What is feminine art? What is feminist art? And why should we care?
As we celebrate International Women’s Day on March 8, this woman artist asks what exactly is feminist art, what is feminine art and why should we care?
As a woman artist, I spend a lot of time being defined by others as a woman artist. It is not a choice, it is a fact. I am a woman. I am an artist. That makes me a woman artist… and that means that I take on all the positive and negative stereotypes of being a woman artist… As the well-known artist collective Guerrilla Girls rightly points out, the statistics on the various building blocks of an art career, from salaries, to gallery representation, and inclusion in museum collections, are far from encouraging for any female artist.
This means that I and my fellow women artists are often seen as housewives with a creative hobby rather than professional career artists with a voice, vision and ambition… This also means that sometimes, people are disappointed that my art is not more overtly feminist or aggressive. After all, I am a woman artist who recognizes that women artists have a long way to go to achieve equality. Therefore the fundamental reason for my art should be exactly that – to talk about what it is to be a woman…
The truth is, I am tired…. and a bit bored. I am tired of others telling me what my art should be about. And I’m bored to constantly be told what “a good feminist woman is” and what “properly feminist art” is. And why my artwork, which I strive to make beautiful, does not fit that definition. I recently applied to be part of an exhibition that was meant to celebrate women’s art as part of International Women’s Day. My initial reaction was that I shouldn’t enter the exhibition at all… after all, my art is not aggressive. It is neither particularly feminist, nor especially angry. My second reaction was to submit to be part of that exhibition exactly because I initially didn’t think I should be. Because surely feminist art should include all art that is created by people who believe that men and women should be treated equally… regardless of whether their art is pretty or ugly or angry or not concerned overtly with the struggle for equality.
It’s often assumed that properly feminist art should be that – aggressive and angry. Many believe that it should certainly not be concerned with being aesthetically beautiful. Just like it’s often assumed that a true feminist woman should not care about how she looks, or fashion or make-up. And yet, I do. I consider myself a feminist and I truly don’t understand anybody who doesn’t. After all, a feminist is simply somebody who believes that men and women have the same rights. That is all. Nothing more and nothing less. Surely, we should all be feminists!
But often, there is an assumption that feminist art and feminine art are different things. I sometimes am told by art collectors that my artwork is feminine…. And when I hear that, part of me cringes “oh, no! Not feminine! Any other word, but not feminine!”. But I try to remind myself that usually what that this comment is not inherently negative. It is often said as a short-hand summary of the bright colours that I use or my plant-heavy subject matter. Often, this comment acknowledges my ambition to create artwork that is fundamentally beautiful. And for multiple historic and social reason, all these characteristics are often considered to be feminine.
Sometimes, I hear the criticism that my artwork is not feminist enough. As you can imagine, this feedback often comes from other women. They say that because I want to create aesthetically pleasing artwork, because my inspiration comes from nature (which means that I paint a lot of flowers), and because many of my colours include traditional feminine colours of purple, pink and red, that somehow, my artwork is doesn’t have the cache of being properly feminist. That somehow, it isn’t angry enough. And if feminist art isn’t angry, then is it feminist art as all? But isn’t all feminine art feminist by definition? If not, it should be!
Georgia O’Keeffe, one of the most accomplished artists who also happened to be a woman, famously hated being categorized as a female artist, preferring to just be called a talented artist without the need for gender specifications. I understand that view. Every single time an exhibition for a women’s art exhibition comes around, or a women’s art club has an open call for members, part of me feels uneasy. Why is it that we still need to specify that there is this distinction of male versus female. By excluding male artists from women’s art exhibitions and societies, isn’t that sexist? I believe, that yes it is. It treats the genders differently based on gender and that is how sexism is defined. And yet… as an emerging artist who is ambitious about building a long-lasting career in the art world, I want to seek out every opportunity to advance my art career and achieve recognition for my artwork, which means that I sometimes to apply to be part of women only art shows and societies… and I’m not the only one… indeed, it turns out that things are more complicated.
The reality is that women artists are underrepresented. Our career prospects are far below those of male artists. There is often an assumption that we are either hobbyist amateurs or bored housewives. Whereas for male artists, there is the assumption because they are obviously the breadwinners of the household, their career ambitions and artwork command much more respect and financial backing. That is a fact. And if you have even the briefest looks on Instagram for art, you will see that in visual art, as in other media such as music, some women artists feel the need to sexualize their art as a way to get attention and recognition. There are also the female artists who strive to cultivate their image as the stereotypical angry female feminist artist. To me, neither is right or wrong. After all, who am I to judge? The art world is a crowded place and to build a career, you need to shout loud and command attention… but it is worth nothing that women artists who shout the loudest do not necessarily represent all women artists.
So where does this all leave us on International Women’s Day? It leaves us in ambiguous territory… Not everybody who classifies you as a woman artist or your artwork as feminine means it in a derogatory or disrespectful way. And often times, they mean these words as a compliment. And not everybody who is eager to classify your art as feminine or feminist ultimately truly believes that this allegedly feminine or feminist art deserves the same recognition or respect as “other” art that is produced by men.
Lastly and importantly, women are not the only ones who face these struggles in the art world and elsewhere. Many other people face similar struggles, based on race, sexual orientation, religious belief, age, or gender identification. Furthermore, if you forgive the pun, just as much as it’s short-sighted to paint all female artists with the same broad brushstroke, it is similarly incorrect to classify all men artists in the same category. Some male artists do have certain advantages that help them create a successful artistic career, but many more have to carve out their place in the world, just like we women artists do… one painting at a time.
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