«Why are there no great women artists?« This question tolls reproachfully in the background of discussions of the so-called woman problem, causing men to shake their heads regretfully and women to grind their teeth in frustration. Like so many other questions involved in the red-hot feminist controversy, it falsifies the nature of the issue at the same time that it insidiously supplies its own answer: »There are no great women artists because women are incapable of greatness«. The assumptions lying behind such a question are varied in range and sophistication, running anywhere from »scientifically« proven demonstrations of the inability of human beings with wombs rather than penises to create anything significant, to relatively open minded wonderment that women, despite so many years of near-equality - and after all, a lot of men have had their disadvantages too - have still not achieved anything of major significance in the visual arts.
The feminist's first reaction is to swallow the bait, hook, line and sinker and to attempt to answer the question as it is put: that is, to dig up examples of worthy or insufficiently appreciated women artists throughout history; to rehabilitate rather modest, if interesting and productive careers; to rediscover forgotten flower painters or David-followers and make out a case for them; to demonstrate that Berthe Morisot was really less dependent upon Manet than one had been led to think - in other words, to engage in activity not too different from that of the average scholar, man or woman, making out a case for the importance of his own neglected or minor master. Whether undertaken from a feminist point of view, such attempts, like the ambitious article on women artists which appeared in the 1858 Westminster Review, or more recent scholarly studies and reevaluations of individual woman artists like Angelica Kauffmann or Artemisia Gentileschi, are certainly well worth the effort, adding to our knowledge both of woman's achievement and of art history generally; and a great deal still remains to be done in this area. Unfortunately, such efforts, if written from an uncritically feminist viewpoint, do nothing to question the assumptions lying behind the question »Why are there no great women artists?«; on the contrary, by attempting to answer it and by doing so inadequately, they merely reinforce its negative implications.
At the same time that champions of women's equality may feel called upon to falsify the testimony of their own judgment by scraping up neglected female artistic geniuses or puffing up the endeavors of genuinely excellent but decidedly minor women painters and sculptors into major contributions, they may resort to the easily refuted ploy of accusing the questioner of using »male« standards as the criterion of greatness or excellence. This attempt to answer the question involves shifting the ground slightly; by asserting, as many contemporary feminists do, that there is actually a different kind of greatness for women's art than for men's, one tacitly assumes the existence of a distinctive and recognizable feminine style, differing in both its formal and its expressive qualities from that of male artists and positing the unique character of women's situation and experience.
This, on the surface of it, seems reasonable enough: in general, women's experience and situation in society, and hence as artists, is different from men's: certainly, the art produced by a group of consciously united and purposefully articulate women intent on bodying forth a group consciousness of feminine experience might be stylistically identifiable as feminist, if not feminine art. Unfortunately, this remains within the realm of possibility; so far, it has not occurred. While the Danube School, Caravaggio's followers, the painters gathered around Gauguin at Pont Aven, the Blue Rider, or the Cubists may be recognized by certain clearly defined stylistic or expressive qualities, no such common qualities of femininity would seem to link the styles of women artists generally, any more than such qualities can be said to link all women writers - a case brilliantly argued, against the most devastating, and mutually contradictory, masculine critical cliches, by Mary Ellmann in her Thinking About Women. No subtle essence of femininity would seem to link the work of Artemisia Gentileschi, Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun. Angelica Kauffmann, Rosa Bonheur, Berthe Morisot, Suzanne Valadon, Käthe Kollwitz, Barbara Hepworth, Georgia O'Keefe, Sophie Taeuber-Arp, Helen Frankenthaler, Bridget Riley, Lee Bontecou, and Louise Nevelson, any more than one can find some essential similarity in the work of Sappho, Marie de France, Jane Austen, Emily Bronte, George Sand, George Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein, Anai's Nin, Emily Dickinson, Sylvia Plath, and Susan Sontag. In every instance women artists and writers would seem to be closer to other artists and writers of their own period and outlook than they are to each other.
