The feminist art movement that officially began in the 1960’s refers to the efforts and accomplishments of feminists who made art reflecting women’s lives and experiences. In doing so, it brought more visibility to female artists and was a very influential political statement in itself. It was a movement that consisted of various artists and the general public alike, who all fought for the same things, equality, women’s liberation and women’s rights.
Artists that made more than their fair share of political statements through their art were the likes Ghada Amer and Barbara Kruger. The issues that they addressed were ideologies commonly held in society and were issues that they intended to change. In this case, the challenging task that the artists dealt with in the following works, is the issue of equality between males and females, through examining the issue of the ‘predominant male gaze’ -acknowledged all throughout Feminist art history. In La Jaune, 1999, Ghada Amer addresses the idea of the ‘male gaze’, and the representation of the ‘female identity’. With We Won’t Play Nature to Your Culture, 1983, Barbara Kruger uses direct address exploring the ‘gendering way of looking, and focusing on the predominant ‘male gaze’ and works to favor the ‘female gaze’.
The issues that feminist artists fight for have been around for many centuries, but only up until the 1960’s had it truly been acknowledged. Although during the years 1850 to 1914 had the first official wave of feminism occurred, the feminist movement gave way to several women activists part taking in the political actions performed by all-female organizations scanning across the globe, that also gave way to the three -then- newly founded, very influential groups of women who protested and demanded there be equality between men and women in all aspects of life. First to be acknowledged are the Suffragettes, who triggered off other women’s movements campaigning for women’s suffrage, namely the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), and from the rights movement in 1848, the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). These political groups utilize manual mass production of political posters in order to spread their messages, and like the discussed works of Amer and Kruger, their artworks addressed the ‘gendering way of looking’. In saying that, these are works of the two artists that are primarily concerned with patriarchy in the viewing of their artworks to do with the representation of the female identity, and what they can do to change this ‘gendering way of looking’.
Barbara Kruger is one of the more acknowledged female artists that do this; use visual, and verbal messages to communicate their ideas. All throughout the three waves of feminism, the ‘male gaze’ has remained a dominant universal issue, intensifying throughout the years through that of bold statements made by artists like Barbara Kruger herself. The concept of the ‘gendering way of looking’ became a visual construct through the way the male visual ideology treats the woman as an object of art to secure the artist as primarily male.
Through the artwork, We Won’t Play Nature to your Culture, 1983, Barbara Kruger directly approaches the concept of the dominant ‘male power’ and redirects this power to favor the female audience. She communicates her belief in refuting the idea of men being the producer of culture, and women merely being a product of nature.
Although she wasn’t a feminist artist so to speak, Ghada Amers’ work, La Jaune, 1999, speaks loudly to the ideologies that feminist artists held, namely the concept of addressing the ‘male gaze’. Through this work, she works to communicate, and challenges us to rethink the way in which women are represented in society. Amer asks us to rethink the issue of presenting female sexuality in the media by focusing on a cultural aspect of the Western world – extracting pornographic imagery from sex industry magazines and representing them in copied and traced images. By doing this, Amer directly addresses the idea of the ‘male gaze’ through presenting women as sexual objects, as men still had greater power to look”.
In response to the degradation of the representation of females as sexual objects, Amer is concerned with this being an issue in dire need of recovery. The idea that women, and the images of women, are constructed in order to be looked at by men – and was constructed with theories in art history, especially those about the female nude – was an idea that Amer sought to change. So in saying that, Amers’ work is a direct attempt at making women prime viewers, and make it impossible for the dominant ideologies -such as the ‘male gaze’- of feminism to recuperate.
Amers’ approach to the idea of reclaiming female pleasure- and in turn, intending to change the idea of the predominant ‘male gaze’- prevents the viewer from subjecting to the common ideologies that this work was intended to change, the ideology that “women are supposed to make themselves passively receptive, and men are supposed to seek out their pleasures.”
The idea of reclaiming female pleasure embeds itself in La Jaune, and the two levels on which Amer interprets ‘pleasure’ help to convey this concept. As seen evident in the work is the physical pleasure, which is made to appeal to the ‘male gaze’, and reclaiming the feminine activity of sewing through the embroidery also evident in La Jaune. Although the representation of the female figure is displayed as an erotic object of desire, the veil of cotton that partially hides the imagery helps to guide the viewer’s attention evade the concept of sexuality and the work becomes a purely busy, colourful painting.
Politically speaking, the works by these two very different influential female artists speak to the universally held ideology of the predominant ‘gendering way of looking’, addressing the concept of the ‘male gaze’ through the representation of the female identity. The concept of giving female perspective dominance over that of the ‘male gaze’ is the main objective of the selected works that have been discussed in this essay. Through Ghada Amers’, La Jaune, 1999, she reclaimed the idea of female pleasure, acknowledged the ‘male gaze’ and commented on the degradation of the ‘female identity’ through her attempt to recover it. Barbara Kruger’, We Won’t Play Nature to Your Culture, 1983, did what all feminists tried to accomplish, she created art that directly addressed the issue of the ‘gendering way of looking’, and gave privilege to the ‘female gaze’ above the validation of the predominant ‘male gaze’.