§archivio è potere
Let the Subaltern Speak:
The Archive of the Feminist Art Program
by Verena Kittel

«We can be sure of one thing:
we women have to write our own histories for the men sure as hell ain’t going to»

(Wilding, 1971, p. 19)

The near absence of women[1] artists in the prevailing white-male-dominating historiography of art in the 1970s was one of the core premises of the research and archiving project of the Feminist Art Program (FAP) at the (then called) Fresno State College (Fresno) (1970–71). The need to revise the dominating canon and, particularly, “to write our own histories,” as expressed by the leader of the project Faith Wilding, seems to be all the more relevant regarding the fact that 20 years after the end of the program students at the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts), where the FAP was moved to in 1971, were unaware of its existence until they found materials documenting the program during clean-up work after an earthquake in the dumpsters of the art school’s library (see Schor, 1999)[2]. In the early 1970s, as a Time report shows, 75 percent of the student body of art schools consisted of women, but only 18 percent of the artists represented by commercial galleries and less than six percent of the artists included in major exhibitions in the United States were female (see Musteata, 2015, pp. 3, 6). As Linda Nochlin famously analyzed, the reason for the apparent lack of “great women artists” lies in the social institutions, «be they art academies, systems of patronage, mythologies of the divine creator, artist as he-man or social outcast» and «what they forbid or encourage in various classes or groups of individuals» (Nochlin, 2015 (1971), p. 142, 143). Women artists were socially expected to put the tasks of wife and mother first instead of pursuing a career in art. According to Faith Wilding, they «received a different education [in art] than their male counterparts» which is furthermore manifested in a lack of mentorship, traditionally only offered to male students by their male teachers (Wilding, 1994, p. 39). Led by the urge to act against such inequality, which she experienced first-hand in the L.A. art scene, Judy Chicago, inspired by the women’s liberation movement (WLM), set up a pedagogical program that should provide an alternative to the oppressive structures of the existing male-centered education and develop strategies, such as the constitution of a feminist heritage of women artists, to let subaltern voices speak.
Chicago chose Fresno as the institutional ground for the initiation of the FAP not only due to its experimental orientation—offering courses such as Marxist politics, anarchist theory, Black, Chicano, Armenian, and Women’s Studies—but also because of its isolation from the art world. She envisioned to build up an «art community of women who would implement feminist theories and practices to create work based on their common experiences in society» that should break with the curriculum and structures of the patriarchal institution (Wilding, 1994, p. 32). The program at Fresno but also at CalArts, where it was continued from 1971 to 1975, together with the artist and CalArts teacher Miriam Schapiro, accepted only women and was held off-campus to create an autonomous space, allowing its participants to develop an understanding as artists and pursue their creative practices, away from the intimidating structures of the male-dominated institutions. As already mentioned, women in the early 1970s were ascribed primarily two roles: the mother and the wife (Zurilgen, 1971, p. 8). Their «entire personality structure» was therefore «trained to orient itself around the needs of others, children and men, to be ‘good girls’» (ibid.). The difficulties women had to pursue professional artistic careers, according to Chicago, rooted in such a socially conditioned behavior: «Women have no legal identity, we are seen by society, and often see ourselves, as extensions of men and we only now have begun to have a sexual identity. Women also have neither a historical nor an artistic identity. And yet, under these circumstances, people ask why there are so few female artists?» (Chicago, 1971, p. 24)
In order to turn its female participants from objects into subjects, in a first step, the pedagogical program of the FAP was therefore aimed at helping its students to develop self-assurance, gain strength, be ambitious, and pursue and achieve their own goals. Tasks like the finding and renovation of a studio space, developing and challenging their mechanical but also negotiating skills, as well as assignments to introduce oneself confidently, role-playing concerning, for example, realtor encounters, as well as the discussion of sophisticated literature, concert, theater and movie visits in order to encourage their own voices (see Chicago, 1975, p. 78) were thus part of the program. The main goal of the FAP, however, was the development of a collective consciousness as women artists and the production of experience-based artworks that reflected their social realities as women. Besides an interdisciplinary reading program of publications by women, strategies of consciousness-raising and the creation of an art historical archive of women artists aimed at constituting a collective voice and led, amongst others, to the development of a shared, “female” vocabulary.

