AGAINST GENITAL ICONOGRAPHY IN FEMINIST ART
There are some very specific images that come to mind when someone utters the phrase ‘feminist art’; most likely we tend to think of the most graphic art that we have seen or heard described, created by artists of a more intense feminist caliber than the rest. Paintings made of menstrual blood and other fluids, bare breasts, clay models of the vulva and labia, and sculptures made of tampons are not uncommon imagery when thinking of the more extreme examples of so-called feminist artworks, which result in a mixture of reactions from the audience: praise, disgust, embarrassment, confusion and curiosity. It can be said without a doubt that these art pieces have been controversial since the paths of second wave feminism and the art world crossed, and will most likely continue to be so in the future.
The use of the female body as ‘taboo’ feminist imagery in the arts came about during the second wave of feminism in the 1970’s, and was utilized by many of the prominent, self-declared feminist artists such as Judy Chicago and Carolee Schneemann. Through this we were given dinner tables with boldly defined genitalia, every crease of the labia carefully defined, extravagant paintings created using the menstrual blood of the artist, siphoned off in the artist’s every cycle for many a previous month in advance. At first, the use of such tactics in the art world was shocking to both the casual audience and the seasoned art critic; such imageries and mediums were considered to be taboo, as the discussion of genitalia and the aspects of the menstrual cycle that don’t concern reproduction were not considered to be for polite company, nor did many think it necessary in that era for girls to be properly educated on how their bodies behave — something which is still evident in our current times.
Despite what it is going to be said in this essay, it is important to note that despite the forthcoming argument against these imageries that will be delivered, this attitude towards taboo symbols in art did bring about a more relaxed view towards what they concern, as well as bringing about the ability to discuss these issues with a more apparent ease than before. However, this did lead into this imageries becoming an instinctive base almost for an artist looking to make a statement, and any imageries and mediums have thus lost their intended effect through overuse. The audience — particularly those who frequently engage with the arts — is no longer as shocked at the sight of a vagina; disgusted, yes, and perhaps a bit confused, but the imagery has long lost the effectiveness that it held in the 1970’s and the decades that came after.
The politics and ideas of second-wave feminism differ greatly to that of our current day third wave feminism. Our understanding of bodies and gender have evolved quite extensively since then, regarding both the social as well as the scientific aspects of how gender and sex are constructed; or rather, how recent social and scientific developments negate centuries worth of belief on what constitutes gender and how a sex is assigned. This becomes an issue when one takes into account how intersectionality might affect how an art piece and the artist’s intention is received, now that trans, non-binary and intersex identities have come to the fore.
Traditionally, within so-called ‘feminist art’, reproductive organs (such as the ovaries) and vaginal iconography were used to represent women and women’s issues in a variety of manners. However, since the rise in awareness of the existence of trans people and their own identity and issues, the use of vaginas and reproductive organs to symbolise womanhood becomes problematic; the idea that not all women must have vulvas and correlating reproductive organs to be considered women, that transwomen are, in fact, truly women, is becoming more and more common amongst the average people; likewise, not all those who do have vulvas and corresponding organs identify as women. This brings about the issue of representation: just who is the artist trying to represent? The artist, though well meaning as they could be, could not possibly think to claim that their art piece completely and unquestionably pertains to every woman.
Additionally, it is a particularly pertinent act to remove the importance of a person’s genitalia in from that of their identity as a whole; to define a person solely on a few anatomical features is such an encompassing act that it affects their lives in the most minute of ways, that is fairly nonsensical if one were to sit down and contemplate it in depth. Rather, to do so reinforces centuries worth of gender identity constructs, and falls into line with the misogynist and cissexist line of thinking, something of which feminism — at least, most forms of feminisms — has made its responsibility to deconstruct. Thus to fall into the trap of using vulvas, ovaries and the like as a form of feminist art is to build upon the foundations of what history has already laid, and claim that it is in defiance of such.
Despite the hesitations on the idea of using vaginal iconography to create feminist art pieces, this is by no means a demand to cease and desist in the creation and appreciation of art that utilizes such imagery; rather, it is a call for artists and audiences to recognise the problems in making use of such imageries within a feminist context, and to approach the topics with caution and understanding, and to not fall into the trap like so many others.