Linda Nochlin, "Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists"? Relevant as ever, controversial as ever

When it comes to not beating around the bush, few can complete with the seminal (and self-avowed feminist) 1971 essay by Linda Nochlin, "Why Have There Been No Great Woman's Artists" (see here, being the 2015 version posted by the late author). It is appropriate, therefore, in light of the recent publication of the book, "Ninth Street Woman", by Mary Gabriel, chronicling the challenges of five aspiring female artists to climb "the canvas ceiling" (in the words of the print version of The New Yorker) in post-World War II New York City, to return to the article that helped kick-start the debate that continues to this day.

At the heart of Nochlin's analysis is the question that forms the title. While she does not argue that there have not been notable female painters, to focus on this is to miss the point. As she famously says--
The feminist’s first reaction is to swallow the bait, hook, line and sinker, and to attempt to answer the question as it is put: i.e., to dig up examples of worthy or insufficiently appreciated women artists throughout history. Such attempts … are certainly worth the effort, both in adding to our knowledge of women’s achievement and of art history generally. But they do nothing to question the assumptions lying behind the question 'Why have there been no great women artists?' On the contrary, by attempting to answer it, they tacitly reinforce its negative implications.
Nochlin is clear: In her view—"… there have been no supremely great women artists". The question, for her is-- why? The answer is institutional, economic and social which, at its most stark, is a world—
"…stultifying, oppressive and discouraging to all those, women among them, who did not have the good fortune to be born white, preferably middle class and, above all, male. The fault, dear brothers, lies not in our stars, our hormones, our menstrual cycles or our empty internal spaces, but in our institutions and our education—education understood to include everything that happens to us from the moment we enter this world of meaningful symbols, signs and signals."
Kat readers who think that Nochlin is merely throwing out colorful invective should be immediately disabused of the notion. To the contrary, she brings various strands of thought—historical, sociological, economic, and institutional- in support of her view. We point to three of them.

First, is her discussion about "genius." Art historians, she argues, like to view great artistic talent as a matter of individual skill that often manifests itself in an early display (even better if such genius is discovered in a pristine, pastoral setting). External factors, social, economic, or institutional, even ideational, are secondary, if relevant at all.

This leads to what Nochlin describes as a phony syllogism: (i) if women were blessed with individual artistic genius, it would have revealed itself; (ii) but in fact artistic genius among females has failed to reveal itself; (iii); therefore, females do not have the "golden nugget" of artistic genius.

Second, instead of this world of "fairy tale and self-fulfilling prophecy", Nochlin urges us to look at the circumstances by which art has been produced, focusing on the "social and institutional structures". Perhaps her most compelling example is her discussion of how artistic training took place as a group experience, rather than as a matter of unbridled individualism.

Against this background, she focuses on the issue of the availability of the nude model as part of an artist’s training. Until the end of the 19th century, it was held that there could be no great painting with clothed figures, since such figures destroyed both the universality and idealization of the figures being painted. To avoid this, already from the Renaissance, the availability of the nude male became a central component of the artist's education. But that was so only for male artist students and male nude models.

For centuries, aspiring female artists had no availability to a nude model (male or female). At the most, in more recent times, there might be, as reported, a "bearded male model so heavily draped that not an iota of his anatomy escapes from the discreet yoga, save for a single bare shoulder and arm…." Particularly telling, in Nochlin's account, was the 1885 photograph by Thomas Eakins of a group of female art students relegated to having a cow serve as a model instead of a male (demi-) nude (see the picture on the left). Far from individual genius, the matter of the male nude exemplified for Nochlin the social, educational and institutional factors conspiring against the development of female artists.

Third, replete with sociological and psychological aspects is the image of the "lady painter." The term used is "amateur"; the expectation was that a woman painter would be expected to treat painting as a pleasurable sidelight rather than the focus of her (family and spousal) duties. In the words of a 19th century work quoted in the essay—
By being apt and tolerably well skilled in everything, she may fall into any situation in life with dignity an ease—by devoting her time to excellence in one, she may remain incapable of every other.
Lest Kat readers contend that these examples are socio-economic-institutional relics of the 19th century, consider the Gabriel book as discussed in The New Yorker. Recalling the felt need to meet family and social expectations, Lee Krasner, an accomplished painter, is more often viewed in terms of her support for the work product of her husband, Jackson Pollock. Similarly, Helen Frankenthaler, a pioneer in abstract expressionist technique. is often described in terms having a five-year affair with the powerful art critic, Clement Greenberg, 20 years her senior (although the power dynamics between the two continue to be debated), and later being the wife of fellow artist Robert Motherwell (who seldom, it seems, was described first and foremost as the spouse of Frankenthaler).

There is more, of course, to Nochlin's arguments, and the interested Kat reader is urged to read the essay, at the least as an entré into the intellectual world viewing the act of creating art in terms of the social, economic and institutional contexts of production.

More on Nochlin and her essay, here.

By Neil Wilkof

Photo on middle left from Charles Bregler's Thomas Eakins Collectkion

Photo on lower right by Nicole.c.s.y93 and is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license

Linda Nochlin, "Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists"? Relevant as ever, controversial as ever Linda Nochlin, "Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists"? Relevant as ever, controversial as ever Reviewed by Neil Wilkof on Friday, November 16, 2018 Rating: 5

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