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Various approaches to bringing a feminist and activist perspective to teaching art are explored. The author draws on both the writings and work of other artists and educators and her own development as a feminist and socially engaged artist and teacher in order to highlight crucial elements of this perspective. Practical suggestions are presented for curricula and teaching methods that may be adapted to a wide variety of educational contexts. The author concludes that the feminist critique of patriarchy and multiple systems of oppression have profoundly shaped her art-making and teaching and that art pedagogy can provide an effective means of engaging those who have not previously included such a critique or perspective in their world view.
Keywords: activist art / social engagement / permeable ego / cultural animator / media literacy / culture jamming
Learning the Dance
The steps toward becoming an artist can be precarious. The steps toward being a feminist can be more so. Ultimately, teaching how to be both seems to be the easy part. Maybe it is because you are able to look back for the teaching part and harness the energy that pushed you forward blindly, sometimes uncontrollably into the art part. For the feminist part, you need to let the anger and the grief push you in a boat until you meet another angry, grieving person. When you find each other you either have a support group or two people who cannot stand to hear the other speak--two cracked mirrors blurred by damage and miscommunication or two clear mirrors where the contrast and detail is splendid and nourishing.
First, it is crucial to know that I stepped very gingerly into my art practice. The family script and class ideology dictated that I was supposed to enjoy art, not make it. Only my inchoate rebellion against a narrow life based on secure bank accounts prevented me from hesitation. Perhaps there was a muse or two involved, but I could not hear them very clearly most of the time. My antenna was often set on the static of the early '70s; what came through and into my art practice was a miracle.
Two of those miracles happened when I was twenty, a junior in college, looking to understand why I had chosen art or why art had chosen me. The first was the gift of my printmaking teacher, who despite his attempts to reinvent me as a queen bee (the one woman distinct from all the others and destined for some form of male-sanctioned greatness), had the insight to introduce me to a book that had been meaningful to him, Ben Shahn's The Shape of Content (1957). Although my first reading of this book was superficial at best, I did receive one message deeply: teaching art and making art could be inseparable in the quest for a humane society. As I learned later, teaching is often seen as a sign of being "less than," implying some sort of mediocrity as an art practitioner. Or it is seen as a career choice reeking of a pragmatism that drowns the spirit of the true artist. This is an attitude I still encounter when I meet artist peers, successful in the high art world, who wonder why on earth I would choose not to make art full time.
The second miracle was the first awkward embrace of my female peers, who showed me that queen bee-dom meant a lifetime of alienation and unnecessary suffering. The year was 1973. The work of the Feminist Art Program (facilitated by Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro) at the California Institute of the Arts and the startling installations and performances emerging from Womanhouse (a site-specific project created by the students of Chicago and Schapiro) had just made their way to our campus via videotape and journal articles. Buoyed by the excitement of these West Coast projects, female art students on my campus began to meet together. In our discussions, we vented our frustration about having no or few female role models as teachers in our art history courses or in the studio classroom. In response, we demanded our own budget from those in power to bring feminist artists to campus, mount a women's art show, and organize women-directed and -written performances of poetry and theater. It was a watershed moment.
This second miracle included a little toxic waste that took me time to purge. The consciousness-raising session, which had been demanded by the female art students and was led by two well meaning, feminist, visiting artists from New York City, turned out to be more like a consciousness-shrinking affair. Their notions of what was liberated art and what was patriarchal were strange and uncomfortable. They critiqued the women students' art show, saying all the work that contained euphemistic "central" imagery was feminist and all other subject matter, be it landscape or portrait, was patriarchal. I was deeply disappointed by this formulaic thinking and swore off the f-word for a time, feeling no home within it.
A year or so later, as a token female student in my Canadian graduate program, I painfully realized I needed to find a way to make feminist thinking fit. I was angry and frustrated. I felt patronized by the male faculty and visiting artists, and the lone female faculty member seemed to be driven to the edge of madness by her male peers. She was joked about as that "neurotic, feminist artist." Is that what happens when you are isolated and attempt to claim your power?
At the time, a few female undergraduate students were discussing how they felt feminist thinking fit their working process, which helped me to see that I could reshape the theories I had found confining. I decided then that real feminist artists need a range of strategies and tools, rather than the woefully limited and sadly essentialist repertoire of images and objects representing boxes, eggs, wombs, vulvas, and openings. Publications such as Heresies magazine (1) and the ever-evolving writings of Lucy Lippard (2) also were helpful to me in integrating feminist thinking into my work.
Along with my investigations into gender as a marker of identity and power, I also began to look at the history of art for social change. Even though I came from a politically liberal family and had a radical, blacklisted father, I had only limited knowledge of this history. My investigations took me back to the broadsheets visually documenting the peasant uprisings during the Middle Ages (3) to the prints and posters made in response to the civil rights movement in the United States. (4) With this new version of art history and a reading of John Berger's Ways of Seeing (1972), I began to build a method for deconstructing images and experiences of the world. This method required some comprehension of how class, race, cultural identity, religion, and other aspects of …