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Mid-20th Century Women Artists’ Critique of Consumer Culture and its Representation of Women

The representation of women in visual culture, as in advertising and art, has been a major issue in feminist discourse. After all, such images can not only be said to constitute a reflection of prevalent notions, but also possess influential power of their own. Second Wave feminist artists of the 1970s produced powerful expressions of resistence against restrictive gender roles as communicated through media and art. But even roughly a decade before, women artists were already expressing their ideas of womenhood in the context of consumer culture, which gained impetus at that time.

The 1950s, a time of flourishing economy and abundance in many Western countries, saw an unprecedented celebration of consumer goods through advertising. With gay colours and auspicious slogans, the world of advertising promised a better and happier life by means of a multitude of new products. It also provided the fuel for the Pop Art movement of the late 1950s and 60s. Along with other domains of popular culture, like television and comic books, the world of advertising lent Pop Art its aesthetics and iconography. Pop Art constituted a big step in the history of Modern art, as it elevated the commonplace and mass produced items to the realm of art. Largely objects of consumer culture, everyday items from hamburgers to car tires were represented in an objective manner—neither glorifying nor condemning them.

Cold meat#2, Martha Rosler, 1966-72,    © Martha Rosler, courtesy of the artist

Recently, two exhibitions in major art institutions have aimed at revising the history of Pop Art, generally associated with its male protagonists, by presenting a range of outstanding female artists within the genre: Power Up! at the Kunsthalle Wien and Subversive Seduction at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. But the aim of these exhibitions is not merely to show that women were part of the movement. Power Up also asserts that female pop artists often offered a more critical perspective on consumerism than their male counterparts, while further implying that female pop artists from this period anticipated core issues of the 1970s Feminist Art Movement. Artists like Kiki Kogelnik and Marisol criticized the confines of female representations, and Evelyn Axell and Dorothy Iannone asserted their active sexuality.

Indeed the gender roles conveyed in 1950s and 60s advertising offered the ideal target for early feminist criticism. Martha Rosler’s photomontage Vacuum Cleaning Pop Art (1966–72) is a good example of this. Though Rosler’s works are usually defined as conceptual, she employs typical Pop Art techniques, including borrowing imagery from advertising, and displaying a pop art painting within the picture. To be more specific, Rosler’s work depicts a woman vaccuum cleaning a hall way next to a pop art painting. Despite the similarity to works by less critical pop artists, it can be understood as commentary on imposed domesticity and the economic exploitation of women at the time.

Rosler’s critical stance becomes more obvious in her series body beautiful, or body knows no pain (1966-1972). Several pieces from the series show images of naked female torsos superimposed on kitchen equipment. cold meat #2, for instance, shows a refrigerator, on the surface of which there is a horizontally displayed female chest. One of the doors is opened, revealing packages of meat. The picture, obviously criticising a reduction of women to their bodies and household chore, makes an interesting point regarding the perception of the female body. It not only invokes the equation of the female body with meat—drawing on the association of female with body and male with mind—which ultimately stems from ancient philosophy and manifested itself in art practice and theory; it also points to a form of objectification linked to consumer culture: the commodification of the female body.

While contemporary art practice on the topic reflects the—I believe—a more complex reality of consumer culture in the age of globalization and digitalization, the perspectives of mid-20th century women artists on media images of women touch upon issues that still play a role today. In next week’s post I will discuss how consumer criticism in contemporary women’s art parallels that of the artists discussed above, as well as how it deviates due to its complication by current issues.

Frauke Ehlers
Frauke Ehlers holds a B.A. Arts & Culture with a specialization in Arts, Literature, and Culture, and is currently a candidate for the MA Arts and Heritage - Management, Policy, and Education at Maastricht University, Netherlands.
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  • Lindsay

    Wow, I didn’t know there were women Pop Artists, much less that their art was so sharply critical.

    Thanks for writing about these artists; I will definitely go off and Google them now!

  • L.George Alexander

    At last someone addresses this issue. I was a kid during the mid 20th century but an aware one. It was not the way this time period is described by many. Why would the Beat Generation be cooking as they were? Maybe women did not have an active part in the Beats but we were there. The racial consciousness was awakening then too. My eyes were opening. I hated seeing what was happening around me and what it was doing to my mother and to other women.

    There was a dearth of models for women but they were there although many male leaders worked hard to keep them in the shadows.

    I hated the white gloves, hats and the books that were in the libraries that taught girls what it was like to be ladies and all written by male writers. There were writers that dared to say there were other things out there for women other than cleaning house and buying consumer products but they were few and far between. There were unsung artists as well. Hooray! The underclass, underestimated and downtrodden rose from beneath the radar of society to prove they were there all along.

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