We recently watched a documentary by Johanna Demetrakas about the Womanhouse project in my women’s art history class. My class had some surprising reactions that I didn’t expect from a group of liberal San Franciscans. Here is a brief history of the project followed by some of my responses to reactions.
Womanhouse was an art installation created by the students of the feminist art project started by art students at CalArts. This project was coordinated by Paula Harper, Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro. A group of women transformed an abandoned, dilapidated Hollywood house into an installation piece, a place for artist meetings, and a space for live performances. Much of the art installations centered on the idea of women’s domestic roles such as ironing, cooking, baby making, and beauty. Performances were given in front of live audiences that played with male and female stereotypes, and demonstrated the tedium of housework. The project’s purpose was to raise consciousness of gender stereotypes prevalent throughout women’s history, especially post World War II attitudes about what women’s roles should be in society.
The kitchen was painted almost entirely in pink, every dish, appliance, and product was pink. On the stove was a frying pan with a fried egg in it, eggs were pinned to the walls and ceilings and morphed from eggs into breasts. One of the bathrooms was full of boxes of feminine products. The other bathroom had shelves and shelves full of lipstick.
Argument 1: Radical feminists weaken the message
One woman in my class was heavily involved in the feminist movements of the 60s and 70s. The documentary angered her. She thought that this group of women artists, and other radical feminists were detrimental to the feminine movement because they represented a white middle-class sector of the public with enough money and free time to be able to go to art school. She felt their arguments were unimportant to the “real issues” of the women’s rights movement.
Each rights movement in this country has had a more radical side and a more conservative side. Both sides make important contributions to their causes. These artists were focused on trying to spark social change by raising consciousness levels of men and women on the subject of societal pressures about what being a women means. They used humor, shock, sadness, and anger as tools to describe what they were experience in their lives. Art serves many purposes on this planet, attempting to invoke social change through art can have a powerful impact on a culture. They brought attention to the entire women’s movement, maybe some negative attention, but there was also a great deal of positive reaction to their work. In tat way, they succeeded in their goals.
Argument 2: Why make art when you should be making direct change
One woman was angry that so much energy had to put into making this fantasy house, when those women should have been out getting engineering jobs and breaking new ground for the next generation.
This group of women were just a handful in a growing number of like-minded women. Loosely organized groups of women all over the country during this time were meeting together to talk about their experiences. The topics were nearly identical. Women who had been sequestered to suburban single family homes were talking about their daily lives for the first time. The pressures to be thin and beautiful, pressure to always be the perfect nurturing wife and mother, pressures to consume products marketed to them, pressure to not work, not go to college, and be happy to just stay home with the kids. Their lives were unfulfilled and they couldn’t take it anymore.
Each time a new group formed, such as the artists involved in this project, more and more women were being educated on how advertising, media, and society had defined their roles for them. Groups like this, educated American women that they were better than that, and they really could be whatever they wanted to be. Most importantly, awareness that was born out of these groups spread across the nation and the generation of women that followed this one, myself included, did grow up believing they could be anything they wanted to be.
And let’s not forget…
These women in art students, just like the student in my class.
This project was just a fraction of their lives. No one can change the world 24 hours a day. Many of these women did break gender barriers in their daily lives. They were the ones paving the way for us. Discrediting the validity of their art is just well… a strange thing to hear from an art student. Who can say what is art? Who decides when it is serving a noble purpose and when it is just taking up space? The women’s personal experiences through the project, the public involvement and public reactions are more than validation that this was a successful project.
Womanhouse project on the Judy Chicago website.
Womanhouse documentary by Johanna Demetrakas.