Sunday, November 22, 2009

Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?

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"Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?" by Linda Nochlin, in Women, Art, And Power And Other Essays* (Westview Press, 1988), 147-158.

Linda Nochlin is considered one of the major feminist scholars in art history.  She's a great art historian (her article on Courbet's The Meeting blew my mind), but out of everything she's ever written, her essay asking why there have been no great women artists is the most well-known, and has had the biggest impact on the field.

I once read a review of this essay where the author said something along the lines of, "The question at the title of the article is facetious, of course."  I wonder if that person even read the essay.  Of course, one assumes the title question is facetious, particularly coming from a woman and a well-known feminist; and as feminists, I think our instinct is to brush off a question like this as ridiculous, or respond to it by pointing out female artists neglected in the study of art history.  Or looking at arts considered decorative, where women were the primary producers.  But Nochlin doesn't do this.  It was a serious question posed to her by a gallery owner, and she tries to answer it seriously--and I think that's the major strength of the article. 

Nochlin begins by looking at ways other people have attempted to respond to the question (mentioned previously) and says that, although each of these endeavors are valuable to the study of art history, they serve as mere excuses to hide the fact that there really hasn't been any great female artists.  There is no female equivalent of Michelangelo or Remembrandt, and no refocusing of scholarly study is going to change that fact.  In other words, the question of why there have been no great female artists is a valid one, and one that has implications far beyond feminism--after all, there haven't been any black or Chinese or Eskimo Michelangelos, either, at least not as far as the Western cannon is concerned.

So, why haven't there been any great women artists?  Nochlin's answer is two-fold:  first, the myth of artistic genius, which has been a part of art writing since Pliny, makes it seem that anyone with true artistic gifts would naturally make themselves known as a genius, preferably to some famous teacher, and then quickly surpass the teacher in skill.  The inherent genius inside these great artists always refuses to be kept hidden, despite their own lack of fortune or common sense.

This idea of artistic genius, says Nochlin, is a fantasy.  Art is rarely (and great art certainly never is) created solely by the artist for the purpose of personal expression.  Instead, if we look at art as the sum total of patronage and production and purpose, we see that there was a whole system in place that excluded women from creating the type of work that made artists like Michelangelo and Raphael famous.

Institutions--with which both art and art history have a long relationship--are built to include and exclude certain people, and that was certainly the case with the art academies of Europe for most of their history.  So even though Jacques-Louis David was a supporter of women artists, even he couldn't--and likely wouldn't--allow them into life drawing classes where they would sketch nudes--the basis upon which many artistic honors, like the Pris de Rome, where awarded.  So even though there was a plethora of female artists in Paris during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, it was a given that none of them would ever receive the insitutionalized awards and honors of their male counterparts.

One of my favorite parts of the article is where Nochlin points out that, instead of asking why there are no great women artists, we could just as well be asking why there are no great aristocratic artists.  Aristocrats have a long tradition of being involved in the arts and being trained in the arts, but there are no great artists who are born members of the artistocracy until Toulouse Lautrec--and he abandoned his ancestry to become a bohemian.  In other words, the question of women artists is not, in itself, a question of women artists at all, but one of art production.  To answer it, we have to look at a much wider scope than women, to the web of reality--not the linear legend--of how artists become artists.  I think an expanded version of that is true of many subjects in women's studies--the study of women, and the issue of women, isn't always just about women--it's about men, too, and institutions and families and societies, and all the other things that make life complicated.

In any case, it's a great essay, and one that has implications for other studies in the humanities, as well.  It reads just as relevant today as it was when it was first published twenty years ago--possibly because all of the problems Nochlin talks about are still problems!  You can read it for free online here.

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I read this as part of the Women Unbound Challenge and Heidenkind's Art History Challenge.

*This is an Amazon Associates link.

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