DIGEST November 2023

Why have there been no great women artists?

Jann Wenner, co-founder of Rolling Stone magazine and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, was asked in a September 2023 New York Times interview why his latest book, The Masters, featured interviews with seven white male rock legends and not a single woman or Black performer. “Insofar as the women, just none of them were as articulate enough on this intellectual level. The people I interviewed were… philosophers of rock,” Wenner stated. Regarding Black artists, Wenner conceded that while several were indeed brilliant: “Stevie Wonder, genius, right? Maybe Marvin Gaye, or Curtis Mayfield? I mean, they just didn’t articulate at that level.”

Wenner was kicked off the board of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame the next day. Yet, the question about how great, masterful, and articulate women and Black people are, apparently still lingers in 2023, at least in some people’s minds.

Back in 1971, Linda Nochlin, who taught Modern Art at New York University and wrote extensively about gender in art history, tackled the question in the visual arts, in a provocative and now famous essay entitled: “Why have there been no great women artists?

Nochlin wrote this essay more than 50 years ago, at a time when there were no women’s studies, no queer theory, and no Black or African American or postcolonial studies. Greatness in art had not yet been re-evaluated through these lenses and was still considered to be attached to grand works depicting David and Goliath, the crossing of the Delaware River or the coronation of Napoleon. Intro to Art History classes bore titles like “From the Pyramids to Picasso.” When reading art history or art journals of the time, it wasn’t obvious that women and Black people could be great painters and sculptors. Today it is clear that they can be, and are… right?!

Despite the passage of time and the perceived progress, Nochlin’s approach to answering the question is still relevant when faced with the Wenners of this world. Nochlin begins by parsing the implications of that perennial question. If women are truly equal to men, then why haven’t they reached the same levels as men (in art, mathematics, philosophy, orchestra conducting… field interchangeable)? It seems like a fair question, writes Nochlin, even as it “insidiously supplies its own answer: ‘There are no great women artists because women are incapable of greatness.’” Basically what Wenner said, that there is something innately deficient about women or Black artists.

How should feminists react to this obvious set up? “The feminist’s first reaction is to swallow the bait, hook, line and sinker,” Nochlin writes, “and to attempt to answer the question as it is put: i.e. to dig up examples of worthy or insufficiently appreciated women artists throughout history; to rehabilitate rather modest, if interesting and productive careers; to ‘re-discover’ forgotten flower-painters or David-followers and make out a case for them; to demonstrate that Berthe Morisot was really less dependent upon Manet than one had been led to think…” All of which is interesting, but that Nochlin feels ultimately only serves to reinforce the negative assumptions behind the question. None of these overlooked painters or sculptors come close to Michelangelo or Rembrandt, she asserts, and there is no point in pretending otherwise. Back in 1971, it probably was the case. And even today, some exhibitions that seek to rediscover overlooked talent, while worthwhile, can sometimes feel a bit thin.

Another way to react, suggests Nochlin, is to shift the definition of greatness to recognize a so-called feminine style. Since women’s experience and situation in society differs so much from men’s, then shouldn’t the art produced by women express that difference stylistically? Except of course, that no such difference is discernable in practice: “No subtle essence of femininity would seem to link the work of Artemisia Gentileschi, Mme Vigée Le Brun, Angelica Kauffmann, Rosa Bonheur… [or] Georgia O’Keefe, Helen Frankenthaler… In every instance, women artists and writers would seem to be closer to other artists and writers of their own period and outlook than they are to each other.” Witness Rosa Bonheur’s paintings of muscular horses, which have a lot more to do with the work of male contemporaries Delacroix and Géricault than with Morisot’s interiors (or Renoir’s gauzy, pastel portraits, for that matter). No feminine style detected.

