Earlier this year, I ran into an old friend at an art opening. He asked about my studies and my area of focus. Unsure of what to say, I vaguely muttered the inadequate response: “something about feminism.” “Feminism!” he almost yawned. “It’s like a brand with you guys!” presumably referring to aspiring art historians and academics who came of age after feminist art—in both its “essentialist” body-oriented and theory-heavy postmodernist varieties—had been absorbed into art history.
My friend’s remark wasn’t some kind of reactionary abomination in the supposedly liberal, unimpeachably politically correct art world, which too often treats feminism as a fait accompli or as a supplementary micropolitics. While challenging, it was preferable to the common attitudes of patronizing tolerance and tokenistic inclusion, which tend to absorb and immobilize feminist critique. As an undergrad student, I never had to justify my interest in feminist art. The troubling notion of a branded feminism prompted me to consider my own relationship to feminism, art history, and my lived politics, which could be fairly appraised as a freewheeling type of third wave pluralism, an impenitent mix of hairy-legs and high heels, Laura Mulvey and Lana del Ray.
As early as 1990, feminist critic and art historian Amelia Jones expressed anxiety over the co-optation of feminism by the mainstream art world, either under the umbrella of “universal” humanism—which sought to evacuate art of identity politics and recuperate feminist artists like Cindy Sherman as ahistorical troubadours of the human condition—or critical postmodernism, which sought to fold feminism into an amorphous and politically impotent “critique of representation.” For Jones, this co-option of feminist art was symptomatic of a complacent post-feminist attitude, one that assumed feminism had achieved its goal of correcting sexism and was therefore no longer necessary.
Seventeen years later, the stakes of Jones’s critique were raised in proportion to the growing profile of feminist-based art in museums and in the market. With its many historical surveys, academic conferences, and special magazine editions devoted to the topic, 2007 was dubbed “the year of feminism” in the art world. The Elizabeth A. Sackler Center opened on the fourth floor of the Brooklyn Museum, permanently enshrining Judy Chicago’s once-polarizing feminist monument, “The Dinner Party” (1979). Suspicious that this new, suddenly “sexy” feminism was being repackaged to appeal to the hetero-male consumer, Jones argued that “the return of feminism in its market-driven forms in the 21st century” be treated “with suspicion and even critical hostility.” The return of feminism, she wrote, was less a movement than a “broad scale PR campaign that packages feminism as a commodity.”
So where do we stand seven years after this institutionalization of feminist discourse? Was feminism, as Jones predicted, “bought and sold,” only to be “rendered obsolete” once again? Institutional gestures such as the Tate’s decision to mount one-woman shows of Sonia Delaunay, Agnes Martin, Barbara Hepworth, and Marlene Dumas next year suggests that the cult of artistic genius, while still intact, has as at least expanded to include an elite cadre of (mostly dead) blue chip female artists. “A Subtlety”—Kara Walker’s deliberately unsubtle, behemoth public sculpture of a hyper-sexed, steatopygous sphinx rendered in sugar—rivaled the Whitney’s bellicose Jeff Koons retrospective as a bonafide media event. While it is tempting to celebrate these developments as evidence of women’s increased visibility in the art world, this discourse of underrepresentation and inclusion is misleading. Women are tremendously visible in the art world—as commodified bodies, underpaid “gallerinas,” debt-saddled MFA and PhD students, jet-setting oligarchess-patrons, and as curators—a predominately female profession whose conventional role remains the custodianship of the oeuvres and reputations of (predominately male) artists. This very visibility obfuscates the material inequality women still face as artists and professionals in the art world, where they comprise the bulk of administrative, supportive labor.
Last year, an audit undertaken by the UK-based women’s rights organization, the Fawcett Society, found that approximately 70 percent of artists represented by London’s commercial galleries were male. Unscientific surveys of New York and Los Angeles galleries have reached similar conclusions, a telling indicator of dealers’ priorities and collectors’ biases. Meanwhile, New York’s big museums continue the old business of monographic kingmaking: from odes to erstwhile art world bad boys—Chris Burden at the New Museum; Christopher Wool at the Guggenheim—to hagiographies of Modernist masters (Robert Motherwell at the Guggenheim, Gauguin at MoMA); to the obsequious canonization of Jeff Koons at the Whitney; to the Met’s chillingly uncritical Balthus retrospective, which resorted to rhetorical gymnastics to mystify the artist’s obsession with adolescent bodies. “Wearing nothing but white knee socks and red slippers,” read one particularly icky fragment of wall-text, “19-year-old Frederique Tison radiates wholesome sensuality. Squaring of the canvas is visible throughout …” Regardless of the arguments for and against his work, the fracas surrounding Joe Scanlan’s “Donelle Woolford” subterfuge in this year’s Whitney Biennial proves that one of the best ways for a black woman to get to the Whitney Biennial is to be a white man.
These seemingly internecine art world problems are mirrored in culture at large, where branded feminism appears in the guise of once-radical gestures: from Lynda Benglis’s phallic woman, to the indiscriminate schlong-wagging of Miley Cyrus; from the mantra “the personal is political,” to countless “lady blogs” microscopping the daily minutiae of celebrities through a “feminist lens”; from the fight for equal pay to the “Lean-In” ideology espoused by Facebook executive and self-styled activist Sheryl Sandberg, which rethinks “revolution” as a greasy ladder that can be scaled through technocratic efficiency and a 24/7 work ethic. In the still-unequal art world, in which artists bear the responsibility of imagining a better future, it is insufficient for feminism to be absorbed as artistic “content.” As writer Suhail Malik has noted, “the theoretical-political demands of contemporary art’s critical understanding serve to offset and exculpate the generally abysmal gender inequality in position, wealth, and what might be called exhibition-power in contemporary art.” For those of us who came of age after feminism became history, it’s all the more necessary that we renew its sense of urgency, not a periodized style or a marketable trend, but as a vital and necessary critique of a still entrenched patriarchy.
CHLOE WYMA is a writer and associate art editor at the Brooklyn Rail. A Ph.D. student in art history at the CUNY Graduate Center, her recent essays appeared in the Rail, Dissent, and the New Inquiry.