Sexual Politics In Art History By Nolchin Essay

Review: Sexual Politics in Art History by Nolchin

The article begins by critiquing the state of Art History as an institute dominated by the White Western Male viewpoint. The author then states that the most obvious way to counteract this point of view would be for feminist historians to recontextualize the accomplishments of female masters of visual arts. However Nochlin posits unearthing these females who accomplished feats of painting and art doesn’t necessarily answer the question of why they weren’t, or still aren’t, considered great. Another possible solution that could be explored is finding a common denominator of all the near great, and often under-appreciated, female artists. However this solution is also deemed inaccurate by the author. The female artists have much more in common with other artists of their time than any overarching narrative. Nochlin then states that in fact no truly great artists were ever women. Instead women have a monopoly on things like operatic singing and ballet- professions in which masculinity is often an hindrance. The author does find a narrative that nearly all great painters possess: including a privileged, but not overly so, family: in addition to being an adolescent who has skill beyond their years and a disinterest in traditional academia in favor of art. In fact many of the great painters came from a family of the arts. Yet very few came from the truly wealthy “one-percent”. The question of genius then moves from some innate part of a genetics, to something built through continuous learning and practice. The article then shifts gears entirely, questioning the availability of the nude model to women. And the nude form as an inherently necessary part of the great artists repertoire. Many art schools throughout history only allow women as models, and not as draftsmen capturing the nude form. This, in addition to a woman’s duty as homemaker, relegated women to the arts of hobbyists, or crafters- rather than true practioners of fine art. Nochlin also discusses the fact that the near great female artists had relationships with established males in the art world.

The issue of women only being models and not artists is also explored in the article about the MoMA we read earlier this semester; this is a well-documented bias in visual art. This author defines great art as exploration of the human figure, which I find very a very limiting argument. Defining truly great art is a subjective endeavor. White male historians are the ones who define greatness historically, and time and time again they deem white male artists as great. Likely because they can relate more strongly to those works, because again there is very little similarities in each critic’s definition of great art in any field.

The author’s definition of great art, and the women’s inability to create it, makes it impossible for women to create great art- since they weren’t allowed to study at the collegiate level to the same degree males could. However the author does not include the study of draftsmenship in her critique of art schools that limit the studies of female artists. Drafting courses were the first public education art-making courses introduced in the early 20th century. Students, mostly male, studied how to draw architectural designs and plans. While not necessarily studying the nude human figure, these courses still excluded females, who were traditionally enrolled in Home Economics courses instead.

Nolchin is unrelenting in her disdain for Rosa Bonheur’s justification of masculine attire. It appears to me that Bonheur was simply a product of her time. She was raised in a society that maintained strict social constructs of gender. And yet again Bonheur cannot deem her a truly great artist as her work didn’t sufficiently explore the human form.

Georgia O’Keefe’s relationship with Stieglitz could be explored in the list of artists who are strongly connected to an established male in the art world. Stieglitz popularized her work. And O’Keefe is one of the great modern painters of the 20th century. Yet it is possible the author disqualified her on the basis that her best works weren’t studies of the human form

It is quite contradictory to saying that landscape painters are inferior to the artists who practice the female form; when Cezanne and Van Gogh are featured in the author’s category of genius, and their greatest works were landscapes. The landscape painting was a precursory realm of experimentation to the abstraction of the modern era. The author fails to mention that Cezanne’s, Whistler’s, and J.MW. Turner’s, abstractions of nature established a path for the great abstract expressionist works of Picasso’s and De Kooning’s.

The author’s point that great artists are in fact an archetype: a privileged white male, with ample opportunity for success given his caste (yet not quite bourgeois) , who has by chance or by association, met men in a position to popularize and promote their art is a narrative that is maintained even today. Many of my peers and I would like to be able to continue our education into graduate school, were we could someday earn the title of Master of Fine Arts, yet the rising costs of tuition, coupled with economic stagnation and isolation of wealth have made it more difficult each year to continue your education- regardless of test scores, GPA, talent, or intelligence. It is simply not fiscally possible to pursue arts for the vast majority of the populace. Nochlin could have taken this point even further; it is highly unlikely that many middle class students would be able to pursue art past the collegiate level simply based on the financial logistics in the current economy. The state of contemporary studio and gallery artists demographics have been described to me as “trust-fund babies” – people who were financially supported throughout their collegiate and graduate education, and even into their gallery career. But again, this is not an inherently female issue, so the author probably didn’t want to explore it further.

  1. How can you define the greatness of an artist objectively? Personally I think it is impossible.
  2. Is the 21st century art world dominated by white males? The majority of established artists I know personally are females, but historically it seems to be dominated by males.
  3. Is the author justified in her disqualifications of famous female artists simply by their inability or unwillingness to study the human form?

How to cite this essay: