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Feminist Criticism

  Feminist criticism is an arts and political movement which began in the US and western Europe during the 1960s and has continued to the present day, though it is still more active in the West than in the East. At first it was principally confined to fine art and literature, but in the 1980s it spread to such other areas as film, music and theatre, though progress in these fields has been slower than in other arts.

The starting point of feminist criticism is that women creators have been systematically marginalized by a male-dominated tradition, and that there is a current of ‘women\'s experience’ which should no longer be hidden, but should surface and be recognized as of equal importance to ‘men\'s experience’. There are three main ways to do this. First is the rediscovery and restoration to circulation of works by women of the past, and the sponsoring of new work. Second is the critical examination of ‘women\'s experience’ as depicted by both women and men—often involving a refocusing of our views about past creators and their works. Third is the search for and discussion of a specific ‘gender’ in literary or artistic work, in the grain of thought processes and style themselves.

The second and third of these approaches are of most significance. If only the first applied, feminist criticism would be no more than just another revisionist agenda devoted to the rehabilitation of derelict reputations. The broader approach, however, has led to the development of the view that the works of both men and women are legitimate subjects of study, and, more importantly, to the use of notions of discourse, ideology and power to study the motivations of artistic creativity itself. This approach has revealed hitherto overlooked areas of interest (such as the representation of women, the gendered ‘gaze’, institutional bias, sexuality and patronage), and has led some critics to argue that feminism is not simply another ism (like Marxism or structuralism), but, because it challenges male-defined parameters of artistic creativity, is a new discipline altogether. For example, received notions of ‘greatness’ and ‘genius’ are so constructed that they exclude all but a handful of women creators. (This is particularly so in the creation of classical music and of plays.)

The feminist conclusions are that only the overthrow of this canon and its replacement with a broader constituency will allow women the place they deserve and that this in turn should lead to a new evaluation of the nature of artistic creativity itself. This last point suggests that we are in a transitional and revolutionary stage, in which political agendas are more urgent than the cause they serve. But that cause, a refocusing of our whole idea not of men or women but of the arts, is of far more significance than any of the activities which serve it, and (with apologies to those currently lined up on this or that side of the barricades) can only make us eager for the day when ideologies of all kinds, in Marx\'s phrase, have ‘withered away’. KMcL



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