Art of Feminism: Images that Shaped the Fight for Equality, 1857-2017
“Art of Feminism isn’t a book for art students, and it’s not a book for engaged feminists. It undermines the work of many of the women featured, and it disengages “feminism” from real politics.”
Feminism is on an upswing of cultural interest in the United States. #MeToo has become shorthand for swelling fury at gender violence, and women are marching in the millions. However, like the Pussy Hat protests, Art of Feminism sells easy images of feminism without careful discussion of the politics and forces behind the banner. It’s feminism for mass consumption, simplified politics for the long-neutral. This version of feminism provides an attractive commodity for suddenly outraged cisgender white women who are finally disturbed out of complacency.
Many of those women will buy Art of Feminism and display it on their coffee tables. Some may even read it.
If they read the opening chapters, they’ll encounter a reasonable survey of (mostly white) women’s entry into art academies in the 19th century, and the related rise of feminist artwork linked to the Suffragist movement. These images represent feminism’s earliest form (the First Wave), and its most recognizable.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the authors chose to include J. Howard Miller’s iconic “We Can Do It!” poster from WWII in this chapter. It doesn’t fit chronologically, and it isn’t work by a female artist, but its iconography is popular and accessible, and it demands of the reader only cheerful enthusiasm.
Following the first wave, though, the authors needed to make decisions about how to represent the “art of feminism.” There were several useful approaches open to them. They could feature work by a few iconic artists. They could address specific intersectional feminist struggles. They could explore primarily popular culture, or they could maintain a focus on art centered in gallery and performance spaces.
Any of those approaches would have been legitimate. They chose none of them. Instead, they tried to encompass all of women’s art and all of feminism in a single book. It’s an approach that fails to do justice to either, and instead provides a simplistic summary of ideas and images without real coherence.
Nothing about Art of Feminism displays this failure more thoroughly than the chapter “A New Woman Emerges.” Exploring women’s art between the end of WWI and the 1960s, it gives multiple pages of attention to magazine illustrators and fashion magazines, but only a single image and caption to Frida Kahlo. The captions misgender Claude Cahun. Of all the Dadaists, only Hannah Höch merits an image and quick summary. Neither feminism nor art comes out ahead.
Art and politics are intertwined, but they are uneasy bedfellows, too. Art of Feminism provides a solid overview of aesthetics and developing patterns of performance art, but it doesn’t always acknowledge the ruptures between feminist politics and institutional art. Neither does it acknowledge the sometimes-uneasy relationship between the art community and celebrity feminist icons.
The inclusion of pop-culture feminism through celebrities has the potential to be interesting, but the gestures are tokenistic. “Bringing the Message to the Masses: Beyoncé” offers a page-long discussion of Beyoncé’s pop-cultural centering of black women and feminine power. Following that page of text and its facing image of Beyoncé’s 2016 Super Bowl performance of “Formation,” though, black women in popular music drop out of the discussion without giving time to subtler projects by Rihanna or Janelle Monáe, whose feminism is more complex.
This lack of real regard for black women records in the treatment of Jonathan Bachman’s photo of Ieshia Evans being arrested at a Black Lives Matter rally. This is a powerful image of black womanhood and political defiance. However, the photo was taken by a white male photographer, and Evans isn’t staging interventionist art. She’s protesting, and she’s being subject to violence for protesting. Treating the photo as simple art erases the presence of the photographer, the commodification of trauma, and the woman herself.
Art of Feminism isn’t a book for art students, and it’s not a book for engaged feminists. It undermines the work of many of the women featured, and it disengages “feminism” from real politics. The art and ideas here stay safely inside an attractive cover, appealingly pink, instead of spilling out into the world.