The Feminist Critique, Fifty Years Later

Nancy Grossman (born 1940, New York, NY), A.M.X., 1969–70. Wood with nailed and stitched leather; 35 × 18.7 × 24 cm. Princeton University Art Museum. Museum purchase, John Maclean Magie, Class of 1892, and Gertrude Magie Fund. © Nancy Grossman Fifty years ago the feminist critique of society, which was rapidly gaining larger cultural and political currency, finally erupted within the field of art history. It quickly became clear that this critique not only concerned the status of women artists past and present but also had the potential to radically revolutionize the discipline. The challenges that the feminist critique posed to the fields of art history and contemporary art were the subject of my fall 2024 course “The Feminist Critique, Fifty Years Later” in the Department of Art and Archaeology, cross-listed with the Programs in Gender and Sexuality Studies and Visual Arts. The course drew heavily on the Museum’s rich collection of works related to this topic, which we had the great privilege and pleasure of examining in person and discussing as a group in frequent visits to the Museum’s off-site classroom.

Our seminar began by investigating major relevant works from the collection that immediately predated the emergence of the self-identified feminist critiques of art history and within contemporary art in the 1970s. We turned to artworks in various media that represented and abstracted from the female body, visually analyzing and comparing examples by Lynda Benglis, Nancy Grossman, Niki de Saint Phalle, Andy Warhol, Tom Wesselmann, and Hannah Wilke to build a historical account of the artistic and political possibilities of that moment. In the so-called second-wave feminist landscape defined by Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (1949) and Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963), was there any visual evidence for (or against) a feminist political consciousness among visual artists, male and female? Could a female artist express male subjectivity? Or was that a logical impossibility? Sometimes, we found, art could contain ostensibly contradictory ideas and realities that ran counter to the dominant culture and then-current feminisms.

upclose painting of a white flower against a pink background.Our study of feminist critiques of the 1970s revealed the myriad ways in which contemporary art and historical research demanded and enriched one another. The art historian Linda Nochlin’s celebrated polemic “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” (1971) was inspired by the question that she herself had been asked by a well-intentioned male gallerist, who was searching for women artists to exhibit in his gallery but unable to find any whose work equaled that of the men he was showing. Nochlin’s superbly researched and reasoned answer—focusing on the importance of the educational opportunities denied to women—devastated both leading feminists, who were insisting upon the greatness of women artists, and Nochlin’s colleagues in art history, who were clinging to the myth of the Great Artist whose genius triumphed despite all odds. Thanks to the historical depth of the Museum’s collection, we were able to follow in the footsteps of the 1970s feminists in search of their foremothers and explore the works and times of Angelica Kauffmann, Rosa Bonheur, and Georgia O’Keeffe.

a black and white photo of a woman kneeling in a kitchen holding a small radio in right hand.Why did Rosa Bonheur (1822–1899), who taught in the women’s art school that her Saint-Simonian father founded, declare her disdain for the women’s rights conventions that her generation of women was organizing? Why did Georgia O’Keeffe (1887–1986) reject the 1970s feminists who claimed her as their forebear, even though she had been an ardent feminist and member of the suffragist National Women’s Party in the 1910s? Why did Bonheur become an animal painter and O’Keeffe a flower painter? We developed a concrete historical consciousness of feminism, focusing on the nuances of individual positions and gaining an appreciation for the role that internal debate, or critique among feminists, played within feminism.

The remainder of our seminar was concerned with the legacies of the 1970s feminist critiques, including the strong reactions, as well as the underacknowledged debts, to the dominant feminist art of that decade. We also revisited unresolved critical and historical debates from the 1980s and beyond: Was postmodernist art feminist or postfeminist? Was surrealism misogynistic or proto-feminist? Finally, we looked at the art of the 1990s through the 2020s associated with cyberfeminism, global feminism, and transfeminism with a feminist critical eye, driven by the goal of understanding not only our present but also what has become of the feminist critical eye itself.

AnnMarie Perl
Associate Research Scholar and Lecturer, Department of Art & Archaeology