Portrayal of Women in American Culture

Oct 13, 2016

Credit Copyright © 1989 by the Guerrilla Girls

The image of women in the context of American society took center stage this week.  It’s a subject world-renowned artist and filmmaker Lynn Hershman-Leeson has been exploring for fifty years.  And it’s a theme in her groundbreaking film Women, Art, Revolution.

Lynn Hershman-Leeson has been called one of the world’s most influential media artists and a pioneer of feminist art. Her works explore the effects of modern technology on the self - particularly the female self. Margo Crutchfield is a Curator at the Moss Center for the Arts at Virginia Tech.

“Some of her earlier works really deal with the influence of media, magazines, photography, internet; on the female identity; how does media define women and how that can be denigrating, how that can control you how that can splinter you.”

Crutchfield is curating a show of Hershman-Leeson's work.

“There’s a body of work called the phantom limb series in which she presents these images, one of them is a woman with a TV fixed on instead of her head. That’s a statement about how women can be defined by the images in the media and why has that happened and why do we allow that to happen and how do we live through it?"

A lot of people are asking that question these days.  Hershman-Leeson began asking it 5 decades ago when she started filming dozens of interviews with top feminist artists, curators and critics who came through her California gallery.  

A few years ago, she realized she had the makings of a movie and she produced her ground breaking film called Women, Art, Revolution: A Secret History.

Crutchfield says,“the Guerrilla Girls are in the film. It’s a group of women artists who donned gorilla masks and protested the abject discrimination against women artists. I think probably a lot of people have seen the poster they put out saying ‘you had to be naked to be in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’ and only one zillionth of a percent of art in the Metropolitan Museum of Art is by women.”

If the country’s most prestigious museums portray women as objects of art so much more often than they do as makers of art, it’s a theme that is also reflected in the culture at large.  The feminist art movement Hershman-Leeson documents in the film aimed to change that.

But even some of the artists she interviewed, she recalls, refused to be in her film. They didn’t want to be labeled with the term, feminist.  

Hershman-Leeson says,  “I think it’s been propagandized in a negative way…”

If the country's most prestigious museums portray women as objects of art so much more often than they do as makers of art, it's a theme that is also reflected in the culture at large.

Speaking at a post premier talk, she explained, they thought calling themselves 'feminists' might hurt their careers. "They didn’t want to wear that label.”

“... and I see a resurgence of younger women who are now claiming that for themselves, now that they understand the history and what it really stands for and how hard fought  it was.”

For as long as Hershman-Leeson has been creating her feminist art, she has always incorporated technology into her exploration. In 2002 she made an interactive internet-based web bot that people could have an actual conversation with, years before SIRI ever said a word. It’s pieces like that that earned her the title of 'groundbreaking artist.'

Kevin Concannon is an Art History professor. He says, "there’s always this merging of the boundaries between the human and the artificial.”

Because of the way her work integrates art and technology, Concannon, chose Hershman-Leeson to keynote an art conference next week at Virginia Tech, a perfect match for a new initiative at the university to more deeply meld the two.

Concannon says, “one of the other reasons that we chose Lynn [Hershman-Leeson] for the keynote speaker for our conference is because I realized that we hadn’t had a woman keynote in several years.  So at the same time that we’re presenting Lynn, we also have to do so with the caveat that we ourselves recognized, as an organization, are implicated. It’s kind of shocking when you realize you’re behind this feminist work and then you realize, whoops, we haven’t presented a woman artist for quite a while.”

Lynn Hershman-Leeson’s work will be on display at galleries in Blacksburg next week. She’ll also give a talk on Feminist Art, Artificial Intelligence, and Bio Engineering at the Moss Center for the Arts. The public is invited. There will also be a screening of Women, Art, Revolution: A Secret History.

"An Evening at Virginia Tech" at the Moss Center for the Arts includes an immersive sight and sound experience in the cube with 3-D goggles, a light and imagery show  projected on the exterior walls of the arts center, art exhibitions and lecture by Lynn Hershman-Leesson.   Friday October 21 6-9 pm.