Consciousness Raising and Excavation – Research in the Feminist Art Program
According to Chicago, in the early 1970s “the tools of criticism and evaluation of art” and thus the dominating aesthetic values and forms were based on the social realities of men: «First, most of the art is made by white men. Second, the kind of art that is valued is one that is based, not on human struggle, but on what might be called visual specifics. This is primarily because the exposure of direct feeling in the society is taboo for men. […] Women, however, are brought up with a different orientation toward feeling and away from abstract thought. Therefore women often approach art-making more directly and see it as a vehicle of feeling. But art language as it exists today excludes a direct content or feeling orientation. Therefore women’s work is often totally misperceived» (Chicago, 1971, p. 25).
In order to counter the predominantly male art establishment and enable alternative experience-based modes of expression and evaluation systems to the prevailing focus on formalist and conceptual concerns, one of the main components of Chicago’s pedagogy was therefore the research into content that was related to the participant’s social realities as women and could be used for their art. Consciousness-Raising (CR) thereby served as an important research and empowerment tool. Inspired by the instructions of the founder of the WLM in New York, Kathie Sarachild, the FAP employed a modified version of CR, which was related to art making and aimed at a specific outcome, the production of a content-based artwork (see Keifer-Boyd, 2007, p. 144). In CR sessions the participants sat in a circle and each spoke about their experiences and their self-perception related to a key topic they pre-selected, such as body images, family relations but also social taboo issues, such as the sexual desires of women or sexual violence. Afterwards, the group would brainstorm about artistic ways to make these subjects visible. The difficulties they, but women artists in general, according to Chicago, thereby encountered, are based on the fact that «a woman is a non-being. This non-being stands in her studio and looks around for materials to make her art out of. The art history she has to draw from is an art history made by men» (Chicago, 1971, p. 24). An art historical research project into art created by women artists of the past, besides offering an alternative history of artmaking to the prevailing, male-dominated canon and thereby lending unheard women artists a voice, should thus inspire them to find modes of expression that dealt with similar issues and experiences. The project was started at Fresno in the fall of 1970 and involved eight participants of the FAP. Having great difficulties to find entries or even images of women artist’s work in the commonly used art history books, they sometimes felt «like an excavation team, crying out in delight when we find some small reference to Lee Bonticou or Sonia Delaunay wedged in between page-long articles and huge color reproductions of male artists» (Wilding, 1971, p. 18). Filling this apparent gap and «recover[ing] the histories of women in art» (Wilding, 1994, p. 38), they, as described by Faith Wilding, began to put together biographies and visual materials, establish a slide collection and write articles, thus constituting a feminist heritage. Their archive was established at CalArts with the help of Schapiro and her assistant, who made copies of slides from catalogues the students discovered in the surrounding libraries (see Chicago, 1984, p. 102). Mira Schor, member of the FAP at CalArts, however, remembers only a slide archive, she was involved in: The Register of Women Artists, which was compiled between 1972 and 73 and is still part of the CalArts archives. The remains of further documents of the Fresno archive, however, are unclear. The archive as it was described by Faith Wilding and intended by Judy Chicago, nonetheless, even though existing only temporary, became the first «West Coast file on women artist’s work» (Chicago, 1975, p. 86).

Register of Women Artists (1973). Courtesy of the California Institute of the Arts Library Archives.