Women artists are more inward-looking, more delicate and nuanced in their treatment of their medium, it may be asserted. But which of the women artists cited above is more inward turning than Redon, more subtle and nuanced in the handling of pigment than Corot at his best? Is Fragonard more or less feminine than Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun? Or is it not more a question of the whole rococo style of eighteenth-century France being »feminine«, if judged in terms of a two-valued scale of masculinity versus femininity? Certainly, though, if daintiness, delicacy, and preciousness are to be counted as earmarks of a feminine style, there is nothing very fragile about Rosa Bonheur's Horse Fair, or dainty and introverted about Helen Frankenthaler's giant canvases. If women have indeed at times turned to scenes of domestic life or of children, so did men painters like the Dutch Little Masters, Chardin, and the impressionists - Renoir and Monet as well as Berthe Morisot and Mary Cassatt. In any case, the mere choice of a certain realm of subject matter, or the restriction to certain subjects, is not to be equated with a style, much less with some sort of quintessentially feminine style.
The problem here lies not so much with the feminists' concept of what femininity is, but rather with their misconception of what art is: with the naive idea that art is the direct, personal expression of individual emotional experience, a translation of personal life into visual terms. Art is almost never that, great are certainly never. The making of art involves a self-consistent language of form, more or less dependent upon, or free from, given temporally defined conventions, schemata, or systems of notation, which have to be learned or worked out, either through teaching, apprenticeship, or a long period of individual experimentation. The language of art is, more materially, embodied in paint and line on canvas or paper, in stone or clay or plastic or metal - it is neither a sob story nor a hoarse, confidential whisper. The fact of the matter is that there have been no great women artists, as far as we know - although there have been many interesting and good ones who have not been sufficiently investigated or appreciated - or any great Lithuanian jazz pianists, or Eskimo tennis players, no matter how much we might wish there had been. That this should be the case is regrettable, but no amount of manipulating the historical or critical evidence will alter the situation; neither will accusations of male-chauvinist distortions of history and obfuscation of actual achievements of women artists (or black physicists or Lithuanian jazz musicians). The fact is that there are no women equivalents for Michelangelo or Rembrandt, Delacroix or Cezanne, Picasso or Matisse, or even, in very recent times, for de Kooning or Warhol, any more than there are any black American equivalents for the same. If there actually were large numbers of »hidden« great women artists, or if there really should be different standards for women's art as opposed to men's - and logically, one cannot have it both ways - then what would feminists be fighting for? If women have in fact achieved the same status as men in the arts, then the status quo is fine as it is.
But in actuality 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 who did not have the good fortune to be born white, preferably middle-class or above, males. The fault lies not in our stars, our hormones, our menstrual cycles, or our empty internal spaces, but in our institutions and our education - education understood to include everything that happens to us from the moment we enter, head first, into this world of meaningful symbols, signs, and signals. The miracle is, in fact, that given the overwhelming odds against women, so many have managed to achieve so much in bailiwicks of masculine prerogative like science, politics, or the arts. In some areas, indeed, women have achieved equality. While there may have been no great women composers, there have been great women singers; if no female Shakespeares, there have been Rachels, Bernhardts and Duses, to name only a few great women stage performers. Where there is a need there is a way, institutionally speaking: once the public and the authors themselves demanded more realism and range than boys in drag or piping castrati could offer, a way was found to include women in the institutional structure of the performing arts, even if in some cases they might have to do a little whoring on the side to keep their careers in order. In fact, in some of the performing arts like the ballet, women have exercised a virtual monopoly on greatness, though, it is true, they generally had to serve themselves up to Grand Dukes or aspiring bankers as an added professional obligation.
Under the institution of the British monarchy, weak women like Elizabeth I and Victoria were deemed fit to control the fate of entire nations and did so with noteworthy success. During World War II, the institutional structure of factory work found a way to transform fragile little women into stalwart Rosy the Riveters; after the war, when these jobs were needed by muscular males, the same riveters were found to be too frail to do anything more strenuous than checking out groceries at supermarkets, where they could stand on their feet lifting heavy packages all day long at much lower salaries - or housework and childcare, where they could cope with three or four children on a sixteen-hour shift at no salary at all. Wondrous are the works of man and the institutions he has established, or disestablished at his will!
