I just began and finished Judy Chicago's 1975 memoir, Through The Flower: My Struggle as A Woman Artist. She was born as Judy Gerowitz in 1939, my mother's generation, changing her name in 1969 "as an act of identifying myself as an independent woman" (63). Reading the autobiography was fascinating, giving me a glimpse of the adult world that existed while I was in elementary school, giving me a glimpse of just how hard it was for a woman to be an artist in the 1960s, and 70s, and before. I knew I wanted to be an artist when I was about four years old, and it never occurred to me that I wouldn't be one. But Chicago's story is different. I'm still on the edge, the outskirts, except for having heard of The Dinner Party and having seen a video of the 1974 pyrotechnic work, A Butterfly for Oakland at the Oakland Museum last year, I don't know her work very well, although I feel I should. But the book helped me comprehend just what Feminism meant at the time and makes the work she did understandable.
I knew Feminism as "Women's Lib," and thought that it was about equality, which made perfect sense to me. I grew up with a strong sense of independence and the desire that people just be allowed to be people, without labels. Chicago's sentence articulates what I felt, too: "I had learned early that the world's perceptions of a person are not necessarily true, so I tended to discount comments and attitudes that conflicted with my own sense of what was right" (29). I was also too young to know about the "male gaze" (coined by Laura Mulvey in her 1975 essay, "Visual Pleasure in Narrative Cinema" which you can read in the collection, Visual and Other Pleasures), that objectifies women. I'm highly sensitive to it now, particularly as I read stories by or for young men.
If you don't know much about Judy Chicago, you should know that she did not start out with the idea to separate herself and create "women's" art. She was ignored, belittled, and harassed along the way to becoming a serious artist. "I was continually made to feel by men in the art world that there was something 'wrong' with me." In her relationship with a male artist she writes, "If I showed work and Lloyd didn't, then I was held responsible for his not being shown." Among other things, she was called "bitch" and "castrater" (39). Although she spoke her mind and seemed confident, the word that appears most frequently in the book is "frightened." And sometimes she used the word to describe her feelings about the art she was making. She was taking a risk using imagery not generally found in art: imagery that related to female genitalia from a female perspective. Sometimes it was disguised, often overt. From the book I don't get the feeling that her work was meant to shock, but rather meant to be seen in a particular context. Always, to her, she was attempting to express an emotion, pulling from deep inside herself, something that was not done at the time and that seemed to disgust her male professors.
Who had the power? The politics could not be separated from the art. What Chicago ultimately did was to gather women together so they did not feel alone, so they did not have to figure out how to negotiate an art world that was hostile towards them, that wouldn't take them and their work seriously. The women had to start by accepting themselves and their stories and seeing them worthy of being expressed and formed. "We wanted to train women to educate other women, to move out into the world and establish classes based upon the techniques that had helped them to become independent, confident, and productive human beings" (196). Chicago herself has been productive since 1975. You can see her work and read more at her website.
Chicago's writing resonated with me, perhaps more than pictures of her art. "I couldn't go to a movie without encountering the most distorted female characters, women who didn't bear any resemblance to this 'person' I felt myself to be" (51). While now, in 2015, we do have female characters who are strong, articulate, who age, who are comfortable in their bodies and with themselves, we also still have those "distorted female characters," and it has been forty years since she wrote that sentence. As a child I remember thinking that we had solved a problem, had changed the world, and now we could move on. But it doesn't work that way. We don't get to rest. Certain fights for dignity and rights are constant. They are political rights. And they are the rights to be heard and seen and taken seriously as artists, as women, as people. Although it has been forty years since it was first published, Judy Chicago's book and artwork still stir up the issues, a good starting point. The discussion must continue. Or begin again.