Linda Nochlin and Why There Have Been No Great Women Artists
Today’s tirade (sort of) is brought to you courtesy of the famous and apparently feminist essay by Linda Nochlin, Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists? In a way it’s about her essay, but mostly it’s about the aura surrounding it, the reception given to it by a 21st century militantly feminist audience, and ultimately will devolve into a brief and mild discussion of sexism in the art world. Nochlin’s a springboard. It’s taken me far too long to finish writing this piece because apparently dipping into a 20-page essay in between two part-time jobs isn’t a wise idea.
I wanted to focus on this because Nochlin’s essay is a major piece of writing and most major pieces of writing get lots of traction and subsequently end up being lauded as great works. Which is ironic, given the scope of this topic. So, I’ve picked up on a couple of her key points within the essay and attempted to unwrap them. This is also Part 1 of 3 (I think), which concentrates on the women aspect. Part 2 will look more at the concept of the “Great Artist”, and Part 3 will look at Men vs. Women artists, focussing on galleries. So here’s my first two cents of 6. Read on.
I’m also going to point out that Linda Nochlin writes some of the longest sentences I’ve seen in a while and it takes a considerable amount of time to decipher the contents, which may have contributed to the lengthy gestation period of this particular essay.
Nochlin wrote the piece in 1971, when women’s lib movements were kicking off in the USA and UK. The 1960s and 1970s were a fertile breeding ground for social dissent, in particular amongst socially marginalised communities, like women and homosexuals. The 1970s then brought protests and unrest in order to fight against the social imbalance.
So then reading this essay you’re struck with a little bit of an issue. Because you’re not reading from the perspective of a woman stuck in 1971 and facing the issues that Nochlin raises. You’re a woman stuck in 2020 and not apparently facing the issues that you’re reading about. So how do you critique this? Because although it’s screamingly popular in today’s clown world where everything is upside down, you can’t wear 2020 glasses to read a 1971 essay. And I said this in my first EVAH TFG article, which you are welcome to read here.
The distinction that I’d like to make inexhaustibly clear here is that when I critique the piece (which I inevitably will) it’s not a criticism based on Nochlin’s experience as she was writing it. I don’t dispute that the 1970s was a different time for women in society. I equally don’t dispute that she makes several historical references which bolster her argument that women have had a different experience of society. Her’s is an essay that you could drop into probably most eras throughout history, with the exception of this current one, and, although the question might not be as applicable, the content might be.
Before you even start reading the essay Linda Nochlin challenges you. Her question is intentionally annoying and draws you into a hair-trigger response, which is what she really wants. The question is structured to provoke you into replying without thinking.
So her question is deliberately provocative. But depending on your own socio-political (annoyingly, yes) alignment you have several options available for your immediate response. Let’s list them:
- There obviously have been Great Women Artists but men (and you should “tsk” audibly at this point) have made them disappear from art history
- There obviously haven’t been because women aren’t capable of artistic greatness (why you sexist, you)
- There obviously have been but there’s a different definition of “greatness” for women (again, sexist but in a weirdly contradictory way)
- It’s not the right question to ask (so what is?)
The sarcasm is intentionally heavy with this one.
Nochlin points out that the typical feminist riposte to her question is to dredge up “examples of worthy or sufficiently appreciate women artists throughout history” . The alternative, equally feminist, retort is to contest that there are vastly divergent definitions of what constitutes “great” art by men artists and what constitutes “great” art by women artists, and therefore women artists should be judged differently from men artists. Either there have been great women artists working simultaneously as great men artists, or there aren’t any great women artists because you’ve watered down the definition for this category of “greatness” to such an extent that every woman artist is invited to join regardless of her artistic talent.
I thought this was a necessary distinction for Nochlin to make. This dual argument highlights the hypocrisy within the feminist movement within which women prove they can exceed expectations but only if they’re allowed to set the agenda. It’s on par with children inventing a game that only they can win. Already this feminist agenda sets up a problem for women further down the line. If women are as good as men, like the feminists say they are, then why is a different definition for “greatness” needed? Surely they can all compete on the same level playing field?
At this point, I’d like to politely mention that I’ve now read numerous articles (online only, obviously) which claim Nochlin’s paper as a kind of bible for the hardcore feminist left-wing movement. I’m loathe to link to them in my own little rebuttal because I’m not in the habit of embarrassing people but clearly arrogant enough to put a disclaimer in the middle of my writing. Continue.
“If there actually were large numbers of ‘hidden’ great women artists, or if there really should be different standards for women’s art as opposed to men’s – and one can’t have it both ways – then what are the feminists fighting for?”Linda Nochlin, Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists? 
Nochlin understands that if the feminists want to create a new definition of “great” for art produced by women, they need to define the parameters of that field of artistic production. So, Nochlin says, if there were a group of women artists intent on producing art that was deliberately and visibly linked by a female or feminine or woman-based group consciousness, then and only then would you be able to say that women artists are tied together by their sex, and only from that point would you be able to start identifying what might possibly constitute “greatness” as far as women artists are concerned. It took me a couple of goes to understand this bit.
