This week's readings on Identity and Technology from Artists, Critics and Context by Paul F. Fabozzi enabled me to reflect on how the struggles voiced by women artists forty years ago continue into the present.
Linda Nochlin in Manet’s Bar at the Folies-Begère (2005)
by Kathleen Gilje
In the essay “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” Linda Nochlin examines the assumptions that underlie that question. She concludes that the main reason why women have not achieved the same stature of the most celebrated male artists is that the social demands and expectations placed upon them prevent many women from dedicating themselves to art-making. She advocates that readers “[cast] a dispassionate eye on the actual situations in which important art production has existed.” For instance, a survey of the backgrounds of several acclaimed artists from history reveals that these men were often members of artist-families who trained them early on. They also tended to come from social classes that did not restrict them from focusing on their careers. This pragmatic view acknowledges the simple truth that to become great, one must bolster one’s efforts by utilizing the opportunities that are readily available in addition to pursuing other forms of professional support.
Nochlin then points out that when women do produce art, the next major obstacle to their success could come from critics and historians who believe certain misconceptions about art, artists, and art production. She specifically identifies the myth of the artist as an innate genius whose art-making process is a mysterious and supernatural activity, as an idea that has been particularly damaging to women. She asserts that great art is not merely composed of “direct, personal [expressions] of emotional experience” but “involves a self-consistent language of form […] which [has] to be learned or worked out, either through teaching, apprenticeship, or a long period of individual experimentation." When certain people (namely women) are viewed as being incapable of artistic achievement because they do not immediately display highly developed creative powers, it overlooks the fact that artistic practice sustained over a long period of time can produce artistic mastery in anyone. For women, there are several barriers that prevent them from having opportunities to hone their artistic skills.
Photograph of Lucy Lippard
Lucy Lippard's essay, “Sexual Politics, Art Style”, explains what these barriers are. It was published in 1971, the same year as Nochlin’s essay. She agrees with Nochlin that the answer to the question, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” is found by objectively looking at the conditions that support important artistic production. Lippard states that the process of discouraging women often begins when they are students and continues throughout their careers if they dare to continue making art. Destructive messages about themselves and other women, ignorance about the contributions of women artists, lack of support from their families, social and professional isolation, being targeted by their teachers as victims of sexual misconduct, and rejection by curators and funders are the major challenges women artists need to overcome if they wish to be successful and acclaimed in their careers (Lippard 340-342).
The Advantages Of Being A Woman Artist (1988)
by the Guerrilla Girls
Unfortunately, many of these conditions that stymied women artists centuries ago still exist. The Guerrilla Girls, a collective of feminist artists who have been exposing discrimination in the art world for the last twenty five years, reported in a recent interview that some museums still refuse to exhibit feminist art. They also point out that while more women and people of color get included in exhibitions of emerging artists, many of these artists inevitably reach a glass ceiling that prevents them from becoming prominent members of the art world (Redfern).
I have also encountered many of the barriers that Lippard described. I often felt disempowered when I studied art as a young woman. As a teenager, my mother prevented me from studying art. Even though she admitted that the arts enrich the human experience, my mother did not believe pursuing a career in this field would be worth the sacrifices required to become a master at it. After I persisted and found free and low-cost classes, most of these art teachers were harsh and belittling. When I attended a recruitment program at the Cooper Union School of Art, an instructor mocked me and my ideas in class, told me that I was not good enough and when I complained about this treatment to an administrator, he claimed that I was easily replaceable because there were many other students out there who would just love to take my spot at such a prestigious art institution. At an internship in a printmaking studio I was also sexually harassed by its executive director. That horrible experience was compounded by increased feelings of betrayal when the women I worked with at the Metropolitan Museum of Art told me afterwards that executive director had a reputation for harassing young women.
Even though I made many personal sacrifices to study art, which included moving to New York City on my own at the age of fifteen, these experiences were so upsetting that I stopped drawing and painting for the following ten years. I still wanted to be creative so I learned video production next and ended up successfully co-producing several documentaries.
Self-Portrait (1790) by Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun
But despite these positive experiences as a filmmaker, feelings of inferiority as an artist remained. When I did attempt to make art I would sometimes experience anxiety attacks. I became half-hearted in my commitment to make important art. As Lippard described, I had "become the despised lady painter” who created only when she could snatch small pieces of time in between her other responsibilities and who did so without adequate resources: art supplies, money and studio space (Lippard 342). I was too scared of trying again to make art production a primal activity in my life. It felt safer to undertake secondary roles. I also stopped developing significant personal relationships with any artists. For eight years, I worked as a project director at an acclaimed art institution that supported documentary filmmakers. I told myself that I was making a difference as a young woman of color in the institution—which was true, but as an artist, accepting such a demanding job was a way to hide out. I was worn down by then and had stopped fighting the messages I heard about what my proper role as a woman was. As a result, I became a caretaker in my twenties. On the job, I took care of other artists’ needs and taught young people how to organize their communities with documentary films. At home, I took care of my extended family.
It is painful to revisit this past because it requires admitting how I betrayed myself. I have deep regrets about giving up. After reading these essays, I have recommitted to making great art. This is a considerable commitment because, as Nochlin and Lippard have described, it can be difficult, discouraging, and lonely work. The pursuit of artistic excellence demands a serious commitment to learning and practicing new artistic skills. It also involves identifying role models and taking social risks to find true support and to expand my professional network. It also requires that I confront the negative messages I heard about myself as an artist and as a woman in order to transform those thoughts into positive beliefs about my capabilities. Ultimately, it means sacrificing other things in life to have the time to accomplish this. It seems daunting to take this risk again, but my endeavors will be infinitely put to a much more satisfying use than what I did during those years I spent not trying at all. I remind myself that every day is an opportunity to create positive and nurturing environments that will support these goals.
Lippard, Lucy. “Sexual Politics, Art Style.” Artists, Critics, Context: Readings in and Around American Art since 1945. Ed. Paul F. Fabozzi. Alexandria, VA: Prentice Hall, 2001. Print.
Nochlin, Linda. "Nochlin: Why No Great Women Artists?" Mira Costa College. Mira Costa College, n.d. Web. 21 Dec. 2009. <http://www.miracosta.edu/home/gfloren/nochlin.htm>.
Redfern, Christine. "Inequality is no laughing matter." Montreal Gazette. Montreal Gazette, 12 Dec. 2009. Web. 22 Dec. 2009. <www.montrealgazette.com/entertainment/Inequality+laughing+matter/2332832/story.html>.