a history of western art

from the renaissance to the present

feminisms


people, terms, and concepts: social activism, essentialist feminism, social constructivist feminism


What is the goal of activist art? How does this goal explain why many activist artists reject the typical venues of art (galleries and museums) and why they sometimes adopt the look and techniques of advertising?

We looked at feminist art as an example of activist art. Although all feminism broadly seeks to raise the status of women in society, recall that there are many different (and occasionally contradictory) strategies for doing so. The most important of these can be categorized into two major types:

•the essentialists, who believe that women are fundamentally different from men by their very nature (for example, more nurturing, cooperative, domestic, nature-oriented, etc.), and who therefore seek to raise the status of these undervalued 'feminine' characteristics and qualities; and

•the social constructivists, who believe that the differences between men and women are exclusively a matter of upbringing or socialization, and who therefore tend to reject such so-called 'feminine' qualities as pernicious stereotypes.

Be able to describe how Chicago celebrates femininity in the subject-matter, form and media used in her Dinner Party. Be able to discuss how Kruger's art (as she put it) "breaks myths" rather than creates them, and how Sherman's film stills demonstrate the social-constructivist assertion that "Every woman is a female impersonator."

Barbara Kruger, We Won’t Play Nature to Your Culture, Social Constructivist Feminism, c. 1985

Ana Mendieta, scene from the Tree of Life series, Essentialist Feminism, c. 1975

Judy Chicago, detail of Dinner Party:  Mary Wollstonecraft place setting

Judy Chicago, Dinner Party, Essentialist Feminism, c. 1980

Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Still, Social Constructivist Feminism, c. 1980