nature by human (male) intellect. According to Raven “human” as used in contemporary language is really “a term which refers to ‘man’ ” who erroneously imputes to the word a “universality” without realizing its inherent bias.

46 Leave a comment on paragraph 46 0 “Even the term human today does not speak to the most profound level through which a woman can understand and express herself, because it is a term which refers to “man” and places her within that category as a “female person” rather than as a full being … for a woman who lays a claim upon her humanity, therefore, the concept woman is a larger one than human in a language which reflect the bias of our present cultural/historical situation.” (16-17).”

47 Leave a comment on paragraph 47 0 Because woman will be defined as nature  embodied as a “female person,” (whereas man will misidentify himself as the totalizing human) Raven saw women as going beyond man.  Woman “stretches to expand her human qualities” laying claim to nature, animal, as well as human (not defined at that which triumphs over nature and evolves beyond nature) but a “human identity – intrinsically fused with her female identity and including conceptual sophistication, artistry, intellect, and history – in and on her own terms”

48 Leave a comment on paragraph 48 0 From the self-awareness women may develop another sort of consciousness, which does address oppression.  Raven terms this “historical consciousness” derived from “the real historical conditions under which a woman artists is operating.”  This “historical consciousness” is not “separate from self-consciousness.”  The two are related because how “we think of ourselves … has everything to with how our world sees us and how we can see ourselves successfully acknowledged by that world.”  If women are socialized to understand artists as male, then they will not be able to perceive of themselves as artists unless they can reach a level of consciousness that allows them to place their experience in a greater context.

49 Leave a comment on paragraph 49 0 “the quality of consciousness that the artist brings us, the authenticity of her statement, and thus its usefulness to us, for if art is about consciousness grounded in reality, good art is about high consciousness, a real world view about the real world”

50 Leave a comment on paragraph 50 0 So the historical understanding is not of so much of the mechanisms of oppression as they have existed in the past (reproduction, the family, capitalism, industrialization in prior  discussions) but of women’s status as it relates “her situation [and] her condition” to “change her relationship to it and changing her world.”  Liberation comes from the “raised” (self) consciousness about the self as a woman, which involves conquering internalized oppressions from gender socialization. That doesn’t mean that the focus shifts away from power and politics, but rather that the mechanisms for engaging are different.

51 Leave a comment on paragraph 51 0 For Raven, woman is positioned to express, through her art, this “consciousness,”  “a woman’s full awareness of herself” beyond the limitations created by patriarchy or the restrictions of an internalized sexism.  This “self-understanding” allows a woman to make art, itself a feminist act because “a prevailing but unacknowledged premise of the art of our time … is that the artist, and the serious spectator of art, are male.”

52 Leave a comment on paragraph 52 0 Writing again of Schapiro, Raven sees a “ human identity – intrinsically fused with her female identity.”  she privileges a larger social reading of Chicago’s work in which Pasadena lifesavers is positioned as a means of buoying women’s resolve in fighting for liberation “it is, above all, an image for hope, survival and growth, because it is about feeling on its highest level, incorporating in that metaphor all of human aspiration.”  She notes. “for me.” as if an acknowledgement that her interpretation differs from that of her close friend Chicago “the most important quality of these works is that they set a demand in us for feeling on all levels, and thus they allow us to be whole”

53 Leave a comment on paragraph 53 0 This description brings us, full circle,  back to Woolf’s politicized notion of sensibility, as a way of relating personal connections, psychological interiority, and social critique.  According to Raven, the viewer connects to Chicago’s perspective through her art, which in turn is a reflection her female identity, allowing the art work to pose a “feminist” critique.  This perspective is historically specific and contingent, as Raven notes.  These works “provide a strong  viewpoint upon the  artist’s relationship to her  place and time.”

54 Leave a comment on paragraph 54 0 Consequences of the sensibility war

55 Leave a comment on paragraph 55 0 Because sensibility became so embroiled in debate, it dropped rather quickly from the rhetoric of the feminist art movement.  Instead, reflecting the larger discourse of women’s liberation, “artistic consciousness” [fn press release of womanspace January 1973] became central to explorations of culture.   Despite the differences between the arguments for a female aesthetic and those surrounding the feminine sensibility, the conflation of the two issues resulted in the taint of biological essentialism sticking to the feminist art institutions that Chicago and Schapiro helped to found in Los Angeles, particularly, the Woman’s Building, as those activists moved into their investigations of women’s culture.

56 Leave a comment on paragraph 56 0  

57 Leave a comment on paragraph 57 0 [1] and careful combing through the archive supports this claim.  Even the strongest advocates of sensibility do not seem to have used the phrase prior to 1971.  Chicago’s speeches of 1969 and 1971 reveal no usage, nor does the publication of Everywoman about the FFAP.

58 Leave a comment on paragraph 58 0 [2] Cindy Nemser published several articles in this first issue with the group “Women in the Arts” associated with her name.  the first issue has no information about staff.  The second lists Kramer, Peslikis, Maggie Block, and Lucia Vernerilli as members.  Peslikis’ archives



59 Leave a comment on paragraph 59 0 Ruth H. Bloch

60 Leave a comment on paragraph 60 0 [4a] the most recent denigration of sentimentality and women’s similarities has come from Lauren Berlant who views the notion of “women’s culture” as problematically political. The Female Complaint The Unfinished Business of Sentimentality in American Culture which focuses again on mass culture rather than activist women’s culture

61 Leave a comment on paragraph 61 0 [5] Through the flower reveals influence of Woolf on Chicago and early feminist art pedagogy 163

62 Leave a comment on paragraph 62 0 [6] Betsy Damon’s report from the conference  in Women and Art Summer/Fall 1972

63 Leave a comment on paragraph 63 0 [7] DID Mainardi, Patricia. 1982. “Quilts: The great American art.” In Feminism and art history. See Broude and Garrard 1982. Mainardi describes quilts as universal female art forms and part of women’s cultural heritage that have played a role in female creativity, community, cooperation, and communication. Although the mainstream art world still excludes them from the designation of Art, quilts address issues of originality and tradition, individuality and collectivity, content and values in art, and the feminine sensibility

64 Leave a comment on paragraph 64 0 [8] IN addition to the pieces I discuss, references to C and S ideas about female aesthetics appears Despite chicago’s almost universal association with the idea of a feminine sensibility the journal reveals virtually no usage of the term or the notion of central core imagery.  Instead it reveals an intensive exploration of consciousness, emotion and politics.  Although Schapiro alluded to “uncovering hidden material” in women’s art in the first issue of Womanspace, and  Melinda Turball’s review in the second issue of Womanspace made reference to “a central core … a recurrent theme, … discussed by Ms. Chicago and Schapiro as a symbolic representation of female sexuality,” but her remark “the works by these two leaders of the Feminist Movement in the arts are cases in point of their own theories” can hardly be considered an endorsement of the position.

65 Leave a comment on paragraph 65 0 [9] In fact the most sustained investigation of sensibility at Womanspace occurred during “lesbian week” Feb. 20-29 LESBIAN WEEK: A WEEK DEVOTED TO AN EXAMINATION OF LESBIAN SENSIBILITIES IN ART, revealing the non-biological understanding of sensibilty

66 Leave a comment on paragraph 66 0 [1] 1969 speech at Pomona


Source: https://politicsofwomensculture.michellemoravec.com/about-2/book-pre-fall-2016/consciousness/consciousness-art-world-style/