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.

Read more about Jos

Join the Conversation

  • http://feministing.com/members/azure156/ Jenny Gonzalez-Blitz

    I’m a little perplexed that to illustrate your point about male artists obsessed with the phallus, there a piece by Louise Bourgeois? Not that I don’t think she was a great and passionate artist!

    It seems older women artists I’ve met are more unapolegetic about their feminism and the discrepancies in the art world. Or even ones I’ve not met but read about. I’m looking forward to more columns about art and feminism!

    • http://feministing.com/members/jos/ Jos

      I definitely know what you’re talking about with that generational divide among artists. So I totally hear you. I went with some older pieces for illustrating this post since I’m planning to focus on more contemporary work in the future (and cause I’m obsessed with Bourgeois’ work).

  • http://feministing.com/members/veritykhat/ Verity Khat

    Thank you thank you thank you for posting about this (and with a Guerilla Girls poster, no less)! My art school undergrad experience, well, occasionally interesting, because apparently as an artist you’re not supposed to Express Things that challenge the white male brain. Drove me BONKERS. (Had more than one fight with a professor, actually…) Cannot wait for these discussions!

    Kick ass with that Printmaking MFA, btw. ^_^ I wish I’d had time to do more with that in school. What’s your favorite form?

    • http://feministing.com/members/jos/ Jos

      Ooh yay I get to talk printmaking! :) I use primarily intaglio, woodcut, and monoprint techniques. I like more immediate and organic processes, so I do a lot of drypoint. Lots of combining processes too. Right now, I’m focusing on showing the action of my body through my mark making, so I’m creating these really violent drypoints by hacking at the plate with a scraper. It’s totally a performance piece in the printshop.

      • http://feministing.com/members/veritykhat/ Verity Khat

        Shit! That sounds awesome AND fun! I’m joining the chorus of please to see your work; let me know if you need any support getting that website up. ^_^

  • http://feministing.com/members/marlene/ Marlene

    Ok Jos. I’ll forgive you for your modesty. Please link to your work if it can be found on the web. You know we want to see it.

    • http://feministing.com/members/jos/ Jos

      Oh don’t worry, I won’t be too modest! Working on getting my website set up ASAP, and I do plan to illustrate some future posts with my work as well.

  • http://feministing.com/members/emilyk/ Emily

    interesting piece. Jane Kaufman did a lecture at my school a few weeks ago and it was really interesting and inspiring!

  • http://feministing.com/members/corysaurus/ Cory

    I’m not trying to be insulting when I ask this, I truly want to know –

    So many women outnumber men in art school, and have been for awhile – why do men still dominate the art world? Most kids, I think, have a fair shake at this point, but men are still the big names. Is it because women are expected to become mothers, so they don’t try as hard as men?

    • http://feministing.com/members/jos/ Jos

      I think Courtney nailed a big part of the problem in this great piece at The American Prospect.

    • http://feministing.com/members/azure156/ Jenny Gonzalez-Blitz

      This is only one anecdote, but it may offer some insight–I had one art school illustration teacher (an older male) who would be very critical when the female students portrayed “masculine” subject matter in their work (weaponry, machines) or even “neutral” subject matter (animals, buildings), but would be encouraging only when they portrayed “feminine” subject matter (florals, ballerinas). I’d eventually start filling my sketchbook with things like tutu’d pixies driving tanks and choppers, just to be annoying.

      Now maybe this was just one guy and his asinine binary hangups, but is it also possible that though girls may outnumber boys in art school the instruction and feedback they’re receiving may vary?

  • http://feministing.com/members/emmogood/ Emily Elizabeth

    So I would fall into the category like your prof as a Feminist Art Historian (I am doing my PhD at another California art school, no less) and I think you are spot on with thinking that feminism is viewed as a dirty word sometimes in the art community and there are a lot of reasons for this.