Strategies of ArchivingHybrid Heritages
«One of our major tasks then, in this research project, is to find, carefully isolate and then document ‘female art’, that is, art that deals directly with the experience, sensations and emotions of women. We are not indiscriminately interested in just any art made by women, for a lot of women have emotionally and psychically internalized the male world, and have learned to produce images which will please men and win their recognition. No, rather, we are interested in very particular images and forms, those which are honest, direct, exposed, tender and emotionally evocative in terms of experience.» (Wilding, 1971, pp. 18, 19)
Even though, according to Judy Chicago, they gathered information on all women artists they could discover (see Chicago, 1984, p. 102), following Wilding’s statement, the archive, which by June 1971 contained no less than 300 slides, did not include just any artwork but followed a certain agenda: the isolation and documentation of “female art”. The selection criteria set for the research and archiving process were thus to find art that dealt particularly with the social realities and experiences of women and, amongst others, employed forms, colors, and techniques that had been stereotypically and pejoratively considered “feminine” and therefore often not taken seriously as art. One of their discoveries were recurring subjects of children playing, mothers with children, or animals, reflecting, according to Wilding, a desire for «approaching life directly and fearlessly», what was considered improper for little girls, and, as eternal caregivers, the lack of being cared for, which Wilding, in her description of the research project, finds in pieces by Mary Cassatt, Marisol, Käthe Kollwitz, and Rosa Bonheur (Wilding, 1971, p. 19). Through their research and the subsequent archiving the participants of the FAP thus created a heritage of women artists that inspired them in different ways and provided them with a pool of forms, images, and techniques to draw from[3]. Recurring images, they particularly singled out, were flowers, eggs, crevasses, abysses, and further «direct female symbols», Wilding discovered in works by, amongst others, Georgia O’Keeffe, Marie Laurencin, Lee Bontecou, Barbara Hepworth, and Maya Deren (Ibid.). Such images, as Wilding recalls, were the most crucial for the development of their own work at Fresno, as they evoked «a level of sensation» which is «directly related to cunt sensation, […] the experience of cunt as a living, seeking, pulsating organism […] rather than an organ» (ibid.) and formed the basis for their development of the so-called «Cunt Art» (Wilding, 1995, p. 35): «Recuperating a term that traditionally had been used derogatorily and thereby opposing the phallic imagery developed by men [,w]e vied each other to come up with images of female sexual organs by making paintings, drawings, and constructions of bleeding slits, holes, and gashes, boxes, caves, or exquisite vulval jewel pillows» (Ibid.), manifesting in works such as Wilding’s Peach Cunt (1971) and The Cunt Cheerleaders (1971)[4]. Theorized by Chicago and Schapiro as “centralized-core imagery” (Chicago and Schapiro, (1973) 2003), describing the apparent tendency of women artists to employ images that are structured around a central core, to them such images signified an artistic exploration of their own female body and thus sexual identity through the eyes of women.

Faith Wilding, "Peach Cunt" (1971). Courtesy of the Artist
"The Cunt Cheerleaders” (1971). Left to right: Cay Lang, Vanalyne Green, Dori Atlantis, Sue Boud. Photo: Dori Atlantis.

Such an artistic engagement with their own bodies was also fostered through specific assignments in the FAP, as becoming evident in Mira Schor’s Feminist Art Program, Class Assignment: Self Image (1971).
At CalArts, particularly during the collaborative development of the artistic installation Womanhouse (open to the public from January 30–February 28, 1972, in Downtown L.A.), addressing and subverting gender roles and expectations in the domestic domain, but also in Schapiro’s workshop on painting, drawing, and collage from 1973 to 75, however, the reference to a women’s artist’s heritage focused rather on traditional art practices considered female and the «ways, in which» they «had often incorporated private subject matter, disguising it in patterns, decorative motifs, and obsessive marks» as a source for imagery (Wilding, 1994, p. 42). «Redress[ing] the trivialization of women’s experience» (Broude and Garrard, 1994, p. 25), they included and thereby revalidated materials and objects socially attributed to women and thus considered insignificant, such as clothing — especially dresses and panties — lipsticks, pins, or paper dolls in their art.

Mira Schor, “Feminist Art Program, Class Assignment: Self Image” (late 1971), 18.75 x 24 in. Courtesy of Mira Schor and Lyles & King Gallery.
Mira Schor, “Shoe” (March 6, 1972), gouache on paper, (CalArts), 6.75 x 9.25 in. Courtesy of Mira Schor and Lyles & King Gallery.

