I seek funding to explore how the past was used by feminist art activists in California to create alternate visions of history. My book explores the overlapping worlds of historians and artists and their concepts of women’s culture and history in the 1970s and 1980s to explore how women’s culture permeated both the women’s movement and at the same time the developing field of women’s history. I use this serendipitous concomitancy as a way to understand the power-filled role history plays in informing identity, not only in art activism, but also for historians.
Whether they realized it or not, the California-based innovators in feminist art stood in a long line of men and, yes, women who had influenced the development of culture and institutions in their relatively young state. As Sarah Shrank illustrates Art in the City, in the relative short span of five decades, city fathers (and mothers) created a major metropolis, one that relied in equal parts on history and mythos, with art often providing the nexus of the two. Yet while the self proclaimed 1970s feminist artists self-consciously styled themselves as avengers of lost generations of women artists, they were only some few decades removed from these early generation (and at times overlapped with them), sharing surprisingly similar concerns. In fact, 1970s feminists found themselves in a position frighteningly similar to that of the group Women Painters of the West in 1946. What shifted the frame so to speak for women in the 70s was the appeal of a revived feminist movement in the United States. While not all women artists of the era chose that route, there were specific attractions for some women, who ultimately came to feminist art not as artists but seeking a specific kind of community and activism. Yet as Candida-Smith argues, in positioning themselves as pioneering feminist artists, the California women artists of the 1970s ignored a powerful historical precedent they might have claimed.
These feminists inherited a world where “art became an increasingly volatile site for public debate over … who would control its cultural terrain.” As Richard Candida-Smith illustrates in his excellent study of art and poetry in California, the disruption of hegemonic narratives and subsequent reliance on personal experience was central to the modernist cultural project in California. What was lacking was a means to connect personal to the larger pressing issues. Feminism provided that linkage. In various art works of the 1970s, historical relationships between women became a means to address contemporary feminist issues, using the past in effect as a roadmap for the future.