In Search of a New Ethic: Art and Feminisms

March 7, 2018

This is one of several articles commissioned for and published in conjunction with the 2018 Seminario Fundación Cisneros, Disruptions: Dilemmas Regarding the Image in Contemporaneity


Various feminisms have asked themselves questions that shed light on what reinforces the current civilizational crisis. Julia Kristeva suggested (1979) that “women’s time” was arriving as a device to drive a new ethic against slavery, a new social contract, the rewriting of history.[1] For her part, Virginie Despentes (2018) signals feminism as a 20th- and 21st-century adventure that has changed the world.

It is possible to use this framework to look at the urgency that is moving vertiginously in the global public sphere, making its enunciatory strength felt. Diverse positions mark the debate on the subjected condition of women and the feminized, and although femicides, harassment, rape, and the wage gap seem to be the most frequent headlines in the denouncement of the power of the patriarcal system and its terrifying force for exterminating life, child and adolescent pregnancies, the right to decide about one’s own body, and sexual enslavement of women by the international human trafficking industry are not far behind.[2]

The context of contemporary art does not lack for input from feminist debates. Since the end of the 1960s, contributions to the development of alternative narratives of creation, theory, and criticism that point to the importance of highlighting the historical silencing and subjugation sustained by gender differences have characterized the intertwined changes in what we identify as contemporary art, its methodologies, and its influence in the modification of the imaginaries. A multitude of artists have given their attention to these problematics which, since their beginnings, have intervened in the trajectory of languages like performance, photography, and public art. The list has not ended; it has its own plots and anecdotes in each and every latitude.

The events of 2017 not only instigated a blossoming in the realm of public opinion related to topics that have been discussed for years within the fields of activism, gender studies, and feminist theory, and which are now arenas of global show-business, but also had notable repercussions in the art world regarding the enunciatory and problematizing capacity of the network of art works related to these issues.

In this sense it seems important to mention the exhibitions from the past year—even more than some of the numerous and singular individual proposals—that I consider memorable.

Of a genealogical nature, Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960 -1985 (2017) is a revision of art history presented at the Hammer Museum. This proposal is put forth by Venezuelan art historian and curator Cecilia Fajardo-Hill and her Argentinian peer Andrea Giunta, who spent seven years making explorations and allowing them to decant, finally arriving at this one, which was catalogued as the exhibition of the year.

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Exhibition views of "Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960–1985, Hammer Museum, December 2017. Image courtesy of Hammer Museum

This show has offered a specter rescued by the curators from a wide historical hiatus through work regarding a self-represented body—outside the impositions of phallogocentric discursivity (Derrida, 1975), the contemporary languages and the specific contexts of 120 creators and collectives of Latin American, Chicana and Latina artists born in the United States, among whom are Antonieta Sosa, Ana Mendienta, Diamela Eltit, Marie Orenzans, Mónica Mayer, and many others.

Radical Women has been an large-scale exercise of the intersection of art and feminism from Latin America, for which reason it has substantial value in the necessary reprocessing of art history starting from disobedience to the reproduction of the canon.

In Quito, visitors could tour the work of Spanish curator Rosa Martínez in La intimidad es política (2017) at the Centro Cultural Metropolitano, with works by Regina José Galindo, Santiago Sierra, Nuria Guell and the anarcha-feminist collective Mujeres Creando, among others. With a less historiographic intention and a much more modest format, this show proposed interpellations around gender in its relationship to white, Eurocentric and hetero-patriarchal hegemony, the suppression of women from the historical canon of art and gender domination as a transversal axis of the capitalist system, language and the forms of power practiced from the masculine order.

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Santiago Sierra, 146 mujeres (2005) in the exhibition La intimidad es política, curated by Rosa Martínez. Centro Cultural Metropolitano, Quito, August–October 2017. Image courtesy of Paralaje xyz
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Nora Pérez, Cuerpo desbordado (2015) in the exhibition La intimidad es política, curated by Rosa Martínez. Centro Cultural Metropolitano, Quito, August–October 2017. Image courtesy of Universes in Universe

On the other hand, I’ll also recall the proposals of Venezuelan artists such as Deborah Castillo, Erika Ordosgoitti, Blanca Haddad and Sandra Vivas, among others, who for many years have been making critical inquiries into structural problems linked to gender as experienced in different planes of life that—this is not always so obvious—damage the social sphere in its totality. In Venezuela it is essential to continue to value the importance of the exhibit Desde el Cuerpo. Alegorías de lo femenino (1998), curated by Carmen Hernández at the Museo de Bellas Artes.

