In what ways is being creative positioned as part of a woman’s identity? This is the first post based on a series of digital collages I created, in which I explored the ways that ‘being woman’ affects how I express myself in the world. For me, an important of my sense of being in the world are forms of creative expressions. But I wonder what it is to be creative as a woman, and whether this is different from how we more broadly think of creativity without this social positioning (if indeed such a thing is possible).
There are many positive associations that I have with being and woman, and being creative. The etymology of ‘creative’ is Latin ‘creatus’, from ‘creare’- to make, bring forth, produce, procreate. Part of the earlier meaning was also associated with the ability to make things grow. These would all suggest women are creative beings, given these associations we have (for better or worse) of women and procreation. Another word I associate positively is the noun ‘creatrix’: a woman who creates. A beautiful and rare word, the etymology of creatrix means mother, creatress, authoress (of a situation), and it is the feminine form corresponding to creator.
But expressing creativity as a women is not without problems. There is a gendered dimension to creativity, particularly as it relates to the workplace. Research shows both men and women associate creativity with stereotypically ‘masculine’ traits such as independence and daring, contrasted with ‘feminine’ traits, such as cooperativeness and sensitivity. Creativity denotes agency, which is attributed more readily to men than women. Creativity in women is often associated with traditional female craft work such as quilting, knitting, paper cutting: activities that are linked to home rather than workplace economies. It is the latter that determines what is ‘really valuable’. Feminist scholars give voice to the complex relationship contemporary women artists experience towards these traditional crafts and their own self-identify as artists in a creative process.
Since the 1970s, feminists have worked to bring to light the gender loaded language of art, art history and art theory. Over this time, women artists themselves have directly created art from ‘feminine experience’, including exploration of female bodies from a feminist perspective, and often using traditional female imagery, such as Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party, 1974–9. More recent feminist artists question these earlier representations of female bodies and characteristics, suggesting these are socially constructed. In a review essay, Susan Ballard and Agnieszka Golda look at a range of contemporary approaches that critique narrow models of feminism, pointing to The Dinner Party as an example of the “Euro-American tendency of second wave feminist artists to cast essentialising nets over women’s experiences”. Ballard and Golda suggest that contemporary feminism is more aware of making ‘universalising claims’ about the experience of women, when these experiences do not reflect the lived lives for many women across the globe. Contemporary feminists are aware that they intersect in a global context with other markers of identity including race, class, gender and ethnicity. It’s important to rethink the complex set of connections between art and feminist politics in the context of other forms of politicised identity, suggest Ballard and Golda. It is important to give voice to what have often been ‘silent partners’. More recently this includes intersections between feminism, art and LGBTIQA cultures. I think these affirmation of difference that have emerged in more recent years are incredibly important. However, and for better or worse, I have a philosophical bend that looks for unity. And so I wonder – are there still some foundational ideas or practices that the many diverse expressions of contemporary feminists share? I think a common thread within this diversity can be found through creative and artistic expression that is also tied to political and social emancipation.
