Exploring Feminist Themes in Art

Katharina Cibulka Feminist Art
Katharina Cibulka, As Long As The Art Market Is A Boys’ Club I Will Be A Feminist, 2018

Feminism, a controversial yet inspiring social justice movement. At its core, feminism is about choice and strives for equality and anti-discrimination. It is about giving everyonenot just womenan equal opportunity to act, behave, and present themselves freely. If this is true, why does the term “feminist” generate so much hostility? Likely because the movement is greatly misunderstood. It is often associated with angry, forceful women, and many believe women simply wish to overthrow men and gain further social, economic, and political influence. In reality, feminism is intersectional and capable of generating a positive and empowering social shift!

Artsper explores the different themes of feminism through an artistic lens. As you follow along, will you recognize these topics as feminist? Think about your own biases and understand that this powerful movement is centered on greater social justice.

Gender

For centuries, women have been deemed inferior to men. Without any scientific logic behind this, it is undoubtedly a social construction. Feminism is an attempt to disrupt this hegemonic patriarchy and replace it with equity for ALL genders. However, with that being said, gender is also a social construct. It is fluid; it is subject to change with time and it may vary between cultures. Ultimately, gender is how someone embodies their own sense of masculinity or femininity regardless of corporeality. Today’s cisgender society predominately focuses on the female/male binary and male superiority. In contrast, feminists offer support to those who go against the hegemonic norm.

Judy Chicago Dinner Party Feminism Feminist Art
Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1974-79

Why are there no great female artists and people of color in the canon? American artist Judy Chicago, a key figure in the feminist art movement, challenges the notion of female-inferiority in “The Dinner Party”. She creates a feasting scene including hundreds of historical female figures, referencing art, history, religion, and more! The artist created an alternate history, one that is healed by women and led by matriarchy. “The Dinner Party” is a paradoxical work filled with stereotypical women’s skill, like needlework, and stereotypical men’s skill, like welding. It is an iconic piece, symbolizing the value of feminism in Western society.

Sexuality

Our binary understanding of sexuality reinforces the current social heteronormativity. Compulsory heterosexuality negates freedom of sexual expression. In the early 2000s, same-sex marriage became legal in several countries. In contemporary society, others have followed suit, but do marriage rights guarantee justice? For some, the right to wed may exist, but do they acquire freedom of expression? Changing marriage laws is a great first step toward sexual equality, but it does not necessarily stop violence and homophobia. Feminism’s goal is to abolish this social marginalization and encourage this “new” phenomenon so that people are able to love more freely.

Gran Fury Feminist Art Kissing Doesn't Kill
Gran Fury, Kissing Doesn’t Kill, 1989

“Kissing Doesn’t Kill” by Gran Fury is a great example of intersectional feminism! Not only does it normalize seeing same-sex couples in public, but inter-racial couples as well. What society attributes with deviance, the artist propelled into a meaningful artwork on social reform. The work was camouflaged into the advertising world as it’s presented as a bus poster but was also in a gallery. This witty artist managed to blur the meaning and give a different, impactful message by coating it with familiarity.

Race

Race is commonly used as a term for categorizing people into social hierarchies without any legitimate backing. Because it is linked with nationality or ethnicity, race often leads to discriminatory claims in predominantly white countries. Today’s cultural climate is highly structured around white supremacy and neglects these racial hierarchies. Feminism creates a discourse on how there is no scientific basis for attributions of racial superiority. Therefore, feminists may argue that race is a social construct, thus invaliding this discriminatory system.

Frida Kahlo Feminist Art
Frida Kahlo, My Grandparents, My Parents, and I (Family Tree), 1936

Famed Mexican artist Frida Kahlo was expressing feminism before the term was even coined. She often explored questions of identity, gender, race, and class in relation to her personal experiences. While she is most known for her profoundly intimate portraiture, Kahlo is ultimately feminist as she unmistakably portrays injustices and social passions, ultimately leading to a better public understanding!

Classism 

We inevitably live in a capitalist society. By placing such immense value on capital and wealth, it is an imperative component of feminism. Firstly, capitalism dictates classism by its constant need for access to money. Even basic needs, such as food & water, may seem like fundamental rights but are not always guaranteed. Furthermore, classism works hand-in-hand with sexism and racism. Not only are women and people of color disproportionately paid less than men, but their work is also undervalued, and they are more likely to live in poverty. As a result, white supremacy and patriarchy are only strengthened. Money is power in a capitalist society… Feminists seek equality and social justice for these class issues.

Guerrilla Girls Feminist Art
Guerrilla Girls Billboard, 1989

The Guerrilla Girls are simultaneously a group of anonymous feminists, activists, and artists. They capture viewers’ attention through bold artworks displaying humor and facts that expose social corruption and gender or race bias. However, by remaining anonymous, the focus remains on the art’s message: fighting against discrimination and supporting human rights for ALL. The group’s work is often seen in a billboard format, ensuring to capture the attention of viewers with ease! 

Able-ism

Able-ism refers to a person’s ability to contribute to society; this is often determined by their physical and cognitive performance. The root of disability discrimination and misunderstanding derives from eugenics, an attempt to classify and dehumanize those with limitations. Feminism contributes to disability justice by exposing and debunking these claims. One could argue that it is physical, social, and political structures that impair these individualsit is not a personal tragedy.

Diane Arbus Feminism in Art
Diane Arbus, Girl In A Swimming Cap, 1970

Diane Arbus was interested in how society functions, particularly intermingling strangers and marginalized people. Her photographs are often shocking, unpopular, and reject hegemonic norms, thus creating a rupture in the status quo. Here, “Girl In A Swimming Cap”, evokes a more inclusive social subject by highlighting an individual who is unlikely to be the typical subject for art or photography. Arbus aims to make social outsiders feel more accepted and valid in everyday life. The artist is a social justice warrior, obsessively searching for the unconventional to prove its normalcy.


To conclude, feminism can be such a controversial topic because its meaning changes as time progresses. In order to remain a progressive, inclusive movement, feminists must adapt to the current times. Today, as a social justice movement, feminism adopts an intersectional lens that allows for a more inclusive society. As a global culture deeply entrenched in the hegemony of white suprematism and patriarchy, activists and artists alike are contributing to the awareness and exposure of social injustice, social morality, and the eradication of oppressed groups. Despite overcoming many milestones, there is still a long road ahead! Justice is a collective pursuit that ought to be founded upon intersectionality to abolish the remaining hierarchies. 

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