Rosa Bonheur, The Horse Fair

Théodore Géricault, The Charging Chasseur

Nochlin settles on a more promising approach: to examine the institutions and forms of education that have prevented women from mastering the techniques and skills required for great painting and sculpting: “things as they are and as they have been, in the arts as in a hundred other areas, are stultifying, oppressive and discouraging to all those, women among them, who did not have the good fortune to be born white, preferably middle class and, above all, male. The fault, dear brothers, lies not in our stars, our hormones, our menstrual cycles or our empty internal spaces, but in our institutions and education…. The miracle is, in fact, that given the overwhelming odds against women, or blacks [sic], that so many achieve so much sheer excellence, in those bailiwicks of white masculine prerogative like science, politics or the arts.” [my emphasis]

Among the institutions that traditionally advanced male visual artists but kept women back, Nochlin lists art academies, patronage systems, gallerists, apprenticeships and the studio-factory system, art historians, art journals, and the artists’ own families. Female art students in Europe or the United States were, for example, prohibited from drawing from nude models (female or male), all the way from the Renaissance to the 19th century, “a period in which careful and prolonged study of the nude model was essential to the training of every young artist, to the production of any work with pretensions of grandeur, and to the very essence of history painting, generally accepted as the highest category of art.” An 1885 photo of a women’s modeling class at the Pennsylvania Academy shows them drawing from a nude…cow. And of course, marriage, family obligations, and childrearing were major obstacles for women painters and sculptors, who were expected to leave the studio to retreat into domesticity.

Nochlin argues that this sexist discrimination was institutional rather than individual, and prevented many of these artists from achieving proficiency, never mind greatness. Today, many women and non-binary artists, as well as Black and brown artists, have become prominent worldwide, because these conditions are changing. Yet, how many obstacles are still in place? The Venice Biennale, established in 1895 and considered one of the world’s greatest art shows, featured less than 10% of women artists in its first 100 years of existence, a figure that only rose to 30% until last year’s exhibition (more on that below).

Nochlin notes how the institutions needed to succeed in painting and sculpture weren’t as much of an issue in, say, literature. From an earlier time in history, women writers were able to compete on a more equal footing, since anyone who knows how to read and write and has access to books can commit words to paper in private. Of course, Nochlin acknowledges that it wasn’t easy to be accepted by editors and publishing houses, but the obstacles faced by an Emily Brönte or a George Sand were not as formidable as those encountered by their peers in the visual arts. Except of course that George Sand’s real name was Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin, and that a fair number of women writers have also chosen to write under initials rather than use their first name.

Each art form has its own barriers to entry―and when the need for capital, equipment, and other resources, and the approval of white male gatekeepers are greatest, women and other marginalized people are less likely to succeed. Orchestral conducting and composing, and film and TV making remain prime examples. Even Sofia Coppola, as close to filmmaking royalty as you can get, considered raffling a pickleball game to help fund her latest movie about Priscilla Presley.

In 2006, in Thirty Years After, Nochlin reviewed her original essay. She concluded with relief that things had changed significantly in academia and the art world, as a result of concerted action by many feminist and Black artists, art historians, and critics. The very notion of “greatness” in art has in fact been revised, a definition Nochlin felt she hadn’t challenged enough back in 1971, and which she came to understand, particularly in the United States, as a geopolitical project. “In the post-Second World War years, greatness was constructed as a sex-linked characteristic in the cultural struggle in which the promotion of ‘intellectuals’ was a cold war priority, at a time when a dominant strategic concern was the fear of losing Western Europe to Communism.” The anti-Communist power brokers of the time weren’t particularly open to feminist or Black claims for equality and justice, especially since some (or much) of it originated in socialist and radical thinking.

Since 1985, the Guerilla Girls, an anonymous artist activist group, have used satire to expose gender and ethnic bias in art.

“Today, I believe it is safe to say that most members of the art world are far less ready to worry about what is great and what is not, nor do they assert as often the necessary connection of important art with virility or the phallus. No longer is it the case that the boys are the important artists, the girls positioned as appreciative muses or groupies.” This change has also affected men’s production: “Many of the most radical and interesting male artists working today have, in one way or another, felt the impact of that gender-bending, body-conscious wave of thought generated by women artists, overtly feminist or not.”

Nochlin’s 2006 essay nevertheless couldn’t help chronicle the emergence of undeniably extraordinary, large-scale and grand women artists: Joan Mitchell (abstract expressionism), Louise Bourgeois (sculpture) and Rachel Whiteread, Maya Lin or Jenny Holzer (public architecture/monuments). No need to dig up obscure works.

Nochlin also added something to her original approach that was not addressed in the first essay, which is to redefine “great art” to include art forms where women, non-binary and persons of color have thrived, such as photography, video art, knitting, sewing, weaving, beading, and quilting. She noted the work of many photographers such as Cindy Sherman or Sam Taylor-Wood, or installation and performance artists such as Carrie Mae Weems, Kara Walker or Janine Antoni. (And there are so many more to add to that list!)