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Deborah Castillo, Beso emancipador (2013). Image courtesy of Carmen Araujo Arte

It seemed to some that to put these discussions into circulation was a task of “the uninformed,” as they had already been “overcome.” But the problems of discrimination, exclusion, oppression and extermination in relation to gender, sexualities, and their degrees of freedom in the confluence of race, class, age, and national provenance, continue to the present day and have even become sharper in alarming ways.

As Giunta and Fajardo-Hill relate, only eight years ago, allowing feminist positionings to be seen brought about a much more hostile reaction. Today, it seems that feminism has been able to come out of the closet—not without retaliations—to the point of arriving at the window displays of ready-to-wear fashion.[3]

In the short time that has transpired in 2018 another series of declarations, exhibitions, and publications have been brought forward in various places and environments throughout the world, as well as adverse responses from those who are more comfortable on the side of the privileged.

But the politicization of art has the potential to suggest a pause, one necessary for the construction of more complex perspectives. The link between art and the diverse modes of feminist activism mobilizes a reflexivity―in Hannah Arendt’s terms―in which the crosslinking of the public and intimate spheres directs attention to the search for ways to “leave behind the indifference of the masses,” facing violence, banality, and all that is nauseating about the platforms of power. It pushes us to become conscious that there we all—todes—risk our lives.


Arendt, H (2003). Eichman en Jerusalem. Un estudio sobre la banalidad del mal, Barcelona (Esp.), Lumen.

Derrida, J (1975). “La farmacia de Platón” in La diseminación, Madrid, Edit. Fundamentos.

Despentes, V (2018). “Virginie Despentes: "Hay un antes y un después tras el #MeToo, las mujeres rechazamos el estatuto de presa"” in SER disponible en http://cadenaser.com/ser/2018/02/13/cultura/1518537428_246867.html

Hernández, C (2006). Desde el cuerpo. Alegorías de lo femenino. Una visión del arte contemporáneo, Caracas, Monte Ávila Editores Latinoamericana.

Kristeva, J ([1979] 1995). “Tiempo de mujeres” in Las nuevas enfermedades del alma, Barcelona (Esp.), Cátedra, pp. 185 – 205.

Rodríguez, A (2017). “La intimidad es política y las reacciones lo confirman” in Artishock Revista available at http://artishockrevista.com/2017/08/04/la-intimidad-politica-las-reaccio...

Villasmil, A and Aldeide Delgado (2017). “Andrea Giunta y Cecilia Fajardo-Hill sobre "Radical Women"” Artishock Revista, disponible en http://artishockrevista.com/2017/10/05/andrea-giunta-cecilia-fajardo-hil...


[1] Together with Kristeva I understand this “women’s time” not as an essentialist time that excludes other diverse gender/sex expressions, but rather as a time in which multiplicity and plural languages find a place outside of the patriarchal univocality and epistemic dichotomies.

[2] The protests of the movement #NiUnaMenos, since 2015, and the #VivasNosQueremos marches (2016) in Latin America; the #MeToo movement (2017) and its globally viral hashtag (named by Time magazine as “person of the year”); the #NiñasNoMadres hashtag, which has brought to the fore the growing and alarming figures about pregnancy in Latin American children between the ages of 7 and 14, the result of abuse by adult subjects who are easily pardoned, with derisory penalties, thanks to their masculine gender (not deemed monsters, but healthy sons of a system that teaches them to silence the abused and legitimate the violence against those still considered to be an inferior gender); in Spain the denouncements against sexual harassment of La caja de pandora (2018). These are only a brief review of the resounding diversity of dissent and affinity in the dynamic of the movements of some current feminisms and their responses in the face of the flaring restorations of violence expressed as social, economic and symbolic domination and inequality, while they produce discomfort in the new generation of inquisitors.

[3] Examples of retaliations include what happened with the backlash against #MeToo, dismissed as “puritanical” in the “French Intellectuals Manifesto" among whose leaders was Catherine Deneuve (who quickly came forward to apologize publicly to the victims of harassment); the foolish recriminations of closing or taking down exhibitions considered feminist puritanism but that turned out to be no such thing (such as the case of the censure of images by Egon Schiele by German and British authorities, or the taking down of the work Hylas and the Nymphs by John Waterhouse (1896) by the Manchester Art Gallery, used by the gallery as a strategy to detonate a debate on gender). Since feminisms are diverse, there are disagreements, but above all, it is not feminism that has historically acted as a censor.