What is a “Canon”?
“A discursive formation which constitutes the objects/texts it selects as the products of artistic mastery, and thereby, contributes to the legitimation of white masculinity’s exclusive identification with creativity and Culture.”

–Griselda Pollock (“About Canons and Culture Wars” In Differencing the Canon, 1999: p.9).


 “Central Core Imagery” and the (Mis)charge of Essentialism

“The ur-text for the aesthetic credo that had been formulated by Chicago and Schapiro was an article co-authored by the two artists in March 1972, and published in Womanspace Journal the following year.  ‘What does  it feel like to be a woman?  To be formed around a central core and have a secret place which can be entered and which is also a passageway from which life emerges? What kind of imagery does this state of feeling engender?’  The artists  went on to point to some of the ‘many woman artists [who] have defined a central orifice whose formal organization is often a metaphor for a woman’s body’…” (pg. 23).

“[T]o be a woman is to be an object of contempt, and the vagina, stamp of femaleness, is devalued. The woman artist, seeing herself as loathed, takes that very mark of her otherness and by asserting it as the hallmark of her iconography, establishes a vehicle by which to state the truth and beauty of her identity.”  —Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro, 1972

“Flesh Petals” (1970)
Faith Wilding

“What the critics saw as potentially confining women to their biological identity, Schapiro and Chicago saw as a means of liberating women from negativizing attitudes about female anatomy and their own bodies.  They cautioned, in fact, that the ‘visual symbology’ they described should not be seen simplistically as ‘vaginal or womb art’ but rather as a framework for an imagery that would reverse the loathing and devaluation of female anatomy in patriarchal culture.  The woman artist could take ‘that very mark of her otherness and by asserting it as the hallmark of her iconography, [establish] a vehicle by which to state the truth and beauty of her identity” (pg.23-4).

“The significance of the category female for early feminists was not biological (that was merely its sign) but political, for feminism’s power, it was then believed, was the power of women as a group” (pg. 28).

–Norma Broude and Mary D. Garrard ( “Introduction: Feminism and Art in the Twentieth Century” in The Power of Feminist Art: The American Movement of the 1970s, History and Impact.  New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1994:  10-31).


On “Semiotics of the Kitchen”:

“Feminism is a central angle in all my work; it does not replace or supplant other considerations. Feminism is a world view, or a great factor in such a perspective. It is a viewpoint that demands a rethinking of questions of power in society and thus has undeniable potency.

Martha Rosler, Letter K, Knife, from Semiotics of the Kitchen, black-and-white video, 1975.

Semiotics of the Kitchen, a sort of bizarrely humorous six-minute black-and-white video from December 1974 (dated 1975), was one part of a large body of work in several media that I had been doing taking on questions of women, society, and art through the medium of food and the culture of food preparation and consumption. The video is ‘a lexicon of rage and frustration’ produced through a noisy and slightly unruly alphabetic demonstration of some hand tools in the traditional kitchen.”

–Martha Rosler, quoted in “Interview with Martha Rosler” by Paco Barragán, Art Pulse Magazine


John Berger on “Ways of Seeing” women in Western Art and Beyond:

Vanity by Memling 1435-1494

Susannah and the Elders by Tintoretto 1518-1594

Men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object of vision: a sight.”

— John Berger 1972, p.47

Reclining Bacchante by Trutat 1824-1848

“I am in front of a typical European nude. She is painted with extreme sensuous emphasis. Yet her sexuality is only superficially manifest in her actions or her own expression; in a comparable figure within other art traditions this would not be so. Why? Because for Europe, ownership is primary. The painting’s sexuality is manifest not in what it shows but in the owner-spectator’s (mine in this case) right to see her naked. Her nakedness is not a function of her sexuality but of those who have access to the picture. In the majority of European nudes there is a close parallel with the passivity which is endemic to prostitution”

— Berger, 1972, p.215 (as qtd. in Linda Nochlin’s “Eroticism and Female Imagery in Nineteenth-Century Art” in Woman as Sex Object 1972, p.14).

Berger, John. Ways of Seeing. London: Penguin, 1972.

BBC Television Series, Excerpt correlating to Ch 3:


Transforming the Female Nude/ Feminist Redeployments of the Body:

Barbara Kruger. Untitled–Your Gaze Hits the Side of My Face (1981).

“Feminists who portrayed the human body or used their own bodies in their art created some of the most radical and provocative works of the 1970s.  Since then, the body has been an image, an idea, and an issue of continuing significance in women’s art.  In the seventies, women artists became acutely aware of the social and cultural idealizations of the female form– in advertising and media, and in Western art.  Idealizations of the female body reflect and enforce cultural desires about a woman’s beauty and sexuality, her social place and power” (p.190).

