Describe the social issues that have affected American feminist/post-modernist art in the late twentieth century and describe the evidence of this context in TWO art works. Explain the relationships between you selected art works and the social issues that have contributed to them. To what extent have social issues encouraged feminist/postmodernist artists to explore new forms of art? Feminist ideas emerged in the late 20th century as a result of a backwards slide in the independence and status of women in the post-war 1950s. The first wave of feminism had seen women demanding economic and political equality with men. In the wake of the Enlightenment period and the revival of Reason, the industrial revolutions lead women taking jobs to protest against low wages and poor working conditions and finally demand the right to vote, a feat that was achieved in the USA in 1912. However, after World War 11, when American “boys” returned from the front, working women were encouraged to return to the role of the obedient housewife, able to comfort, cook and clean for their husbands. The media began to pitch a new doctrine at women, pressuring them to fulfil their lives through fuelling America’s prospering consumer market, and becoming the “perfect housewives”. With the increased political awareness of the civil rights movement, women realised that they too were being discriminated against and needed to fight for their rights, leading to the second wave of feminism. American Feminist artists such as Miriam Schapiro and Judy Chicago were influenced by the concerns raised by the second wave of feminism. Issues such as the use of the contraceptive pill, abortion, rape, and women’s “rightful” role and lack of recognition in society became the stimulus for their art, reinforced by the works of leading feminist writers such as Germaine Greer, Betty Friedan and Simone De Beauvoir. Two artworks that clearly demonstrate the influence of these social issues are The Dinner Party by Judy Chicago and Your Body is a Battleground by Barbara Kruger. Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party reflects feminist concerns about the role of women in society and their lack of recognition. Chicago’s installation was inspired by an academic dinner party at which Chicago noticed that “the men at the table were all professors and the women all had doctorates but weren’t professors,” and that the women were silent, in a role of submission, while the men did all the talking. The installation’s three long tables holding the dinner plates were placed in a triangle, with 13 plates along each side and 999 women’s names written on the floor inside the triangle. Chicago use of “3” and the triangle provides a reference to the chalice, a symbol of the female being. The overwhelming size of the installation makes the symbolic triangle seem corporate, powerful and unavoidable, which in conjunction with the carefully, crotched, knitted, and embroidered runners that accompany each plate displays the idea that women’s craft, work and achievement in history refuses to be undermined, and women’s role in 70s society must change to honour this. The choice of women and design for the dinner plates is also evidence of the feminist concern for the role of women in society. Chicago designs her plates to accentuate the femaleness of the people sitting at the table, and therefore challenge the idea that women should play server at the “dinner party” but not participate in the intellectual discussion at the table. Elizabeth I’s plate depicts a shape suggestive of the vagina, made up of large scalloped circles and mix of royal blue and red colour. The plates runner features Elizabeth’s lavish, majestic signature. Here Chicago associates the quintessential Elizabethan ruff, colours and symbols of royalty and status with the symbol of femininity, emphasizing the fact that Elizabeth was a woman in a role of power. By displaying proudly the femaleness of a woman who defied expectations to marry and never submitted to a King or husband, Chicago sets an example for women in her society and also challenges patriarchal belief that a woman’s place is not at the table but in the kitchen. Barbara Kruger’s Your Body is a Battleground can provide a response to the issues of women’s control over their own bodies in terms of abortion and contraception. It features a photograph of a woman’s face split in half, with one side in positive art and the other in negative art. Over the top of this the words “Your body/is a/battleground” are planted in white font on confronting red bands. The left half of the image resembles the facial structure of the “perfect woman”, while the second half resembles an x-ray that pierces through the woman’s outer-appearance. As x-rays are used to diagnose fractures or spot cancers, this immediately suggests the idea that something sinister lies underneath the facade of “female perfection” promoted by the media. The contrasting colours of each half set up a conflict between positive and negative art that alongside the word “body” suggests this sinister undercurrent is the inner torment and struggle of women to have control over their bodies despite pressure from a patriarchal society. The application of the word “battleground” also suggests that women’s bodies and body image is what suffers from this pressure and those who wish to control what women can and cannot do with their bodies. What makes this work interesting is that its specific feminist meaning can change depending on its positioning. Kruger placed a painting with the same message beside a “pro-life” anti-abortion billboard. In contrast with the message condemning abortion, the work became a voice that reminded viewers of the “battle” that the body and mind goes through in giving birth to and raising an unwanted child, and thus a work that promotes the right for a woman to choose whether she wants to keep a baby. The social issues of feminism in Modern America were far more significant in the art of feminist artist Judy Chicago than that of Barbara Kruger. This is partly due to the fact that many of Kruger’s works cross-over into the realm of post-modernism, commenting on a wide range of political issues, not just feminist concerns. The influence of feminist concerns such as that of the submissive role of women in society encouraged Judy Chicago to explore new forms of art that not only questioned patriarchal society but the conventions of high art as well. Her aim to raise the profile of women in society and challenge the roles of submission allowed her to develop “core imagery” or forms based on the female genitalia and womb, which celebrated womanhood and empowered women. This new form of art, partially foreshadowed by artist Georgia O’Keefe, shocked viewers and challenged the taboo around revealing “women’s parts” in phallocentric art. A male critic of the work was challenged by a woman who said “Men have been calling us cunts for centuries; don’t you think it’s time we glorified it?” In contrast the social issues of feminism were not as exclusively significant in the development of Barbara Kruger’s art. Kruger’s works aim to deconstruct power structures in general; the patriarchal society was just one power structure that Kruger aimed to “deconstruct”, amongst other issues such as capitalism and the elitist high art world. It is true that feminist concerns inspired Kruger to appropriate images of women from the 1950s housewife era (such as those in Your Body is a Battleground and Its a small world but not if you have to clean it) and juxtapose them with bold, witty statements carrying layers of meaning about the state of women. However the unique new form of art she produced was more significantly influenced by the rise of Post-Modernism in which artists began to critique the idea of the “original masterpiece”, and break down barriers between different art forms, often borrowing parts of other texts and assembling them together with pastiche.
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