A feminist in art school

Guerrilla Girls poster

Guerrilla Girls poster, 1989

I’m in grad school right now, pursuing an MFA in Printmaking. Maybe not the degree folks who know me from political work would expect. I was born with a crayon in my hand – I’ve been making art my whole life. I was blessed to attend the Boston Arts Academy, a public visual and performing arts high school (I wrote about this extraordinary school here). And my undergraduate thesis was in printmaking.

Working in politics in DC for the past two years sapped me of my passion and creativity – needless to say it wasn’t a great time for my art. So I couldn’t be happier to have moved to one of my favorite cities and to be attending San Francisco Art Institute. It’s a joy to make my art practice the center of my life again. I’m surrounded by professors and students who are having a critical, productive conversation about the issues in our work as well as technical skills. It’s an incredible opportunity to push my ideas and technique.

And art school is an odd place to be as a feminist. There are a lot of women pursuing an arts education now, but the art world is still overwhelmingly male dominated. As Courtney wrote earlier this year:

  • Only 8 percent of the work that the Museum of Modern Art exhibits is by women.
  • Only about 23 percent of solo gallery shows at top New York sites feature pieces by female artists.
  • Women are consistently only 15% of the names on Artforum‘s, Art + Auction‘s, and ArtReview‘s annual “power lists.”

Here’s some of the feminist issues that have stood out to me in my first month and a half of school. I’m planning to make this a semi-regular column over the next two years, because I know I want to have a conversation about art and feminism.

Louise Bourgeois' Fillette

Louise Bourgeois, Fillette, 1968

The phallus is everywhere. Sometimes I forget how obsessed men can be with penises. They’re seriously all over – in the art I’m looking at, the work my classmates are making, the theory I’m reading – even the institution’s architecture is pretty phallic (yes, of course the artists we’re looking at and theorists we’re reading are predominantly male). You think sports cars represent overcompensation? It’s amazing the amount of art that boils down to, “Hey, look at my big penis!” I’m having a fairly unsubtle reaction – my work is so vulvoform right now.

Obviously, there’s smart, critical work being done about the phallus too. My figure drawing professor Brett Reichman’s work deals with queer male sexuality and identity, and is full of huge phalluses. And I love it. You can check out his painting here (NSFW).

Feminism is a dirty word. I have one professor who’s publicly feminist – she’s a feminist art historian. Yet she reflexively apologizes every time she makes a feminist point in class. I get it – there really is a big stigma around feminism in the art world, certainly more intense than in other spaces where I’ve been recently. I’ve had conversations with other female artists who are making work that deals with what I consider feminist themes, but who don’t want to be identified as feminist artists. To be honest, I don’t know if I want to be labeled a feminist artist either. It definitely means people carry a certain set of ideas to your work no matter what. And it really is an economic issue when the art market is so male dominated. I’ve been doing some work on Feministing’s advertising lately, and it’s just not subtle – there’s way more money in marketing to men than there is in marketing to women. When you’re producing work for a largely female audience the work tends to be economically valued less. No surprise with massive gendered wage and wealth inequality.

My generation is full of artists engaging with feminist themes. Here’s the happy one. I’m connecting with a lot of classmates doing work about bodies and gender. My work engages with these themes, so it makes sense I’d find other folks engaging with similar topics. But it’s a pleasant surprise there’s so many of us. This is a big positive – art history is dominated by men using the female body as a vessel for their feelings, thoughts, and desires. Women have literally been turned into objects. So it’s an important turn that artists are engaging with this issue directly. I’m seeing other feminist themes in people’s work, too. My school’s had two shows about domestic space already this year, and I’ve got multiple classmates doing work with dollhouses, which fascinates me. I think this says something powerful about how feminist themes have become part of the popular consciousness. There was a time when there just wasn’t a public conversation about domestic space, but that’s far from the art I’m seeing around me now.

Boston, MA

Jos Truitt is Executive Director of Development at Feministing. She joined the team in July 2009, became an Editor in August 2011, and Executive Director in September 2013. She writes about a range of topics including transgender issues, abortion access, and media representation. Jos first got involved with organizing when she led a walk out against the Iraq war at her high school, the Boston Arts Academy. She was introduced to the reproductive justice movement while at Hampshire College, where she organized the Civil Liberties and Public Policy Program’s annual reproductive justice conference. She has worked on the National Abortion Federation’s hotline, was a Field Organizer at Choice USA, and has volunteered as a Pro-Choice Clinic Escort. Jos has written for publications including The Guardian, Bilerico, RH Reality Check, Metro Weekly, and the Columbia Journalism Review. She has spoken and trained at numerous national conferences and college campuses about trans issues, reproductive justice, blogging, feminism, and grassroots organizing. Jos completed her MFA in Printmaking at the San Francisco Art Institute in Spring 2013. In her "spare time" she likes to bake and work on projects about mermaids.

Jos Truitt is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Development.

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