Why have there been no great women artists?

If someone asked you to name 5 women artists, you’d struggle, right? I probably would too (and I’m a female fine art student!). But why is this?

Well, to begin with, let us think about how male-dominated the art world is (as my post on women’s gains illustrates) and which artists get a lot of press (for example: Damien Hirst, and fairly recently Rothko and others who have had major retrospectives) The fact is that, for whatever reason, we associate great works with men. Is there a fundamental difference between men and women’s artwork? And if there isn’t, why is it that the famous and/or great artists are all male?

One article that aims to address this matter is Linda Nochlin’s Why have there been no great women artists?

Whilst many writers have strived to give certain artists who are women their due, Nochlin feels this tries to rectify the imbalance whilst failing to answer why this is such a vital question, and cannot therefore be a sufficient response. To argue the case for women within a canon that is written by and includes predominantly white males cannot be a move towards a long-lasting change. Similarly, we cannot begin to include gay, transgender, black, Hispanic (and so forth) artists when the viewpoint of art history as a discipline is so narrow.

Another typical response is for the feminist to argue that there is a different kind of greatness to women’s art- a ‘distinctive and recognisable feminine style’. Whilst Nochlin understands the reasoning behind this (women’s’ place in and experience of society is undoubtedly different to men’s), she quite rightly points out that it is a rather big stretch to incorporate such a large and diverse group of artworks and artists under an umbrella term of ’feminine’. Not least because the idea of ‘feminine’ in itself is incredibly problematic. For example, traditional feminine values may include characteristics such as delicacy and introversion. By all means try to apply these to every women artist, but I don’t think people would commonly call Tracey Emin delicate (for example, no slur intended!)

‘The problem lies not so much with the feminist’s concept of what femininity in art is, but rather with the misconception of what art is: with the naive idea that art is the direct, personal expression of individual emotional experience- a translation of personal life into visual terms’ (p.5)

Nochlin does not think “great art” is ever this. However, as artists we cannot escape our own experience of the world, so personally there is always an extent to which ones work will be personal and reflect our own individual experience (though emotions are often strictly cut for fear of the sentimental)

Another problem with Nochlin’s argument is whilst she urges us to transcend the male canon; she endorses it purely by using the term “great art”. Whilst she discusses the myth of the Great (male) artist she does not discuss great art in detail. Art that is referred to as “great” is by and large male, therefore “male” and “great” could be seen bound together, and “great” and “female” could be seen to be mutually exclusive terms.

Other areas Nochlin discusses are social class, ethnicity and the nude. Her main conclusion is that ideally, we want to move on to a time in which all artists are on equal starting points and thus there will be little need to have labels such as “female artist”.

[This is by no means an in-depth discussion of her text, but hopefully it will highlight areas for exploration and discussion]

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