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How Feminist Artists Shaped Women’s Self Image

'Self-Portrait Exaggerating My Negroid Features' by Adrian Piper
Cropped image courtesy of Adrian Piper
Wikimedia Commons -
'Self-Portrait Exaggerating My Negroid Features' by Adrian Piper

Feminist artists in the 1960s and ‘70s were tired of the dominant artistic representations of their bodies: idealized curves symbolizing fertility or pictures of dolled-up women used in marketing campaigns. They wanted to make work that was brash and unapologetic — art that pushed boldy against the societal roles that women were traditionally assigned. Their new creations allowed them to start a conversation with one another outside of a male-dominated system. 

Photo of Kimberly Lamm
Credit Courtesy Kimberly Lamm
Author Kimberly Lamm shares stories of feminist artists who braved backlash in order to expand how the public perceives women's societal roles.

In her new book, “Addressing the other woman: Textual correspondences in feminist art and writing,” (Manchester University Press/ 2018) scholar Kimberly Lamm analyzes the enduring legacy of a few of the female artists who contributed to the feminist art movement. Host Frank Stasio talks with Lamm, an associate professor of gender, sexuality, and feminist studies at Duke University, about their legacy. 

Interview Highlights

Kimberly Lamm on the legacy of feminist artist Adrian Piper:

She’s the first artist to bring conceptual art to bear on questions of race and gender. And she worked with the interplay of words and images to really break down how sexism and racism shapes how people see – what she identified as kind of the visual pathologism of racism and sexism … I think she would see the icon of a black man with a gun as part of the visual pathology that people don’t reflect on. And she used language and addressed viewers to get them to read images and read icons of black women and understand that the culture’s fears and fantasies are projected upon their bodies.

On the backlash artist Mary Kelly faced for her work:

There was the early part of “Post-Partum Document” where she actually displays the sheaths of her child’s diapers and anotates them with notes about what the child ate. This is a work that maternal figures have to do when weaning the child from breastfeeding that is embarrassing, and no one wants to talk about. She made it part of this very serious exhibition, and she was excoriated in the press. She talks about the fact that she has a file of the newspaper clippings where the British tabloid press were, you know, sort of yelling with the headlines “Dirty Nappies.” And she writes about that as being traumatic to encounter how much heat she got for being positioned as a bad, perverse, horrible mother.

On how feminist artists recognized their fight as a long game:

I don’t think we’ve overcome many of the issues feminist art raised in the 1960s and ‘70s. But one of the things they ask us to do is to kind of let go of our idea of progress and not always measure feminism in terms of progress. They were invested, I would say, in what Juliet Mitchell calls the long revolution. And that these ideas about racial and sexual subordination are taking place in what Mary Kelly would identify as the unconscious, and so they aren’t going to be overcome quickly. And we are going to continue to be stunned about the frequency with which these issues continue to appear. 

Laura Pellicer is a digital reporter with WUNC’s small but intrepid digital news team.
Longtime NPR correspondent Frank Stasio was named permanent host of The State of Things in June 2006. A native of Buffalo, Frank has been in radio since the age of 19. He began his public radio career at WOI in Ames, Iowa, where he was a magazine show anchor and the station's News Director.