Saturday, July 14, 2012

The legacy of Judy Chicago

“…the Feminist Art Program, an experiment that tested the limits of education.”

On my final bus ride between Toronto and Kingston, I finished reading Entering the Picture: Judy Chicago, The Fresno Feminist Art Program and the Collective Visions of Women Artists (Routledge, 2012). Just as I read about artist Sylvia Savala’s father dictating what she should be when she grew up (legal secretary), just as I was thinking, “We’ve come a long way, baby,” a young man behind me barked at his girlfriend to shut up. I rotated my torso with exaggeration and glared icily. When he asked, “Can’t you just leave me alone and send me a [expletive] text?” I considered inviting her to sit beside me. I decided against it, not only because it could make things worse for her later, but because I too was vulnerable: as a woman travelling alone at night, arriving to a closed bus station with no one to meet me, I wasn’t about to take him on*. With regret, I state the obvious: there’s still a lot of work to be done.

Judy Chicago is a woman who knows how to get a lot of work done. Through the California Institute of the Arts, she facilitated Womanhouse, the first feminist installation by 26 female students, which graced the cover of TIME Magazine. She also spearheaded The Dinner Party, the first massive installation reflecting the vision of a single woman, which ended up debated in Congress. But before all that, at a state university campus in rural Fresno, California in 1970, she launched the Feminist Art Program, an experiment that tested the limits of education.

Chicago’s teaching method was the outgrowth of experiments she’d made along the way while teaching art part-time beforehand, like silencing all the men in the classroom so the women could be heard. The fifteen young women under her tutelage in the Feminist Art Program wore work boots and learned to renovate a studio as well as any man. The intuitive curriculum she fashioned promoted self-analysis using Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. Through consciousness-raising sessions, the women made leaps and bounds in their artistic development.

If this all sounds too good to be true, a little too much like Mona Lisa Smile—the film in which Julia Roberts plays an unconventional art history teacher who introduces her students to modern art and (in the process) feminism—then I’m not delving deep enough. The collective opinion of Chicago’s students was that the being in the program was incredible, but it was also risky. They got themselves into dangerous situations like interviewing rape victims in seedy neighbourhoods in the middle of the night for an audio work. Their emotional states were also at risk. Former students recall Chicago prying into their personal lives, but also pushing them away by insisting, “I’m not your mother!” and throwing a bottle of wine at the wall in one of their many group dinners. They were intimidated by her: one student admitted feeling pressured to make so-called vulvic art, a staple of Chicago’s oeuvre. Others embraced this trendy subject matter with aplomb; witness the CUNT cheerleaders. Having Chicago as a matriarch may have been a tumultuous experience, but her alumnae also recall her devotion to teaching and her generosity, like slipping a twenty dollar bill to a needy student and never expecting it back.

One thing is certain: Judy Chicago has made a major impact on women artists. One says she’ll never forget the time she heard her give a presentation, and another admits she treated her advice as if it had come from God. There are accounts from many women in this book, which is a collection of conference presentations for a symposium celebrating the 40thanniversary of the establishment of the program. Some of them knew Chicago very well, others interacted with her peripherally while engaged in parallel projects, and some were part of the next generation when Chicago moved the program to the California Institute of the Arts. We even hear from Chicago herself, who shares great anecdotes, like the San Francisco Museum of Art making so much money in the bookstore when The Dinner Party debuted that they bought a computerized cash registered and named it after her.

Reflective of conferences in general, some of the writing is superb, but some of the entries meander and trail off. All in all, though, it’s a good read.

*The following month, a similar situation arose and I did intervene by engaging the female and calling campus security. This time, the woman ignored me and the man told me to go (expletive) myself. It seems to be a losing battle.

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