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Recently Read: Women, Art, and Power and Other Essays

[Originally published at the now defunct group blog explananda.com]

Posted on February 6, 2009
Tags: book_reviews

John Berger’s Ways of Seeing got me interested in feminist art criticism so I looked around a bit, gathered the impression that Linda Nochlin was an important figure in the field, and got a hold of this collection of essays. The volume brings together seven essays, arranged in reverse chronological order, from 1988 to 1971. Now that I’ve read the book, it’s obvious to me why Nochlin matters: the essays are both ambitious and cogent. A few of the essays were studies of particular artists or themes. These were less interesting to me, since I don’t have the background in the subjects to really evaluate or challenge Nochlin’s line of argument. But a few of the essays were really exciting, in particular the title essay, “Women, Art, and Power” (1988) and the final (chronologically, the first) essay, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” (1971).

“Women, Art, and Power” is about,
the ways in which representations of women in art are founded upon and serve to reproduce indisputably accepted assumptions held by society in general, artists in particular, and some artists more than others about men’s power over, superiority to, difference from, and necessary control of women, assumptions which are manifested in the visual structures as well as the thematic choices of the pictures in question. Ideology manifests itself as much by what is unspoken—unthinkable, unrepresentable—as by what is articulated in a work of art. Insofar as many of the assumptions about women presented themselves as a complex of commonsense views about the world, and were therefore assumed to be self-evident, they were relatively invisible to most contemporary viewers, as well as to the creators of the paintings. Assumptions about women’s weakness and passivity; her sexual availability for men’s needs; her defining domestic and nurturing function; her identity with the realm of nature; her existence as object rather than creator of art; the patent ridiculousness of her attempts to insert herself actively into the realm of history by means of work or engagement in political struggle—all of these notions, themselves premised on an even more general, more all-pervasive certainty about gender difference itself—all of these notions were shared, if not uncontestedly, to a greater or lesser degree by most people of our period, and as such constitute an ongoing subtext underlying almost all individual images involving women.
Yet, as Nochlin is quick to explain, the word “subtext” is potentially misleading:
It is not a deep reading I am after; this is not going to be an attempt to move behind the images into some realm of more profound truth lurking beneath the surface of the various pictorial texts.

Rather, the implications about women that Nochlin finds in visual art are there on the surface, as the plainest elements of a painting, even if we are not used to focusing our attention on them.

Focusing our attention on these implications is easier said than done—at least for this culturally obtuse dude, it is. I’m a feminist, and I’ve spent some time thinking about feminism and feminist issues. Even so, the plain meaning of a painting, the set of obvious implications suggested by different elements in it, is often extremely difficult to take in, whether we’re talking about gender in particular or other kinds of social relations. This is partly because of my own limitations as a viewer. But it’s also because seeing this sort of thing clearly is just an inherently difficult thing to do. Art has all kinds of functions, but it performs its ideological function, as Nochlin points out, by making certain highly contingent assumptions seem highly natural. What makes a book like this so exciting, for me at least, is the promise it holds of teaching how to see things in a fresh way. With a bit of practice, gradually what seems natural and ordinary—say, certain conventional treatments of women in painting—can be re-viewed as contingent and peculiar. Nochlin, of course, gives us more than theory. She walks through a number of examples, setting out and arguing for her interpretation of them.

The standard complaint here is that this approach to art turns it into an occasion for harping on your favourite ideological preoccupations, rather than treating art on its own terms, whatever that means, exactly. Berger faced much the same criticism in response to his own Marxist-influenced approach to art. “We are accused of being obsessed with property,” he wrote.
The truth is the other way round. It is the society and culture in question which is so obsessed. Yet to an obsessive his obsession always seems to be of the nature of things and so is not recognized for what it is. The relation between property and art in European culture appears natural to that culture, and consequently if somebody demonstrates the extent of the property interest in a given cultural field, it is said to be a demonstration of his obsession.

The depiction of women as subordinate in visual art is pervasive, and although the fixation on this subordination often isn’t conscious, it’s nevertheless very deeply ingrained in the Western tradition. So it seems to me that the criticism of a feminist approach to art criticism mentioned above is especially perverse. It’s the tradition that is shot through with sexist assumptions, to the extent that it would be completely unrecognizable without them, and feminist art criticism is only pointing that out.

Nochlin’s essay “Why are there no Great Women Artists?” is also good. Nochlin surveys a few of the standard responses to this question, dismisses them, and then launches into an investigation of the shared characteristics of most of the artists in the last few hundred years who are considered great. Practically none of them, Nochlin notes, came from the aristocracy, in spite of the fact that aristocrats often had encouragement and some amateur instruction at painting. Very few people ask “Why are there no Great Aristocratic Artists?” Once we do ask the question, the answer is reasonably clear: Aristocrats lived according to, and within, a set of social expectations and restrictions that made the sort of intensive, early, full-time training necessary for serious accomplishment extremely difficult, if not impossible, to acquire. (No one worries, of course, that aristocrats might be born with little natural facility for art.)

Women, aristocratic or not, had a whole other set of burdens, social expectations and restrictions to deal with. Nochlin illustrates this by singling out one such factor for scrunity: the availability of nude studies for aspiring woman painters. Extensive work on such studies was considered an absolutely essential precondition for serious accomplishment in the most respected areas of visual art for much of the last few hundred years of Western visual art. Unsurprisingly, the opportunities for such studies for women were highly restricted (at times there were no such opportunities; other times, they were extremely limited). Nochlin’s meditation on this theme circles a number of times around the notion of greatness, teasing apart the assumptions that go into the question, as well as possible responses to her question.

Anyway, this is good stuff. I imagine the general reader would have roughly the same experience that I had with some of the essays in this collection (that is, might find them a little too specialized). But a few of the essays I would certainly recommend for anyone with any interest in visual art.