When one really starts thinking about the implications of »Why are there no great women artists?« one begins to realize to what extent our very consciousness of how things are in the world has been conditioned - and too often falsified - by the way the most important questions are posed. We tend to take it for granted that there really is an East Asian problem, a poverty problem, a black problem - and a woman problem. But first we must ask ourselves who is formulating these »questions«, and then, what purposes such formulations may serve; we may, of course, refresh our memories with the unspeakably sinister connotations of the Nazi's »Jewish problem.« Obviously, for wolves, be they in sheep's clothing or in mufti, it is always best to refer to the lamb problem in the interests of public relations, as well as for the good of the lupine conscience. Indeed, in our time of instant communication, »problems« are rapidly formulated to rationalize the bad conscience of those with power. Thus, for example, what is in actuality the problem posed by the unwanted and unjustifiable presence of Americans in Vietnam and Cambodia is referred to by these intruding and destructive Americans as the East Asian problem, whereas East Asians may view it, more realistically, as the American problem; the so-called poverty problem might more directly and concretely be viewed as the wealth problem by the poor and hopeless denizens of urban ghettos or rural wastelands; the same not-so-foolish irony twists the white problem - what blacks are going to do to wrest their rights from a dominating, hypocritical, and often outright hostile white majority - into its opposite: a black problem; and the same inverse, but certainly not ineffective or unmotivated, logic turns up in the formulation of our own present state of affairs as the Woman Problem.
Now the woman problem, like all human problems, so-called (and the very idea of calling anything to do with human beings a problem is, of course, a fairly recent one), and unlike mathematical or scientific ones, is not amenable to solution at all, since what human problems involve is an actual reinterpretation of the nature of the situation, or even a radical alteration of stance or program of action on the part of the problems themselves, recourses unavailable to mathematical symbols, molecules, or microbes. In other words, the »objects« involved in the solution to human problems are at the same time subjects, capable of turning on that other group of human beings who has decided that their fellows are problem-objects to be solved, and capable of refusing both the solution, and, at the same time, the status of being problematic at all. Thus, women and their situation in the arts, as in other realms of endeavor, are not a problem to be viewed through the eyes of the dominant male power elite, at whose will or whose whim their demands may possibly some day be answered, at masculine convenience, of course. Women must conceive of themselves as potentially - if not actually - equal subjects, willing to look the facts of their situation as an institutional and objective problem not merely as a personal and subjective one, full in the face, without self-pity or copouts. Yet at the same time, they must view their situation with that high degree of emotional and intellectual commitment necessary to create a world in which truly equal achievement will be not only made possible, but actively encouraged by social institutions.
It is certainly not realistic to hope, as some feminists optimistically do, that a majority of men in the arts or in any other field will soon see that it is actually in their own self-interest to grant complete equality to women or to maintain that men themselves will soon realize that they are diminished by denying themselves access to traditionally feminine realms and emotional reactions. After all, there are few areas that are really denied to men, if the level of operations demanded be transcendent, responsible, or rewarding enough: men who have a need for feminine involvement with babies or children can certainly fulfill their needs adequately, and gain status and a sense of achievement to boot, in the field of pediatrics or child psychology, with a female nurse to do the more routine work; those who feel the urge for creativity at the stove may gain fame as master chefs or restaurateurs; and of course, men who yearn to fulfill themselves through what are often termed feminine artistic interests can easily find themselves as painters or sculptors, rather than as volunteer museum aides or as part-time ceramicists, as their presumably more aesthetically oriented female counterparts so often end up. As far as scholarship is concerned, how many men would really be willing to exchange their roles as teachers and researchers for that of unpaid, part-time research assistants and typists as well as full-time nannies and domestic workers?
It is only the extraordinarily enlightened or altruistic man who can really want to grant - the term itself is revealing - equality to women, and he will certainly not offer to switch places with one under present circumstances; on the contrary, he realizes that true equality for women will certainly involve considerable sacrifice of comfort, convenience, not to speak of ego-support and »natural« prerogatives, even down to the assumption that »he« is the subject of every sentence unless otherwise stated. Such sacrifices are not made lightly. It is unlikely that the French aristocracy in the eighteenth century would willingly have changed places with the Third Estate, or even granted its members a shred more privilege than they already had, unless forced to do so by the French Revolution; the working classes did not convince their capitalist employers that it would actually be to the latters' advantage to grant them a living wage and a modicum of security until after a long and bloody struggle when unions could reinforce such modest demands; certainly, the slave-owners of the South were willing to go to war to preserve their way of life with its still viable social and economic advantages, conferred by the possession of black slaves. While some of the more enlightened slave-owners may have granted freedom to their slaves, certainly none of them in their right minds could have ever suggested in anything but a spirit of black humor that he might prefer the carefree, irresponsible, watermelon-eating, spiritual-singing life of the darky to his own burdensome superiority. »I've got plenty of nothin'« is the tag-line of bad faith, coined by the uneasy conscience that would metamorphose the powerless victim into the lucky devil. It is through such bad faith that the holders of power can avoid the sacrifices that a truly egalitarian society would demand of all holders of privilege. It is no wonder that those who have such privilege inevitably hold on to it, and hold tight, no matter how marginal the advantage involved, until compelled to bow to superior power of one sort or another.
