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Title: Not For Sale: Feminism and Art in the USA during the 1970s
Author: Laura Cottingham, 1998
From the Apex Art brochure text produced for the video essay, Not For Sale
Not For Sale: Feminism and Art in the USA during the 1970s
From the Apex Art brochure text produced for the video essay, Not For SaleLaura Cottingham, 1998
On the making of Not For Sale
lt was a desire for history - to know, to acknowledge, and to actively produce history - that motivated me to begin the work that has become, six years later, a 90-minute video tape called Not For Sale: Feminism and Art in the USA during the 1970s. Prior to this project, contemporary art had been my primary focus. Although the basis of my work had been established according to feminist concerns from the moment I began writing art crticism while still in college during the early eighties, it wasn't until 1992 that it first made sense to me to go back to "the feminist decade." As I witnessed an echo of the '70s reverberating in contemporary works by Janine Antoni, Cheryl Dunye, Ava Gerber, Sue Willams, Lynne Yamamoto and other artists, I became aware of how little I knew about the Feminist Art Movement. Given that the late sixties and early seventies marked the moment in American history when women first identified themselves consciously as a political group and organized for the right to participate in cultural production as a visual artist, it seemed imperative to me to attempt to locate this radical departure, situate the terms of its emergence, and preserve its outward appearance before it was to late to do so.
In addition to its relation to my professional practice as an art critic, returning to the 1970s allowed me acces to my own autobiographical history. As a teenager during the '70s, this decade shaped my earliest self-adopted beliefs. Although too young to have actively witnessed , I have vivid childhood memories of the events circa '68 as the impact of the Women's Liberation Movement and the mobilization for civil rights and Black Power, anti-militarism and student rights, Gay Rights and general challenge of the authority that errupted in the United States during the sixties and seventies, one is left to address the work left undone, the changes still to be made, the political tensions as yet unresolved. Where and how do we locate ourselves, individually and collectively, in this process called history?
Politcs and art both share the foundational premise consisting, ultimately, of a consideration of values; and of being defined and played out according to what resources are or are not available. In the intersection between politics and art that occasioned the emergence of the Feminist Art Movement, the multiple and often contradictory artistic positions adopted by its particpants were quite diverse and more united by their obvious departure from and against Greenbergian formalism than they are by any other organizing nomenclature.
Not For Sale introduces and reintroduces some of the art, artists, and activities of the Feminist Art Movement. Many contemporary artistic strategies and modes of production that are taken for granted in the 1990s -including video and performance works, activist-based practices, collective art efforts, sculpture and painting that incorporate matter and processes previously dismissed as craft, autobiography as subject, archival-based installations and explorations in identity politics were first introduced and championed within the broad based aesthetics and practices that constituted the Feminist Art Movement. Athough the most significant legacy of the Feminist Art Movement - its construction of a deliberately female subjectivity and its demand that women be allowed to participate in cultural productions in the role of the artist - was often naive, unstable, contradictory, and partial, it nonetheless irrevocably transformed the terms of cultural production, and the aesthetic of American Modernism.
Much of the research base for Not For Sale was drawn from personal archives of the 1970s feminist artists had assembled for themselves and their peers.Sharing slide reproductions was one response of the Feminist Art Movement. Although 35mm slides were the standard format for researching, of art made in the1970s, in the United States, this format was not well suited to the video-medium, and Not For Sale would be a very different product if it were, for instance, literary rather than a virtual exhibition. As with any historical project, documentation - the literal materiality of the documents, including their accessibility. readabilty and reproduction quality - greatly influenced not only the parameters of my own knowledge as a researcher, but also the possibilities available for transferring this information into the specific terms accepted by, in this case video.
Because so few women had commercial support for their art during the 1970s, a sizable amount of the art works I located had been reproduced and preserved according to substandard technical conditions. Even the works produced in the then-new media of video and performance were often resistant to being historicized in video in the 1990s, as many performances had purposely not been documented (out of deference to an aesthetics based in exclusively realtime experience) while other - time-based vvorks that were documented were reproduced in half-inch reel-to-reel had not been transferred to a subsequent video format and were therefore literally lost (first generation video tape is fugitive, much like Polaroid photography) or only partially retrievable. Working on Not For Sale has brought me closer to the reality behind the myth of the possibilities available for revisionist history, especially when undertalken to uncover poitically marginalized cultural products and events. Athough a revisionist reading of dominant cultural artifacts is likely to least possible revisionist reclamation of marginalized culural properties remain unlikely and difficult. Despite different obstacles to historicization, the art and artists featured in Not For Sale nonetheless account for less than 5% of the archival imagery I have assembled - itself only a small fraction of the social activities, paintings, political organizing, sculptures, panel discussions, performances, videos, consciousness-raising sessions, postal mailings, activist efforts, installions and other art activities that occured in response to and contemporaneous with the Feminist Art Movement that emerged during the 1970s throughout the United States. While researching, I was conscious of not wanting to repeat the terms of exclusion dictated according to"majority politics". Although the majority of women active in the feminist activist and art movements were white and heterosexual, non-white women and lesbians actively participated from the beginning of the Second Wave and I wanted Not For Sale to reflect this.
Although the movement was national, Not For Sale is based toward activities that occurred in and around New York and Los Angeles. Even so, some events of obvious historical relevance to the concerns of Not For Sale are notably lacking due to my inability to locate either existing or functionai visual documents. My own aesthetic and political interests also guided the selection process. I chose works that compelled me as well as those that seem to best represent some of the movement's dominant aesthetic tendencies and artistic investigations. The participants in the Feminist Art Movement arrived from different artistic and educational backgrounds. Some wanted to transform traditional European-derived media, such as painting and sculpture, with feminist awareness, others, most notably the African American artists, sought to introduce non-European aesthetics and values into the American visual vocabulary. Still others eschewed object-making altogether in favor of performative strategies, championed video as the new frontier of artistic democracy, called for an elimination of the division between craft and fine Art, united the aims of artistic freedom with those of political activism, or set forth an aesthetics based in an understanding of introducing female experience and female-coded labor, the female body, women's history, and individual autobiography as the foundations for a feminist art. Although the parameters of the Ferninist Art Movement can be charted according to specific historical determinants such as exhibitions, and other documents, the Movement vvas first and foremost and far from a unified front. The disagreements between its participants -some of which are overtly presented in Not For Sale, while others must be inferred by the viewer - are as crucial to its definition as the consensus that inspired and sustained it across ideological ruptures, personal frustrations, and a general lack of access to significant economic or institutional resources. Participants in the Feminist Art Movement of the 1970s were motivated to transform the underlying tenets of fine art including the production, critical evaluation, exhibition, distribution, and historical maintenance of art beyond terms dictated by sexism. The challenge they offered has yet to be met.
Laura Cottingham, New York 1998