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After twenty years of struggle and fifteen years of feminist study, we feel the need for more complex reflection on the relationships which are developing between feminism and women s artistic creation.
One of the roles of feminism is to liberate creative energy. This role is properly fulfilled by the public statement of this fundamental principle: inasmuch as they are human beings, women, like men, have the desire, the right, and the capacity to participate fully in cultural production. It is also fulfilled by the struggle to put the principle into concrete effect. We are not simply dealing with material and social help: one can say that the women's movement, a collectivity of women in movement, becomes a body which legitimates and thus favors the aesthetic practices of women.
Women artists themselves participate in feminist experience from the day on which, individually, they discover the reverse of their status as "exceptional women": an individual solitude, all the more painful because social discourse refuses to recognize it, seeing it only as the effect of a personal weakness (linked to sex). And yet it is social discourse which forces them to live this solitude, enclosing them in an alternative from which there is no escape: to be a woman or to be an artist. As women they have to prove that they can be artists, and as artists that they are women in spite of everything. And in this unending struggle - unthinkable for and by men - they are pinned down and classified like butterflies: women artists confined to a feminine art, tolerated and neglected because judged (prejudicially) negligible; artists of whom it is said, as a mark of esteem, that they create like men - which makes of them strange beings, detached from femininity, but never fully and rightfully installed in a cultural world assimilated to the masculine. The original blemish - or fault - seems ineradicable. Such a situation, almost schizophrenic, mobilizes energies of which creation itself is therefore deprived. However, the situation may also give rise to a new awareness which invigorates, transforms, and feeds artistic activity.
How can one forget, for example, that this situation has encouraged the writing of great feminist texts and, more generally, political texts (analytical, argumentative, or didactic) which are, at the same time, great literary or philosophic texts, If the do not belong to cultural tradition, is this not because of their subject, which must be censored at any cost? Just consider, among others, Louise Labe, Virginia Woolf, Simone de Beauvoir. These texts were thrown like bottles into the sea, swallowed up or left dormant, and then came back to life, providing mental resources for generations of women in revolt against what is called their destiny. Today the publication or reedition of many notebooks, private diaries, essays, or memoirs of women artists reveal the richness of their practices and aesthetic reflections, which have been wrongly neglected by the traditional history of the arts.
Yet an essential step is taken when an artist, thanks to a special historical situation, can escape from her condition of "exceptional woman" and discover that she belongs to a minority group struggling in different ways for recognition. She enters into a community, where not only does she share the difficulties of her life as a woman, but where she meets other artists, an audience, critics, female editors, organizers of exhibitions, and so on. Feminist groups work to make up for the deficiencies of the cultural institutions of society by making themselves centers of training, of suggestion, of exchange, and of legitimation: the explosion of creativity in the seventies is the exciting proof of this new climate.
In such conditions, how can one understand the growing discomfort of artists who participate in the women's liberation movement?(1) The phenomenon is all the more worrying because it is shared by scientists. This alliance, which may seem paradoxical, emerges as soon as the feeling of being at cross-purposes with the expectations and judgments of women and feminists is recognized and shared. Every time I mention this feeling that I myself experience at certain moments, as a feminist literary critic,(2) a dialogue immediately starts with women artists and scientists, while the political scientists, the historians, the sociologists, without being hostile, do not really take much interest in the discussion. Yet what we have here is an alarm signal, which must be taken seriously if we want to improve our common possibilities of thinking, creating, and acting, Is it inevitable, in order to get the most out of their creative research - which is at the same time their daily work and a necessity far beyond the everyday - that women artists and scientists should live a life which is doubly alienated?
To the institutions which produce and transmit so-called universal cultural values, they would have to justify themselves as women, as opposed to men naturally endowed with the capacity to represent the whole of humanity: to these institutions, they will always be too female, each time they suggest an unexpected idea or representation or form. And to feminist groups they will always have to justify being artists or scientists, that is to say wanting to produce works which are of general or universal interest, valid for all women and all men. In that context, they are suspected of not being woman enough or feminist enough in their creative activity.
Who could stand up to this double imperative with its insoluble contradictions? Some distance themselves, in bitterness, rejection, or nostalgia; others remain feminists, but carefully exclude their intellectual or artistic practice; finally, others try to transform a feminism which is too inclined to classify artistic or scientific women by criteria which ignore the universe of art or science. It is as though they were forced to defend themselves against a new - or a different - enforced guardianship.
To understand how we got into this dilemma, we should take account of various elements: I will limit myself here to looking at feminist reactions to the arts and the sciences. We must recognize that feminist space, essentially constituted by the political and social, finds it difficult to include the demands of aesthetic practices or of so-called disinterested scientific research, which have this in common, that they do not propose an end which is definable in advance. This apparent gratuitousness of art and scientific research dismays women who participate in other sorts of research, knowledge, and action. Yet they involve a need for liberty, a liberty too as far as …