Thus, the question of women's equality - in art as in any other realm - devolves not upon the relative benevolence or ill-will of individual men, or the self-confidence or abjectness of individual women, but rather on the very nature of our institutional structures themselves and the view of reality that they impose on the human beings who are part of them. As John Stuart Mill pointed out more than a century ago: »Everything which is usual appears natural. The subjection of women to men being a universal custom, any departure from it quite naturally appears unnatural.« Most men, despite lip service to equality, are reluctant to give up this natural order of things in which their advantages so far outweigh their disadvantages; for women the case is further complicated by the fact that, as Mill astutely pointed out, theirs is the only oppressed group or caste whose masters demand not only submission, but unqualified affection as well; thus, women are often weakened by the internalized demands of the male-dominated society itself, as well as by a plethora of material goods and comforts: the middle-class woman has a great deal more to lose than her chains.
This is not to say that the oppression of women does not, in some way, disadvantage the dominant male in our society: male supremacist attitudes may distort intellectual matters in the same way as any unquestioned assumptions about historical or social issues. Just as a very little power may corrupt one's actions, so a relatively minor degree of false consciousness may contaminate one's intellectual position. The question »Why are there no great women artists?« is simply the top tenth of an iceberg of misinterpretation and misconception revealed above the surface; beneath lies a vast dark bulk of shaky idées recues about the nature of art and its situational concomitants, about the nature of human abilities in general and of human excellence in particular, and the role that the social order plays in all of this. While the woman problem as such may be a pseudo-issue, the misconceptions involved in the question »Why are there no great women artists?« point to major areas of intellectual obfuscation beyond the specific political issues involved in the subjection of women and its ideological justifications.
Beneath the question lie naive, distorted, uncritical assumptions about the making of art in general, much less the making of great art. These assumptions, conscious or unconscious, link together such unlikely superstars as Michelangelo and Van Gogh, Raphael and Jackson Pollock under the rubric of Great Artist - an honorific attested to by the number of scholarly monographs devoted to the artist in question - and the Great Artist is conceived of as one who has genius; genius, in turn, is thought to be an atemporal and mysterious power somehow embedded in the person of the Great Artist. Thus, the conceptual structure underlying the question »Why are there no great women artists?« rests upon unquestioned, often unconscious, metahistorical premises that make Hippolyte Taine's race-milieu-moment formulation of the dimensions of historical thought seem like a model of sophistication. Such, unfortunately, are the assumptions lying behind a great deal of art history writing. It is no accident that the whole crucial question of the conditions generally productive of great art has so rarely been investigated, or that attempts to investigate such general problems have, until fairly recently, been dismissed as unscholarly, too broad, or the province of some other discipline like sociology. To encourage such a dispassionate, impersonal, sociological, and institutionally oriented approach would reveal the entire romantic, elitist, individual-glorifying, and monograph-producing substructure upon which the profession of art history is based, and which has only recently been called into question by a group of younger dissidents within the discipline.
Underlying the question about woman as artist, then, we find the whole myth of the Great Artist - unique, godlike subject of a hundred monographs - bearing within his person since birth a mysterious essence, rather like the golden nugget in Mrs. Grass's chicken soup, called genius or talent, which must always out, no matter how unlikely or unpromising the circumstances.
