Articles Worth Reading: “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” by Linda Nochlin

In this essay, Linda Nochlin highlights and elaborates upon the reasons ‘why there have been no great women artists.’ Overall, I have always found Nochlin’s argument truthful and straightforward, as she attempts to answer the question she poses. What I have always enjoyed about her argument is that she openly states to the audience, from the beginning, we have been asking all the wrong questions, which leads to inappropriate answers with regards to the status, talent and intelligence of women artists over the course of history. In attempting to answer ‘why have there been no great women artists,’ Nochlin proves that the answers to the questions that we have been posing for decades, actually bring up a number of fallacies, including:

There are no great women artists because women are incapable of genius.

There is a different kind of greatness for women’s art than for men’, there by postulating the existence of a distinctive and recognizable feminine style

Women are more inward-looking, more delicate, and nuanced in their treatment of their medium

After posing all of the wrong questions and then answering them with these generic and typical responses, Nochlin explains that we are examining the wrong question; ultimately, the problem for women artists lies within the institutions and educational systems that govern the professional realm of the visual arts. The heart of Nochlin’s argument lies in undoing the myth of genius, commonly associated with the male artists, and not the female artist. Also pointing to the fact that the question everyone is asking only touches the ‘tip of the iceberg’ when it comes to women participating in the professional realm of the visual arts.

In the second portion of the essay, entitled ‘ The Question of the Nude,’ Nochlin examines the social and institutional construction of the artistic profession, finally elaborating on why women did not have the ability to realistically achieve ‘greatness.’ Nochlin does identify a couple of women who fell into the category of the exception, but for a vast majority of women artists, who were deprived of the essential academic training necessary to be classified with the ‘greats’, specifically those academic courses focused on studying the nude male body, were out of reach for women. (The attributed associated with becoming great included a high level of self-confidence, worldly knowledge, dominance and power, which were all high valued male characteristics, were considered inappropriate virtues of femininity.)

In the third section, ‘The Lady’s Accomplishment’, Nochlin describes how women were held to specific social standards and how life for most was a matter of making self-sacrificing choices in the end. The last two sections, ‘Success’ and ‘Rosa Bonheur’, examine the few women that did achieve success, but were ultimately classified by society as rebellious in nature.

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