Feminist Art in Action

by Helen Klebesadel

Feminist activist art is hard to define but seems easy to recognize. Feminist art often pushes traditional definitions of ‘art’ and ‘activism,’ particularly those art activist projects which focus on collaborative approaches to bring attention to critical issues in the lives of women. The art world often views such efforts as more politic than art, and in activist circles the use of art practices to further activist goals can be overlooked as an effective approach. Successful activist art projects often share particular characteristics that contribute to their effectiveness.

  • Activist art works are most often ‘real world oriented’ and are likely to contain a critique of the larger world or the art world and its conventions, criteria or values. They face out into the world rather than being strictly private, aesthetic, and aimed at transcending the real world. This extends to the use of materials and subject matter that have historically been excluded by the dominant conventions of the art world. The subject matter addresses the concerns of real women and men’s lives and the materials used will refer to the same.
  • The work is usually process oriented rather than object oriented, and it is aimed at affecting the lives of the people that participate in the project, not just communicating with separate audiences through aesthetics. It cannot be bought or sold.
  • This art usually takes place in public sites rather than within the context of art-world venues. It is seen in the larger world rather than only in a gallery or museum.
  • This artwork is most often collaborative in its execution rather than made by one introspective genius. There are no artistic credentials or pedigrees to participate in the piece, although individuals who identify as artists may coordinate the projects.
  • Feminist activist art methods frequently draw on expertise from outside the art world to engage the participation of the audience or community and distribute a message to the public. It often includes non-art world audiences that include men and women from all walks of life, not just a few educated connoisseurs. This art places high values on the lives and practices of all people, including women, children, and men, respecting differences in race, class, sexuality, nationality, and gender.
  • As a practice, the art project often takes the form of performance or performance-based activities, media events, exhibitions, and installations. It can be documented in video, audio or photos and in other ways. Sometimes the documentation becomes an art object.
  • The use of public media is a key strategy of much feminist activist art. Much of it employs such mainstream media techniques as the use of billboards, wheat-pasted posters, subway and bus advertising, and newspaper inserts to deliver messages that subvert the usual intentions of these commercial forms.

A few examples of feminist activist art projects:

The Clothesline Project started on Cape Cod, Massachusetts in 1990 to address the issue of violence against women. It is a vehicle for women affected by violence to express their emotions by decorating a shirt. They then hang the shirt on a clothesline to be viewed by others as testimony to the problem of violence against women. During the presentation, survivors and/or their supporters are often invited to decorate a shirt for the Clothesline.

CODEPINK: Women for Peace was initiated in the late Fall and Winter of 2002-2003 as a container for creative expression in opposition to the Bush Administration’s plans for a pre-emptive strike against Iraq. It was conceived as a women-led, consensus-oriented group, intending to model a feminist alternative to patriarchal group communication and structure. The actions that resulted from this planning and implementation model have combined spectacle, street theater and music. CODEPINK has been successful in capturing the attention of the media, politicians and the public.

Guerrilla Girls: Since 1985 the Guerrilla Girls have been reinventing the “F- word” - feminism. They are a group of anonymous females who take the names of dead women artists as pseudonyms and appear in public wearing gorilla masks. In 18 years they have produced over 100 posters, stickers, books, printed projects, and actions that expose sexism and racism in politics, the art world, film and the culture at large. They use humor to convey information, provoke discussion, and show that feminists can be funny. They wear gorilla masks to focus on the issues rather than their personalities. They dub themselves the conscience of culture. They could be anyone and they are everywhere.

Silent Witness: In 1990, an ad hoc group of women artists and writers, upset about the growing number of women in Minnesota being murdered by their partners or acquaintances, joined together with several other women’s organizations to create a visual representation. They created 27 freestanding, life-sized red wooden figures, each one bearing the name of a woman whose life ended violently at the hands of a husband, ex-husband, partner, or acquaintance. Inspired by the impact of the exhibit on many lives, the project supporters formed a national initiative dedicated to the elimination of domestic murder. As of September of 1997 all 50 states had joined the initiative. The goal of the Silent Witness National Initiative became 0 by 2010, zero domestic murders by the year 2010.

A Window Between Worlds shelter art program is a non-profit organization dedicated to using art to help end domestic violence. For 12 years, AWBW has provided art expression as a healing tool for battered women and their children. The group contends that art sessions can help to change the lives of woman and children. Since 1991, over 6,100 women and 5,900 children have benefited by processing their feelings through the creative arts.

WAC (Women’s Action Coalition) was originally formed in 1991 by women artists in New York, and subsequently expanded to major cities throughout the country. Known for its media-grabbing visuals, such as the WAC drum corps and the “pink slip” action during the 1992 election campaign, the movement has been dormant until recently. In 2003, in response to the US military actions, WAC was reactivated. Its latest actions include handing out copies of US tax forms on April 15 at the main post office in NYC, filled out with the amount of money that goes to the military vs. the amount that goes for domestic programs that are needed by poor women and their children.

The Women in Black art project is an international peace network that uses the performance of silent vigils for peace to protest the violence of war. They are silent because mere words cannot express the tragedy that wars and hatred bring. Women in Black vigils were started in Israel in 1988 by women protesting against Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Women in Black has a presence in the United States, England, Italy, Spain, Azerbaijan and Yugoslavia.

Helen R. Klebesadel is Director of the UW System Women’s Studies Consortium and Associate Chair of the Women’s Studies Program, UW-Madison, and an artist who exhibits her work nationally and internationally. Her work can be seen online at www.varoregistry.com.

This article first appeared in the September 2003 issue of the Wisconsin Women’s Network’s newsletter The Stateswoman.