November 17, 2009
Linda Nochlin, the Lila Acheson Wallace Professor of Modern Art at the New York University Institute of Fine Arts, pioneered the study of women and art with her groundbreaking 1971 essay, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” Considered the foremost scholar of feminist art history, she has authored numerous publications, including Women, Art, and Power and Other Essays (1988) and Representing Women (1999). Nochlin recently spoke with Abby Callard.
Almost 40 years ago, you wrote about the lack of great female artists. How about now? I think things have changed. I think the idea of greatness has changed as a result of that article and other work in the field of art history. I don’t think there’s a single standard of greatness anymore. Many more women have entered into the realm of great artists. I still think it’s a very good paper, and I still think it’s illuminating to people who know nothing about art or women in art even though circumstance may have changed and it also sheds light on other areas of achievement and expertise, not just women. And other groups, racial groups, national groups that have been cashed out. And the whole point is to show that none of this is genetic, in-built, natural etc. it’s all part of a complex social and institutional organization.
Where did the idea for your article come from? I had come back from a year abroad to teach at Vassar, and some friends told me about the feminist movement. It was 1969. There’d been student revolutions. But there hadn’t been a feminist revolution. Back home there was the Red Stockings newsletter and Off Our Backs. A lot of stuff was happening, so I immediately changed my seminar at Vassar to “Women in Art” and I divided it into two parts: “Women Artists” and “The Representation of Women.” And it was one of the greatest classes I’ve ever taught. Students demanded to make not just two reports, but three or four. We made the most amazing discoveries. At graduation that year, a gallery owner said to me, “You know Linda, I’d love to show women artists, but why are there no great women artists?” That just started me ticking. I went and did research. And I just kept thinking about that, and writing, and writing, and writing. I read very specific lives of artists. One thing just lead to another, like a creative discovery. Almost like scientists must feel when they find some new way of looking at the universe. I was looking at the world differently. I’d always been a very political person. But this was different. I still think it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done.
What is the difference between a good, respectable artist and a great artist? I guess a kind of uniqueness and impact on the field itself. I would pick the figure of Cezanne. This is an artist who not only was brilliant and interesting but changed the course of art, changed what we think of as beauty, changed what we thought about the relationship between paint and the canvas. Whatever we mean by great, he was it. Everyone would say Michelangelo. He’s not one that I particularly like, but I can recognize his talent.
Which female artists have crossed that barrier? Louise Bourgeois for one. She’s one of the most famous and sought after women in the world. Cindy Sherman. Looking back, Eva Hesse certainly made an enormous impact on the field of sculpture. In photography we could point to a lot of women artists. I could go on and on. Video and performance art has been contributed to enormously by female artists. I think there are realms of art like video and performance, which are important now, where women really are great artists.
What about painting? I hate to use that word even. Mary Cassatt. Let’s see, who else? Georgia O’Keeffe. In fact, one might say that she is one of the most famous painters in the world. Helen Frankenthaler is a major figure.
You’re credited with inventing the field of feminist art history. Where do you see the field going? I think it is becoming different. I think there’s a new generation of new feminists in the field of art history that are making it different. There are also women coming from other parts of the world. They are extending the notion of what is art. I think that’s a real interesting problem nowadays. Certain kinds of performances, certain kinds of installations, certain kinds of actions that were not included within the field of art are now being included, and women are practicing within those fields. So I think it’s both things. I think it’s both geographic, if you want to put it that way, and conceptual in terms of what is art. Expanding the borders of what art may be.
But you’re interested in more than female artists. I am. Very much so. I’m interested in 19th century art in general and particularly Gustave Courbet, whom I’ve written a book on. He was the subject of my dissertation. I’m interested in impressionism, post-impressionism. I’m interested in 20th century art, and I’m very interested in contemporary art and in criticism. I’ve recently taught classes on artists as writers. I’m interested in the relationship between word and image. But I’m very interested in the art of the 20th and 21st century and what’s going on today.
So what is going on today? I think there’s kind of a leaning toward a more open field just as I said about women artists from other geographic spots in the world and from creating within an enlarged area of art practice. I think that’s true universally; it’s not just true of women. I think criticism, there are a few trends, if you want to put it that way. Then I think there are people who are developing new theoretical bases for the discussion of art. And I think among some of the younger grad students I know there are people who are asking if there aren’t other ways of doing art history. More unconventional ways. Ways not so much tied to traditional, scholarly art historical practice but perhaps leave more room open for poetic thought, or personal ways of dealing with art or just opening up the field to other kinds of discourse, other kinds of writing practices let’s say.
Examples? Well, first of all, bringing one’s own emotions and feeling into the discussion. But I don’t mean in a sloppy way, not just pouring. But making it a part of the discourse. Another way is introducing gender into the discussion as I did. I did a long piece in a catalog once about Courbet’s studio where I suggested reversing the cast of characters. Making it into a woman’s painting where all the men became the nudes and the women became the dominant figures in the painting and so on. So I think there are imaginative ways of interpreting art that can be used in bringing enlightenment. The Clarice Smith Distinguished Lectures in American Art presents Linda Nochlin, Wednesday, November 18 at 7 PM. Free tickets are required for this event and are available beginning at 6 PM in the museum’s G Street Lobby. Limit two tickets per person; no seat-holding please. Auditorium doors open at 6:30 p.m. and close promptly at 7 p.m. Reception follows.
View live Webcast of Linda Nochlin’s lecture here.
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