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Written in the sand: Letter to (young) women artists and art historians:

Last week women art students at the university where I am a visiting professor of art nominated me to be on a women's history month panel about positive women role models. I agreed to this with great resistance, as I write this letter with great resistance, for the complexity of what it might mean to be a "role model" for young women artists (and art historians) is staggering. The longer I contemplate the phrase "young woman artist" in connection to the phrase "role model", the more it seems to me that much of my life over the past 25 years is contained in the pregnant space between these two phrases. How is it that I went from being a "young woman artist" to being a "role model"? When and how exactly did this transition happen? Are these appelations by which I would choose to describe myself, or are they imposed on me culturally, thus constructing the way what I do is seen in the world?

"young" When I was driving around Los Angeles with Judy Chicago in the early 70s we often talked about what the future might be like for women artists. Judy was always very sure that we were making history in the Feminist Art Program, and that this history would change the lives of young women artists to come.
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Now that the Feminist Art Movement has begun to be historicized, and its influence on mainstream art traced through books, exhibitions, symposia, and doctoral dissertations, it is clear that we did help to change art history, and that our work continues to have a transformative impact on many young women and men artists.

What remains of primary importance to me about the early 70's is the sense that we were connected to a much larger enterprise than trying to advance our artistic careers, or to make art for art's sake. It was preciscly our comittment to the activist politics of women's liberation, to a burgeoning theory and practice of feminism, and to a larger conversation about community, collectivity and radical history, which has given me lasting connections to people, and a continuing sense of being part of a cultural and political resistance however fragmentary the expression of this may be in my life today.

For me, being "young" meant being a revolutionary with an activist involvement in micro and macro politics as I understood them then. I would suggest to young women a similar active involvement in some form of collective enterprise which addresses issues vital to your lives as a way of connecting your personal lives to public culture and the world.

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"woman" In the 70's many of us described ourselves as "woman-identified". This was extremely appropriate to those times in which the suppressed histories of women's lives were being examined, and a politics of feminist support, collectivity, and activism was being developed. Identity politics were something different then than they are now, and they were an important step in the process of consciousness-raising, research on subjectivity, and self-affirmation. While important emotional, political, and historical ties continue to link me empathically with women in different ways than they do with men, the way I approach men has changed a lot over the years. With both women and men, I feel the need to defuse certain expectations of feminist representation that are so often imposed on women with histories like mine. I insist on the multiplicitous possibilities of feminisms.
Without trying to repress my history and my convictions, I feel free to express complexity, doubt, skepticism, contradiction, and non-gender coded behaviour. I seek intimacy, connection, and meaning, in my close relationships and friendships, whether they be with women or men. For young women, I see the importance and necessity of going through the stages of "woman-identification" and of self-affirmation as a woman.
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They need to understand the historical construction of the concept "woman" and their own cultural experience, in order to be able to map their trajectory in the largely uncharted territory of what I (with Donna Haraway and others) furiously hope will be a future without gender.

"artist" I have maintained an active art practice since graduating from CalArts in 1973. I have exhibited nationally and internationally in every imaginable venue from alternative space, to university galleries, commercial galleries, public spaces, museums, and recently, the Interet. Throughout my career I have continued to work both collaboratively and individually, suiting the way of working with the project at hand. I range widely in media and techniques, and have published much of my writing. It is impossible for me to discuss here why I have not had commercial success as an artist. My trajectory has been fitful and complex. On one hand l've been involved in making history and my students can read about me in books, on the other, I've been left out of some of the most visible "feminist" shows of the last decade.

I continue to strive to be versatile and flexible about where and how I distribute my work. I have earned my living as an art teacher since graduation.
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The concerns of my work have always been with the body and our complex relationship to our embodiedness. Currently, I'm researching and doing installations about the new assisted reproductive technologies and the way in which they have impact on the representation and experience of the body.

    Had I not participated in the Feminist Art Program (Feminist Art Program), I doubt I would be an artist today. Traditional art schools and art programs were failing rather miserably in educating, motivating, and empowering many young women art students to be productive artists. It was not so much what I actually learned about art in the Feminist Art Program, it was the process, the how that has been a life-long help and inspiration to me as both artist and teacher. Though they were often infuriating and frustrating, the radical pedagogical experiments in the Feminist Art Program helped me to build a non-media specific art practice based on a combination of intellectual research, conceptual and technical experimentation, and continued risk-taking which I still maintain today. In the Feminist Art Program we expanded concepts of what it is to be an artist and of what art is or could be to include a wide range of cultural practices and modes of being and making which set an important precedent for postmodernist art practices.
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In the Feminist Art Program we encouraged each other to become writers, researchers, historians, perfomers; to combine unlikely sources, materials, knowledges; to invent, create, and affirm ourselves in the world. The everwidening ripples of this rich discourse are still affecting today's art students and challenging them to keep pushing at the boundaries with their questions and their research. My experience in the Feminist Art Program taught me a lot about the dangers of dogma and entrenched positions, and gave me a life-long alertness to the need for staying open to invention, change, fluidity. This is the heritage which I try to pass on to my students.

