When the right questions are asked about the conditions for producing art, of which the production of great art is a subtopic, there will no doubt have to be some discussion of the situational concomitants of intelligence and talent generally, not merely of artistic genius.
Linda Nochlin, Why Have there Been no Great Women Artists? (1971)
I recently re-watched the film Pollock (played by Ed Harris), and it reminded me of the magnetism of painting at the mid-century. The very romance of painting at the time was concocted in a stew of mythologies that were part Western Expansionism, part anti-hero, and mostly male. The well-known Life magazine photo spread of Pollock from 1949 had, over the years, seeped so much into the collective consciousness that it became a visual reference for artist, and the historical index of painting overwhelms the narrative of the art of the 20th century, casting a huge shadow over all else. For someone born in the 1950’s who first became aware of the art of that century at the time it occurred, abstract expressionism pervaded the culture like a blanket. It seems in retrospect like a filter through which all else was seen. Abstract Expressionism appeared to grant wholesale permission to be expressive; to express oneself generally, in any medium or material. I recall sitting in the kitchen of a friend’s mother, in 1970 or so, watching her make faux-Louise Nevelson sculptures, not knowing at the time that it was the cusp of feminism and that my friend’s mother was channeling one of the few female artists of the era who had a sort of public recognition. The great Feminist Art Historian and critic Linda Nochlin cited Nevelson as a major influence on generations of women struggling to redefine “femininity” in art, laying the groundwork for artists such as Eva Hesse, Judy Chicago, and Miraim Shapiro.
Linda Nochlin passed away at the age of 86 in late October of last year, and while Nochlin wrote countless important essays on art across a range of concerns and subjects, for me (and for many others) her watershed contribution was the seminal piece Why Have there Been no Great Women Artists? Written in 1971, the essay began a thoughtful deconstruction of the patriarchal lineage of Art History to that point; a moment in time when Feminism was just beginning to create seismic shifts in the culture, generally, however Nochlin’s essay took particular aim at the previously unquestioned narratives of art. How was it possible that there had been “no great women artists” in all of art history, Nochlin asked (rhetorically) and then proceeded to tell us why the question itself was flawed and how such questions reinforce the problems of disenfranchisement they mean to excavate.
Young artists of today need no longer say, “I am a painter” or “a poet” or “a dancer.” They are simply “artists.” All of life will be open to them.
Alan Kaprow, The Legacy of Jackson Pollock, (1958)
In Allan Kaprow’s statement above from 1958, he describes an aspirational future in which creative individuals would not need to define their practices by formal or material alliances; they “are simply “artists.” All of life will be open to them.” And while that has come to pass to a certain extent, as Nochlin’s corrective essay notes, not all of life was and is open to all individuals in the same way. Nochlin’s essay makes a forceful case for the circumstances of privilege and access that uses feminist theory and logic to illuminate an even deeper problem within the art world. She deconstructs the very systems by which the idea of greatness is constructed, institutionalized and historicized. She surmises that:
The total situation of art making, both in terms of the development of the art maker and in the nature and quality of the work of art itself, occur in a social situation, are integral elements of this social structure, and are mediated and determined by specific and definable social institutions…
Of course there have been legions of great women artists; it is hard to imagine the entrenched narratives that were the norm when Nochlin was writing her seminal essay, and the way in which, after Nochlin, an avalanche of progressive pressure was brought to bear on institutions and historians, on curators and professors and the storytellers of art history in general (the keepers-of-the-flame of the mythologies of the innate genius) to rethink the systems of art. We are still unraveling these tropes and mythologies, trying to find the actual floor or bedrock, the genesis of these narratives, so as to be able to reset them and redefine those same art histories.
Linda Nochlin’s deep inquiry into art and its relationship to culture of all kinds inspired generations of art historians, artists, and critics and offered a new toolkit and a map with which to address issues of gender and identity in art. We are all the beneficiaries of her risk-taking and sensitivity to the frictions of incomplete narratives; those she felt needed a corrective re-writing.
Chair, UW-Madison Art Department