In defence of this statement she offers several examples. How about the gilded, beautified Rococo arts of 18th century France, with its tres OTT ornamentation and pastel tones and obviously feminine bent? Or perhaps scenes of domesticity? Any artistic rendering that required delicacy and depicted fragile or dainty subject matter? Are these specifically feminine artistic traits? As Nochlin says, no, they’re not. They are no more the artistic domain of women as they are men; and somewhat ironically they are more the domain of men.
When you remove their biological sex from the equation what remains is artwork that cannot be defined by the tag “man” or “woman”. So, we understand that there is no distinct and clearly defined “feminine” or “woman” artistic style that binds all women artists. Men don’t paint just battle scenes and women don’t paint just country idylls or fashionable ladies. So says Nochlin, “In every instance, women artists and writers would seem to be closer to other artists and writers of their own period and outlook than they are to each other.”  In fact, the feminist argument for a different kind of greatness for women artists borders dangerously close to identity politics. In fact it is identity politics and that is an insidious and sinister dogma that you need to identify and quickly get rid of because it will destroy you.
Art and Space, Time and Place
Nochlin’s own contention that “there have been no supremely great women artists, as far as we know, although there have been many interesting and very good ones who remain insufficiently investigated or appreciated,”  can be accepted with little contention from this author’s point of view, but understandably the social conditions in which men and women were able to create art were imbalanced from the start.
Nochlin uses the nude as an example of the imbalance that affected women artists. From the Renaissance until near the end of the 19th century, the study of the nude model was critical in the formal training of any young artist. Private art institutions based their instruction on the French academic system, which placed the extensive study and mastery of human anatomy through the study of a live nude model at the heart of their programmes. But even if women were accepted to the schools they were barred from studying the nude. With this barrier to their artistic progression, women were restricted to studying under artists in their studios or at private academies, both of which were expensive endeavours.
While individual artists and private academies favoured the female nude model, public art schools employed exclusively the male nude model; the female nude was forbidden. Which seems, in hindsight, a little counter-intuitive considering that female nudes are almost universally pleasing to look at and male nudes are emphatically the opposite. One could follow the argument that some women’s bodies are a little too pleasing to gaze upon, which no doubt legitimises the decision to cover them up. Anyway.
No Ladies, Please, We’re British
Despite the two women involved in its founding, the Royal Academy only admitted its first woman student in 1860; Laura Herford submitted a drawing signed only with her initials and was accepted before anyone realised she wasn’t a bloke. Even though lady students followed her into the RA, they were barred from attending life drawing classes until the 1890s. They were also prevented from outnumbering men, which makes zero sense. Women were perceived by male staff and students as interlopers; “the female invasion” is how George Dunlop Leslie RA depicted it.  And this just for the women who were financially able to enter studios or study at private academies; nothing for the women who didn’t have access to such bastions of artistic development.
About midway through her essay Nochlin arrives at the understanding that art is not and has never been a free, “autonomous activity” but rather it has been “mediated and determined by specific and definable social institutions”.  What this means, when you peel off that irritating outer layer of fuzz, is that the famous art academies of their day, wealthy patrons, and various fables of the Artist came together to create the myth of great art. If you replace academies with museums, and patrons with wealthy collectors you might approach a 21st century equivalent.
You have very wealthy, very powerful collectors who are able to exert their influence over the art world (perhaps you’re thinking of some characters in particular) in various ways, for example by hand picking specific art students fresh from their grad shows to present in deliberately designed shows. Don Thompson talks about this in his book, The $12 Million Stuffed Shark: The Curious Economics of Contemporary Art, in a chapter about the eminence of contemporary art, Charles Saatchi (see below). 
Eff The Patriarchy?
All too often, and all too irritatingly, the existence of the “patriarchy” is blamed for the whitewashing of “Great Women Artists” from the history books. This “meaningless, big fuzzword”, as Camille Paglia so perfectly puts it, is consistently touted as the reason for all anti-women sexism and never challenged.  Because life is so much simpler when you have a neatly packaged reason for all your failings: you’re not lazy, the SYSTEM is oppressing you; you’re not untalented, the SYSTEM is marginalising you; it’s always the SYSTEM. Or in this case, the non-existent “Patriarchy”.
In fact, Nochlin sort of knocks the patriarchy argument on the head quite early on. Which surprised me because I’d obviously not read the essay until now and from the internet you’d think this was the 21st Century Feminist’s Bible. ARGH. She says the following:
“… women must conceive of themselves as potentially, if not actually, equal subjects, and must be willing to look the facts of their situation full in the face, without self-pity or cop-outs…”Linda Nochlin, Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists? 
… which would rather imply that the author is trying to galvanise women artists into conceiving of themselves as autonomous individuals rather than marionette dolls being jerked about at the whims and fancies of any man within the “dominant male power elite”.  Women should be held to the same standards as men. Women should in fact hold themselves to a higher standard; the highest standard, as any self-respecting individual would. And women should strive to exceed those standards as they’re placed before them.