"role model" We arrive at last at those weighty words. I have been asked to describe the mechanisms and decisions that women artists have to confront in order to make their way in the world. Seventy years ago, in "A Room of One's Own", Virginia Woolf attempted to answer the question: What does a young woman need in order to become an artist? Her famous short answer of course was: A Room of her own (with a lock on the door) and 500 pounds a year (economic independence). But the longer answer which also emerges from the book is that women need to know and indeed to write their own history; they need to know the work and lives af their peers and their predecessors;
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they need to know the successes, as well as the obstacles, of fellow aspirants; in short, they need role models.

    The key words for women artists today are "networking" and "mentoring". These have always been the survival mechanisms for male artists working singly and in groups. I believe that women in the art world have not developed mentoring and networking systems as strongly as many women in businesses, professions, and labor unions have. Why should this be so? I suspect that it is the all-important competitive star and celebrity system that still operates at the heart of the art world which keeps us from helping each other as we desperately need to do.

The Feminist Art Movement began in a rush of collective and collaborative activity. We founded our own galleries and schools, published our own magazines, curated shows, worked together in open studios, and did our own publicity. And these structures turned out to be extremely successful in helping women to develop and sustain collaborative and individual art practices. But they never became a real alternative to the art market economy. In the get-rich-quick 80s, some women artists finally made it into the big-time art mainstream, and set a new precedent for young women artists to aspire to. While this was a real achievement for the history of women in the arts, it contributed to pulling the rug out from under
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the alternative women artists' movement which was already weakened and splintered for many other reasons.
    I don't believe that we can, or should, go back to the "alternative" structures of the 70s, but I do think that we can adapt some of the collective and networking strategies we invented then to help each other now. As we try to invent new mechanisms and structures we need to address the changed social, political, and cultural role of artists in the age of global media, electronic imaging technology, and cyberculture. There is a window of opportunity here which promises much. For example, a number of my former students are working seriously with electronic technologies and are trying to insert a feminist critique of the body and technology into their work. What if we collaborated by drawing on my knowledge of feminist discourse and art history, and combined it with their knowledge of the new technologies? Such a collaboration would ensure that our feminist histories will not be lost, and could create new dialogues and possibilties (especially by being distributed to new audiences) informed by past experience and practice. An example of one such project already underway is the website "WomEnhouse" which updates into the 90s the examination of women's lives and domestic space begun in Womanhouse (Los Angeles, 1971).
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     Another important example of networking and mentoring which I find exciting is the proliferation of exhibitions, dissertations, exhibition catalogs, conference papers, and books, on feminist art and individual women artists, produced by young women (and sometimes men) art historians and critics. I have been fortunate to be interviewed, and written about, by several of these younger scholars and have found their insights to be of enormous value both for my present work and for a deeper understanding of our histories. The indispensable functions of art criticism and history writing are much more valuable when they are treated as a collaboration between practice, theory, and the testimony of lived experience. I would suggest to young women art historians and critics that there is a rich territory still to be mined here.
    At the risk of sounding prescriptive, I'm firmly persuaded that there needs to be a conscious effort on the part of every woman artist with a professional job, connections to galleries, museums, curators, historians, critics, and reviewers, to educate her colleagues about the history and needs of women artists. We still need to name the names of a multiplicity af women artists to ensure against the syndrome of the repeated exposure of the same few people over and over again. The more power and mobility we have the more this responsibility increases.
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Write about women, teach about women, hire women, exhibit women, collaborate with women, encowage women this is what I feel my own responsibility to be. This is not a call to exclude men, but a call to be proactive in broadening the participation of different cultural voices.
    Above all perhaps, "role model" means teacher. As a teacher I encounter fresh waves of young women and men every semester, most of whom have not thought seriously about feminism and only have the dimmest notion that there is strong history of women artists readily available. It is both infuriating and exciting to help students discover this history over and over again, and to see the transformations that this knowledge effects in their work and lives. As a teacher, the ways I dress, color my hair, speak, behave, work, and socialize, are all part of the signifying code of my role model-ness. It is really important for female teachers to realize how much we are watched by both female and male students for clues as to what "women artists can be like". There is less tolerance of eccentricity in us than in male teachers, and much more fear of us. I believe that students need to know that I have a rich, full life; that I earn my own living; that I'm a sexual, social, assertive, professional, intellectual, and playful person; that I probably won't live up to any stereotype of "feminist" they may have built up in their heads;
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and that I'm going to confuse them over and over again. But I'll also encourage them, affirm them, stand up for them, advise them, give them permission, and try to help them get to the goals they have set for themselves. One of the greatest gifts I can give my students is to affirm my own desire and sense of self in the world. This has been a life-long struggle for me, and it is something I discuss very frankly with my women students.
    I affirm the difficult responsibility of being a role model, and recommend it to all of you as one which has helped me greatly in my own life and work.

My love and admiration to all of you.

Faith Wilding








Feminist Art Program: Womanhouse. Valencia, 1972