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Friday, February 03, 2012

Feminism, Art, modern context 

The Clarion Content is delighted to welcome back a bon vivant whom we hope will be a regular contributor, Catherine Howard. Ms. Howard is a whirlwind of activity and very much in the middle of the Durham artistic milieu. She is a visual artist, an art history instructor, and a curator.

To see her artwork, check out www.catherinejhoward.com, and to see more of her writing, check out catherinejhoward.wordpress.com.

Read her first piece on the Clarion Content here.

Answering Linda’s call

---Catherine J Howard

In an interview last summer, I was asked if I was a feminist. After wiping a quizzical look from my face, I replied, “Well… I am a woman. And I create artwork from that perspective… So… yes. I’m a feminist.” Only afterwards did I realize why the interviewer even bothered to ask me that question. He was providing me an out--- an opportunity to back-pedal with, “Nononono! You see I just…” [cue self-effacing attempts to not seem like a heinous “feminist” bitch]. You see… I forgot that “feminist” is still used as a derogatory term in some places. So, I began to wonder: why is it that a female artist who creates artwork that openly discusses women’s issues can still be brushed off as a stereotypically overly-dramatic dissident? “Off to the library!” I said (because I am obviously an uppity, bookish, prude). And, whaddya know, I found that I am not the first to question why honest, socially conscious artwork seemed errant coming from a female artist.

In her 1995 essay, "Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?" Linda Nochlin attacks attempts to justify female "greatness" as different from what has been labeled as (male-centric) "genius".
“The problem lies not so much with some feminists' concept of what femininity is, but rather with their misconception - shared with the public at large - of what art is: with the naive idea that art is direct, personal expression of individual emotional experience, a translation of personal life into visual terms. Art is almost never that, great art never is.” [italics added for emphasis]

When I tossed this essay into a conversation with a group of female artists, the response was a slew of knee-jerk reactions of "Who does she think she is?! My work is mine. My personal expression!" However, Nochlin isn't invalidating women's need to create. In fact, she lauds female artists for finding creative outlets, no matter the social pressures for them to abandon those needs. Nochlin is instead exposing the reality that the social support systems that allowed "Great Artists" to develop were only endowed to men. Rather than saying that female accomplishment is just “naturally” different than male accomplishment, she challenges women not to settle for segregated creative expression but to demand equal opportunities and create work that lives up to the label “genius”:
“What is important is that women face up to the reality of their history and present situation, without making excuses or puffing mediocrity. Disadvantage may indeed be an excuse; it is not, however, an intellectual position. Rather, using as a vantage point their situation as underdogs in the realm of grandeur, and outsiders in that ideology, women can reveal institutional and intellectual weaknesses in general, and, at the same time that they destroy false consciousness, take part in the creation of institutions in which clear thought – and true greatness – are challenges open to anyone, man or woman, courageous enough to take the necessary risk, the leap into the unknown.” [italics added for emphasis]
Whether you claim the label “feminist” or not, we cannot deny that if young female artists are still being marginalized for addressing issues surrounding the female body, the playing field isn’t as equal as we would like to think. Now, I will be the first to say that creating work that is even remotely confrontational, especially about issues dealing with sexuality, is terrifying. Honesty is never easy. However, this discomfort is exactly why female artists have the power and opportunity to broaden so-called “universal” perspectives that are still largely male-derived. Yet too many of us are bogged down in making art into another form of diary. Rather than taking a stand and challenging others to change their perceptions of the world, we degrade our creative voices and sideline it as sugar-coated “self-expression”. We churn out the palatable mediocrity that Nochlin rightfully despises. Ladies, Linda challenges you to dive into your studio practice and make your creative voice pointed, thoughtful, vibrant, and public. She challenges you to create and demand recognition for courageous, horizon-expanding work. I’m ready to embrace this challenge.

Care to join me?

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