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What “Feminist Art at Fifty” can teach us about the present

photo of Phelan
Jan 26 2021

As life during the coronavirus pandemic settles into an uneasy new normal, many are turning to art for solace and escape. Peggy Phelan, the Ann O’Day Maples Chair in the Arts and professor of theater & performance studies and English, recently presented a timely talk entitled “Feminist Art at Fifty” to the Clayman Institute Faculty Fellows. Grounded in an exploration of Cal Arts’s Feminist Art Program’s Womanhouse installation, Phelan discussed art’s power to confront inequality and critique existing institutions. 

Womanhouse, a Los Angeles home repurposed into an artistic installation, was the culminating exhibition of the 1971-1972 Feminist Art Program at the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts). Phelan framed Womanhouse as part of a nationwide groundswell of feminist and anti-racist efforts in academia throughout the 1960s and 1970s. CalArts and Womanhouse, for Phelan, provide an opportunity to reflect upon “what we might have overlooked, or simply gotten wrong” in these earlier equal rights movements. 

Phelan framed Womanhouse as part of a nationwide groundswell of feminist and anti-racist efforts in academia throughout the 1960s and 1970s. CalArts and Womanhouse, for Phelan, provide an opportunity to reflect upon “what we might have overlooked, or simply gotten wrong” in these earlier equal rights movements. 

Womanhouse, Phelan argued in her talk, was “fascinating but deeply flawed.” Its co-founders, Judy Chicago and Miriam Shapiro, strenuously advocated for a woman-led, and women-only, Feminist Art Program despite opposition from some CalArts faculty. Chicago, Shapiro, and the 21 women students who had enrolled in the program, succeeded in postponing the planned demolition of an abandoned mansion on Hollywood’s Mariposa Avenue. After taking on the labor of restoring the long-neglected house, Phelan revealed, Chicago and her students utilized the space for a provocative interrogation of women’s boundedness in the home, reimagining each room as an exploration of femininity. The pink kitchen walls and ceiling were dotted with pendulous sculptures of breasts, and the Edenic green bathroom featured a woman submerged in sand, approached by the outline of a coy serpent. The result was an intensely physical artistic experience, which visually reinforced second-wave feminist critiques of domesticity advanced by Betty Friedan and other feminist thinkers. Womanhouse was all the more powerful because of its transience, Phelan noted, a feature underscored by its upcoming demolition and its place on Mariposa—the Spanish word for butterfly—Avenue.

Yet just as interesting to Phelan were the limitations of Womanhouse as a collective art installation. For one, the CalArts students who rebuilt and reimagined Womanhouse were all white. Additionally, “while Womanhouse has entered art history,” Phelan notes, “it has a far more complicated reputation in the history of feminist thought.” Subsequent scholars, including Phelan, roundly criticized Chicago’s rigid, innately biological categorization of womanhood, as opposed to a more fluid and socially constructed view of gender, and her “overlong attempt to defend it.”  Combined with the blind spots of white second-wave feminists like Chicago, CalArts was also uncomfortable with the separatism that the Feminist Art Program advocated. Since the school itself was one of the first avant-garde schools in the United States, its embrace of radical politics was ambivalent at best.  

In her talk, Phelan continually returned to the peculiar “doubleness” of the present moment. The “double history” of Womanhouse, both transcendent and constrained, reverberates today for Phelan as COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter protests expose long-standing inequality. “Underneath all the external churn and burn, and unexamined grief,” she mused of her experience during the pandemic, “was an inchoate sense that even while COVID was propelling the global community toward a brave new world, there was an equal pull propelling us back, a collective regression.” Laid bare today are “racism and sexist roots I thought had been weeded out decades ago.” But while Womanhouse’s critique of the ties between women and domestic politics has been demolished, its ideological effects have not disappeared. Phelan reminded her audience that only the day before her talk, Amy Coney Barrett’s U.S. Supreme Court confirmation hearings featured the question, “Who does the laundry in your house?” 
 
While some in the audience asked if such historical dualities and repetitions should be interpreted pessimistically, Phelan’s closing thoughts invoked the lessons that art like Womanhouse can impart. What can we “choreograph anew, today?” she wondered. For Phelan, coping with an uncertain future and building more responsive institutions require being “both optimistic and clear-eyed” about “the ties that still bind still too many of us to house arrest.”  
 
 

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