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Why Are There No Great Women Artists?

At the start of the new millennium the art historian and critic Dr Alicia Foster was asked by the Tate to write a book on women artists. Foster conducted an audit of the Tate collection and found that women made up just fewer than 11 percent of the artists represented in the Tate (there were 316 women and circa 2600 men) and their work only around seven percent of the collection.

Foster was then told that, “the Tate’s position on gender equality was that the collection was just a ‘natural’ reflection of art history, and that the situation would change naturally, therefore, as women became important artists in greater numbers, that no specific effort needed to be made … I was also told – and it seemed a complete contradiction - that although the statistics I had found might well be accurate, and that the criticism of the museum that they instigated might well be merited, it was not in Tate’s interests to make my findings public”.

So were there (few or) no”great” women artists in art history? In 1971 Linda Nochlin wrote a pathbreaking essay addressing just this question. Was it, as the art establishment seemed to infer, because “women are incapable of greatness”? Nochlin’s essay was a wide ranging forensic dismantling of "the entire romantic, elitist, individual-glorifying, and monograph-producing substructure upon which the profession of art history is based”. The idea that the subordinate position of women in the arts was a natural state of affairs, Nochlin argued, betrayed an intellectual flaw: “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.”

Nochlin concluded that:”Using as a vantage point their situation as underdogs in the realm of grandeur, and outsiders in that of ideology, women can reveal institutional and intellectual weaknesses in general, and, at the same time that they destroy false consciousness, take part in the creation of institutions in which clear thought—and true greatness—are challenges open to anyone, man or woman, courageous enough to take the necessary risk, the leap into the unknown”.

Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists? Set in motion a new area of study of art history, complimenting developing theories in the arena of black and colonial struggles. These challenges to the status quo have made substantial headway in the intervening years. However in a 2006 interview Nochlin argued that, “since I wrote ‘Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?’, many things changed, but we should still be focused and world on equality between men and women, and challenge what equality means in various places and various movements”.

The cultural theorist Janet Wolff has argued that in the field of the visual arts there is still a job to do in uncovering women artists in history and analysing their work. But there is also much work to do in challenging the “natural” view of the artistic legacy that is deposited in museums and galleries:

We should also look at questions about gender made more visible and more central by new theories and by our changed circumstances. The answer to male domination of the museums is not to get rid of all early twentieth century Modernist paintings of female nudes – they are wonderful works of art after all. Instead we should try and figure out new and critical display strategies based, for instance, on juxtapositions which would dismantle the concept of a woman as a passive object of the gaze. Raising a challenging question doesn’t have to abolish the pleasure of looking.

Alicia Foster also argues that the conclusion is not to replace one orthodoxy with another. “Instead what’s required is an active challenge to the narrowness of past ideas of who makes culture and what forms it might take, married to an openness to the best of what’s being made now in its full variety and complexity… In terms of the area I work in, therefore, I don’t argue for a special type of ‘women’s art’, but for support and recognition of the best art, the best culture made by women in the broadest sense”.