Feminist Art and Womanhouse

1. Judy Chicago defines the central core imagery of female art as depictions of the vagina and she likes to recreate the dissolving sensation of an orgasm in her own work. She states that O’Keeffe’s floral art pieces were part of the first works displaying this central core imagery. Nochlin goes on to say that O’Keeffe’s artwork show ‘strong schematic metaphors for female sexuality’. Although Georgia O’Keeffe rejects these theories and instead insists that the emphasis is on the color scheme and art techniques, the idea is that female artists share a common sense of central core imagery and the importance of it to feminist artists. Chicago makes it clear that having a vagina makes her who she is, and she intends to thoroughly celebrate that. The vagina is a central theme, and it is the essence of female art according to many female artists. This essentialist debate is often used to explain why female art can often be interpreted in this way.

2. The main critique of essentialism that is presented in the text is that it is impossible to discern a universal feminine central system of expression. This problem of essentialism, according to critics, is that it normalizes and generalizes the feminine art experience. Many people believe it is limiting to female artists to categorize them in one box, assuming they all exhibit a similar characteristic that unifies them.

Central core imagery should be used as a lens to assess art rather than a category to place art under. Norma is basically stating that the biggest issue with using one term for essentialism is that people do not get the variety. Biological essentialism is that which we are born with. The true biological nature of our physical forms. Her issue with this is that it assumes that females, due to the same genitalia, are bound to produce the same type of art by default. Women are as bound to produce the same art by their vaginas as men are bound to have the same hand writing because of their penises. It is a slippery slope argument often associated with the biological critique of essentialism. Cultural essentialism finds its roots in the socioeconomic structures of society. In the article they mention that feminist art is deliberately pitched to a public and social context and that is because it clearly is. This is the result of a complex cultural structure that women are meant to endure regardless of their personal beliefs. Finally political essentialism comes into play. From what we read from the text, it almost seems like the techniques and strategies feminist artists use to get their messages across are acts that can give us a sense of what political essentialism is. There are many reasons we must differentiate between these different essentialisms, and it seems that the authors believe the critiques of essentialism to be the most harmful. First it assumes that all forms of essentialism are simply categorizing art a certain way, dooming all female artists to the same output. Second, it pushes artists into a category just as defining one as masculine or feminine would. It gives the art characteristics instead of allowing each piece to have fluid interpretations.

7000 year old woman

A good performance art piece to use in this case is Betsey Damon’s 7000 year old woman. Symbolism in this image is obvious, but when we use a more 3 dimensional assessment we can understand its many layers. Her fertility and motherhood is what we can view with the biological essentialist lens. She seems primitive yet it feels so human. What I mean by that is, looking at her we do not see the traditional depiction of females in art. She is represented as is. Culturally we can see her form of dress and the markings on the ground seem to indicate her cultural background. She stands out from her “normal” surroundings and is representative of a more primitive state. Finally, the political essentialism is clear because this piece in and of itself is a statement contradictory to that of the average female. She is not conforming to any standard of femininity and instead combats that image by being represented in this manner.

3. Womanhouse was a form of interactive art that female artists used as a means of communicating societal frustrations through. It was presented at the California Institute of the Arts by the Feminist Art Program, lead by Judy Chicago and Miriam Scharipo. They renovated a house which was later destroyed, but the images and videos captured of the art inside are still widely available. Rooms were indicative of women’s struggles, be it biological, political, societal, or cultural. Women see their life through a new lens that publicizes menstruation and satirizes the kitchen requirements. The rooms come off as displaying the problems we face, but in some manners I felt it was empowering to see that they were problems that women had to hide but were now on display.

In Judy Chicago’s piece Menstruation Bathroom, its taking the taboo and putting it on display. By seeing tampons all over the bathroom as if painting the town red, it is finally something you SEE. I myself am afraid to see my own blood, but finally seeing it out in the open is just a smack to the head. It is beautifully refreshing, and it is so politically essentialist that it screams strategy for change. It is strong imagery and it evokes a reaction from the audience that results in shock, awe, disturbance, and yet somehow we are all relieved. It is as though we forget that other humans undergo this process. It is removing the informal authority that restricts us from acknowledging that we are human.


Linen Closet by Sandy Orgel is a strong piece because it dissects the entire foundation of gender roles and what women are doomed to for their lives. Women are compartmentalized on various shelves holding linens and other things deemed tasks reserved for women. She is a mannequin and it is quite scary because the lifelessness is indicative of the monotonous of such a lifestyle. It is difficult to envision our lives ending up this way because we are women’s studies students, but so many women are trapped in that lifestyle despite their desires to escape. She captures entire lives in a linen shelf, and it is scary to think that many women endure this type of lifestyle.


Leah’s Room was probably my overall favorite because I can completely relate. She is basically putting on layers of makeup, taking them off, and then repeating the process. She is engaging in the vanity that is expected of us as females. My own mother expects me to constantly be made up, plucked and perfect at all times. She expects this of me because she doesn’t want me to get hurt for not conforming to societal norms. This room speaks to more than just the faces we are forced to paint on daily. Instead, it presents us with the patriarchal devices used to enslave females and force them into an image that is unnatural.


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