On starting another conversation about comparative feminism
Groupshow, curated by Zane Mellupe-Goutard, WhyWhyArt center, Nanjing China, December 6 2017 - April 20 2018.
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Feminism is one of the most important social terms in the contemporary world. Not only because half of the world’s population is feminine. Feminism, alongside globalization, population migration, and technological advancement, is one of the major factors changing the existing social order and influencing our understanding of what it is to – to be a human.
As the name suggests, feminism is primarily concerned with the role of women in society, and in bettering the lot of women in different parts of the world – civil rights, equal rights to education, career opportunities, social mobility, and wellbeing. But in a broader context the cause of feminism and the struggle for equal rights is in many aspects foreshadowing and resembling that of many other demographic and minority social groups – most notably, black and other coloured groups vs white, gay and other queer people vs straight heterosexual, and developed, affluent societies vs developing world countries. The position of a woman in a patriarchal society, being devoid of equal rights, is similar to all subaltern groups, though in stark contrast given the female population amounts to half the global population.
And it is noteworthy that feminism as such is not a campaign only for women. While some advocates of men rights gather under the brand of masculinism, feminism also includes men. Feminism can help better understand the roles of men and what can be done to make better conditions for men. As many scholars have argued in the last few decades, a majority of men are equally enclosed in the patriarchal, capitalist system and their own agency and ability to make choices is limited. If women under patriarchal capitalist societies are entitled to be beautiful, nice and caring, then men are expected to be competitive, make money and be successful, which is a great pressure, perhaps as big a pressure as for a woman to be perfect according to some fashion industry standards. Thus, feminism has a promise to ultimately liberate both men and women.
THREE WAVES OF FEMINISM
The movement of feminism trails a history of more than 150 years. Although the topic of a woman’s place in society and women rights were discussed before, it wasn’t until the middle of the 19th century that this issue gained momentum, and was coined feminism by French utopian socialist Charles Fourier. So-called first-wave feminism is concerned with giving women equal legal and political rights. The most prominent point is the right to vote, but also several other rights which greatly enhance a women’s ability to take part in the decision making about their lives. These include such things as amendments to inheritance rights, and custody rights to children after divorce. The latter two were important improvements empowering women. It is hard to raise a voice when you risk severe economic sanctions inside the family.
Generally, the 20th century saw a gradual acquirement of voting rights for women in developed countries, conservative Switzerland (1971) and Lichtenstein (1984) being the last to grant this right in Europe. The political and economic backbone issues of first-wave feminism continues today, with the struggle for equal pay between women and men, which even when legislated lags behind in real life implementation.
The second-wave of feminism starts approximately in the middle of the 20th century. A book The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir sets the tone for this phase of movement. The title of de Beauvoir’s book points to the role of a woman in (western developed) society – she is a second sex, she is secondary. Secondary both in what is allowed to her and what is expected from her, socially. According to the Old Testament, a book paramount to Western civilization, God made a woman from a rib of the first man, Adam. In English, as in several other languages, the secondary role of the woman shows also in grammar. Whereas man is an un-marked term, wo-man is the marked term, derived from the man. Woman is even grammatically dependent on man.
Themes explored in second-wave feminist theory include discrimination, sexual objectification, oppression, and patriarchy. The second-wave marked investigations into the nature of a woman. Different women writers and intellectuals began to question what is the specificity in being a woman. Not only what makes woman equal to man, but what makes her different? What distinguishes her from a man? Helene Cixous argues that writing and philosophy are phallocentric and along with other French feminists such as Luce Irigaray emphasize ‘writing from the body’ as a subversive exercise.
Third-wave feminism (since the end of 20th century) distinguished itself from the second wave around issues of sexuality, challenging female heterosexuality and celebrating sexuality as a means of female empowerment. Third-wave feminism also contains internal debates between difference feminists, who believe that there are important differences between the sexes, and those who believe that there are no inherent differences between the sexes and contend that gender roles are due to social conditioning.
The emergence of feminist art and art history since the 1960s not only resulted in a re-appreciation of the representation of the woman as a subject, creator, and receptor of art but also has inspired a broader examination of gender-related issues in art through the establishment of gay studies and men's studies, where questions of homosexuality, heterosexuality, masculinity, femininity, and indeed sex itself all pertain to the concept of gender.
During the 20th century feminist artists have created works that contained imagery dealing with the female body, personal experience, and ideas of domesticity. The feminist art reflects life and experience of the woman.
On the other hand, it has also been an issue of heated debate – is a woman artist then destined to create only feminist art? Which ranks not on the absolute scale of art achievements but in female art category. Then, such a recognition seems to even deepen the discrimination against women and greaten the divide. Growing appreciation of the necessity to redefine female social roles coexists with such phenomena as male dominance and misogyny.
Therefore, for many female artists it is important to be accepted as artists not just as voices of feminism, leading to downplaying the specific womanly experience in their works – to be free from subjectivity and to represent topics universal to human beings.
