Sunday, December 13, 2009

Feminist Consciousness-Raising in Art

Consciousness Raising was a method pioneered by feminist activists and feminist artists during the late 1960s (1967-68) which was used to highlight women’s second class status within western patriarchal society. Consciousness-raising was an anti-essentialist movement against generalisations involving women and restrictive ideas of “femaleness”.

Prior to feminist movements of the late 1960s and 1970s, western societies such as North America and Australia were dictated by patriarchal doctrine which advocated the notion that “femaleness” and femininity were inherently biological traits. Furthermore, these female characteristics were considered to be naturally occurring traits found in all women. Some extreme opinions considered women who were not “feminine” as psychologically unstable.

There were traits that were considered to be particularly feminine. These included ideas regarding woman as nurturer, woman as gentile, woman as care-taker as well as traits such as agreeableness, delicacy, being softly-spoken and possessing an unquestioning attitude towards male authority (particularly towards husbands).

Consciousness raising groups involved women meeting in private together without any supervision or interference from men. Only women were permitted in these meetings. Each woman would address the usually intimately-sized group about issues in her life such as feelings regarding motherhood, being a wife, jobs, unequal pay in the workplace, sexual harassment and sexism. Once they studied and investigated their own lives individually they began to realise that social attitudes and behaviours that left them feeling isolated and upset were often common oppressions.
Consciousness raising sessions began to make women feel confident about expressing their annoyance, anger, confusion and frustration about the general condition of women within western patriarchal society.

Judy Chicago was a feminist artist who was teaching in North America during the early 1970s. She first started teaching at Fresno State College in California. She pioneered the first Feminist Art Program in North America at Fresno State College in 1970. Chicago advocated consciousness-raising in her class so that her students could discover content that could be conveyed and highlighted within their art works. Through these consciousness-raising sessions she began to reveal women’s hidden histories.

She was attempting to organise an art community of women who would develop and work with feminist theories and practices in order to produce art works which were based on their common experiences in their male-dominated western society.
Prior to this Feminist Art Program, female students had primarily had male teachers and mentors who often dismissed them and primarily mentored their male students in the belief that women would not pursue a career and would instead have families. Chicago wished to provide female students with the support and encouragement that they had previously been denied.

After Chicago and her students had discovered ways in which they had been conditioned and formed on the basis of gender and revealed various personal experiences that were actually common oppressions, they expressed their oppression via any medium or mixture(s) of media including performance art, role-playing, conceptual and text-based art as well as other non-traditional methods to create feminist art. Chicago consciously used art forms which had not already had art histories established by male art historians and critics who created linear histories using male artists. She wanted to use art forms which were yet to have their place in art history established.

My next entry will continue from here and investigate the effect that female artists and feminist artists had on the art world particularly during the 1970s.

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