Counter Arts
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Counter Arts

Women in art and photography

Part I

Linda Nochlin, back in 1971, asked herself the question that would shake the artworld, a question that not only made her famous but that allowed for extensive research and criticism into how we understand and interpret art: Why have there been no great women artists?¹. Linda Nochlin took upon herself the task of bringing feminist theory into art and its history by pursuing the answer to that question. This is also the starting point of these new essays on women in art and photography as viewers, makers, and especially as represented objects.

50th-anniversary edition of Linda Nochlin’s Why have there been no great women artists?, available here

As I have written in past essays, the idea of art we understand and recognize today is a relatively recent concept, sparking from the Illustration during the XVIII Century with Immanuel Kant as the most relevant figure in the conceptualization of modern art and aesthetics, even though Baumgarten wrote about it first. Kant’s philosophical approach to art, and beauty, changed the way we humans understand, experience, and appreciate art. This approach is still the most widespread even today, almost 300 years later. However, thanks to a new wave of feminist studies in the 1960s, we started to see how problematic the traditional philosophy of Kant’s aesthetics actually is and how it has shaped the way we see women, feeding the intrinsic misogyny of patriarchy.

Before the beginning of the XX Century, there were virtually no women artists in Western culture, the concept of artist meaning the creator of a beautiful art object as a means to arouse a sublime aesthetic experience as per Kant’s philosophy. There was a distinction between “high” art and “low” art, the first referring to that created by the genius artist; the latter to crafts and everyday objects made by artisans and women in the household. High art belonged in the salons, exhibited for a certain class of men who had the ability to have an aesthetic experience. Low art, on the contrary, belonged in the shadows, as mere ordinary objects. The skills needed to produce both “high” art and “low” art were considered to be completely different, so a hierarchy was born that implied more than just the concept of art. Gender, class, and race were involved in the consequences.

During the late XIX Century and the beginning of the XX Century, there were art movements that did not agree with the distinction between art forms. The Arts & Crafts movement started in Great Britain in an attempt to bring forward the traditionally crafted objects and skills involved in their creation, aiming to level them with “high” art and climb the hierarchical ladder. Within the “high” or what we now call “fine” arts, there were also small changes as women, in very small numbers, started to be exhibited amongst men artists. However, the art objects produced by women were classified as “feminine art”, a term which served as a distinction from the “greatness” of the art objects made by men that were different in style and expressive qualities¹; therefore “masculine art” would become first in a new art hierarchy.

Art historian Linda Nochlin wondered why there was such an unequal treatment between men and women artists at the beginning of the XX Century and what was the reason behind it by looking deeply through a critical feminist lens at art history. Nochlin recognized that “in the field of art history, the white Western male viewpoint, unconsciously accepted as the viewpoint of the art historian, may — and does — prove to be inadequate not merely on moral and ethical grounds, or because it is elitist, but on purely intellectual ones”¹ (p. 146). This was crucial because it acknowledged a deep, systemic gender bias within the arts, a realm that was believed to be above “mundane” issues like gender, class or race by those same men who were actually benefiting from art being indeed an elitist male-dominated area of human activity.

Alongside Linda Nochlin, contemporary philosopher Bonnie Mann² criticized philosophy in general and blamed the concept of universality in modernism for our understanding of the world, this being the experience of white, European, heterosexual, rich men. The world had been looked through their gaze and their experiences in it, excluding women’s; while expanding this realization of human nature to all of us and establishing it as “truth” without any consideration to the social structures associated with gender, class, and race amongst others. This is why one of the objectives of feminism is to break away from universal thought or essentialism because when “universal” modernist truths are looked at through a feminist lens, that rationality once thought of as unquestionable is now inconceivable, as for example Kant’s definition of man as sublime and woman as its subordinate. If that was considered rational, true, and essential; how many other “truths” have been male-dominated and gender-biased?

Feminists understood there was also a need to change the way we defined and talked about philosophy in general, but particularly within art and aesthetics: the need for a linguistic turn that would force a change in the terms we employ within the arts that were conceptualized by Kant, such as the artistic genius, the sublime experience, the greatness of the artist, and beauty. As Mann wrote, “the gendered history of the beautiful and the sublime, and the sexualized nature of their historical distinction, are of particular concern to feminists, since what is at stake in aesthetic experience has so often been expressed in gendered and misogynist terms”² (p. 21).

If we look at the areas of interest for feminist theory, the philosophy of aesthetics is not considered a priority. However, I disagree. There are several problematic and systemic consequences derived from the male gaze and the depiction of women through art in the name of aesthetics that cross over how we as women perceive ourselves and others, not only physically but also mentally and experientially. Art is a vehicle for understanding our past, sometimes even the only one we have as cave paintings for instance. Therefore, because of its relevance, it should be a feminist issue. Bonnie Mann not only agrees with this, she considers aesthetics and feminism to have a natural affinity due to them having been marginalized within philosophy: “the aesthetic is constantly working in the paradox of individual experiences and universal, or at least general, aesthetic judgments — just like feminism works in the space between private experience and the general claims it must make to be effective politically”² (p. 24). Mann advocates for a feminist engagement with aesthetics that moves away from essentialism and masculinism² in order to destroy the art hierarchy between “high” art and “low” art we still have today.

Thanks to the critical feminist analyses on art and aesthetics done by Linda Nochlin, Bonnie Mann, Hannah Arendt, or Carolyn Korsmeyer, we have been able to see art in a new light, realizing the far-reaching consequences we can still feel in contemporary society, some of them being the physical appearance and role of women, historically internalized through the male gaze. For the role of women in the artworld we have someone to blame, Kant. His philosophy of art and aesthetics in relation to women will be the subject of this essay’s second part.

¹Source: Nochlin, L. (1971). Why have there been no great women artists?. In Women, art, and power and other essays.

²Source: Mann, B. (2006). Women’s liberation and the sublime: feminism, postmodernism, environment.

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