The National Museum of Women in the Art launched the hashtag #5womenartists in 2016, challenging museums and/or art lovers to name 5 women artists over the course of Women’s History Month. Many museums have adopted this as an annual tradition. In the fifth year of this social media campaign, dozens, maybe even hundreds of museums have shared at least 5 women artists. 5 names x 5 years x let’s say 50 museums? We should be able to name 500 women artists in our sleep by now.
Maybe you can’t name 5 women artists, but can you name 5 artists more generally? There’s nothing wrong with being bad with names and recall. In fact, despite making my living and being pretty good at it, I cannot correctly recall the date of an artwork if you have a gun to my head. (Please don’t try this.) What is more important than recall abilities is that by now, 100 years after white women were granted the right to vote, 50 years after voting rights were protected for all American citizens, and 5 years after the #5womenartists hashtag, the concept of the existence of 500+ women artists throughout human history shouldn’t be something that gives you pause.
There’s been a lot of talk around here recently about what American art is, and what’s interesting about American art is that it has the potential to destabilize the structure of art history. That is, if we take seriously the highly sophisticated global interchange of influences and infusion of visual vocabulary into art making by women, Indigenous Peoples, Black culture and the hugely rich immigrant voices that art history as a discipline was not built to accommodate.
When we say, “art history was not built to accommodate,” this is not abstract or a matter of opinion. The discipline of studying the creation of art has always been tied to patronage, and as such, tied to the laws and conventions of who was allowed to hold gainful employment. As Whitney Chadwick writes in her introduction to Women, Art and Society, “[t]he origins of art history’s focus on the personalities and work of exceptional individuals can be traced back to the early Renaissance desire to celebrate Italian cities and achievements of their more remarkable male citizens…Since the nineteenth century, art history has also been closely aligned with the establishing of authorship, which forms the basis of the economic valuing of Western art. Our language and expectations about art have tended to rank that produced by women as below that produced by men in ‘quality,’ resulting in lesser monetary value. This has profoundly influenced our knowledge and understanding of the contributions made by women to painting and sculpture.”
Chadwick is summarizing decades of feminist art history to lay the groundwork for her examination on the contributions of women to visual culture. The seminal text in feminist art history is Linda Nochlin’s 1971 essay “Why Have Their Been No Great Women Artists?” (If you have never read this fairly brief essay in it’s entirety, please do.) Fortunately we have accomplished SOME things since 1971. We have had 50 years since the essay and 30 years of the Guerilla Girls! These things have had echoes and reverberations into the art world. As Nochlin explains, asking this simple question “can, if answered adequately, create a sort of chain reaction…can challenge the assumption, that the traditional divisions of intellectual inquiry are still adequate to deal with the meaningful questions of our time, rather than the merely convenient or self-generated ones.” Nochlin’s tip-of-the-iceberg framework proved to be applicable to questioning how the same structures kept BIPOC and LGBTQ+ artists from “Greatness” as well, – along with more access to the discipline for scholars with these identity labels.
Like any group of people, the experience of women is not monolithic. We have to frame this conversation by acknowledging the leg up that cis white women artists have over BIPOC and LBGTQ represenation. White women have had less barriers to entry into scholarship and the museum world than BIPOC museum professionals (who are woefully, shamefully underrepresented and often tokenized and discriminated against when they are hired). Women made up essentially half of the museum labor force as of 2018 (which does not necessarily equate to a success story for women in museums, more on that later) and so there are many opportunities for white women to champion stories of artists who look like them in museum exhibitions. Yet museum collections are still overwhelmingly not only white, but male. Why?
At times, especially in American art, our efforts to include women artists still feel like what Nochlin refers to as the reaction to “swallow the bait” and attempt to answer the question of “why have their been no great women artists” as though it’s straightforward. We dig up examples and say look, here are some Great Women Artists, right here! Nochlin’s question still frames the conversation. Why are we obsessed with shoe horning women into a system that was built to honor straight cis white men? Are we working to elevate the concurrent legacy of women’s art history? What does that look like? Chadwick opens Women, Art and Society by noting that she is not trying to create an “alternative canon,” or official list of “Great Women Artists.” Yet it does often feel like that’s what we’re trying to do as women art historians.
When we examined the relationship between Black American art and the canon last month, an excerpt from an article about Kerry James Marshall resonates here, too. In the article, Marshall is quoted as pointing out the discrepancy between Black and white artists on museum walls. “While many of these artists now have far more museum presence, the critical framing of their work has yet to challenge canonical assumptions.” Similarly, we usually squeeze great women in with the Western, primarily male canon. It isn’t bad to compare women to men and Black artists to white artists. But we are still falling in to the trap that Nochlin warned us about 50 years ago. We don’t have to prove that women artists are equal to men. We don’t have to only recognize the women who came after the women’s liberation movement. We don’t only have to recognize the lineage of traditional women’s work once we can stand a sanitized distance away from it. We don’t have to only compare things with the dick swinging of oil painting.
This isn’t to say that women artists haven’t been asking these questions in their work. It isn’t to say that this work hasn’t reached critical acclaim, even. Like, hello, The Dinner Party.
I mean, like hello Faith Ringgold and the artists of Gee’s Bend, like the generations of Pettway women. These artists have brought international acclaim to sewing and storytelling traditions. I won’t belabor the point on what strides have been made to integrate women’s history into art when so many smart people have already spent time on that, and I won’t pretend every woman who taps into the history of domesticity and women’s work is doing something brand new.
What I will do is ask you – when you think of the first five women artists who come to mind, do they have anything in common? The usual suspects start with something like, Georgia O’Keeffe, Frida Kahlo, Mary Cassatt. Painters – painters who worked closely with men artists. Georgia O’Keeffe is in my top three favorite artists of all time, lest you think I’m being a hater. There’s no time for hateration in the fight for equity in the art world. But it is interesting that the women that we might be able to argue for the “Great”ness of, in Nochlin’s terms, are adjacent to those Great Artist men.
On the other hand, I feel pretty optimistic that for Women’s History Month next year, this post will seem outdated af and like a relic from a dark age. I don’t get out much these days because of the plague and all, but I went to Barnes & Noble recently and saw a whole shelf of aggressively brightly colored books on women artists in the “Art” section. For most of my life, people have given me those dumb “100 Artists You Need to Know” books (like hello, read the room, I DO know these artists, keep this book for yourself next time) and I was delighted to find how many such books are now concocted entirely of ladies, and span genre, media, and culture. ON THE OTHER HAND I just discovered that the textbook used to teach the survey course while I was a TA 6 years ago introduces Frida Kahlo as “Diego Rivera’s third wife, Frida Kahlo,” so. You choose to end this read with a glass half full or a glass that looks like Latina’s women pay on the white man’s dollar?