Montreal Panel Comments:

Feminist Art Criticism in International Perspective

Cynthia A. Freeland

What institutions provide the context of feminist art functioning; what is their distinctive history, and what are the future possibilities? I have three observations about the institutional structures in the background of feminist art practice. One is international, one is local, and one is transnational.

I was most impressed with two things concerning the arts during my stay as a visiting fellow in Australia.

First was the huge controversy that arose during the national sculpture exhibition in Canberra. To my surprise, this was not provoked by an installation called "Ingo's Dingoes" in which an artist named Ingo installed around 200 sheet metal dogs in the grass that is literally on the roof of the Australian Parliament House. Not only did this strike me as quite bold, but they had to move them every few days to keep the lawn mowed!

Rather, controversy erupted over a life-sized nude sculpture entitled "Liz and Phil down by the lake." To my own chagrin, I walked past this sculpture with mild amusement, without realizing it depicted Queen Elizabeth and consort. This sculpture become the focal point of symbolic and almost literal violence. Both figures were beheaded, though whether as a statement against Art or Empire was unclear. There were protests and shouting matches, pages and pages of letters in the major newspapers, and within a week the whole thing got dismantled. The episode brought home to me how locally volatile political topics may seem inscrutable and alien to outsiders. A taxi driver explained to me that the dingoes represented the spirit of Australian independence and so people liked them and their installation. But whether or not to leave the Commonwealth was the relevant hot button issue of the day, and so a firestorm was touched off by the other sculpture.

Second, I was impressed that the Autralian government had an articulated and published arts policy, Creative Nation, published in 1994 and compiled by a panel of artists. This document, among other things, explicitly asserted the rights of individuals to art experiences and to an artistic heritage, a claim unimaginable in the U.S. at the present time, where as we all know the NEA has been subject to attack, derision, and cuts. This leads directly to my observations about the local level.

I believe feminists need to be aware of implications of these Federal arts policy shifts for local government arts funding and support. I take Houston as a fairly typical example of a major U.S. city where federal government support through NEA of the majors--ballet, symphony, and opera--has been severely cut. This prompted the majors to launch a concerted attack on the city's Cultural Arts Council which is quite well-funded by local hotel taxes. (See CACHH at the Crossroads.) The majors, with support of the local newspaper, have won, which means that they will take their share of the city's sizeable arts funding pie straight off the top without competing. So the alternative arts spaces, which serve local communities and no doubt involve more women and minority artists, will get less money and some will fade. This is not necessarily bad in each case, but still makes things look grim on the feminist front, since all the majors are headed by white males. One former alternative space director (a white man incidentally) in a recent newsapaper letter challenges this as the "white good ol' boys" winning yet again.

Now I want to talk about another, potentially radical, institutional site for transnational feminism and feminist art practices and discourse, the World Wide Web. Of course, the Web has numerous arts-related resources that are not specifically feminist but are still very helpful, for example, ArtsWire which provides up-to-date coverage of "social, economic, philosophical, and political issues affecting the arts and culture" --for example, information on a recently formed advocacy group aiming to defend the N.E.A., Americans for the Arts.

And similarly, there are many general feminist resources available on-line. Their international character is indicated by names like "Global Fund for Women," or "Women's Intercultural Network," and "Women On-Line Worldwide."

Many of these general resources link up with useful information about international feminist artists and art events, upcoming conferences, and lots of actual work on-line, including experimental digital and interactive work.

This is not all a matter of bells and whistles; there is plenty of extended critical feminist analysis on the Web, too. For example, "City of Women: a site for women in the arts" in Slovenia carries the informative article "Reasons for anti-feminist views in Eastern Europe and ways of changing them".

Looking for women's art resources, I had an experience that is typical of the Web: following from the page for Creative Women: Words, Art, Images, Music, within five minutes I "visited" a Dutch painter, "Liesbet's atelier", an Israeli sculptor in Jerusalem, Kathy Salmanson, and the previously mentioned Slovenian site, which included the entire programme of an exciting-looking arts festival. Many of these web pages convey a real sense of foreignness, of meeting other people, and of travel. They use multiple languages, photographs, distinctive design, and varied contexts. For instance Liesbet, the Dutch artist, includes a tour of her virtual house; you can visit the gallery where she hosts the work of visiting artists from her community.

What most strikes me about the Web are some new critical strategies that I suspect are those of younger feminists. Despite what the Guerilla Girls tell us, the Internet is not 84.5% male--I refer you to the very impressive MIT-based pages by Ellen Spertus on Women and Computer Science, which carry information about percentages of women in computer science and engineering, as well as critical analyses and strategies, such as "Social and Technical Means of Fighting On-Line Harassment" which illustrates how to combat sites like Babes on the Web.

An example of these bold saucy new feminist critical strategies is "Brillo Magazine--extra abrasive" which is described as "an electronic magazine challenging the exclusion of white women and people of color from the new technologies." Brillo contains unusual sounding articles such as Paradigms and Perversions, a letter from the editor attacking stereotypes of women on the Web; and the very entertaining Hacking Barbie with the Barbie Liberation Organization.

An equally feisty site is "geekgirl" based in Australia, featuring seven complete issues of "the first cyberfeminist hyperzine" and T-shirts slogans like "Girls need modems." The current issue uses brilliant graphics--even if they are in pulsating lime green, fuschia, and neon pink. (Another site along the same lines is "Heartless Bitches International".

As you may gather, the Web offers a lot, and relying on it has challenged my national perspective in many ways. My own home pages have prompted queries and comments from as far away as China, Hungary, South Africa, and Portugal. One "meets" and "converses" internationally now in a way just not previously possible even two years ago, and so I think that the Web promotes a transnational perspective among scholars.

I saw a good example of this on the geekgirl site: a Japanese feminist group planning to visit Australia and New Zealand posted their schedule, inviting people to meet with them. Somewhat touchingingly they referred readers not to their home but their "hope" page--perhaps we see here the contemporary successor to the hope chest. (See HELLO TO AUSTRALIANS AND NEW ZEALANDERS!!" From women in Nagoya, Japan.)

Obviously the Web is not utopia, and it has limitations including sexism and limited access. Another frequent criticism concerns lack of standards and of depth. I really don't see the depth issue as a major problem. And I recommend we think twice about this issue of standards. True, there is as yet no critical screening on the Web, and e-journals in art criticism have yet to attain much credibility. But this is liberating in some sense, because everyone has equal opportunity, and everyone who can get to a networked computer has a voice. I think it can also be liberating if it frees us from the jargon of our professions and from the weight of turgid heavy theory. Web publication is a free-for-all now with directions remaining to be determined, and I want feminists--artists, critics, and philosophers--to have a voice in it.

Return to Cynthia Freeland's Home Page