The magical aura surrounding the representational arts and their creators has given birth to myths since earliest times. Interestingly enough, the same magical abilities attributed by Pliny to the Greek painter Lysippos in antiquity - the mysterious inner call in early youth, the lack of any teacher but nature herself - is repeated as late as the nineteenth century by Max Buchon in his biography of the realist painter Courbet. The supernatural powers of the artist as imitator, his control of strong, possibly dangerous powers, have functioned historically to set him off from others as a godlike creator, one who creates being out of nothing like the demiurge. The fairy tale of the boy wonder, discovered by an older artist or discerning patron, usually in the guise of a lowly shepherd boy, has been a stock in trade of artistic mythology ever since Vasari immortalized the young Giotto, whom the great Cimabue discovered drawing sheep on a stone, while the lad was guarding his flocks; Cimabue, overcome with admiration for the realism of the drawing, immediately invited the humble youth to be his pupil. Through some mysterious coincidence, later artists like Beccafumi, Andrea Sansovino, Andrea del Castagno, Mantegna, Zur-baran, and Goya were all discovered in similar pastoral circumstances. Even when the Great Artist was not fortunate enough to come equipped with a flock of sheep as a lad, his talent always seems to have manifested itself very early, independent of any external encouragement: Filippo Lippi, Poussin, Courbet, and Monet are all reported to have drawn caricatures in the margins of their school-books, instead of studying the required subjects - we never, of course, hear about the myriad youths who neglected their studies and scribbled in the margins of their notebooks without ever becoming anything more elevated than department store clerks or shoe salesmen - and the great Michelangelo himself, according to his biographer and pupil, Vasari, did more drawing than studying as a child. So pronounced was the young Michelangelo's talent as an art student, reports Vasari, that when his master, Ghirlandaio, absented himself momentarily from his work in Santa Maria Novella and the young Michelangelo took the opportunity to draw »the scaffolding, trestles, pots of paint, brushes, and the apprentices at their tasks«, he did so so skillfully, that upon his return his master exclaimed: »This boy knows more than I do.«
As is so often the case, such stories, which may indeed have a grain of truth in them, tend both to reflect and to perpetuate the attitudes they subsume. Despite the actual basis in fact of these myths about the early manifestations of genius, the tenor of the tales is itself misleading. It is no doubt true, for example, that the young Picasso passed all the examinations for entrance to the Barcelona, and later to the Madrid, Academy of Art at the age of fifteen in a single day, a feat of such difficulty that most candidates required a month of preparation; however, one would like to find out more about similar precocious qualifiers for art academies, who then went on to achieve nothing but mediocrity or failure - in whom, of course, art historians are uninterested - or to study in greater detail the role played by Picasso's art professor father in the pictorial precocity of his son. What if Picasso had been born a girl? Would Senor Ruiz have paid as much attention or stimulated as much ambition for achievement in a little Pablita?
What is stressed in all these stories is the apparently miraculous, nondetermined, and asocial nature of artistic achievement. This gratuitous, semi-religious conception of the artist's role was elevated into a true hagiography in the nineteenth century, when both art historians, critics, and, not least, some of the artists themselves tended to erect the making of art into a substitute religion, the last bulwark of higher values in a materialistic world. The artist in the nineteenth-century Saints' Legend struggles onward against the most determined parental and social opposition, suffering the slings and arrows of social opprobrium like any Christian martyr, and ultimately succeeds against all odds - generally, alas, after his death - because from deep within himself radiates that mysterious, holy effulgence: genius. Here we have the mad Van Gogh, spinning out sunflowers despite epileptic seizures and near-starvation, or perhaps because of them; Cezanne, braving paternal rejection and public scorn in order to revolutionize painting; Gauguin, throwing away respectability and financial security with a single existential gesture to pursue his calling m the tropics, unrecognized by crass philistines on the home front; or Toulouse-Lautrec, dwarfed, crippled, and alcoholic, sacrificing his aristocratic birthright in favor of the squalid surroundings that provided him with inspiration.
Of course, no serious contemporary art historian ever takes such obvious fairy tales at their face value. Yet it is all too often ibis sort of mythology about artistic achievement and its concomitants that forms the unconscious or unquestioned assumptions of art scholars, no matter how many crumbs are thrown to social influences ideas of the times, economic crises, and so on. Behind the most sophisticated investigations of great artists, more specifically, the art history monograph, which accepts the notion or the Great Artist as primary, and the social and institutional structures within which he lived and worked as mere secondary »influences« or »background«, lurks the golden nugget theory of genius and the free enterprise conception of individual achievement. On this basis, women's lack of major achievement in art may be formulated as a syllogism: if women had the golden nugget of artistic genius, then it would reveal itself. But it has never revealed itself. Q.E.D. Women do not have the golden nugget of artistic genius. Il Giotto, the obscure shepherd boy, and Van Gogh, the epileptic, could make it, why not women?
