I just googled “no great women artists” to find one of the pieces I read that refer to the old sociological explanations for the relative absence of women in the annals of art history. The first result was something I had not yet read, an extract from Linda Nochlin’s book, “Women, Art and Power”. The following quote struck me powerfully, and described my entire feeling of outsider-ness throughout my art education:
The problem [explaining why there have been no great women artists is] the naive idea that art is the direct, personal expression of individual emotional experience, a translation of personal life into visual terms. Art is almost never that, great art never is. The making of art involves a self-consistent language of form, more or less dependent upon, or free from, given temporally defined conventions, schemata, or systems of notation, which have to be learned or worked out, either through teaching, apprenticeship, or a long period of individual experimentation. The language of art is, more materially, embodied in paint and line on canvas or paper, in stone or clay or plastic or metal it is neither a sob story nor a confidential whisper.
The fact of the matter is that there have been no supremely great women artists, as far as we know, although there have been many interesting and very good ones who remain insufficiently investigated or appreciated; nor have there been any great Lithuanian jazz pianists, nor Eskimo tennis players, no matter how much we might wish there had been. That this should be the case is regrettable, but no amount of manipulating the historical or critical evidence will alter the situation; nor will accusations of male- chauvinist distortion of history.
Extract from Women, Art and Power and Other Essays, Westview Press, 1988 by Linda Nochlin
During my BFA studies, I soon developed my artistic identity as someone who makes intimate, blunt and personal works. It was certainly different from anything anyone else around me was doing, but that was ok, because being different was one of the goals in art school. My works were judged by their own merits. They were most successful when they resonated with the audience’s personal experience, and surprised them for doing so.
Ten years out of art school I’ve slid into an existential ditch regarding my art: I still adhere to this identity as an artist, but nothing I make nowadays feels like art. All I can produce are emotional, tell-all monologues. Perhaps they’re stylistically more straight-forward than what I did in art school, but the same idea none the less. The real difference is the context: I’m a stay-at-home mom making works after my kids go to bed, not a student or recent graduate of the most elite art school in the United States, so the works are no longer art. At least, in my opinion, and if I’m not convinced they’re art, how can I convince anyone else? I’ve been thinking maybe I just need to hone the sophistication of my works until they feel like art again, but after Nochlin’s quote, I realise that, in fact, I have actually never been making art at all. I’ve been making precisely what Linda Nochlin describes as society’s naive and mistaken idea of what art is: “a translation of personal life into visual terms.” In fact, art, in the Western sense, is somewhat like a science, and requires a deep knowledge of what past artists have done and what critics have written about it, in order to create something great. I always took issue with this prerequisite to success as an artist.
I feel somewhat liberated knowing that what I’ve been making was never art, even in art school. I will continue doing what I was doing anyway, with less concern about the loss of some magic I once had.
Then again, Linda Nochlin was writing in 1988. Since then, art may have subsumed the kind of thing I do as well. I’d have to read more art criticism, but I’m pretty swamped at home at the moment.
But I’m open to suggested reading.