Nochlin vs Guerrilla Girls

In completing the readings for Thursday, I noticed a tension between Linda Nochlin’s analysis of the lack of great women artists and the mission of the Guerrilla Girls. A few of our readings in this cluster have grappled with the question of what to do with this lack of room for female artists in the canon- it feels unsatisfactory to analyze why there are no great female artists without proposing a solution, or making a space (a room, a garden) for women to engage in the canon. This isn’t to say that I have some magic solution to this discrimination, but I would like to look at what these writers suggest as possibilities for progress.

The Guerrilla Girls disclaim in their introduction that they are not trying to discuss theory- they merely want to create a history book, a sort of documentation of great female artists. They respond to Nochlin’s question, “why have there been no great female artists?” by instead asking why more female artists haven’t been considered great: “The truth is that, despite prejudice, there have been lots of women artists throughout Western history” (8). Although they never explicitly address that they are forming an argument in their text, the Guerrilla Girls work with a clear formula: whenever we can provide examples of a phenomenon, that phenomenon is possible. Nochlin in not satisfied with this response, nor am I. This warrant works in the realm of what is and isn’t possible, and fails to answer the question that the Guerrilla Girls asked in the first place, which is why more women haven’t been considered great artists. In simplifying their text to avoid ‘theory wars’, the Girls provide an education on female achievement while reinforcing the “negative implications” of the question (Nochlin, 24).

Nochlin’s skepticism of this approach to the question is followed by an assertion that beneath this question of female potential for success is a dark underbelly of questions about human ability, excellence, and the way in which social order contextualizes the nature of art in relation to these subjective elements. She goes on to argue that there have been no great women artists because women have not achieved the same status as men in the arts. This is also true in hundreds of other circles that are discouraging and oppressive towards women and minorities. Nochlin proposes that “women must conceive of themselves as potentially, if not actually, equal subjects, and must be willing to look the facts of their situation full in the face, without self-pity, or cop-outs… they must view their situation with that high degree of emotional and intellectual commitment necessary to create a world in which equal achievement will be not only made possible but actively encouraged by social institutions” (25). Success in the arts, according to Nochlin, is opportunistic; she provides examples of successful men in the arts who happened to be born into a legacy of creativity. Finally, Nochlin writes on Rosa Bonheur’s achievement, citing the way her feminine mystique and narcissism subvert that seemingly confident determination “demanded by the highest and most innovative work in art” (69).

Looking at these two documents written from differing perspectives, I wonder what we can conclude about the nature of progress in the conditions required to create art and, most importantly, the social order that grants certain works of art permanence and legacy in the canon. How do we answer why there have been no great female artists without reinforcing the negative implications of the question? Is Nochlin’s proposition that we view ourselves as equal subjects and thus create a world of equal opportunity and achievement possible? How do we subvert the mechanisms through which the canon establishes its own exclusivity?


One thought on “Nochlin vs Guerrilla Girls

  1. When reading your post, I just kept wondering: if there are differing ideas on how to think about progress, how to best publicize ideas about progress, and what the progress would look like, how should we actually enact it? Specifically, I’m thinking about feminist protests in the past against female nudes in museums — not because they are lewd, but rather because the majority of nudes in art museums are of women, and the vast majority of artists represented are men. (The Guerrilla Girls had great bumper stickers and billboards about that.) Some of these protests though, ended with women actually breaking into the museum and vandalizing some of these pieces, throwing paint and the like. I have to wonder, are colorful pamphlets and articles sufficient to enact this change? And if not, how far can protests go before they actually begin to hurt the cause?

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