Feminist manifestos of art
A survey across the Feminist Arts Manifestos: an Anthology (2014) showcases a diverse representation of feminist artists who all call for socio-political change in some way, representing parts of the world including Hungary, France, Japan, Pakistan, Poland, Romania, Australia and the US. These artists, write Ballard and Golda, may appear to be separated by different cultural perspectives, socio-political orientations, geography and time, but their manifestos all “reveal a shared commitment to feminist activism via art, and a belief in the potency of feminist manifestations”. The various feminist manifestos range from Mierle Laderman Ukeles’ ‘Manifesto for Maintenance Art 1969!’ to ‘The Mundane Afrofuturist Manifesto’ by Martine Syms (2013). In Ukeles’ manifesto you can see a retrieval and defiant inclusion of domestic and traditionally ‘female’ concerns in art. Ukeleles writes: “I do a hell of a lot of washing, cleaning, cooking, renewing, supporting, preserving, etc. Also, (up to now separately) I ‘do’ Art.” In her Manifesto she declares that the “maintenance [of] everyday things” will now be exhibited as art: “my working will be the work.” Published 44 years later, Martine Syms’ manifesto hits a different note. Her manifesto invokes contemporary motifs such as “interstellar travel” and “cyberspace”, as representing a false sense of not being bound by the earth. This in turn encourages the illusion that away from the earth we can be egalitarian, suggests Syms. Hers is a political critique of utopian attempts to overcome markers of identity such as race. Syms bluntly invokes the fact that “Out of five hundred thirty-four space travelers, fourteen have been black. An all-black crew is unlikely.” Instead of seeking to escape our embodied conditions, the manifesto refers to the “political, racial, social, economic, and geographic struggles” that must take place. We are warned that there will be no “inexplicable end to racism” , no sudden utopia: “dismantling white supremacy would be complex, violent, and have global impact.” Whilst sharing different concerns, I think both Ukeles and Syms are united in their attempts to bring unique markers of identity into public consciousness. Both demand that difference in art is not simply erased, but is thrust into the public sphere – domestic work as art in Ukeles case and “black diasporic artistic production” in Syms case. And in being expressed into the public sphere, the authority of the existing order is undermined. In each instance, the art is not something that is immediately recognised as worthwhile by the existing art world. Rather, it is unsettling, disruptive, and even offensive. Not for its own sake, but because, as Ukeles and Syms both point out, the facts of lived experience do not support proclaimed utopian ideals of egalitarianism, whether in the artistic or wider community.
Feminist art as critical practice
I am encouraged by these feminist art manifestos. In recent years, we’ve become aware of internal fractures within feminism, of tensions between second and third-wave feminists. What I find most troubling about these polarising debates is that they seem to reflect growing political divisions in the broader world. Generations of feminists are not necessarily at odds with each other, if the political climate itself contributes towards a narrative of polarity. The latter incites a sense of ‘irreconcilable differences’ between parties that may in fact still share important common ground. The feminist art manifestos encourage me because they begin with and invoke embodied experiences and observations, and insert these into the world as artistic offerings. Not didactically, as theorists often tend to do, nor polemically as political statements only, but experimentally – as art can do so well. Feminist art often has a political dimension, and as with all art that intersects with politics, one must be attuned to what leads the art – political ideology or the political voice of the artist? This is of course especially true of anything that explicitly claims to be a manifesto. Yet, I think that in our own consumer culture, popularity remains a good test. If everybody loves the artwork (or manifesto), it probably conforms to the reigning political ideology of the day. Feminist art and manifestos that deeply engages one’s more visceral experiences and emotions is unlikely to become popular in a society where we are encouraged to medicate ourselves out of deep feeling.
While I’m learning to embrace my own forms of creativity, and consider myself to be a ‘creatrix’ in my own right, I am not an artist. My friend Bec @thetentativestrategist however, is an artist. She generously gave me permission to creatively incorporate some of her art work into my digital collage (displayed above). I feel very privileged, and also very humbled. To me, Bec is a creatrix who brings together skill with expression. For all the many years I’ve known her, she’s sketched, painted, sculpted, photographed, designed, sewed, knitted, and all in her own unique expressive ways of birthing herself into the world. Yet, Bec is also a feminist artist. Her large, knitted placenta sculpture featured in my digital collage is just one way she expresses her own sense of being a creative woman into the world. As with so many feminist artists, she creates in ways that are daring and independent, breaking down the barrier between ‘art’ and ‘traditional female crafts’, and of course introducing the kind of subject matter that is unsettling and confronting in so many ways. Bec creates and expresses her experiences of what it is to be a woman through her art, and as she does so, she can’t help but make a political statement. In being true to her own calling of creating art into the world, she affirms, through the act of creation, art that emerges from the many unique ways we inhabit being in the world.