Carolee Schneeman. InteriorScroll.
First performed 1975 in New York City.

“Schneeman’s Interior Scroll, first performed in 1975, overhauls the myth of the stupid, weak, or powerless beauty.  Schneeman undraped herself, as if revealing a finished sculpture, and stood naked on a platform designing the contours of her body with paint. Gently and gradually she unraveled from her vagina a ten-foot-long scroll made of intricately folded papers, recently described by her as a ‘strange origami.’  She had typed a text of her own words on the scroll, and assuming a series of poses, from awkward to acrobatic, as if the body were a machine coming to human life, she read the text aloud.  Interior Scroll is dance, ritual, oratory, proclamation, exorcism, and vision– of a time beyond patriarchal and misogynist control of women’s bodies.  Scrolls can contain proclamations, and scrolls, like the Torah, can contain sacred texts. Schneeman placed her scroll in ‘vaginal space’ and removed it from there, thus giving genitals a public and spiritual voice” (p.90).

–Joanna Frueh. “The Body Through Women’s Eyes” in The Power of Feminist Art: The American Movement of the 1970s, History and Impact.  New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1994:  190-26).


Transforming the Female Body–  Surrealist Adventures:

This was written inside the LACMA exhibit In Wonderland: The Surrealist Adventures of Women Artists in Mexico and the United States:

Frida Kahlo
The Broken Column

“The female artists transformed their bodies from a male fetish to a site of resistance and creative energy; they rarely presented the nude male body. Unlike the male artists, who represented women as a personification of their sexual desires and fantasies, the female surrealists used their bodies to explore their emotions and create powers as well as the complex relationship between their physical selves and their identities. Their approach to their bodies was not erotic; usually they are clothed, and when naked, they explore their anatomy and the potential to conceive life almost poetically. Some artists focused on their heads and eyes to reveal their inner life and dreams. Confronting the traditional representation of nude women in history, they created scenarios where the body became part of the landscape or was partially hidden or trapped. This resisted the objectification of the female figure by constructing symbolic images from asexual body parts: heads, eyes, mouths, or hands. While breasts remained the supreme male fetish, female artists produced images that addressed their dramatic experiences with breasts such as mastectomy.”


Disrupting the Heteronormative Gaze–  via Catherine Opie:

Catherine Opie

Catherine Opie

“One tactic for mediating the dynamics of the gaze is to self-reflexively refuse to participate in its spatial domain.  We can see the shift in the idea of what constitutes the gaze and the relationship of spectatorship and identification in the work of an artist such as Catherine Opie, whose photographic portraits examine lesbian subjectivity in everyday life.  In this self-portrait, Opie turns away from the camera.  Her back is a tableau on display for the spectator, but it is also a surface onto which the codes of heteronormativity have been painfully etched, with the childlike imagery of two stick figures in skirts holding hands before an image of a house with a peaceful sky above.  The iconography is about the idyllic childhood dream of normative family life– the house, the couple holding hands, the puffy cloud– but the violence with which it has been etched on Opie’s back and the image of the two women holding hands as the central element in the childhood dream of normativity demand that we reread the image as reworking of the codes of normativity to allow lesbian partnership to be an element of the dream of family.”

                      —Marita Sturken and Lisa Cartwright(Practices of Looking. New York & Oxford: Oxford Press, 2009: 133)


Mulvey on Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema: “Woman as image, man as bearer of the look”…

Rear Window (still)
Alfred Hitchcock

“There is an obvious interest in this analysis for feminists, a beauty in its exact rendering of the frustration experienced under the phallocentric order.  It gets us nearer to the roots of our oppression, it brings closer an articulation of the problem, it faces us with the ultimate challenge: how to fight the unconscious structured like a language (formed critically at the moment of arrival of language) while still caught within the language of the patriarchy?  There is no way in which we can produce an alternative out of the blue, but we can begin to make a break by examining patriarchy with the tools it provides, of which psychoanalysis is not the only but an important one. We are still separated by a great gap from important issues for the female unconscious which are scarcely relevant to phallocentric theory: the sexing of the female infant and her relationship to the symbolic, the sexually mature woman as non-mother, maternity outside the signification of the phallus, the vagina. But, at this point, psychoanalytic theory as it now stands can at least advance our understanding of the status quo, of the patriarchal order in which we are caught.”

                          –Laura Mulvey “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Screen (1975).


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