The Fault In Our Hormones
Far from being the feminist artist’s bible, Nochlin’s essay was canny. She points out the disparity between men and women in society. She notes that women may have had restricted, limited, or even zero access to art or methods of artistic creation, which may have impacted them and their ability to create art on an even footing with their male equivalents (she doesn’t use this word for obvious reason). They started off life on an uneven footing. The deck was stacked against them.
So, this is not the story of just women artists having suffered at the hands of men artists and men curators and men historians throughout history. Women have suffered throughout history regardless of their interest or (limited) professions because of their biological sex; they have been abused, mocked, and threatened, but yet they managed to succeed. This is the “miracle”; the fact that against so many odds, women (and “blacks) have managed “to achieve so much sheer excellence” in those typically “white masculine” fields such as science, politics, and the arts. 
“The fact of the matter is that there have been no supremely great women artists, as far as we know, although there have been many interesting and very good ones who remain insufficiently investigated or appreciated…”Linda Nochlin, Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists? 
Nochlin’s contention is perhaps somewhat shocking, bearing in mind the gist of her essay. She asks two questions: “Were there any great women artists?” and “Were there some interesting women artists who deserve deeper research and exposure?” And the answers are emphatically: No, and Yes.
So, I end up with two questions in response. And here they are:
What is the point of Nochlin’s essay?
I think it’s an examination of the circumstances in which women found themselves during the last two centuries, when artistic production exploded with creativity and dynamism (another pointless IAE artsy word for you), and women were marginalised by the institutions and male counterparts, but nonetheless managed to forge their own paths.
Ultimately, Nochlin’s essay is warning women against adopting the kind of victim mentality that is so popular in contemporary culture and society because it leads to intellectual obesity and moral weakness. If you never take responsibility for your actions you remain a child forever, always blaming someone else for your inadequacies or misery. How awful.
So, in a very subtle way, I think it is a feminist essay. That is, if feminism meant today:
- women of the 21st century not blaming men for every past injustice women have suffered
- women taking responsibility for their actions
- women accepting that sometimes men are better at shit than they are and it isn’t to do with misogyny
- you definitely shouldn’t believe all women.
Why is Nochlin’s essay deliberately misunderstood?
I think she lays bare some important and irritating truths. I think that there’s a reason that we don’t talk about “great” women artists, and that reason isn’t sexist it’s that they never existed. It’s not to say that women artists are not interesting or provocative or capable of producing exquisite paintings, but they’re just not great. Hold on to your whistles, ladies, but to me it just isn’t a word that can be applied to a woman artist. Or a woman in general. I think that this opinion (for that is what it is) irritates the people who were never taught to accept gracious defeat as children. We don’t all have to be everything. Women don’t have to be great, men don’t have to delicate. Accept that there are differences, actual biological ones, and move on…
Okay, So, Feminism Today Then…
One last jibe before I go. A woman art director for one of the biggest fashion houses in the world can slap a slogan on a cotton tee shirt and it makes headlines in the fashion press and art media. It appears that combining a 1970s essay title printed on a Breton top or classic white tee merges feminism with French fashion to create an unholy marriage of epically bland proportions. IMNSHO.
Ultimately, I don’t really have any quarrels with the gist of Nochlin’s essay as she intended it to be consumed in the 1970s. I respect and appreciate that she points out the hypocrisy of feminist arguments early on because it’s so obvious. But this element of her essay seems to get missed out in so many contemporary reanimations. Yes, it’s a feminist essay, but only insofar as it asks women to think and act for themselves, which is ultimately the most powerful thing.
“…women are in every meaningful way exactly the same as men, possessing the same traits and competencies and able to challenge them on the same turf at any time. Yet simultaneously, magically, they are better than men. Or better in specific ways. All this seems perfectly capable of being held in the same head – contradictory though it all is.”Douglas Murray, The Madness of Crowds: Race, Gender and Identity 
So are we the same as men, and therefore deserving of the same opportunities; or are we better than men, therefore meriting fewer opportunities? Or, are we in fact much, much worse than men and therefore in need of excessive leg-ups? Because as Douglas Murray demonstrates, it very clearly cannot be all three. Although apparently some people’s brains have evolved to the extent that they can hold contradictory beliefs as gospel and ridicule whomsoever points out the insanity of their position.
We should be able to celebrate women artists but not at the detriment of men artists who were great. If you value identity over competency you willfully water down quality. Why should the “greatness” standard for women’s art be lower than that for men’s? You cannot raise women up on a pedestal and then beat men to death with it. Art should be judged on its merits. Not the identity of the person who created it.
- Linda Nochlin, Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists? in https://www.artnews.com/art-news/retrospective/why-have-there-been-no-great-women-artists-4201/ [accessed 17 January, 2021]
- And again.
- Royal Academy website, https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/article/magazine-ra250-female-invasion-women-at-the-ra [accessed 17 January, 2021]
- Nochlin, Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?
- Don Thompson, The $12 Million Stuffed Shark, London: Aurum Press, 2012
- Camille Paglia interview, 1992, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sIomA2MQNI4 [accessed 17 January, 2021]
- Nochlin, Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?
- Douglas Murray, The Madness of Crowds: Race, Gender and Identity, London: Bloomsbury, 2019, p.80.