In 1971 Linda Nochlin, American contemporary art critic wrote a landmark article, Why Have There Been No GREAT Women Artists? giving tremendous momentum to feminist scholarship concerning women in the arts:
‘But in actuality, as we all know, things as they are and as they have been, in the arts as in a hundred other areas, are stultifying, oppressive, and discouraging to all those, women among them, who did not have the good fortune to be born white, preferably middle class and, above all, male. The fault lies not in our stars, our hormones, our menstrual cycles, or our empty internal spaces, but in our institutions and our education-education understood to include everything that happens to us from the moment we enter this world of meaningful symbols, signs, and signals.’
Feminist art seeks to create a dialogue between the viewer and the artwork through the inclusion of women's perspective. Art was not merely an object for aesthetic admiration, but could also incite the viewer to question the social and political landscape.
Feminist art history is closely related with the feminist movement. One of the earliest themes of feminist art historians was that of the male gaze and its consequence on visual art. The early feminist art historians documented works of women's art and the perception of the woman in male art and defined the history and methodologies of feminist art.
In his 1972 book Ways of Seeing the Marxist critic John Berger concluded: ‘Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at’. In other words, Western art replicates the unequal relationships already embedded in society. Male’s gaze is objective and logical, whereas feminine perspective is subjective. And male’s gaze also objectifies – makes an object of female and her body.
In the long history of art, we have seen the shifting gender roles of women. Since the advent of Christianity, the woman has been depicted through an opposing duality, either as an epitome for the moralistic concepts of pure and modest womanhood, glorification of domestic life, and Christian ethics. Or as a sinful creature leading men astray. Strong women exercising power over men were seen as especially dangerous. This is most apparent when the woman becomes a violent figure as in Artemisia Gentileschi's painting Judith Slaying Holofernes. Gentileschi's heroines, struggling with the other sex and evoking strong empathy in the viewer, have become a focal point in gender studies of art history.
Such established gender types as the mother, the female as a lover or courtesan, and the femme fatale were often represented in art works. Erotic gender identities and representation of traditional gender roles show a gradual transition. Reciprocal roles and interchangeable gender identities manifest themselves. The appearance of new fashion designs for women in the beginning of the twentieth century with its acknowledged elements designating traditional masculine features signalled a change in gender identity and the emergence of a cross-gender figure.
In the 1960s and 1970s, artworks by both women and men became instruments of political and social change. In visual arts, the pop art movement took issue with popular gender ideologies and icons such as beauty and eroticism by overamplifying them, as in multiple lithographed duplications of Marilyn Monroe's image by Andy Warhol.
One of the most important and wide-ranging paradigm shifts to arise out of the social, political, and aesthetic upheavals of the 20th century is a sustained, visible challenge to the outdated notion of a hard and fast gender binary. Artists have been at the forefront of these changes, creating works that question the normative assumptions of what our bodies should look like or do while drawing from a variety of perspectives on the subject.
Wikipedia lists more than a dozen of gender identities: agender, androgyne, bigender, genderqueer (non-binary), gender bender, hijra, pangender, queer heterosexuality, third gender, trans man, trans woman, transmasculine, transfeminine, trigender, two-spirit. While being a recognition of diversity in human race, it also signifies increased autonomy of individuals to choose and act out their gender role. Now social networks also allow one to choose between many genders.
Simultaneously to the fluidity of gender roles, we still experience the massive information channelling where women and men roles are set to the strict gender roles. Movies’ stars and celebrities serve as role models for successful women and men, and while there are changes, audiences of the both genders are still trapped into out-dated models of gender roles. It is good to remind ourselves that talk on gender fluidity and real-life enacting of fluid gender roles is a hot topic for educated experts and activists of the field, while rest of the world continues to rotate in the well-established universe where women must be beautiful, sexy, caring, and men must be strong, decisive, aggressive.
The topic of feminism is closely related to contemporary consumer society. On the one hand, the current capitalistic liberal system is largely responsible for the mass of educated, economically self-sustainable women who advocate for women rights and explore gender possibilities in art movements. On the other hand this same capitalistic system is said to be responsible for the patriarchal domination over women, exploitation and turning women in sex objects.
Therefore, it makes sense talking about comparative feminism, where issues are different in different parts of world. For women in developed world it might be about closing the salary gap, while in many African countries a more pressing and urgent issue is to fight the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM). While in many developed countries involvement in prostitution can be voluntary by women and seen as enhancement of women’s power, in the rest of the world prostitution is still a form of exploitation of women.
Surprisingly, the rights of women in former socialist and communist countries were in many areas more equal to men’s rights than in the developed Western countries. Partly this can be explained by socialism’s egalitarian attitude towards all human beings – liberation of proletariat was much more important, and the decisive break went along class, not gender lines. Taken to the excess this equality of genders portraited women in factories, in construction sites doing the same hard physical work as men. With the advent of capitalism, social roles in post-socialist countries become more gendered again, following the consumer society values of liberal democracies alongside with the rehabilitation of old conservative life styles of traditional societies.
Together with globalisation, accelerated social and spatial mobility comparative feminism allows to coexist for different trajectories and a multitude of identifications simultaneously, being one of the trendiest contemporary movements.