A History of Digital Art Through a Feminist Lens

My new book, Dismantling the Patriarchy, Bit by Bit: Art, Feminism, and Digital Technology links the feminist art movement to digital art. What does the feminist art movement have to do with digital art? Feminism is not just about what are called “women’s issues.” It’s intersectional because women are involved in all areas of our society.

To understand the current climate for digital art and NFTs, it’s useful to look at the history of digital art through the lens of the role of women artists and feminist theory. The rise of NFTs raises issues that were originally interrogated by feminist theory which posed questions such as: Who makes art? Do we now live in a virtual world rather than a world away from the keyboard? Does the digital world present more or less equity and inclusion?

We don’t think of contemporary art as technological, but if we do, we think of men making that art, because we think of men as the inventors of technology. Even now in the ongoing discussions about NFTs, the discourse is mostly about male artists and the huge sums for which their NFTs have been sold. But if you look more closely, women artists, including artists of color, have been pioneering NFTs for years.

Many of the issues connected to digital art were raised by women digital artists as early as the late 1960s when computers first became publicly available. Until then, digital technology was in the domain of the military, the government, and major university laboratories. Despite its connection to men, male artists didn’t seem to own it yet. So, women artists began to experiment with digital technology. 

What made digital art by women artists, even those who didn’t call themselves feminist, innovative was that they were using digital technology for social justice — to impact the relationship between the individual, the community, and society.

In the United States Feminism evolved in the 1960s and 1970s among mostly White women. Despite its radical assault on patriarchal male privilege, it became critiqued as privileging whiteness and heteronormative gender definitions as universals for all humanity. Postcolonialist, queer, and critical race theorists made it become intersectional — inclusive of gender fluidity, anti-racist, suspicious of power, and resistant to oppression. It underlies “Me Too” and Black Lives Matter. 

Anne Spalter, “Gem Castle” (2021) AI generated image on the platform superrare.com. (courtesy the artist)

Women digital artists queried the bias in digital technology itself. They saw digital technology and particularly the internet as tools of the patriarchal culture, elevating White males into a dominant class that oppressed women, people of color, and non-binary individuals. Legacy Russell conceptualized “glitch feminism” to counteract the patriarchy’s control of the online world. Digital technology, including NFTs, operates on the basis of on and off, or one and zero. Russell argues that this system of opposites is just like human society: based on the binary definition of male and female. She proposes that if we consider the off position as a correction, instead of an error, the online world offers a space for creating multiple identities, so marginalized people can define themselves in ways not afforded by the world away from the keyboard.

The issues raised by cyberfeminists are pertinent today with the rise of cryptocurrency and NFTs. Are these cyber manifestations an extension of the patriarchal world, based as they are on money and ownership? Or does the way NFTs merge the online and offline worlds offer a chance to promote a non-binary and more inclusive society?

Digital feminist artists have also had influence on the movement to eliminate the cultural hierarchy in which fine art is valued over popular culture. Feminist digital artists harnessed the potential of social networking for performance art. Their use of social networking fed into the process of democratizing the art world, bypassing the traditional structure of art, leading to our acceptance of NFTs as art even when made by non-artists.

Women digital artists introduced feminist concepts into two other areas of popular visual culture: video gaming and anime. Contrary to conventional belief that these areas are male dominated, women have been significantly involved. It is estimated that there were at least 200,000 female players even in the early period of digital gaming.

Similarly, anime, a genre of Japanese animation, has been portrayed as male dominated whereas women have been instrumental in developing products that provide alternatives to masculinist manga/anime narratives. They subvert the narratives by transforming male superheroes into female heroines and featuring cross-dressing, androgynous young women, providing eroticism for queer, and transgender audiences. In countries with restrictive cultures, like Russia, series like Sailor Moon in which a schoolgirl becomes a being with super powers are popular with non-binary young men subject to government oppression.

In the United States, LGBTQ artists have critiqued the patriarchal masculinity of most video games by creating games relating to LGBTQ lives such as a remarkable game by Auntie Pixelante, the nom de plume of Anna Anthropy, about becoming trans, or Mattie Brice’s game, Mainichi in which a gay, Black protagonist goes through everyday activities, some of which involve anti-gay confrontations.

These artists have harnessed the potential of digital technology to deliver the feminist critique of the patriarchal, masculinist society in which we live. The art world needs to recognize the important contributions of women artists to digital art, but it also needs to recognize the significance of digital art itself. If you look at the art history surveys of contemporary art, the art discussed is still mostly the traditional forms of art. I relate digital art to mainstream art history through feminist theory, identity work, and social justice. But there are other aspects of digital art that emerged from and are shaping the art mainstream. Resistance to considering digital art as serious art may have to do with the conventional separation of high art from popular art. But the line between the two has broken down thanks in great part to pioneering feminist digital artists. It looks as if NFTs will continue that process. The discipline of art history will eventually have to take into account art based on digital technologies.

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