I can’t think of an essay that has been more influential on my thinking than Linda Nochlin’s seminal (if we may use that term in this context) “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” By focusing on the social and economic constraints historically experienced by women who wanted to pursue an artistic career, Nochlin brilliantly broke open the crabbed definition of success and importance that had long underlain suppositions about the superiority of male genius. Starting with its provocative title, this witty and engaging essay provides a model for thinking about the canonical exclusion, not just of women artists, but also artists of color, artists from non-Western traditions, and artists with non-normative gender identifications and sexual orientations. Arguably, it provides one of the founding pillars of our current globalized, multicultural, and diversified art world.
Because of the freshness of its analysis, and its applicability to so many situations, I always use this essay in my survey courses. The essay was also the starting point for what has turned out to be a three-book project co-authored by Helaine Posner, Nancy Princenthal, Sue Scott, and me. In 2005 we began to think about how one might approach Nochlin’s question in the light of the feminist revolution in art and culture. On one hand, the notion of greatness had clearly altered sufficiently to make a place in the artistic canon for a large number of contemporary women artists. On the other, some digging into current metrics for artistic success, among them gallery representation, auction prices, museum retrospectives, and monographs, revealed that the kinds of external constraints cited by Nochlin in relation to earlier generations of women artists had not entirely disappeared.
In an era in which young women are encouraged to aspire to the same career goals as men, but still find themselves up against a glass ceiling when it comes to the highest leadership positions in fields as diverse as law, medicine, politics, and business, Nochlin’s approach to questions about success continues to resonate. Why do women remain stuck in the twentieth to thirtieth percentiles by so many measurements of achievement? What are the invisible constraints that still hold them back? Is the notion of “success,” like that of “artistic genius,”subtly designed to uphold the patriarchal order while appearing to be value-free?
Nochlin nailed the problem four decades ago. That her thinking is still so current says some sad things about contemporary culture.
ELEANOR HEARTNEY is a New York-based art critic and the author of numerous books about contemporary art. Eleanor Heartney's Postmodern Heretics: The Catholic Imagination in Contemporary Art has just been reissued by Silver Hollow Press.