There were many such works in The Milk of Dreams international exhibition at the 2022 Venice Biennale. About 90% of the artists chosen by curator Cecilia Alemani were women and gender non-conforming artists, who often employed these art forms. And it was fabulous, revelatory, beautiful, sometimes shocking and often provocative. Myrlande Constant’s huge and mesmerizing Haitian beaded vodou flags were among my favorites. Predictably, The Milk of Dreams exhibition was criticized for compromising quality and being “absurdly gender-imbalanced.” But don’t worry, Anish Kapoor and Anselm Kiefer had, at the very same time, hugely promoted blockbuster (and excellent) Venice shows at L’Accademia and the Doge Palace.

Mrinalini Mukherjee, Vanashree (1994), dyed hemp

Paula Rego, Gluttony (2019), papier-mâché, gouache, wood, PVC, cotton and tulle

Aneta Grzeszykowska, Mama #34 (2018), gelatin silver hand print

Małgorzata Mirga-Tas, Re-enchanting the Word (2022), textile installation

Myrlande Constant, Sirènes (2020), Sequins, glass beads, silk tassels on canvas

When applying Nochlin’s method to rock music, it’s not hard to spot overlooked or even well-known women artists who have shaped the genre from the beginning. Take, for example, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Big Mama Thornton, Joni Mitchell, Janis Joplin, Wanda Jackson, Tina Turner, Joan Jett, Aretha Franklin, Patti Smith, Chaka Khan, Melissa Etheridge, Linda Ronstadt, Pat Benatar, Annie Lennox or Grace Slick. Many of them have already been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Not to mention more recent giants like Beyoncé, Amy Winehouse, Lady Gaga and Taylor Swift.

But some might wonder whether these artists entered the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame only because the genre has been diluted to include pop, R&B, or the blues. Sister Rosetta Tharpe was certainly rocking it as hard as Little Richard or Chuck Berry, and Big Mama Thornton recorded “Hound Dog” well before Elvis did. For that matter, do ballads disqualify white male rock musicians? Ballads like the Stones’ “Angie”? Or does rock only become rock by virtue of the people who play it? As the Hall of Fame is well aware, rock is a broad category that only came into being through the merging of multiple influences, primarily African-American music. The greatness of the genre itself has already been redefined.

But as Nochlin would surely note, the conditions and institutions in which women musicians, composers, producers, and technicians work have still kept many of them back. The Annenberg Inclusion Initiative found that only 12.3% of songwriters and 2.1% of producers on the top 600 songs on the Billboard charts between 2012 and 2017 were women.

That didn’t stop Neil Portnow, president of the Recording Academy awarding the Grammys, from saying in 2018, in response to a query about the lack of Grammy recognition offered to these artists, that “women who have the creativity in their hearts and souls, who want to be musicians, who want to be engineers, producers, and want to be part of the industry on the executive level” simply had to “step up.” STEP UP? Of the 889 people nominated for Grammys in the six years prior to Portnow’s comment, only 9% were women. Singer Katy Perry retorted on Twitter, “I’m proud of ALL the women making incredible art in the face of continual resistance.” Portnow stepped down in 2019, and is now sued for drugging and raping a female musician.

The indisputable success and influence of today’s women musicians are hard to ignore. Young women, non-binary youth and youth of color are using their purchasing power to signal, in a mighty way, what they want to hear and see. Beyoncé’s spectacular Renaissance World Tour has grossed US$579 million to date (making it the seventh highest grossing tour in rock history, and guaranteed to continue climbing that list). Taylor Swift’s Eras Tour has brought in US$780 million so far, and her concert film earned US$92.8 million in US theaters in its first three days, establishing it as the highest grossing concert film ever. In a totally boss move, Swift is re-recording her early catalogue to re-gain control of it after it was sold to a private equity firm controlled by a man who publicly bullied her. Those Taylor’s Version re-recordings will likely eclipse the old ones. In fact, Swift’s 1989 (Taylor’s Version) album accounted for 48.3% of all albums sold in the US the week of its November 2023 release. In the US, she has also been a driving force in getting her fans to register to vote. Yet (or for that reason?) she continues to be the object of male derision and disdain.

Never mind. I’m sure Beyoncé and Swift will step up and articulate what they think about that—all the way to the bank and the voting booth!

In artistic and creative solidarity and greatness,