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Critical Feminist Studies Web Paper 2

lvasko's picture

Project Proposal

            In my research project for the rest of the semester I am interested in exploring female and feminist art. I began this project by asking myself a series of questions that I wanted to explore both in my research and in my own artistic work. What makes a work of art feminist rather than female? Can a feminist work of art be produced by a man? Why are there not more women in the traditional cannon? If a work is done by a woman, does it make the work innately feminine in some way?

To do this I begin by exploring the traditional artistic cannon in which the number of female artists is severely limited. It is almost as though the names of a few women were thrown in simply because they had to, so that its producers would not have to answer any angry cries as to why no women were present. Georgia O’Keefe, Mary Cassatt, and Frida Kahlo are three women who have had a standard presence in the traditional cannon for many years now. But what of the others? Are there only three great women artists in all of history?

            In her essay “Why have there been no great women artists?”, Linda Nochlin explores this idea. Through use of comparison of the lives of men and women, famous male artists and the lack of famous female artists, Nochlin arrives at an interesting conclusion. Nochlin asserts that it is not the lack of talent or ability which has prevented the development and recognition of female artists over the centuries; rather, there are a few external qualifications which must be achieved before artistic history can be made, for man or woman. First, the person must have asocial inclinations, be willing to separate themselves from the herd and walk a separate path. Second, the person must be of the lower classes for the upper classes have too much social pressure and not enough time to fully devote themselves to their art. The upper class, according to Nochlin, has too many other social and personal obligations. Third, a great artist is most likely from an artistic family, brought up amongst art and probably trained from a very early age. Finally, there must be time in which the bourgeoning artist can practice and hone their talents. Time is the difference between a mediocre artist and a great one. The conclusion of Nochlin’s essay and the answer to the question stated above is this, “art is not a free, autonomous activity of a super-endowed individual… but rather, 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 itself, occur in a social situation” (6).

            Upon reading Nochlin’s essay, I was not thoroughly convinced that such a limited number of women had not met the above criteria or even if the criteria are valid. Though it makes sense that women were much more limited than men in their ability to reject social norms, societal expectations, or devote time to the development of talent because of familial responsibilities, I was sure that more than the extremely narrow number of women present in the cannon had surpassed these difficult odds. I immediately made a trip to the library where I uncovered a number of books entitled, “Women Artists” and found many more women present here than in the traditional cannon. Not only were many of these women prolific artists, but they were also renowned during their life time and for some time after that, they achieved advancements in artistic style, and painted with as much skill, if not better than, many of their male contemporaries. As I browsed through the works and biographies of these women I realized the more appropriate question is not “why are there no great women artists” but, “why are the great women artists not remembered?”. In light of their achievements, their talent, and even their acknowledgement as great artists during their life time, the solution to the later question can only be: because we decided not to. Is there a larger number of “great artists” who are male? Yes. Is this because of the societal constructs and standards which made it much harder for women to transcend the boundaries to become a great artist? Undoubtedly. However, as Nochlin acknowledges in her essay, to ask the question “why are there no great women artists?” is to affirm that there are no great women artist, when there are a number, in fact. The question itself perpetuates the stigma that there are no great women artists, which is why I propose my own question.  

            In light of the societal boundaries which inhibited women’s movement into the world of “great art”, I realized that we must somehow determine what a great artist is. To develop standards of art is to create a hierarchy of talent, technique, and also vision, a hierarchy which was no doubt developed within the context of the male patriarchal system. In other words, it was men who decide what great art is, which, at the risk of sounding bitter, comes as no surprise considering the limited number of women in the traditional cannon. Traditional notions of great art will also have a substantial affect on the number of women represented in the cannon because of the type of art which is chosen as “great”. I have no doubt that if tapestries were considered great art there would be many more women mentioned in the cannon. Same, too, of pottery and embroidery, all traditionally female forms of art. So, there is not only a problem within the makers of the cannon who choose not to remember female artists for their achievements, there is the problem of the hierarchy and system of categorization itself. The very method of designating high vs. low art substantially limits the number of women who are applicable to the high art category.

            With this in mind I began to explore notions of female, feminine, and feminist art, attempting to draw a differentiation between them. As I looked at works by female artists and those considered to be feminist art, I saw that the defining factor of feminist art is its politicization of the female. Feminist art makes a statement about the role of women in society, showing their importance or their subjugation or their needs as women, etc. In addition, feminist art is not limited to art of the sixties onwards. Artemesia Gentilechi’s “Judith and Hologernes” is a work that I would consider to be feminist art. Her portrayal of woman in this painting is violently against the grain of traditional femininity, even today let alone in the 15th century, making a powerful statement of the strength of women. Similarly, paintings of female self portraits throughout the centuries can be considered feminist art in their ability to assert “I am woman, I will paint”. Much like women writing is an assertion of the self, so is painting of the self. It is acknowledgement of self awareness and strength via a different medium.

            I then began to explore what, if anything, is feminine art. When one thinks of stereotypical femininity, one thinks of domesticity, paler colors rather than darker ones, possibly happy scenes, adoration of man and family, etc. The rococo period of art exemplifies much of these “feminine” attributes, yet men were the driving force of this ornate style. In addition, for every still life painted by a woman, countless more have been painted by a man. It is the same for scenes of domesticity, animals, the nude figure. Although, I must note that the woman’s ability to draw the nude figure was severely hindered until late in the turn of the century when women were finally allowed by art schools to view a nude, male or female, no subject matter can be considered, I think, inherently male or female.

            So, for the purposes of my project I am interested in exploring art as a means of asserting the self, a painting as an assertion of existence not only as man or woman but also as an artist. I would also like to play on the ideas of high and low art and women’s grand scale dismissal from the traditional artistic cannon. This will most likely take place through the drawing or painting of portraits, of self portraits and of other women engaging in acts which conflict notions of masculine and feminine.  This is quite the task I am designating for myself so I foresee adjustments being made to the scope of the project as the semester progresses, but the notion of art as an assertion of the self, thereby a feminist act, is what I am most interested in.


Anonymous's picture

Ivasko - I am posting late

Ivasko - I am posting late again, but I hope you have had a chance to look at Tillie Olsen's "Silences." I have not read Nochlin's essay, but it seems to me she overlooks some major factors in lives of great artists. They nearly always have had someone else to attend to the nuts and bolts of life --someone to cook, to clean, to care for children. It is not possible to make "great art" when you are the person who holds a family together. It may not be possible to make what is considered "great art" unless one is willing to put one's own needs ahead of everybody else's. Women have, historically had neither the option nor the inclination to do this. I wonder how much of what is in the canon of great art would be so regarded by a culture whose highest value was in caring for others.....

Anne Dalke's picture

asserting the self


You mention your own artistic work in the first paragraph, but don't return to it in the end; will this project culminate in your own contribution to the canon of feminist art?

You rephrase Nochlin's question, replacing "why are there no great woman artists?" with "why are the great women artists not remembered?" That's a good re-framing, and a great further question about "why we decided not to" remember them. You start to answer that question with the concepts of hierarchy and categorization...

but then your project takes a "turn" I can't quite follow, from what has gone before. You end by saying that you want to look @ the sort of art that asserts the self. How does that fit with your claim that the "defining factor of feminist art is its politicization"? Is self-assertion inherently feminist? Does it matter whether it's men or women who are doing the asserting? Does it matter how women are representing themselves? (See, as a test case, Janna Stern's Measure for Measure)

Finally, your proposal evokes for me much of the theory we've talked about in this class, from Judy Chicago and Virginia Woolf through a number of the more contemporary theorists, but your essay is strangely absent any mention of them. ARe you presuming that background, or not?