There is another crucial pressure that has been as far as I know completely overlooked in discussions about why feminism is of sudden interest to the international art world–the destruction of the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon in the United States on September 11, 2001. 9/11–the violent and apocalyptic destruction of the USA’s phallic monuments to its economic and political dominance in the world–is the hole that rips the past from the future, not only in the American imaginary but in the lives, belief systems and social structures of all the other cultures affected by American aggression since that date, cultures stretching from those of Afghanistan and Iraq to those within and across the borders of the USA seen as “suspicious” by the increasingly powerful right wing–such as intellectuals, queers, and people with brown skin who might appear to be “Arab” terrorists. In light of these explosions of violence, which have shattered everything from bodies, to cities, to belief systems (including conceptions of what matters in terms of identity politics), scholars, artists, intellectuals, and other creative people wishing to stop the terror and oppression have found ourselves at a loss.

The recuperation of feminism in art discourse and institutions is, I am arguing, in part about a desire to return to, and take wisdom from, the most successful political movement within the visual arts in the past 50 years. This need to define an effective mode of political intervention in the face of global networks of power that seem inexorable and impossible to break down is, I am suggesting, what drives the sudden motivation to look back to a loosely defined movement that we at least fantasize as offering the most effective institutional and visual strategies in countering these nefarious structures of power–a movement that, in retrospect, seems to have stemmed from a kind of conviction we can now only dream about retrieving. This drive to recuperate past activisms as a means of finding a way to be political in the present is poignant and acute. As Los Angeles-based artist Susan Silton noted to me, “Whatever is fomenting among younger feminist artists is happening simultaneously with, and perhaps in response to, the global mess that has September 11 as some kind of marker.”8

Nikki S. Lee, The Hip Hop Project (15), 2001.

Nikki S. Lee, The Hip Hop Project (15), 2001. Digital Fujiflex c-print; 21-1/4 x 28-1/4 inches, Edition of 5; 30 x 40 inches, Edition of 3. Copyright Nikki S. Lee. Courtesy Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York.

Bringing a critical perspective to the resurgence of interest in feminism is not, however, the same as downplaying its importance. To the contrary. In a recent issue of Artnews on feminist art, Jori Finkel cites Nikki S. Lee, a younger US-based American artist, as stating about feminism:

I’ve never had to think about the problem. I don’t like the idea of bringing up the issue. The more I bring up the issue, the more I feel like I’m the one separating men from women. In Korea I didn’t even hear about the feminist movement, so I grew up without the concept…I grew up in a family where I was treated fairly. In New York, too, I have never been treated unfairly.9

Footnotes

  1. From an email to the author, March 11, 2007.
  2. Jori Finkel, “Saying the F Word,” Artnews, “Feminist Art: The Next Wave” issue (February 2007), p. 118. The other crucial case of erasure Finkel notes is that of Tamy Ben-Tor, a young woman artist who made a public statement on a panel on feminist art in New York City in 2006, “I don’t think about feminism at all….It’s fine if it serves the weak, but I don’t feel affiliated with it,” p. 118. Mira Schor, the feminist artist and writer, made a crucial intervention into this debate by taking issue with Ben-Tor in her article “She Demon Spawn from Hell,” M/E/A/N/I/N/G Online (January 13, 2006),http://writing.upenn.edu/pepc/meaning/03/Schor-MIra_2005.html; to be reprinted in her forthcoming book Pre-Existing Nonconforming: Contestations between Past and Present in Contemporary Feminism, Painting and Politics. This book promises to be a major intervention into current debates about the status of feminism as Schor has been a key figure since the early 1970s both in feminist art practice and theory.
Further Reading