By Mary Ellen Dowd
Illustration by Magdalena Xochitl Burtnik Urueta | | Photo by Denise Bergt

Why have there been no great women artists?

This is a question posed by Linda Nochlin in reference to the lack of female greats in art history. In her article published in The Feminism and Culture Reader, she questions the absence of a “female Michelangelo”, citing institutional failures to include women.

There are no women equivalents for Michelangelo or Rembrandt, Delacroix or Cézanne, Picasso or Matisse, or even in very recent times, for Kooning or Warhol… in actuality, as we all know, things as they are and as they have been, in the arts as in a hundred other areas, are stultifying, oppressive, and discouraging to all those, women among them, who did not have the good fortune to be born white, preferably middle class, and above all, male.”

Nochlin concludes, the absence of women in our museums cannot be explained by a lack of “genius” in women, but rather the unbalanced social situation which surrounds the artistic process. A social situation that makes up a social structure, mediated and determined by corrupt social institutions.

Visual art represents yet another example of storytelling that has historically failed to open its doors to women. Much like traditional oral storytelling, which was discussed in the first leg of this series, visual art throughout history, with very few exceptions, has elevated white men. This article will seek to understand female erasure from a culture of visual arts beyond the explanation of systematic limitations.

In their book, “Old Mistresses: Women, Art and Ideology”, Rozsika Parker and Griselda Pollock sought to understand the absence of women in contemporary art despite the political and educational emancipation of many women in the western world at the beginning of the 20th century. They concluded that this disparity could be explained simply – money.

Money tells its tale. The difference in monetary investment value for works by artist-men and artist-women reveals the tenacity of the ideological structure that Rozsika and I revealed.”

Despite the success of a small and elite group of women in visual arts, there are few female household names when it comes to art history. One might be able to name Frida Kahlo or Georgia O’Keefe for their exceptional work during the 20th century, but these names do not account for the stark difference in male and female popularity in the visual arts.

According to the National Museum of Women in the Arts, the most expensive work sold by a woman artist at auction was Georgia O’Keeffe’s Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1 (1932), which sold for $44.4 million in 2014. This is $400 million less than Leonardo Da Vinci’s Salvador Mundi, which sold for $450.3 million in 2017. The same source cites that of the $196.6 billion spent on art at auction from 2008 into 2019, the work by women accounted for only 2% of that spending.

Considering these monetary statistics, it comes as no surprise that 18 major art museums in the United States house collections which are 87% male and 85% white. The situation is similar in most countries in the world. For example in France this data is not tracked. 

In spite of an increased retention of women in arts education programs, the art industry as an institution has not evolved based on its historic systematic exclusion of women. As Nochlin notes, the visual art industry is yet another example of not only the artistic oppression of women, but also the blatant practice of regarding women and their work as valueless.

According to Nochlin, the visual art industry is a carefully constructed social culture designed to discourage women and minorities, making it nothing short of impossible for these groups to break through. She writes, “while great achievement is rare and difficult at best, it is still rarer and more difficult, if while you work, you must at the same time wrestle with inner demons of self-doubt and guilt and outer monsters of ridicule or patronizing encouragement, neither of which have any specific connection with the quality of the art work as such”.

As a result of a greater community that undervalues the work of any artist who does not identify as white and male, the work of such other artists are swiftly regarded by the public as supplementary. Parker and Pollock write, “once you qualify the word artist or old master with any adjectival noun such as woman or black, the artist in question is immediately disqualified. They become different, other, supplementary, defined by ethnicity or gender which does not need to be stated when the word artist or old master stands alone. Whiteness and maleness are already implied. Both occupy the word artist and colonize culture, leaving no space for difference”.

Often, value can be found in a woman’s story only when applying the lens of “empowerment”. Once made clear that a piece is created by a woman, it is no longer defined by what makes it special but rather by the identity of its creator.

Take Artemisia Gentileschi, a Roman-born and Rome-trained artist who lived a full and successful life alongside the arts. Still, her story is lost to a majority of the public, any interest in her life over the years stood to explore her empowerment as a female artist rather than the valour of her work. Parker and Pollock question a feminist tendency to “recover” forgotten female artists and examine them for their strength.

What about intelligence, honesty, empathy, knowledge? Why is her early sexual violation repeated in the excessive focus on this traumatic event when another, the earlier loss of her mother, is not studied as a source of affective depth in her representations of classical and biblical stories and types of death and loss? Whose stories or concerns are being screened by us onto her canvases?”

Art history provides yet another example of the stories of women being erased from our museums and our textbooks. Only when the depth of a woman’s art is taken more seriously than her plight as a female and her work is not seen as a supplement, will we finally be able to say: there are great women artists.

The third and final piece of The Root of Female Erasure in Storytelling will explore women’s voices throughout history in reference to the photo industry. 

Read Part 1 of the series The Root of Female Erasure from Storytelling
Read Part 3 of the series The Root of Female Erasure in Photography