Besides shedding light on forgotten or overseen artistic practices by women artists and thus revising the male-dominated art canon, the archiving processes of the FAP therefore aimed at constituting a collective identity as women artists that was reflected in a shared vocabulary, resulting in the creation of a feminist artistic heritage. These practices of archiving and constituting cultural heritage, following Jan Nederveen Pieterse’s definition, can be described as processes of hybridization: «[w]ith respect to cultural forms, hybridization is defined as ‘the ways in which forms become separated from existing practices and recombine with new forms in new practices’» (Pieterse, 1995, p. 5). In the FAP, the participants, similarly, focused on art produced by women in the past they read as feminist and singled out images, forms, or subjects they considered to be related to their social realities as women, leaving aside other aspects and readings of their artistic practices, which found entrance into their own artistic engagement, resulting in a new “female” language of form. In this sense, what Gil-Manuel Hernàndez i Martí refers to the concept of cultural heritage in general, which, according to him, «itself is historically constructed as a hybrid social product», can be also applied to the constitution of feminist heritage in the FAP:
«It [the concept of cultural heritage] could be described as a social construction, understood as a symbolic, subjective, processual and reflexive selection of cultural elements (from the past) which are recycled, adapted, refunctionalized, revitalized, reconstructed or reinvented […]. These cultural elements transform themselves into a selective representation which articulates itself through a discourse on heritage values, which is specified or fixed in the form of a valuable cultural asset which expresses the historical-cultural identity of a community, can be used for the legitimization of power structures and allows the reproduction of market mechanisms» (Hernàndez I Martí, 2006, p. 95).
Contrary to the mechanism described by Hernàndez i Martí, however, instead of legitimizing and reproducing existing power structures and market operations, the feminist heritage created in the FAP, besides providing an alternative narration of the history of artmaking, was rather intended to empower the young students and form a collective identity of women (artists) to build a counterweight to and formation against their negative and objectified representation in or worse exclusion from the dominating patriarchal art establishment. However, the assumption of such a collective identity or consciousness of women artists runs the risk of universalizing the experiences of women, reducing their identity to their gender and thus excluding the heterogeneous—sexual, ethnic, racial, national, economic, cultural—living realities expressed in their art that cannot be subsumed under one category without producing exclusions. Particularly Chicago’s and Schapiro’s idea of a shared vulvar imagery was thus highly criticized as being essentialist by their contemporaries but also by successive generations of feminist artists.

