Art Workers’ Coalition / Photograph by R. L. Haeberle, Q. And babies? A. And babies, 1970. Offset lithograph, 25 × 38 in (63.5 × 96.5 cm)
Wendy Vogel contributes to our collective glossary-building with an entry on CONSCIOUSNESS, the first of seven successive posts on terms associated with social practice, initiated via an open call.
An activist tactic that gained traction in the popular imagination through its use in feminist movements of the late 1960s and 1970s, consciousness raising (CR) brilliantly adapted the Marxist ideal of workers’ political awakening to suit the exigencies of a specific movement. During the second wave of feminism, CR sessions gathered together groups of women in private homes where each participant shared her experiences of oppression. No doubt influenced by the widespread enthusiasm for psychoanalysis and the related linguistic theoretical paradigm of structuralism, CR fomented a shared female identity through the verbal communication of examples of gender discrimination. These closed sessions in the domestic sphere (still synonymous with the feminine) facilitated group communication in a safe space—a kind of gathering that was becoming less frequent by the midcentury. Suburbanization, the rise of mass media, and conveniently available commercial products eliminated the need for shared resources and space, effectively isolating many women in nuclear family units. Through CR, women shared their common experiences of sexual abuse, domestic violence, the lack of reproductive freedom, obstacles to education and professional advancement, a deep financial inequality between sexes, the pressure to perform child-rearing and housework without assistance, and tightly policed aesthetic standards of their gender—in other words, various forms of systematic, gendered oppression that were previously considered personal problems. This shift in awareness gave rise to the slogan “the personal is the political.”
While CR has been criticized as a tool primarily used among an already privileged group of women (white and middle class to upper middle class) and one that practices (for better or worse) what Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak has helpfully termed “strategic essentialism,” its effects reenergized a social practice in art from the 1960s onward. Perhaps the most potent example is the co-emergence of the Art Workers’ Coalition (AWC) with second-wave feminism. The loosely affiliated group of artists in AWC created an ambitious list of demands reflecting their own identification with the Marxist idea of the art “worker,” effectively reconsidering the autonomy of the art object in relation to the creator’s ambiguous status in a capitalist economy. The group’s many demands included increased representation of women and artists of color, museum day care, artist fees, and an end to unjust political conflict. The group created iconic graphic campaigns, such as the unforgettable anti-Vietnam War poster Q. And babies? A. And babies. of 1970. They also mobilized performative actions, such as the Guerrilla Art Action Group’s brand of political theater, and engaged the Museum of Modern Art’s administration in conversations about the political affiliations of the art institution’s trustees. (No permanent solutions were found.) And yet, even though the objects AWC created found an easy place within the established canon of political art, the discursive aspects of the group, staged within the museum, remained accessible only through an appointment in MoMA’s archive until a few years ago.
In the ensuing years, various developments of “consciousness” have problematized the identificatory politics of the 1960s and ’70s. Deconstructivist and postcolonial thinkers have rightly argued that the AWC drew simplistic parallels between artists’ oppression and that of members of the underclass, such as blue-collar workers and slaves. Their propagandistic tactics promote both a violence of representation and an alienating, progressivist teleology. They have asked whose consciousness is favored over another’s and who the agent of raising consciousness is. As a result, social practice today has bifurcated into at least two clear strands, one looking inward to the politics of art production and one outward toward the art institution as a site for alternative political engagement. An activist group comprised of artists and cultural workers, W.A.G.E. are working collaboratively and in tandem with their own practices, to document the exploitation of artists and to create a best-practices standard for how art institutions should compensate them for their labor and for the reproduction of their works. Other artists have utilized the resources of the museum to facilitate grassroots political organizing, often divorced from the sites of the problems. The challenge that consciousness raising continues to pose is one that has haunted the avant-garde for more than a century: In what form (or under what conditions) can political content—discursive or otherwise—best be sited?
Wendy Vogel is a writer, editor, and occasional curator based in New York.