Book review: Sight Lines Women's art and Feminist Perspectives in Australia Sandy Kirby Craftsman House Sydney 1992 RRP $75
Feminisim is once again a hot topic in the mainstream media. But this time the theme is that of a divided feminism, a fundamental split "where it is probably not even coherent to talk of a women's movement anymore".1 The shift from a perceived unified feminism of the 70s, to the multiple feminisms of the 90s is a move that is also recognisable within arts feminism, the subject of Sandy Kirby's book Sight Lines.
This is the first glossy coffee table book on contemporary Australian women's art. It has over 100 reproductions, including 55 colour plates: enough to make it desirable (if not accessible at $75.00). For traditionally, feminist art has been documented only by minor or fringe publications which inevitably contributes to its invisibility.
Kirby credits the women's art movement with "creating a profound and lasting influence on women's art and our historical understanding" 2 thus "in looking back at women's art since WW2 the women's art movement becomes a natural starting point and focus for this book".3
One of the aims then, of Sight Lines is to retrieve arts feminism from the margins and to acknowledge its influential role in creating a receptive environment for women's art.
Kirby presents a straightforward chronological account of the women's art movement in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide, noting such events as initial meetings, the establishment of slide registries, the influence of Lucy Lippard, the importance of networking and the development of large group shows described as "energetic and innovative interventionist actions".4 By the mid 80s the WAMs had formally disbanded as "demands for equal opportunity were increasingly accepted and implemented by government and institutional organisations"5 and as feminist debate and theory became more complex and influential.
Feminism contributed to changes occurring in the art world and this is acknowledged by the emphasis on the role of feminist artists in the community and political art movements, and in crossing boundaries between media.
The Womens Art movement played a significant role not only in opening up new subject matter but in creating new opportunities for artistic expression by breaking down many of the old art/craft distinctions, encouraging women amateurs, questioning the hierarchy of the arts and celebrating craft skills.6
The author is diligent in noting the various themes explored by women artists, such as the domestic, the autobiographical, personal and social experiences, the body and sexuality. She refers to women photographers and performance artists but also acknowledges women who have worked in the mainstream and more "masculine" areas of abstraction, technology and large-scale sculptural works.
The chapter on women in the 50s and 60s is particularly interesting for although the work of women artists from the Heidelberg and Modernist period has received recognition the women from this later modernist period have largely been ignored.
Kirby also acknowledges the higher profile of women in printmaking and sculpture during this period adding that women played leading roles in the formation of sculpture and printmaking groups.
Also commendable is the inclusion of information on Aboriginal women artists (although there would appear to be more space devoted to the work of white women artists who have taken on Aboriginal issues than the works of the Aboriginal artists themselves).
But perhaps this book attempts too much. Valuable as it is to have such an extensive resource of dates, names and activities, it may be at the expense of a more analytical work. Although an even-handed approach is adopted, inevitably there are absences and biases, and perhaps the most noticeable bias is that this is mainly an east-coast story. Melbourne and Sydney are the star-turns; and while Adelaide and Canberra get included there is no mention of similar developments or influences occurring elsewhere in Australia. Likewise the divisions, tensions and sometimes bitter struggles that arose are glossed over in the interest of presenting the positive aspects of arts feminism. Yet in some instances the women's art movement was anything but a supportive environment.
The attempt to be comprehensive rather than critical, to name rather than explore, to document rather than speak from a position, places this book within a 70s framework.
And the language of Sight Lines' concluding paragraph seems to confirm this, emphasisng as it does, the need for constant vigilance in the struggle for equality, thereby echoing the 70s style rhetoric of Susan Faludi's Backlash with its "women's enemy still has not changed. The same battles still need to be won"7. Yet how can we claim that "the statistics for equality throughout the art world are not encouraging"8 when in the last round from the SA Department for the Arts, 9/13 visual arts grants to individuals went to women and four of these women scored the highest amounts of money.
Finally, the author in acknowledging that arts feminism is still active, fails to mention that the courses on 'Women and Art' or 'Gender Studies' at art schools are one site where "arts feminism is alive and well". Just as the 70s women's movement moved from outside to inside institutions such as the public service, government and tertiary education, so also we can see arts feminism having engaged in a similar shift. And it is here that one will hear less about achieving equality and consolidating gains and more about the "ongoing debate about the nature of the institutions and intellectual disciplines which have shaped our society".9
In trying to map the field, to give due acknowledgement and resist a hierarchy of names, this book set itself a difficult task. Its value lies in that this period of women's art will now not remain 'hidden from history'.10
1. The Australian Magazine, Weekend Australian. Dec 4/5 1993 Catherine Lumby 'The New School', p. 37.
2. S Kirby, Sight Lines, Craftsman House, Sydney 1992 p. 9.
3. ibid p. 9
4. ibid p. 15
5. ibid p. 25
6. ibid p. 85
7. S Faludi, jacket blurb Backlash, quoted in The Australian. Magazine p. 36
8. Op cit. Kirby p. 133
9. Op cit The Australian Magazine p. 37
10. As quoted in R Parker & G Pollock, Framing Feminism Pandora, London, NY 1989 p. XVI.