Strategic Essentialism
«[…] ‘cunt’ signified to us an awakened consciousness about our bodies and our sexual selves. […] cunt images were new: they became ubiquitous in women’s art of the 70s, and they served as precursors for a new vocabulary for representing female sexuality and the body in art. ‘Cunt Art’ therefore originated from an attempt to analyze, confront, and articulate our common social experiences; it was not a set of predetermined images based on essentialist notions about women’s sexuality.» (Wilding, 1994, p. 35)
With these words Wilding reacts to the accusations of many feminist theorists from the 1980s, who negatively categorized 1970s artists as essentialists. But also contemporary artists, such as Cindy Nemser (see Nemser, 1975, p. 20; Broude and Garrard, 1994, p. 23), and theorists up to today (see Uppenkamp 2019, pp. 275, 280) accuse particularly Chicago’s and Schapiro’s “centralized-core imagery” as being promoted as an intrinsic female vocabulary and thus for reducing women to their gender and assuming an alleged otherness of their experiences based on their anatomical difference to men, which is expressed in their art. Instead of simply believing that women’s realities differ from men’s due to their biology, Chicago and Schapiro, and, as implied by Wilding, also the participants of the FAP, however, consider their different experiences rather as being rooted in the disparate social conditioning of men and women, resulting from the hegemonic dualistic definition of male and female as belonging to different spheres. Concerning their sexuality and its expression in art, Chicago and Schapiro explain, «we are suggesting that women artists have used the central cavity which defines them as women as the framework for an imagery which allows for the complete reversal of the way in which women are seen by the culture» (Chicago and Schapiro, 2002 (1973), p. 43). But instead of claiming that centralized imagery is a universal form language intrinsically used by all women artists, they rather suggest that some women chose that form to explore their sexuality and are thus rather referring to «a woman’s experience of her body and self in patriarchy» as the foundation for a «‘female iconography’» (Hopkins, 2006, p. 161): «I never meant all women made art like me. I meant that some of us had made art dealing with our sexual experiences as women. […] A lot of us used a central format, and forms we identified with as if they were our own bodies» (Chicago, 1974, p. 64). I would therefore argue that Chicago’s and Schapiro’s use of “centralized core imagery” and particularly the FAP’s strategies of archiving and constituting hybrid heritage, preceding its theorization, can rather be considered an example of strategic essentialism.
Strategic essentialism is a concept elaborated by the feminist, Marxist and deconstructivist theoretician Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and means the provisional adoption of essentialist positions about identity categories (like woman, worker, or more generally subaltern) as a strategy to mobilize a collective consciousness in order to pursue chosen political ends. Strategic essentialism thus creates a collective identity, which allows social movements and groups to collectively represent themselves and thus makes them capable of political action in a form that is heard by hegemonic actors.  What she particularly points out is the importance of constantly being self-conscious about the strategic use of these essentialist positions, ideally applying to “all mobilized” in order to avoid the reproduction of the exclusions these essentializations entail (Spivak, 1993, p. 4). She elaborates her idea of a strategic use of essentialism, for the first time, in response to the question of the difficulty of self-representation, «speaking for or on behalf of other women, retaining their specificity, their difference, while not giving up our own» (Grosz E. in. Spivak, 1990 (1984), p. 9). She thereby takes her universalizing use of clitoridectomy as a symbol for the «effacement of the clitoris, of women’s sexual pleasure» in a patriarchal society, «whereby clitoridectomy can be considered a metonymy of women’s social and legal status» (Ibid., p. 10) but also anti-sexist work, «battered-women’s clinics, […] or structuring a conference so that there is equal representation» as an example: «[…] the universal that one chooses in terms of the usefulness of Western high feminism is the clitoris. The universalism that one chooses in terms of anti-sexism is what the other side gives us, defining us genitally. You pick up the universal that will give you the power to fight against the other side, and what you are throwing away by doing that is your theoretical purity» (Ibid., p. 12).
Chicago, Schapiro, and the FAP in Fresno, similarly took up hegemonic ascriptions, defining women through their anatomy and their sexuality and thus their most repressive category, in order to reassess and challenge them: «The way women have been oppressed has revolved around our sexuality, either by turning us into sexual objects altogether or by denying our independent sexuality» (Chicago, 1974, p. 65). As according to her «power begins with claiming your own sexuality, your own womanhood» (Chicago, 1994, p. 71), the “Cunt Art” of the FAP, as a celebration of female sexuality and a challenge to its hegemonic repressive representations, can, as an antonym of Spivak’s clitoridectomy, rather be considered as «metaphoric emblems of women’s independent power and freedom from male dominance» (Broude and Garrard, 1994, p. 24). The archiving strategies in the FAP, the use of specific forms singled out during the process and the subsequent development of “Cunt Art” can thus be considered strategic, mobilizing a collective consciousness. Instead of creating a fixed universal language of form, however, they are rather one step in a longer educational and artistic exploration process and thus temporary. Moreover, the incorporation of female stereotyped-forms and subject matter as well as references to women’s traditional arts in the works produced in the FAP, besides creatively revaluating them, « […]  engage(d) the dominant male culture dialectically, […] challenging the value system that had subordinated them» (ibid., p. 28), and thus served political goals: «[…] the 1970s feminist articulation of a body-based female aesthetic gained political credibility and power when coupled with a self-conscious definition and revival of a female tradition in art. […] The significance of the category female for early feminists was not biological (that was merely its sign) but political, for feminism’s power, it was then believed, was the power of women as a group» (Ibid., p. 28).

