[Julie Morstad]

In her 1971 essay, Linda Nochlin posed the question "Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?" As may be expected, this question is more a chance to provoke an inquiry than a serious query. The implied answer indicates the severity of the situation: "There have been no great women artists because women are incapable of greatness."

Nochlin goes on to show that the above answer is clearly unsatisfactory, and that the feminist attempt at answering her question by searching out flower painters and the occasional bright female artist from the back-log of history only aggravates the issue. If we elevate a woman who happened to paint to the status of 'great artist,' we 'tacitly reinforce [the question's] negative implications.'

Nochlin points to a problem which has been concerning me in my work on Gilson and Valery, namely that our conception of art in general is flawed. She says that feminists and the general public share,

the naive idea that art is 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 problem lies in our conception of art, and, more specifically in who the artist is and how he or she creates. If artistic creation is misunderstood, our original question is born out of an erroneous context. The terms 'Great' and 'Genius' [with requisite capitals] reinforce the notion of the artist as some supernatural being who possesses powers of imitation and can, without much personal effort, 'create Being out of nothing.' It is a fairy tale that is supported by the hundreds of art historical monographs which Nochlin condemns. She sees the male-dominated 'institution' of art history as only contributing to the longevity of our erroneous understanding of art and artistic creation. Instead of asking the 'crucial question of the conditions generally productive of great art,' we produce 'semi-religious' tracts elevating 'Great' male artists to a quasi-sainthood. She says:

To encourage a dispassionate, impersonal, sociological, and institutionally oriented approach would reveal the entire romantic, elitist, individual-glorifying, and monograph-producing substructure upon which the profession of art history is based, and which has only been recently called into question by a group of younger dissidents.

This way of thinking accepts the notion of the great artist as a given and relegates the social context in which the artist worked to the role of a 'secondary influence.' Nochlin sees the true problem as an inability on the part of the scholars and writers to recognize the influence that education, institutions, and social pressures played in the definition of art, artists, and the artworks that were produced.

The question "Why have there been no great women artists?" has led us to the conclusion, so far, that art is not a free, autonomous activity of a super-endowed individual, "influenced" by previous artists, and more vaguely and superficially, by "social forces," but, rather, that the total situation of art making, both in terms of the development of the art maker and in the nature and quality of the work of art itself, occur in a social situation, are integral elements of this social structure, and are mediated and determined by specific and definable social institutions, be they art academies, systems of patronage, mythologies of the divine creator, artist as he-man or social outcast.

Nochlin shows how women were most affected by these constraints; they could not be admitted to the academies until as late as 1893, they were not allowed to view or study the nude form, male or female, and they were socially guided to limit their art to the place of an 'accomplishment,' instead devoting their energies and attentions to the welfare of others.

She calls for women to confront the true issue and to use their unique place as an outsider to ask the important questions of art:

women must conceive of themselves as potentially, if not actually, equal subjects, and must be willing to look the facts of their situation full in the face, without self-pity, or cop-outs; at the same time they must view their situation with that high degree of emotional and intellectual commitment necessary to create a world in which equal achievement will be not only made possible but actively encouraged by social institutions.

I'm much more interested in this conclusion -- what does it mean for anyone, outsider or not, to turn a critical eye on the presumptions of their chosen field of study? What does it mean to examine our notions of art and artistic creation? I've already started to work in that last question, mostly realizing the restrictions of a metaphysical approach to art. Nochlin uses John Stuart Mill to speak of how dangerous it is to accept 'what is' as 'natural.' This raises some very important -- and new -- questions for me -- mostly about the effort of teaching and education in general.