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The powerful influence of feminism on art today


IN A SEMINAL 1971 essay, historian Linda Nochlin observed that art "occurs in a social situation, is an integral element of social structure, and is mediated and determined by specific and definable social institutions," such as art schools, museums and the marketplace.

Nochlin's essay was titled "Why There Are No Great Women Artists," and it sought not only to amend the history of art with what had been left out, but also to question how such omissions had been made in the first place.

In doing so, Nochlin found it necessary to re-examine the established "canon" of art masterpieces and the ideological assumptions underlying it. Her work laid the foundation for a new, feminist art criticism that has revolutionized the very definition of the terms "art" and "artist," "exhibition" and "viewer."

Others have elaborated and embellished on that thinking, most recently Lisa Corrin, curator of the Contemporary, during a lecture describing feminism's transformation of contemporary art. Corrin hypothesizes that feminist theory is largely responsible for the rise of a new, postmodern aesthetic focusing not so much on what as on how art means what it means.

Women artists in particular, Corrin believes, have shed new light on how images become cultural artifacts that are "coded" by the ideological space of the museum, the publications that document and explain them, and the methodological paradigms that determined how they have been interpreted in the past.

Corrin described her talk as an attempt to prepare for an ambitious exhibition the Contemporary plans to mount in 1998 exploring the 50-year influence of European and American feminism on contemporary art.

Reaction and critique

As examples, Corrin cited two contemporary women artists, Ann Fessler and Claudia Matzko, both of whose work can be described as a reaction against and critique of the formalist aesthetic that dominated art criticism during the 1960s, '70s and early '80s.

The 1970s-vintage style known as minimalism, which epitomized the formalist aesthetic in the work of such male artists as Donald Judd and Carl Andre, presented the art object as neutral, outside the artist's biography, psychology, social orbit and historical moment, Corrin says.

Minimalist artists, guided by the theories of such influential critics as Clement Greenberg, worked on the assumption that line, shape and form constitute an aesthetic vocabulary that is self-contained within the world of art, and that art refers to nothing except itself. The artistic eye of the formalist is completely disconnected from the world except as a purely perceptual organ.

By contrast, Corrin says, women artists like Fessler and Matzko showed that the eye is an infinitely more complicated organ, which is always connected to the social, historical and psychological construction of the individual it is attached to.

"For the postmodern artist, what is in the frame is never about merely what is seen with the retina of the eye," Corrin says. "It is always connected to the world around it.

"If, for the formalist, the work of art is limited to what's in the frame, for the postmodern artist we begin to open up discussion to include how images make us construct the realities that affect how we construct ourselves," she says.

Both Fessler and Matzko are interested in language, Corrin says. But while Fessler is interested in how language constructs our identity -- especially social identity and relationships with others -- Matzko's interest is in how language constructs our emotions, particularly the emotion of pain.

Didactic installation

Fessler, for example, is best known for her 1984 installation created for the Washington Project of the Arts on the subject of rape and violence against women. For that exhibit, she appropriated images from French painter Nicolas Poussin's famous 17th-century painting, "The Rape of the Sabine Women," to show how art history itself has become a silent conspirator in the subjugation of women and the equation of female gender with passive victimhood.

Matzko, by contrast, was influenced by author Elaine Scarry, whose book "The Body In Pain," described pain as an emotion that is "prelinguistic," as feeling that "cannot be described without objectifying it," Corrin says.

'Visual metaphor'

"Claudia uses visual metaphor to represent this feeling that resists language," Corrin says. "She tries to create visual experiences in which language fails in order to be more truthful to experience. Where Fessler's work is didactic, Matzko's interest is in metaphor and the poetics of the unutterable, the poetics of silence."

As such, Matzko's works -- many of which are designed to be hung on walls -- pack a powerful emotional punch. Yet they are virtually indescribable in words. At the same time they are very self-conscious in dealing with emotions that are stereotypically associated with the "feminine," Corrin says. "She often uses materials, like dressmaker pins, that are associated with women's crafts to signify that she is appropriating the forms of minimalism while at the same time critiquing minimalism as a male-dominated style.

"The manifestoes of minimalism really did not accommodate the range of subject matter that women artists like Fessler and Matzko wished to use to express themselves," Corrin says. "Both these artists started out in opposition to minimalism and its erasure of content outside the formal language of art-making. Instead, their work attempted to reinsert content into the production of art."

What it's all about

For Corrin, the argument of postmodernism is "always about the history of representation, a dialogue between the object and the history of the objects that preceded it. So a work by an abstract expressionist like Jackson Pollock is not merely 'about' the arbitrary splattering of paint, but also about how Pollack was positioned by critics as the embodiment of the American artist hero and how he was packaged as the penultimate embodiment of American culture."

The feminist critique of modern art, which laid the foundations of postmodernism, has challenged all the assumptions upon which such judgments were made, Corrin believes.

"This is already widely acknowledged within the international art community," she says. "The exhibition we are planning at the Contemporry is just an opportunity to look at this transformation historically.

"Now that we've put women into the history books, we've asked some good questions about why they were left out in the first place, which has led to the recognition -- belatedly -- of all the others that have been left out -- minorities, people of color, etc."

Ironically, today feminist theory has been accepted as a respectable interpretive method by the very mainstream it once criticized. "So the question is, where will it get its transformative power in the future?" Corrin asks. "As the new feminist critique increasingly becomes appropriated by so many different people with so many different agendas, this is the question for the next millennium."

Pub Date: 12/15/96

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