1970/2007: The Return of Feminist Art

Amelia Jones

Feminism has returned with a vengeance to the art world. Events just in the past two years range from the 2005 Venice Biennale, with its feminist theme; the large-scale exhibition of feminist art at the Migros Museum in Zurich in 2006; It’s Time for Action, and the ambitious Kiss Kiss Bang Bang: 45 Years of Art and Feminism, at the Museum of Fine Arts, Bilbao (2007); to the two large-scale exhibitions in the USA this past year –Wack! Art and the Feminist Revolution at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, and Global Feminisms at the Brooklyn Museum (an exhibition that opened in tandem with the new Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the museum). In addition, numerous spin-off or critically interventionist exhibitions organized at commercial and community galleries counter the narratives posed by these major venues,1 and countless articles in the popular and art presses have been published (including the March 2007 issue of Frieze, and the February 2007 issue of Art News, entitled “Feminist Art: The Next Wave”).2 Academic feminist art history and theory have also been actively revived. A number of major exhibitions and conferences rethinking the history and even concept of feminist art–such as, the important exhibition Gender Battler at the Contemporary Art Center in Santiago de Compostela, Spain, the Girl on Guy exhibition at A+D Gallery, Columbia College of Chicago, and, over 2007 and 2008, conferences in South Africa, Los Angeles, New York, and Stockholm (among other places around the world).3

All of this renewed interest in feminist art–both historical and contemporary–makes me nervous. While to a greater or lesser extent, academic institutions, university and community art galleries have sponsored and supported feminist work in and on the visual arts (from studio practice to feminist art history) since the rise of the feminist art movement, it is only now that the commercialarms of the art world are seemingly obsessively interested in historical and contemporary feminist art. Why, after a decade and a half of rhetoric about the “death” of feminism and “post-feminism”, has the international art world suddenly embraced feminist art with an enthusiasm that goes far beyond its tepid and spotty reception of it from the 1970s through the end of the twentieth century?

Global Feminisms: New Directions in Contemporary Art (book cover), 2007

Global Feminisms: New Directions in Contemporary Art (book cover), Edited by Maura Reilly and Linda Nochlin, (London, New York: Merrell Pub. Ltd., 2007).

New York-based artist Charles Labelle has, like many, responded to the exhibitions with cranky cynicism Of Global Feminisms, which includes only work from the past 15 years, he notes, “Feminism now seems to be all about lots of girls re-claiming the right to act hysterical, sell their bodies or play dead.”4 Labelle’s comment exemplifies one common attitude towards feminism in the art world since the early 1990s, with the spate of “bad girl” exhibitions that sprung up on the coasts of the U.S. around that time.5

As this view has it, the art world fervor around feminism is about marketing a kind of bad girl or, in the words of Ariel Levy, “raunch” feminism that is perfectly in line with the antics of MTV culture, soft core pornography, or reality television, where younger generations of women purvey themselves as overtly and highly sexualized ostensibly as a way of claiming cultural power.6 The art institution’s renewed interest in exhibiting feminist art, viewed along these lines, then, is aimed at nothing more than making money out of the bodies (and bodies-of-work) of women. Of course the question is whether these women are selling out feminist goals, selling themselves too cheaply, and/or conflating their bodies with art in such a way as to produce the body itself as an image that circulates without referent–an image that is essentially the same in value as the money that is exchanged for it. The market, then, is a key motivator behind the spate of exhibitions and magazine issues highlighting feminist art. There is no question, I would argue, that what little gap could be imagined between making art or writing about it and selling it in around 1970 has been collapsed.

Even shows posed as being more intellectually and politically driven, such as “Wack!” (one of a long string of exhibitions mounted by the Museum of Contemporary Art, each of which purports to deliver a comprehensive history of a movement, from Conceptualism to Performance Art), are motivated in part by market concerns. Shows such as “Wack!” are marketed as elaborate social events, positioning curators and the institution itself as authoritative in narrating a particular, and generally quite conservative and “safe,” institutional history of contemporary art. While this dynamic does not entirely negate the supposedly intellectual and political interests voiced by curators and writers who seek to reaffirm the radical politics developed in the feminist art movement in the 1970s, it must be stressed along these lines that all of us writing about and exhibiting art under the rubric of feminism are participating in a broad scale PR campaign that packages feminism as a commodity to be bought and sold (and, very soon no doubt, to be rendered obsolete once again).7


  1. Including the rather disturbing Womanizer exhibition at Deitch Projects, New York, in January 2007, the advertisement of which depicts a woman’s naked body being mutilated in a meat grinder; the exhibition Role Play: Feminist Art Revisited, 1960-1980, at Galerie Lelong in spring of 2007; and two exhibitions in Los Angeles intervening in the narrative of feminist art history posed by the Museum of Contemporary Art exhibition, the sharp-edged Aqui No Hay Virgenes: Queer Latina Visibility, organised by Jennifer Doyle and Raquel Gutierrez for the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center Gallery, and the Shared Women show highlighting queer feminist relations at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions, both in the spring of 2007; and, at New York University, Off-Center Femininities: Regards from Serbia and Montenegro, organized by Jovana Stokic in the spring of 2007.
  2. See also, Viv Groskop, “All Hail the Feminaissance,” with the subtitle “For years feminist artists have been sidelined, or even derided. But now, almost overnight, the art world can’t get enough of them,” The Guardian section G-2 (May 11, 2007), pp. 14-15.
  3. In addition to numerous events organized in relation to the noted shows, the Museum of Modern Art in New York hosted the symposium “The Feminist Future: Theory and Practice in the Visual Arts” in January of 2007; The University of Pretoria in Johannesburg hosted the conference “Taking a Hard Look: Feminism and Visual Culture” in June 2007; the Moderna Museet in Stockholm hosted the conference “Feminisms, Historiography and Curatorial Practices” in February of 2008.
  4. From an email to the author of April 14, 2007.
  5. There were two major “bad girls” exhibitions–one at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York and another at UCLA Wight Art Gallery in Los Angeles in 1994.
  6. Ariel Levy dubs the term raunch feminism in her book Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture (New York: Pocket Books, 2005).
  7. See my dialogue with the curator of WACK!, Connie Butler, “History Makers,” in Frieze (March 2007), pp. 132-37.