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Mary Norman Woods on Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?
31 March, 2021
Published in 1971, Linda Nochlin’s essay was truly a clarion call. Written amidst the Second Wave of feminism, it has had many afterlives in books, journals, conferences, and course syllabi. It helped to create entire fields like women’s and queer studies. And it has resonated in disciplines and professions far beyond the arts and architecture.
Instead of simply recuperating the long erased histories of Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, Artemisia Gentileschi, and Rosa Bonheur, Nochlin exposed the systemic and structural sexism of cultural gatekeepers, academies, and institutions. She analyzed social stereotypes and institutional obstacles that blocked women from receiving the education, mentorship, and patronage necessary to create important works of art. As Nochlin wrote: ‘… the question of women’s equality — in art as in any other realm — devolves not upon the relative benevolence or ill-will of individual men, nor the self-confidence or abjectness of individual women, but rather on the very nature of our institutional structures themselves and the view of reality which they impose on the human beings who are part of them’.
Nochlin was not just radical in her scholarship but also in her politics. In 1988 she said: ‘feminist art history is there to make trouble, to call into question, to ruffle feathers in the patriarchal dovecotes’. She inspired and presumably was one of the Guerrilla Girls, anonymous female artists who became the conscience of the art world in 1985. In hit-and-run posters and projects they called out the sexism and racism of major galleries and museums. Today the Guerrilla Girls are again taking these institutions and power brokers to task for their deep-seated racism after the brutal deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Rayshard Brooks in 2020. Like the late John Lewis (foot soldier, leader, and icon of the civil rights movement) Nochlin made what Lewis called ‘good trouble, necessary trouble’.
What Nochlin studied, taught, and lived so well we still struggle with today. She challenged the very idea of monographical studies that characterized art publications and exhibitions and by extension those of design and architecture. Today monographs still dominate our discourse as seen in the forthcoming exhibition and publication of Lina Bo Bardi’s life and work at the Museum of Modern Art. Design and architecture as labour and collaboration and conservation and repurposing are still overshadowed by myths of the great white man and now the occasional great white woman.