When Miriam Schapiro and her husband, and then dean Paul Brach, invited Chicago to bring the FAP to the newly founded CalArts, not only the closer contact to the art scene and the feminist movement in L.A. and the artistic exchange within the institution, but also the spatial, financial, and personnel support the art school was offering, at first, seemed to be quite promising. The feminist work produced in the FAP, however, «was subjected to scathing criticism by many in the school» (Wilding, 1994, p. 46). Even though exceptionally progressive on many levels, «sexism, gender roles, hierarchies, and established critical frameworks (of modernist practice) were still entrenched» (ibid., p. 47) within the institution. The separatist approach of the FAP was thus reinforced by the hostile and partly sexist attitude of many members of the school towards the program’s artistic approach (see Levin, 2018, p. 222), indirectly propelling the need to create an exclusionary safe space and thus the constitution of a feminist heritage and the subsequent development of feminist modes of expression that challenged hegemonic perspectives on art and women. Chicago ultimately realized that «the program could not continue successfully in an institutional framework without […] integrating a feminist discourse into every aspect of its structure and curriculum» (Wilding, 1994, p. 46), which led to her resignation in 1973[5]. It seems that also in the subsequent decades, the feminist practices at the school, especially the activities of the FAP, have not been given much value by the institution they were embedded in and apparently were not part of the collective memory of the art school, as the students before its rediscovery in the late 1990s, had no awareness of the program.
“This strategic forgetting” becomes also evident in the reception of the art school: the exhibition CalArts: Skeptical Belief(s) by the Renaissance Society in 1987 almost completely excluded the FAP. Furthermore, the 1998 show Out of Actions: Between Performance and the Object, 1949–1979 at MOCA, L.A., did not mention the FAP’s performances (Jones, 1999, p. 28, note 24).
The efforts Judy Chicago, Miriam Schapiro, Faith Wilding, Mira Schor, and all the other participants of the FAP therefore made to challenge the dominating canon and to integrate the legacy of women artists, as well as a female perspective on art and its mechanisms of representation into the prevailing discourse, to constitute a feminist heritage that historically remains, and to be permanently included and accepted in the institution’s structure and curriculum, thus for a long time has not been successful. Even though I am fully aware that their possibilities of becoming visible and access to the prevailing discourse as white U.S.-American women differed strongly from the postcolonial female subjects Spivak was referring to when introducing the term (see Spivak, 1988), some aspects of her concept of the subaltern might come into mind when thinking of the group of women artists the FAP wanted to mobilize. Especially her notion of the impossibility of their speaking as they were not being heard by the hegemonic discourse, in this case by their own institution and the prevailing L.A. art scene, seems to be mirrored in the attempts of the FAP. According to Chicago, it was not until the early 2010s, when the large-scale initiative Pacific Standard Time: Art in L.A., 1945–1980 reminded of its existence as an important part of the history of the L.A. art scene, that one of the most significant projects of the FAP at CalArts, Womanhouse, was included into the institution’s history, and thus that the female voices, by being finally heard, could speak.

[1] The terms “woman” and “female” as applied in this article are particularly referring to the hegemonic definition of women, i.e. persons with a bodily anatomy considered as female. I am herewith adapting the perspective and the self-understanding of the feminists centralized in this study. It is thus an empirical and not a normative description that only makes sense in this historical-situational context.
[2]Even though statements what exactly has been discovered slightly vary—Chicago mentions the archive of the FAP, Schor, however, “various materials pertaining to the CalArts feminist program”—, it can be said that the FAP by the end of the 1990s was not part of the collective memory of the institution (see Chicago, 2014; Mira Schor, email conversation with the author, June 17, 2020).
[3] Another mode of expression frequently employed in the FAP, especially by Chicago regarded as the most powerful work, were performances. The FAP, furthermore was characterized by the use of a diverse range of materials, such as blood and viscera.
[4] Members of the art class in Fresno used to greet visitors of the program, such as Ti-Grace Atkinson, with C-U-N-T cheers.
[5] After Chicago’s resignation the FAP was reduced to one painting class per week by Miriam Schapiro.

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Verena Kittel is a PhD candidate at the Institute of Theater Studies at the Freie Universität Berlin with a special interest in performative research practices in art educational contexts and strategies of preservation and display of immaterial cultural heritage. Since 2015 she has been research associate to several collaborative projects between the FU and exhibition institutions such as Tacit Knowledge. Post Studio/FeminismCalArts (1970–77) (2018–21) and Black Mountain Research (2013–16).