Sometimes the Best Feminism is No Feminism
Category: Contemporary
Written by Carissa DiGiovanni
Editor: Kellie A. Hanna

The Pattern and Decoration Movement of the 1960s and 1970s was female dominated. In fact, as Norma Broude remarks in her article, “The Pattern and Decoration Movement,” “it might fairly be claimed that this was the first time in Western history that women had taken the leading role in an art movement” (210). However, there were a few significant male presences, namely Robert Kushner and Kim MacConnel. Some may conclude that these men must be, because of their involvement with this female-dominated movement, high-profile political participants in the feminist movement. This conclusion, however, would be erroneous: neither claimed to be participating in the feminist movement. Instead, they explained that they merely wanted to work in a medium that they felt had value, despite its being devalued by the male Western art world. However, their insistence upon regarding their (Western male) participation in this movement as not a feminist political act, but rather an artistic one, aided the process of de-marginalization of this art that was traditionally female and non-Western.

MacConnel and Kushner began working in the Pattern and Decoration movement because of Amy Goldin’s influence. They “credit[ed] her with leading them to question the Eurocentric focus of American culture with its hierarchal privileging of ‘art-making’ over decorative work” (Broude, 211). However, their focus in doing this art was not to represent the marginalization of the people who traditionally produced it. As Broude puts it, “Feminism...was not their cause. Nor did they regard gender as the central determinant of the aesthetic restrictions against which they chafed” (212). Instead, as Broude notes, they concentrated on the sheer universality of the medium: “‘What is impressive about [decoration],’ MacConnel later wrote, ‘is that it goes on, in abundance, regardless of class, race, sex, country, or cultural center. Decoration is nearly everything. What it isn’t is Fine Art. What the Hell is Fine Art?’” In other words, MacConnel and other Western male artists like him merely wanted to acknowledge the ridiculousness of Pattern and Decoration’s marginalization, given its usefulness and worldwide importance, especially since Western male kind of art, which was neither useful nor globally important, was so valued. They acknowledged this movement’s artistic rather than political worth.

MacConnel’s and Kushner’s decision to treat a traditionally female and non-Western form of art with the same respect as male Western art was not without repercussions. In fact, they themselves suffered from marginalization: “along with the women, they too suffered the gendered backlash of the eighties, even though—and this is worth reiterating—feminism per se had never been, in any political sense, the content of their art or their cause” (Broude, 212). MacConnel and Kushner had therefore never been feminists in the political sense—only in the artistic one. This kind of feminism, however, was most valuable in itself, as they had de-politicized the artistic expression of women and non-Westerners in a male and Western world, in order that their art could be valued just like “real” art.

Quotes and citations have been taken from "The Pattern and Decoration Movement" by Norma Broude, from The Power of Feminist Art: The American Movement of the 1970s, History and Impact by Norma Broude and Mary D. Garrard, eds. Published by Harry N. Abrams, October 1996.


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