Interdisciplinary Connections to Visual Expression Form the Art of the Future

Posted by: Cynthia Ann Bickley Green, PhD

In 1971, I was an assistant professor of art at the University of Maryland, and I was assigned the task of inviting guest artists to speak in the Department of Art at the University of Maryland. I was also a creative artist in Washington, DC.  Barbara Frank, a graduate student in painting at the University of Maryland, and I were familiar with the feminist art program at the California Institute of Art developed by Miriam Schapiro and Judy Chicago.[1] Additionally, Frank and I had seen Chicago’s 1971 ad in one of the art magazines. Chicago had pictured herself dressed as a boxer in a boxing ring.  Frank and I were intrigued with this view of women’s art education, and we wanted to invite Chicago and Schapiro to Maryland as guest lecturers as part of our Guest Speakers Program.

Meanwhile, Mary Beth Edelson, who was teaching at the Corcoran School of Art, was involved in the political and creative work of the women artists in New York City–the demonstrations at the Whitney and the Guggenheim museums, the debates about the possibility of either feminist or feminine aesthetics, and, of course, developments of the women’s movement in general.  In fact, Edelson had led us to picket at the Corcoran Gallery of Art because few women were represented in that gallery’s biennial exhibitions and in the 1971 biennial no women were represented.

Since we were in Washington, D. C., a political center, it may have been inevitable that the first National Conference for Women in the Visual Arts was organized (Raven, 1988, The last essay…).  The Washington Conference was distinctly national with significant representation from Maryland; Washington, DC; California; Ohio; Virginia, California, and New York.  In all, over 350 women attended (Nemser, 1973).  The conference did give rise to a broad range of feminist activities and organizations in the visual arts that persisted decades after the 1972 conference ended.  Additionally, the Washington Conference was designed to include a wide-range of political and artistic viewpoints from the most progressive such as those held by Chicago and Schapiro to the more traditional and institutional such as the perspective held Adelyn Breeskin, Curator of Painting at National Collection of Fine Art.  Formerly as the director of the Baltimore Museum, Breeskin was the first woman museum director in the country.

My memory of planning the Washington conference was one of endless meetings and lists of names and addresses of people and organizations to call and write.  I did not understand all of the issues surrounding the conference.  Up until 1972, I had had a degree of success in art and in academe (Richard, 1971; Forgey, 1973).  However, I did understand some simple demographic facts:  the ratio of female students to male students in the art classes was not proportionate to the ratio of female art professors and artists to male art professors and artists.  Nor were the salaries and ranks of the female professors equivalent to those of male art professors.

Perhaps because of my naiveté, I was unprepared for the emotion-charged events that occurred during the 1972 conference. I was amazed.  Indeed, even the number of people who attended the conference amazed me.  Cindy Nemser (1973) has written a useful description of the events in The Women’s Conference at the Corcoran.  Her article outlines the basic positions of many participants, and it gives a lively, eyewitness account of the passions that were stirring in the minds and the hearts of the participants.

Circumstances that have remained the same since 1972 include the questions from students such as “Where are the women painters?”   Regardless of new social sensibilities and theory, art school production across the nation is formed primarily to meet the specifications of a narrow focus-sometimes as limited as drawing classes devoted only on the ubiquitous nude models–male or female; little thought is given to broader investigations such as botanical drawing or representing images revealed by microscopes or telescopes–to the broader universe of visual experience.  In art education literature while the scope has expanded to multicultural and social issues, information about visual perception in some programs is peripheral or in others not even considered worthy of a course of study.  The sciences and mathematics of art remain other areas shun by fine art academe.  More attention to these areas will reveal that many cultural groups participated in the development and application of science and technology for personal expression.  These interdisciplinary connections to visual expression will form the art of the future. Feminist artists can add this knowledge to enhance their success.

[1] See Raven 1988 for a description of the program.

The above was used in conjunction with a presentation at the 2014 Feminist Art History Conference by Dr. Bickley-Green.

Image: 2014 Feminist Art History Conference participants, courtesy of American University

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