Linda Nochlin

feminist critique of art history blastoff

“The fault lies not in our stars, our hormones, our menstrual cycles, or our empty internal spaces, but in our institutions and our education.” 

In 1971, Linda Nochlin took the lead in developing a feminist critique of art history by looking for answers to the question Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists? It was a necessary question to be asked. Imagine, Janson’s History of Art, first published in 1962 was the most widely used art history publication at that time and did not – I repeat – did not include any female artist. Not one. Yes, let that sink in for a moment. If you wonder: what about Georgia O’Keeffe? What about Frida Kahlo? Barbara Hepworth? Nope, nope and nope. I have to say, in 1942 Peggy Guggenheim organized an all women exhibition of 31 artists miraculously called 31 Women. But still, enough reason to be all gloomy and doomy.  

Nochlin pinpoints that “the white Western male viewpoint, unconsciously accepted as the viewpoint of the art historian.” Too long, I say. But, I guess if in 2017 you would do some research and look at the gender and color of the writers of art history books, the majority would be white and male. But I am not in a position at this point to usefully comment on what those numbers may be on a hypothetical or generalized basis. 

Anyway, back to Nochlin. She wanted to correct the domination of the white male in order to achieve a more adequate and accurate view of history.  It is not enough to try to add overlooked female artists. It is not an answer to the big question. It is necessary to look at the context and situations of female artists over the years. According to Nochlin, art has never been independent of conventions, schemata, or systems. Artists have to learn these, study, work it out over a long period of individual experimentation. 

The reason that there have been no great female artists is the same one why there have been no great Eskimo tennis players (damn, too bad I did not come up with this comparison but it was The Great Nochlin. A Dutch mountain climber or Ethiopian skier isn’t as funny) 

The problem has to do with the difference of opportunities compared to men regarding participation in the institutions, education, and study of the arts. The scarce occurrence that a female artist was regarded as “Great” has not so much to do with individual skill or competence but with the institutional precondition for achievement in the arts. For instance, the unavailability of the nude model interferes with the development of aspiring female artist. Since they could not draw after naked dudes, they were forced to turn to what the art world understood as lesser genres such as still lifes. Another reason is that their art was depended on what was designated as appropriate for women. Being an artist should not interfere with the supposedly “natural” role of women as wife and/or mom.

Throughout her essay, she makes clear that the bold question is not merely narrowed down to women artists. The same could be said for black artists, male or female. It counts for anyone who was not born white and male. Nochlin points out that “The miracle is, in fact, that given the overwhelming odds against women, or blacks, so many of both have managed to achieve so much excellence—if not towering grandeur—in those bailiwicks of white masculine prerogative like science, politics, or the arts.”   

In 2017, Linda Nochlin maintains to be the big cheese within feminist art historical debate, this essay is over 45 years old. It should be seen from the perspective of second wave feminism. In the mean time, there have been Great Women Artists. And women are able to draw after naked dudes in class. But regarding a percentage of artists who had the big retrospectives in big museums, the big sales in auction houses,  the big books about artists, who are not white and male, is still not high enough. But since I don’t have the exact numbers, I am not in a position at this point to usefully comment on what those numbers may be on a hypothetical or generalized basis. 

 

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