From 1971: Why have there been no great women artists?

BY POSTED 05/30/15 4:00 PM

Implications of the Women’s Lib movement for art history and for the contemporary art scene—or, silly questions deserve long answers; followed by eight replies

While the recent upsurge of feminist activity in this country has indeed been a liberating one, its force has been chiefly emotional—personal, psychological and subjective—centered, like the other radical movements to which it is related, on the present and its immediate needs, rather than on historical analysis of the basic intellectual issues which the feminist attack on the status quo automatically raises.1 Like any revolution, however, the feminist one ultimately must come to grips with the intellectual and ideological basis of the various intellectual or scholarly disciplines—history, philosophy, sociology, psychology, etc.—in the same way that it questions the ideologies of present social institutions. If, as John Stuart Mill suggested, we tend to accept whatever is as natural, this is just as true in the realm of academic investigation as it is in our social arrangements. In the former, too, “natural” assumptions must be questioned and the mythic basis of much so-called “fact” brought to light. And it is here that the very position of woman as an acknowledged outsider, the maverick “she” instead of the presumably neutral “one”—in reality the white-male-position-accepted-as-natural, or the hidden “he” as the subject of all scholarly predicates—is a decided advantage, rather than merely a hindrance of a subjective distortion.

In the field of art history, the white Western male viewpoint, unconsciously accepted as the viewpoint of the art historian, may—and does—prove to be inadequate not merely on moral and ethical grounds, or because it is elitist, but on purely intellectual ones. In revealing the failure of much academic art history, and a great deal of history in general, to take account of the unacknowledged value system, the very presence of an intruding subject in historical investigation, the feminist critique at the same time lays bare its conceptual smugness, its meta-historical naïveté. At a moment when all disciplines are becoming more self-conscious, more aware of the nature of their presuppositions as exhibited in the very languages and structures of the various fields of scholarship, such uncritical acceptance of “what is” as “natural” may be intellectually fatal. Just as Mill saw male domination as one of a long series of social injustices that had to be overcome if a truly just social order were to be created, so we may see the unstated domination of white male subjectivity as one in a series of intellectual distortions which must be corrected in order to achieve a more adequate and accurate view of historical situations.

It is the engaged feminist intellect (like John Stuart Mill’s) that can pierce through the cultural-ideological limitations of the time and its specific “professionalism” to reveal biases and inadequacies not merely in the dealing with the question of women, but in the very way of formulating the crucial questions of the discipline as a whole. Thus, the so-called woman question, far from being a minor, peripheral and laughably provincial sub-issue grafted on to a serious, established discipline, can become a catalyst, an intellectual instrument, probing basic and “natural” assumptions, providing a paradigm for other kinds of internal questioning, and in turn providing links with paradigms established by radical approaches in other fields. Even a simple question like “Why have there been no great women artists?” can, if answered adequately, create a sort of chain reaction, expanding not merely to encompass the accepted assumptions of the single field, but outward to embrace history and the social sciences, or even psychology and literature, and thereby, from the outset, to challenge the assumption that the traditional divisions of intellectual inquiry are still adequate to deal with the meaningful questions of our time, rather than the merely convenient or self-generated ones.

Let us, for example, examine the implications of that perennial question (one can, of course, substitute almost any field of human endeavor, with appropriate changes in phrasing): “Well, if women really areequal to men, why have there never been any great women artists (or composers, or mathematicians, or philosophers, or so few of the same)?”

“Why have there been no great women artists?” The question tolls reproachfully in the background of most discussions of the so-called woman problem. But like so many other so-called questions involved in the feminist “controversy,” it falsifies the nature of the issue at the same time that it insidiously supplies its own answer: “There are no
great women artists because women are incapable of greatness.”

The assumptions behind such a question are varied in range and sophistication, running anywhere from “scientifically proven” demonstrations of the inability of human beings with wombs rather than penises to create anything significant, to relatively open-minded wonderment that women, despite so many years of near-equality—and after all, a lot of men have had their disadvantages too—have still not achieved anything of exceptional significance in the visual arts.

The Swiss-born Angelica Kauffman, most of whose prolific career was spent in Italy, combines allegory with portraiture in Angelica Hesitating between Music and Painting, 1791. VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
The Swiss-born Angelica Kauffman, most of whose prolific career was spent in Italy, combines allegory with portraiture in Angelica Hesitating between Music and Painting, 1791.

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; to rehabilitate rather modest, if interesting and productive careers; to “re-discover” forgotten flower-painters or David-followers and make out a case for them; to demonstrate that Berthe Morisot was really less dependent upon Manet than one had been led to think—in other words, to engage in the normal activity of the specialist scholar who makes a case for the importance of his very own neglected or minor master. Such attempts, whether undertaken from a feminist point of view, like the ambitious article on women artists which appeared in the 1858 Westminster Review,2 or more recent scholarly studies on such artists as Angelica Kauffmann and Artemisia Gentileschi,3 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.

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