The Meaning and Impact of Linda Nochlin's Feminist Art Criticism

Brooklyn Museum's Sackler Center First Awards
NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 18: Art historian and honoree Linda Nochlin speaks on stage during the Brooklyn Museum's Sackler Center First Awards at the Brooklyn Museum on April 18, 2012 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. Neilson Barnard / Getty Images

Linda Nochlin was a renowned art critic, historian, writer, and researcher. Through her writing and academic work, Nochlin became an icon of the feminist art movement and history. Her best known essay is titled "Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?," in which she examines the societal reasons that prevented women from gaining recognition in the art world.

Key Takeaways

  • Nochlin's essay "Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?" was published in 1971 in ARTnews, a visual arts magazine.
  • Written from an academic perspective, the essay became a pioneering manifesto for the feminist art movement and feminist art history.
  • Through her academic work and her writing, Nochlin was instrumental in changing the language that surrounds the way we speak of artistic development, paving the way for many of those outside the norm, not just women, to find success as artists.

Personal Life

Linda Nochlin was born in 1931 in Brooklyn, New York, were she grew up an only child in a wealthy Jewish family. She inherited a love of the arts from her mother and was immersed in New York’s rich cultural landscape from a young age.

A volume of Nochlin's writing in which her famous essay appears.  Courtesy burlington.co.uk

Nochlin attended Vassar College, then a single-sex college for women, where she minored in art history. She pursued a Master’s in English literature at Columbia University before completing doctoral work in art history at the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University while also teaching as a professor of art history at Vassar (where she would teach until 1979).

While Nochlin is most famous for her role in feminist art history, she also made a name for herself as a scholar with wide academic interests, writing books on subjects as diverse as realism and impressionism, as well as several volumes of her essays originally published in various publications, including ARTnews and Art in America.

Nochlin died in 2017 at the age of 86. At the time of her death she was a Lila Acheson Wallace professor of art history emerita at NYU.

“Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?”

Nochlin’s most famous text is the 1971 essay, originally published in ARTnews, titled “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?,” in which she investigated the institutional roadblocks which have prevented women from ascending to the top ranks of art throughout history. The essay is argued from an intellectual and historical angle, rather than a feminist one, though Nochlin did secure her reputation as a feminist art historian after the publishing of this essay. In her writing, she insisted that the investigation into the inequity in the art world would only serve the arts as a whole: perhaps an interest in why women artists have been systematically excluded from the art historical canon will prompt a thorough investigation into the contexts of all artists, resulting in a more authentic, factual, and intellectually rigorous assessment of art history in general.

Characteristic of Nochlin as a writer, the essay methodically lays out an argument to answer the titular question. She begins by insisting on the importance of her essay, in order to assert an “adequate and accurate view of history”. She then launches into the question at hand.

Many feminist art historians, she argues, will try to answer her question by insisting it is predicated on false claims. Indeed, there have been great women artists, they just have produced in obscurity and have never made it into the history books. While Nochlin agrees that there is not nearly enough scholarship on many of these women, the possible existence of female artists that have reached the mythical status of “genius,” simply would state that the “status quo is fine,” and that the structural changes that feminists are fighting for have already been achieved. This, Nochlin says, is untrue, and she spends the rest of her essay outlining why.

“The fault lies not in our stars, our hormones, our menstrual cycles, or our empty internal spaces, but in our institutions and our education,” she writes. Women were not permitted to attend live drawing sessions from a nude model (though women were permitted to model nude, an assertion of her place as object and not as self possessed maker), which was an essential chapter of an artist’s education in the 19th century. If not permitted to paint the nude, the few women painters that existed were forced to resort to subjects that were lower in the hierarchy of value assigned to different genres of art at the time, that is, they were relegated to painting still lives and landscapes.

Add to this an art historical narrative that values the rise of innate genius and the insistence that wherever genius resides it will make itself known. This type of art historical myth making finds its origins in the biographies of such revered artists as Giotto and Andrea Mantegna, who were “discovered” tending flocks of livestock in the rural landscape, as close to the “middle of nowhere” as can be.

The perpetuation of the artistic genius is detrimental to the success of female artists in two significant ways. First, it is a justification that, indeed, there are no great female artists because, as is implicitly stated in the genius narrative, greatness makes itself known regardless of circumstance. If a woman possessed genius, her talent would best all adverse conditions in her life (poverty, social duties, and children included) to make her “great.” Second, if we do accept the ex nihilo genius story, we are not inclined to study art as it exists in context, and therefore are more prone to ignoring important influences (and therefore, more inclined to discount the other intellectual forces surrounding an artist, which may include female artists and artists of color).

Of course, there are many life circumstances that make the road to becoming an artist more straightforward. Among them is the custom that an artist profession is passed from father to son, making the choice to be an artist a tradition rather than a break from it, as it would be for women artists. (Indeed, a majority of the most famous pre-20th century women artists were the daughters of artists, though they are, of course, notable exceptions.) 

Regarding these institutional and social circumstances as the situation that artistically-inclined women are up against, it is no wonder that more of them have not ascended to the heights of their male contemporaries.

Reception

Nochlin’s essay was widely acclaimed, as it provided the foundations on which to build alternative understandings of art history. It certainly provided the scaffolding on which other seminal essays such as Nochlin’s colleague Griselda Pollock’s “Modernity and the Spaces of Femininity” (1988), in which she argues that many women painters did not ascend to the same heights of some other Modernist painters because they were denied access to the spaces best suited to the Modernist project (that is, spaces like Manet’s Folies Bergère or Monet’s docks, both places from which single women would be discouraged).

Artist Deborah Kass believes that Nochlin's pioneering work "made women’s and queer studies possible" (ARTnews.com) as we know them today. Her words have resonated with generations of art historians and have even been emblazoned on T-shirts produced by upscale French fashion label Dior. Though there is still a great disparity between the representation of male versus female artists (and still a greater one between women of color and white female artists), Nochlin was instrumental in changing the language that surrounds the way we speak of artistic development, paving the way for many of those outside the norm, not just women, to find success as artists.

Sources

  • (2017). ‘A True Pioneer’: Friends and Colleagues Remember Linda Nochlin. ArtNews.com. [online] Available at: http://www.artnews.com/2017/11/02/a-true-pioneer-friends-and-colleagues-remember-linda-nochlin/#dk.
  • Smith, R. (2017). Linda Nochlin, 86, Groundbreaking Feminist Art Historian, Is Dead. The New York Times. [online] Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/01/obituaries/linda-nochlin-groundbreaking-feminist-art-historian-is-dead-at-86.htm
  • Nochlin, L. (1973). “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” Art and Sexual Politics, Collier Books, pp. 1–39.