- Based on your recent readings, what, according to Judy Chicago, is “central core imagery”?
While working in the Feminist Art Program at Fresno State College in the early 1970s, through discussions and analysis of the content of her students’ personal experiences, which the book Judy Chicago encourage them to explore female sexual imagery by doing images of vaginas. The book The Power of Feminist Art, also refers to this analysis on women’s personal experiences as “socially constructed female experience as revealed through consciousness-raising” (Broude and Garrard, 35). By using the word “cunt,” Chicago was trying to recuperate a term that had been censored and considered a taboo. Therefore, Chicago encouraged her students to create images of female sexual organs and thereby opposed the phallic imagery developed by men (Broude and Garrard, 35). Therefore, “cunt art” originated from an attempt to analyze, confront, and articulate the common social experiences of Chicago’s students. This type of art became theorized as “central core imagery.”
2. What is the critique of essentialism often applied to 1970s feminist artists? (Briefly summarize the problem of “essentialism”)
Essentialism can be defined as an essence that defines you by gender or race; what makes an individual essentially different. In the 1980s, critics singled out feminist artists of the 1970s as “essentialist’ –false universals that did not represent all women. This feminist art criticism identified feminist art that focused on the female body with a negative perception of a “female essence residing somewhere in the body of woman” (Broude and Garrard, 23).
One of the critiques against ‘essentialist’ art within feminist theory was made by female artists Griselda Pollock and Rozsika Parker. Both artists argued that images of women can be ‘easily recover and co-opted by a male culture if they do not cause radically meanings and connotations of woman in art as body, as sexual, as nature, as an object for male possession’ (Reckitt, 37). Also, the relationship between verbal language and visual image was marked as antagonist role in the essentialist debates because of the argued lack of affective force of experience and the capacity of language to express full that experience. Therefore, the initial critique of essentialism in the 1980s was based on the impossibility of a ‘universal’ feminine, a central system of expression that could be discerned across culture and across media (Reckitt, 37).
“Central core imagery” was one of the types of feminist art that was criticized as “essentialist.” Many artists, particularly feminist artists of the 1980s, had no understanding of how and why this imagery had emerged and were not aware of the historic place it had in the representation of female sexuality and identity. In 1972, Patricia Mainardi response to Judy Chicago’s centralized core imagery by saying that a “right wing of the women artists’ movement” was “codifying a so-called ‘female aesthetic’” (Broude and Garrard, 23).
3. According to Norma Broude and Mary Garrard’s introductory chapter in The Power of Feminist Art (p.10-29), it is important to differentiate between biological essentialism, cultural essentialism, and political essentialism. Why? How can this help expand our appreciation of feminist artists?
According to Schapiro and Chicago, biological essentialism can be look as a means of liberating women from negative attitudes about female anatomy and their own bodies. Therefore, the emphasis on the biological and sexual in early feminist art must be understood against the historical background of the severe repression of women’s sexuality in the 1950s and 1960s (Broude and Garrard, 24). Seventies feminist artists defined their sexuality in art on through their own interpretations rather than through men’s perspective. They celebrated the female body by exploring their and society’s attitudes about the female body and organs. Thus, through “cunt” imagery, feminist artists represented women’s independent power and freedom from male dominance and patriarchy.
Cultural essentialism is defined as society’s gender-stereotyped conditioning of women’s self-image and experience. In other words, cultural essentialism is social construction of femininity. However, because of women’s role in society, they have help to perpetuate this issue by their gradual acceptance of social construction. Therefore, the only way women can escape cultural essentialism is by identifying and challenging it. Along the same lines, political essentialism appeared in the 1970s. It was described as the deliberate celebration of culturally essentialist forms (Broude and Garrard, 25). Schapiro and Chicago claimed political essentialism to be the commonality and enduring characteristics women’s art must have and share. Further, many early feminist artists tried to connect with a historical female ancestry, including figures such as Great Goddesses, Frida Kahlo, Artemisia Gentileschi, among others. By connecting with other historical feminist artists, who many had been silenced or ignored because of social constraints, seventies feminists were trying to create a culture for women to deserve attention, admiration, and recognition. The goal was to deliberate feminist visual expression from an area that had been controlled by Western art for centuries. Consequently, by reviving the art and rituals of previous feminist artists, feminists gave new forms of life to their work and challenged the value system that had subordinated them.
One of the most impressive pieces of Seventies Feminist Art is “The Cock-Cunt Play” by Judy Chicago. While watching this video, it really surprised me how powerful is the gender social construction is interpreted through the role of the sexual reproductive organs. According to the book The Power of Feminist Art, the play portrays “the battle between the sexes as it demonstrates the culturally assumed connection between biological differences and sex roles (Broude and Garrard, 58).” From the biological essentialist perspective, women’s cunts “are round like a dish,” therefore, women must watch dishes. On the contrary, a male’s cock is “strong, and hard, and straight, and it is meant to shoot, like guns or missiles.” From the cultural essentialist perspective, the play is a comical representation of the social construction of gender roles. Women are expected to stay in the house and do the house chores because they’re sensitive, weak, and fragile, whereas men are characterized as strong, independent, and aggressive. Along this same lines, from the political essentialism perspective, women are taught to act according to the gender stereotype of what means to be a woman. However, the critique behind the play encourages women to identify, connect, and challenge the issue as a means of resistance against stereotypical gender roles.
