All quotes have been taken from the same writing, titled ‘who wants to be a feminist artist?’ by Helena Reckitt, published for Canadian magazine “C”. A link is provided at the bottom of this piece.
The term ‘feminism’ has been branded by society. Think ‘feminism’ think hairy women, angry women, naked women; women with a point to prove. Think it’s all the same. Think its history; dealt with; irrelevant.
I read an article titled ‘Who wants to be a feminist artist?’ by theorist and artist Helena Reckitt. Reckitt explores the issues of feminism within today’s culture through the eyes of female artists ranging in age. Reading the article caused me to question my own views on feminism, particularly in terms of myself as an artist.
Being a woman informs my life, because I am different to a man.
My life informs my work, so my work is influenced by the fact that I am female.
… being white informs my life
… being British informs my life
… being a
informs my life
… being a
informs my life
my life informs my work
So am I a feminist?
Reckitt’s questions address the way the understanding of feminism as a term has changed (or has been changed?) within (by?) society, and has perhaps caused some artists to shy away from using the term to describe their own work.
I am one of those artists.
Bai, an artist who took part in Reckitt’s survey, commented that: ‘You become a feminist when you stand up for yourself, and for other women. You become a feminist when you defend your daughter’s rights, her choices, and well-being. You become a feminist when you give a stranger in the bathroom your spare tampon’.
Feminism is largely about being united as women, and these things unite us as females. So, because I would happily help out another woman in an embarrassing bathroom-crisis by giving her my spare tampon, I am branded a feminist? Why do I say ‘branded’? Do I have a problem with this?
That’s the thing. Life is different to art. Art draws on life but the same things acquire different meanings; they have different consequences as such.
In life, I don’t think I have a problem with calling myself (or being called) a feminist. My gender means that part of me will always be a feminist because I will always be proving myself worthy against a man. In art, I am less confident in this. I think that feminism as a historical movement has informed my life, and my practice, as well as enabling my work, but the term is too limiting to describe my work as an artist.
I struggle, because I am constantly questioning what our place would be in the world as women, if feminism had never happened, and whether we would be the ones protesting, marching and suffering in order to ease the lives of women after us. These questions make me feel as though I should stand to attention without a second thought at the word feminism. These questions make me feel guilty for thinking that I would rather not be a feminist.
Lowther, another artist in Reckitt’s survey, states that:
‘… ambitious young women believe they can succeed on their own. Feminism may seem like a crutch they don’t want to use. Until you have come face to face with sexism and recognise it for what it is, it might be easy to think you don’t need to be a feminist’.
I am aware that these ‘ambitious young women’ believe they can make it on their own because of the way that has been paved for them by the women before them. It is for this reason that, to a degree, I do acknowledge myself as a feminist. Not because I ‘need’ to be, but because I am a woman and I identify, on some level or other, with the women in the years before me, with some understanding of what they went through. I am aware that what they went through means that I am where I am today. In this way, I think that every woman must be a feminist, surely? It must be a truth that at the core of every woman is the knowledge that this is (still) a man’s world and that it is likely that there will come a time when she must defend herself, her friend, her daughter, against female inequality?
My problem with feminism comes in art.
It is a fact that feminism is an important part of history. Although some people forget, there was once a time when simple things such as the right to vote, the right to education and the right to work were dismissed from women. For me though, ‘history’ is the key word here. Understand that I am well aware of the fact that internationally, women are the underdogs. There are inequalities within all aspects of life that need attention and readdressing, but what I mean here is that the term ‘feminism’ was born out of a time when women were fighting for basic equal rights. The word reflected urgency. The word led to/was born from/part of works such as Carolee Schneemann’s ‘interior scroll’ and Marina Abramovic’s ‘Rhythm 0’:
My point though is that the word is dated, and many women in Reckitt’s article seemed to agree. It is a word that means something different now to what it did then. It is a word that has been branded, and so if applied to work, has the potential to immediately shut off a large majority of people who simply aren’t interested in seeing any more hairy, angry, naked women. Of course, the work is probably more than this, but the stereotype has been carried on for such an amount of time now, that if you are a feminist artist you are dismissed. People assume that what you are doing has been done before, and therefore pay little (if any) attention to it. If you are a female artist dealing with only some themes of feminism in your work however, or maybe even are directly pushing for the rights of women within your work, you are likely to be paid more attention because you have not called yourself a feminist. It is the word feminism. It is limiting and cuts your work off from potential audiences almost immediately.
Another problem is that it is limiting in the sense that it can’t possibly blanket all opinions of every woman. That is illogical.
A female artist quoted in Reckitt’s article points out that ‘modern arguments raised under the guise of feminism mostly concern reproductive rights [which] causes problems… women might unite … under … equal opportunity [but] not all agree about issues of abortion… and maternity leave’. Of course, there are several types of feminism that exist, but it seems that stating ‘I am a feminist artist’ removes any chance to specify because your audience has already been lost. It is as though the statement requires a justification or defence before anyone will even consider taking you seriously.
I struggle to call myself a ‘feminist artist’ because of these reasons; because it has become such a limiting term and is so easily misunderstood. I also struggle because it’s not all that I’m about. I acknowledge the fact that I am dealing with some issues of femininity, and obviously, exploring the female body as a key theme in the work is tied to theories of feminism, but my work is about more than just that. Part of its being is that it has multiple referents. It is gender ambiguous in order to refuse one fixed identity, gaze or category. To name it ‘feminist’ would be to limit it to all other possibilities and potentials.
For me then, the term feminism needs rethinking, or reinventing. The rights of women are still important, but have perhaps become lost in the academic and historic theory of feminism and its connotations. The result is that (some) young female artists are somewhat reluctant to brand themselves as feminists, because of the struggle that it entails and the reputation that it has. I suppose I’m trying to say that I think a new term is needed for a new generation. Of course, it is likely to be impossible to create a movement or idea that all women will find helpful, simply because everyone is so different, but refocusing people’s attention to the rights of women without being drowned in stereotypes and misunderstandings would be a step in the right direction.
I know that feminism is important
I know that I can be these things that I am because of other women;
I am a feminist because I am a woman
I am not a feminist artist
I am an artist who is female