The Art and Politics of The Heresies Collective

January 12, 2021

In 2020, an interesting TV miniseries aired across the globe. Under the title Mrs. America, it focused on the nation-wide political struggle to pass the Equal Rights Amendment and the severe backlash led by conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly in the 1970s. Despite the criticism expressed by some of the leading proponents of the feminist movement such as Gloria Steinem, the miniseries managed to emphasize the women’s struggle and different obstacles they had to confront to achieve the change.

This particular historical chapter was part of the second feminist wave that swept America in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when women coming from different disciplines stepped out to articulate the patriarchal burden and conduct emancipation.

Looking from the contemporary perspective, we owe a great deal to the feminist artists, who played an important role in the movement.

One of the most relevant initiatives that influenced a new generation of artists and left an astounding legacy is the Heresies Collective. Formed by a group of feminist artists in New York City in 1976, it explored a new art paradigm conditioned by gender in a decisive political manner. Alongside numerous actions and wide cultural impact, the Heretics are saluted for the publication of the journal titled Heresies: A feminist publication on art and politics issued from 1977 until 1993

The Heresies Collective Women. Image via joanbraderman.com

The Might of the Heretics

The Heresies Collective was centered on exploring different aspects of feminism, politics, and their relation to art-making. Broad interests were expressed through the mentioned journal under the agenda of creating a public space where new scholarly interpretations of history could be featured, sexual, racial and labor issues discussed, as well as women’s role in music, cinema, and theatre. Furthermore, the Heretics tended not only to empower feminist political art but to develop a dialog around the ideological context of political and esthetic theory by rejecting the capitalist framework of the art world and embracing criticality.

The founding members were Joan Braderman, Mary Beth Edelson, Harmony Hammond, Lucy Lippard, Miriam Schapiro, Pat Steir, and others; many of them were part of the Mother Collective, practically the editorial group in charge of the publication that took responsibility for creating the topics for each issue.

The publication turned out to be the primary activity of the collective, however, the Heretics were also affiliated with other arts and political movements in New York. For instance, their large-scale works were presented in an exhibition titled Classified: Big Pages from the Heresies Collective at the New Museum in 1983. A year later, the Heresies Collective performed a demonstration of the Women Artists Visibility Event (W.A.V.E) in front of the Museum of Modern Art, to spread awareness about the awful representation of women artists at the museum.

In brief, the Collective functioned in a non-hierarchical fashion while insisting that some voices were more important than others, and developing cultures that provided women with real alternatives to the patriarchal structures they were exposed to on a daily basis.

Heresies Collective publications. The Heresies Film Project website, screenshot.

The Journal

Each Heresies journal was focused on a single topic presented under a particular style. It included feminist art, theory, politics, communicational modes, lesbian art and artists, traditional women's crafts and politics of representation, racism, working women, activism, women from peripheral environments, women and music, sex, postmodernism, and coming of age. Truth be told, the Heresies journal was the leading force of the feminist art scene and beyond that a space of great relevance for the experimentation of the editorial format; it was the publication responsible for the establishment of the public discourse in feminist thought and expression.

The prime goal of the journal was promoting unheard individual voices that were systematically silenced by the patriarchy and anti-feminism movements (such as the mentioned initiative of conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly). The publication enabled women to speak openly about their most personal issues and thoughts on everyday topics.

Throughout the years, numerous other feminist artists contributed to the Heresies journal.

The artworks were presented in each issue of Heresies as particular forms of confrontation to the male-dominated art scene at the time. Those artworks emitted a high level of female independence from the art system as they were most often produced out of cheap materials through collaging, sewing, and appliquéing, techniques that were historically assigned to women and perceived as unprofessional. For that reason, the publication promoted D.I.Y. approaches to underline the artist's process rather than finished artwork.

The first issue Feminism, Art, and Politics unraveled the initial hopes for the magazine and personal thoughts on feminism, while the last issue titled LATINA - A Journal of Ideas, was published in 1993.

THE HERETICS | Women Make Movies | Trailer

The Heresies Collective and Publication: Then and Now

During its existence, the collective came under controversy within the feminist circles as it was characterized for the lack of diversity in comprising only white women. Such an accusation was imposed after the publication of the third issue Lesbian Art and Artists in 1977 that was saluted for thematizing the importance of women’s sexuality in their work.

This was of special importance in the context of the social climate in American and prevailing homophobia and marginalization. The editorial failed to include lesbian artists of color; however, the journal featured the response of the. Combahee River Collective, a black feminist lesbian social organization. To become more inclusive, the Heretics later published the issues Third World Women and Racism is the Issue.

In 2009, one of the most prominent members of the collective Joan Braderman produced a documentary film The Heretics that features a semi-biographical storyline including intimate interviews with former Heresies Collective members.

After all the efforts mentioned and the impact they had on the further development of feminist thought in the United States, this outstanding collective and their journal are still celebrated widely. Their legacy represents an important stronghold, a base for the ultimate unification of present-day parties of feminist provenance that should make no exceptions in terms of race, gender, and sexuality while attempting to crush the patriarchy.

Featured image: The Heresies Collective Publication Covers of Issue 1 (1977) and Issue 27 (1993). Image via heresiesfilmproject.org.