The Changing Status of Feminist Art History

How art history has grappled with evolving concepts of female agency

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Untitled Film Still #21 (1979), by Cindy Sherman. Source Wiki Art

When, in 1971, Linda Nochlin asked the question “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?”, her answer would stir art history to think again about how its annuls of greatness were constructed.

Two things emerged from Nochlin’s famous essay. The first was that women were not merely absent from the history of painting and sculpture, but they had been structurally omitted by the institutions that produce it.

The second was that to reinstate women into the story of art would mean more than adding their names to the roll call of great artists. To do so would be to overlook the practical and professional barriers that have, until recently, hindered women in the field of the fine arts. Nochlin wrote:

Instead, Nochlin argued, historians would have to tackle a more fundamental question: in what ways was art and it’s histories biased towards men?

On a practical level, Nochlin gave the example of how female art students tended to be prohibited from attending life drawing classes with nude models:

Above such practical barriers, Nochlin was interested in debunking the myth that artistic creativity is somehow a ‘natural’ exercise that occurs independent of a social situation. The need to critique this assumption was central to the re-evaluation of women’s relations to the art world, for to do so would permit a more sophisticated understanding of how women artists had negotiated (or failed to negotiate) a place in the artistic canon.

Linda Nochlin also brought attention to the category of ‘artistic greatness’ itself, arguing that such a concept was imbued with masculine bias which thereby excluded women by definition. Implicit in such terminology is the distinction between ‘high’ and ‘low’ art, the former identified with painting, sculpture and architecture, the latter with the decorative arts, such as ceramics and textiles. The association of women with fields traditionally omitted from the high-art canon further demarcated the categories of masculine ‘culture’ and female ‘craft’.

Museums and art galleries were complicit in this demarcation, as the artist Judy Chicago expresses: “…it is crucial to understand that one of the ways in which the importance of male experience is conveyed is through the art objects that are exhibited and preserved in our museums. Whereas men experience presence in our art institutions, women experience primarily absence, except in images that do not necessarily reflect women’s own sense of themselves.”

Intersectional feminism

Nochlin’s essay was hugely influential. By the mid-1980s, writers taking stock of the work done to affirm women’s artistic achievements were warning of the dangers of accepting the traditional historical framework. Not least, there was a danger that the Western male-dominated canon might in its structure be replicated to form a women’s version with similarly restrictive and exclusionary characteristics.

Any attempts, therefore, to inaugurate women into a canon of artistic greats according to these categories would merely act to reinforce the patriarchal standards which these canons helped to normalize.

Not only was it necessary for historians to understand the bias of art history towards men, it also had to negotiate other forms of normalisation. For example, women of color were often not addressed in earlier feminist art criticism, as the art historian Whitney Chadwick has pointed out: “Feminists of colour and lesbian feminists challenged attempts to identify an inclusive ‘female imagery’ of female experience […] that was in reality, heterosexual and white, not to mention middleclass.”

In these terms, ‘female experience’ was not a natural, unmediated category that could be isolated and discussed. It had no essential characteristics; the term itself indicated a constructed category premised on difference, a category which is socially determined and which, according to feminist theory, signifies and maintains the mechanisms of male power. Because art deals in symbols and ‘texts’, it can be understood as a site that both represents or signifies sexual difference and also produces it. For the historian, works of art are remnants of this process and a domain where the construction of ‘woman’ takes place.

The ever-increasing influence of postmodernist methods of analysis provided feminist thinkers with the insight that language itself could be a bearer of implicit meanings and biases. Terms like ‘genius’, ‘masterpiece’, ‘creativity’ and even — or most especially — ‘man’, ‘woman’ and ‘femininity’ were put under the microscope.

The art historian Griselda Pollock explained how new research methods could identify “the overtly ideological character of the appeal to nature, that is, to given, visible or deducible differences, deconstructing these assumptions to expose an always socially and politically motivated regime of differentiations.”

Perpetual deconstruction

With the advance of identity politics and the necessary inclusion of ‘specific’ experiences of sometimes marginalised groupe, a consequent tension built between those who maintained the validity of ‘woman’ as a coherent category for analysis, and those who preferred to treat ‘woman’ as a construct mediated by social discourse and ideology.

The weakness of the former school, it was argued, was its tendency to ‘slip’ into essentialism based on the insistence of a specifically female (or Black-female, or working-class-female) experience. The difficulty of latter position was precisely the opposite, that it denied stability to all its terms, leading to something of a paradox. Karen-Edis Barzman makes the challenge: “[A writer such as Griselda Pollock] does not acknowledge the constructed nature of the discourse informing her own work. In the end, all Pollock can provide is her own symptomatic reading, adding one more layer to a dense series of interpretations — subjective and ideological, as all historical writing must be.”

Pollock herself conceded the point: “Seeming to speak in the name of woman, feminist analysis perpetually deconstructs the very term around which it is politically organised.”