    The biggest problem I have found in my course of study is that women artists are always labeled as “feminist” even when they are not (i.e. Helen Frankenthaler, who really just wanted work with the AbEx boys) or because they are women, women artist’s work tends to be read differently from mens either as too much about the bodily/maternal matrix or about portraying the female sensibility/psyche in art. A lot of this has to do with nature of Feminist discourse as it moved to the forefront in the 1970s and 80s, (concurrent with a major batch of self-identified Feminist artists working through many of the issues that pertain to women in general and women in the arts), with a huge dependence on psychoanalytic and to some extent post-structuralist theory.

    The problem with being a feminist in the art world really lies in situating yourself in both in relation to the humanities centered feminist discourse that requires keeping your finger on the pulse of Freudian/Kristevan psychoanalytic readings while also maintaining your third-wave (or fourth, depending on how you count) interest in the social and political issues that still plague women worldwide. Feminism as discursive study tends to overlook feminism as a political/social movement and tends to disregard a thorough analysis of historically specific and relevant gender ideologies. These things were a really big deal in the start of Feminist Art History (see Linda Nochlin/Griselda Pollack), but in the past 20 years or so there’s been a migration towards Dr. Freud and his cigar. It’s a big problem, but it’s one I know theorists (at least I am) are trying to confront.

    Good luck in grad school. And yeah, it’s kind of hard to be a feminist in art school.

    • http://feministing.com/members/jos/ Jos

      OMG seriously, the labeling of Frankenthaler as “feminist” makes zero sense to me, so glad to see someone else say that!

    • http://feministing.com/members/veritykhat/ Verity Khat

      Oh gawd, Frankenthaler. >_< As in politics, just because the artist is female does not make her art feminist. ART WORLD, WHY U NO UNDERSTAND SUCH SIMPLE CONCEPT?!

  • http://feministing.com/members/cdugdale/ Christina Dugdale

    I completely agree with you! I go to SFAI too! Im a undergrad photo major, possibly printmaking minor. Im writing a paper on the Guerrilla Girls for my english class, their great! we should get them to have a talk at SFAI(:

  • http://feministing.com/members/wilmapineapple/ Laura VanCamp

    I’m kinda curious to see how feminism is done in your MFA program, cause in mine its kind of a dirty word. Not some much with the professors but with my fellow students. Part of me would just like to thinks its because I’m in the south, but the majority of my fellow grad students are not from the south.

    I also look forward to seeing some images of your work.

  • http://feministing.com/members/lilya/ La Chascona

    For those of you interested in taking a look a female artist who doesn’t receive nearly as much recognition as she deserves, please check out Andrea Eisenberg. She sculpts figurative nudes, often larger than life-size. Also, she is my mother.
    I think those of you who appreciate great art will really enjoy her work. http://www.andreaeisenberg.com

  • http://feministing.com/members/nyin/ Nicci

    I love that you are starting a dialogue about art and feminism! There are so many sticky nuances in the intersection between the two, on so many different levels: art-making, the business of art, academia, etc. I’m currently working on my undergrad in art and minoring in women’s, gender, and sexuality studies so would love to continue seeing posts from this column.

  • http://feministing.com/members/mkhyde623/ MKHyde

    Thank you so much for posting this! I really hope you continue this as a column.
    I recently started my Undergrad at SAIC in Chicago. Coming from a conservative republican (and southern, nonetheless) family and city, it’s so refreshing to have peers and teachers who don’t consider my passion a nice hobby until I have kids. However, even though my school is mostly female, and so much more woman-friendly than I am used to, I still feel the stigma of being a feminist, even in art school. Mostly, I think people just don’t understand what it’s about. A few weeks ago, I made a passing comment to a female friend about being a “hardcore feminist” and she looked at me like I had said I was a ginger suprematist (I’m a gleek), and said “Well I just think everyone should be treated the same”. I was kind of struck dumb for a minute- I couldn’t believe someone here would actually believe that feminism was about promoting women over anyone else. I even had a guy friend who thought Slutwalk was some sort of porn. I guess it just goes to show that even somewhere as liberal and open-minded as art school, feminists still has a lot of work to do.