4. Drawing from “The Feminist Art Programs at Fresno and CalArts, 1970-1975” by Faith Wilding (PFA, 32-47) and “Womanhouse” by Arlene Raven (PFA , 48-65), discuss Womanhouse (what/when/where/who/why)? What methods were utilized to generate content for Womanhouse? Choose 3 works from Womanhouse, 3 different artists. For each, address: How is the work “feminist”? How offering a critique of ambient sexist culture? What is the specific subject of critique? How different from other representations of women?
The project Womanhouse was a collaborative art-environment addressing the gendered experiences of women in the context of a real house located in an urban neighborhood in Los Angeles. Under the direction of feminist artists Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro, a total of twenty-one students from the Feminist Art Program at the California Institute of the Arts helped to create the collaborative art environment of the Womanhouse. It was created in 1971 and opened to the public in 1972. “Womanhouse became both an environment that housed the work of women artists working out of their own experiences and the ‘house’ of female reality into which one entered to experience the real facts of women’s lives, feelings, and concerns,” Chicago explained (Broude and Garrard, 48). The project developed using the methodologies of consciousness-raising, reading, research, and role-playing, and then, therefore using the content arrived at through this process to make art. Woman’s concerns particularly found in American suburban home, such as nurturance, sex, self-consciousness, rape, and murder, where use as the main issues to create the Womanhouse. Further, Womanhouse emphasized feminist ideas and viewpoints concerning menstruation, sexuality, marriage, and promiscuity, pregnancy and post-partum depression, psychic breakdown and suicide in middle-class suburban homes. In order to repair and structure the house as an independent exhibition space as well as a work of art, students learned how to work cooperatively and developed their artistic skills. Also, working skills such as carpentry and window glazing became part of the creative process. The content of the activities and rooms in Womanhouse were based under a relationship between biology and social roles. Through the use of creative exaggeration of the ordinary physical and emotional elements of each space, most of the rooms replicated the conventional areas of a house while at the same time they challenged the activity of that room and the meaning of that activity to women’s self-image.
Sandy Orgel. Linen Closet. Mixed media site installation at Womanhouse, 1972.
The art work Linen Closet by Sandy Orgel is one of the only two human figures shown in Womanhouse. The piece is characterized by a naked woman mannequin that is located among her clean, pressed linens, which represents how women are forced into cultural identities that are constructed by others rather than by them. The critique of this piece goes along to what Betty Friedan described as an American woman’s fulfillment which could only be defined as “the housewife-mother.” After 1949, many white middle-class women were alone, confined in their homes, and didn’t know who they were except in relationship to family members. Therefore, this piece was a critique to the internal oppression housewives live, thus, constructed by stereotypical gender roles in which women are encourage to believe that the role of housewife-mother is their only aspirations in life. “As one woman visitor commented, ‘This is exactly where women have always been –in between the sheets and on the shelf.’ It is time now to come out of the closet (Broude and Garrard, 55).”
Susan Frazier, Vicki Hodgetts, Robin Weltsch. Nurturant Kitchen. Mixed media site installation at Womanhouse, 1972.
A second interesting and very popular art work that was displayed in Womanhouse was Susan Frazier, Vicki Hodgetts, and Robin Weltsch’s Nurturant Kitchen. In the picture, you can appreciate that the room’s ceiling is covered with Hodgetts’ plastic fried eggs, which are transformed into breasts on the walls. The closer the small round images are to the frying pan on the stove, the more these images change again to eggs. For the creation of this room, Schapiro suggested a consciousness-raising session about feelings raised by kitchens in the artists’ childhood memories. Therefore, the pink kitchen represented the institutional source of all mothers’ milk as well as the war zone of the home. “Struggles between mothers and daughters for psychological power were embedded in the gestures of giving and receiving good (Broude and Garrard, 52). Further, the stove is defined as the heart of the kitchen and the egg is the image of nourishment that means food and that also signifies the hunger in many women’s hearts and lives. Under the female stereotypical gender role, women are considered to be the nourishers of the family because they have breasts as well as the only individuals cooking the family meals.
Judy Chicago. Menstruation Bathroom. Mixed media site installation at Womanhouse, 1972.
The Menstruation Bathroom was created by Judy Chicago and was meant to present the issue of women’s blood as taboo in society, and by implication, “puberty as the moment of shame when signs of womanhood appear and must be hidden behind a locked bathroom door (Broude and Garrard, 55).” The white, clean, deodorized (except for the blood), and silent bathroom, filled with feminine hygiene products, was a metaphor of the unspeakable. According to Chicago, “However we feel about our own menstruation is how we feel about seeing its image in front of us (Broude and Garrard, 57).