Exposing instabilities

The notion that gender, sexuality and race are identities ‘constructed’ according to the categories of self-interested, dominant social groups, invites artists to disrupt and transgress common preconceptions of identity and to thus expose the instability of these groupings. Through interplay between cultural theory and artistic practice, the landscape of the art scene has evolved to explicitly engage with these issues.

Performance art in particular is arguably ideally disposed to challenge the cultural habits that fix identities, since performance invariably functions through the adoption of alternative personae. Performance art can thereby engage with established cultural stereotypes, and through various self-mediating methods, can challenge these stereotypes as constructed entities.

Yet if meaning is constituted through the social and cultural landscape, then the act of ‘cultural displacement’ practiced by much performance art not only undermines the stability of the terms under questions but also the very ground on which the performance is located.

Paradoxically, it is precisely this problematic that provides the opportunity for the artwork to function. It is in this process of deferral, where the meaning of a work of art is persistently undermined by the challenge it presents to itself, in which the art operates.

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Untitled Film Still #53 (1980), by Cindy Sherman. Source Wiki Art

The art of Cindy Sherman presents an interesting example. Her ‘Film Stills’ and ‘Untitled’ photographs present multifarious characterisations of different ‘types’ of women, each one performed by the artist, constructed through references to popular culture. As such, these works act as indications of the process by which the viewers’ responses are orchestrated by expectations mediated within and by the cultural field. An early commentator on Sherman, Judith Williamson, writing in 1983, was interested in how the artist was able to point to the viewer as an active participant in the construction of her images. The viewer is said to construct and simultaneously deconstruct through the very act of recognition and complicity. In this way, according to Williamson, the viewer is found “guilty” of projecting social and cultural assumptions onto “innocent” images, particularly since the images carry a “whiff of the pornographic” rendering the women figures vulnerable. Thus Sherman’s achievement is to bring to the surface the complicity between the cultural stereotypes of femininity and the viewer who is active in the production of their meaning. She shows “the process of the feminine as an effect, something acted upon.”

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Untitled Film Still #21 (1979), by Cindy Sherman. Source Wiki Art

A later critic, Laura Mulvey, writing in 1991, addressed Sherman’s images in the context of their arrival on a cultural and social scene that was increasingly sensitive to the politics of the female body. She drew on her own work with narrative cinema, in particular the scopophilic implications of a passive image upon which “the determining male gaze projects its phantasy.” However, with Sherman’s female characters, Mulvey argued, a re-representation of the female body is offered, one that meets head-on the fetishistic metaphor of “surface allure and concealed decay” projected by the male gaze. Accordingly, the ‘masquerade’ of each image is made explicit, thereby leading the viewer to question the credibility of the figures they are looking at. In such a way, Mulvey argued, Sherman’s recognisable images of female vulnerability, eroticism and anxiety are experienced as parody. The female body as the site of “the enchantress/hag dichotomy” as is thereby disrupted via pastiche.

Rosalind Krauss, however, was critical of Mulvey. She drew significantly on the semiological distinction between the signified and the signifier to argue that Sherman’s work offers a ‘myth’ (to use Roland Barthes’ term) which in fact betrays the mistake of treating the final image as the complete, real denotation.

Krauss argued that far from ‘free-standing’, Sherman’s images achieve their effect through the work of the signifiers, that is, through the codes and the symbols, the mise-en-scène, that make up the image. The outcome is not stable, not ‘a congealed sign’, but a series of connotations given by such signifiers as composition or point of view. It is this reading of Sherman’s work that Krauss is critical of Mulvey for making.

Each of these different readings grapple with the possibility presented by the performative in disrupting common assumptions about identity. They each attempt to locate the process of deferral, whereby the meaning of the work is offered and challenged in the same instance. This is the operating method of the work — however, the ability to maintain a clear political commitment to questions of identity is clearly compromised, because ultimately there can be no fixed political message apart from the ‘pointing to’ of the process of signification.

What is interesting to consider is the question of how these discourses will be considered by historians of the future. If we accept, for example, the social art historian’s notion that art functions in defining and legitimising social relations, a premise undoubtedly shared by many contemporary artists dealing with identity, then is it possible that the current outpouring of artwork in this field will be seen in the future as merely another layering in the development of societal organisation?

That is, is the legitimisation of a set of social relations centred around a historically specific set of ethical values the inevitable consequence of art making seen through such art history? What post-modernism surely teaches is that values are not fixed but are open to manipulation. If a work of art is treated not merely as a symptom of some underlying pattern of an age but as a dynamic element in the constitution of meaning in an active and changing society, how then will the present art scene be viewed in terms of this constitution? Societal values change — how might works of art be appropriated in the version of present offered by historians of the future?

The political implications of this instability I think show how the current art history has departed from the political commitment of feminist art history as it emerged in the 1970s. And like all of historical discourse, the conversation will continue to evolve with time.

Written by

Art historian and art critic, writer, artist. Author of “How to Read Paintings”

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