Yet as soon as one leaves behind the world of fairy tale and self-fulfilling prophecy and instead casts a dispassionate eye on the actual situations in which important art has been produced, in the total range of its social and institutional structures throughout history, one finds that the very questions that are fruitful or relevant for the historian to ask shape up rather differently. One would like to ask, for instance, from what social classes, from what castes and subgroups, artists were most likely to come at different periods of art history? What proportion of painters and sculptors, or more specifically, of major painters and sculptors, had fathers or other close relatives engaged in painting, sculpture, or related professions? As Nikolaus Pevsner points out in his discussion of the French Academy in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the transmission of the artistic profession from father to son was considered a matter of course (as in fact it was with the Coypels, the Coustous, the Van Loos, and so forth); indeed, sons of academicians were exempted from the customary fees for lessons. Despite the noteworthy and dramatically satisfying cases of the great father-rejecting révoltés of the nineteenth century, a large proportion of artists, great and not-so-great, had artist fathers. In the rank of major artists, the names of Holbein and Dürer, Raphael and Bernini immediately spring to mind; even in our more recent, rebellious times, one can cite the names of Picasso, Calder, Giacometti and Wyeth as members of artist families.
As far as the relationship of artistic occupation and social class is concerned, an interesting parallel to »why are there no great women artists?« might well be: »why have there been no great artists from the aristocracy?« One can scarcely think, before the anti traditional nineteenth century at least, of any artist who sprang from the ranks of any more elevated class than the upper bourgeoise; even in the nineteenth century, Degas came from the lower nobility - more like the haute bourgeoise, in fact - and only Toulouse-Lautrec, metamorphosed into the ranks of the marginal by accidental deformity, could be said to have come from the loftier reaches of the upper classes. While the aristocracy has always provided the lion's share of the patronage and the audience for art - as indeed, the aristocracy of wealth does even in our more democratic days, it has rarely contributed anything but a few amateurish efforts on the actual creation of art itself, although aristocrats, like many women, have had far more than their share of educational advantage and leisure, and, indeed, like women, might often be encouraged to dabble in the arts or even develop into respectable amateurs. Napoleon Ill's cousin, the Princess Mathilde, exhibited at the official salons; Queen Victoria and Prince Albert studied art with no less a figure than Landseer himself. Could it be possible that the little golden nugget - genius - is as absent from the aristocratic make-up as from the feminine psyche? Or is it not rather that the demands and expectations placed on both aristocrats and women - the amount of time necessarily devoted to social functions, the very kinds of activities demanded - simply made total devotion to professional art production out of the question and unthinkable?
When the right questions are finally asked about the conditions for producing art (of which the production of great art is a subtopic), some discussion of the situational concomitants of intelligence and talent generally, not merely of artistic genius, has to be included. As Piaget and others have stressed in their studies of the development of reason and the unfolding of imagination in young children, intelligence - or, by implication, what we choose to call genius - is a dynamic activity, rather than a static essence, and an activity of a subject in a situation. As further investigations in the field of child development reveal, these abilities or this intelligence are built up minutely, step by step, from infancy onward, although the patterns of adaptation-accommodation may be established so early within the subject-in-an-environment that they may indeed appear to be innate to the unsophisticated observer. Such investigations imply that, even aside from metahistorical reasons, scholars will have to abandon the notion, consciously articulated or not, of individual genius as innate and primary to the creation of art.
The question »Why the there no great women artists?« has so far led to the conclusion that art is not a free, autonomous activity of a super-endowed individual, »influenced« by previous artists, and, more vaguely and superficially, by »social forces«, but rather, that art making, both in terms of the development of the art maker and the nature and quality of the work of art itself, occurs in a social situation, is an integral element of the social structure, and is mediated and determined by specific and definable social institutions, be they art academies, systems of patronage, mythologies of the divine creator and artist as he-man or social outcast.
The Question of the Nude
We can now approach our question from a more reasonable standpoint, since it seems probable that the answer to why there are no great women artists, or so few women artists at all, lies not in the nature of individual genius or the lack of it, but in the nature of given social institutions and what they forbid or encourage in various classes or groups of individuals. Let us first examine such a simple, but critical issue as availability of the nude model to aspiring women artists in the period extending from the Renaissance until near the end of the nineteenth century, a period in which careful and prolonged study of the nude model was essential to the training of every young artist, to the production of any work with pretentions to grandeur, and to the very essence of history painting, generally accepted as the highest category of art. Indeed, it was argued by defenders of traditional painting in the nineteenth century that there could be no great painting with clothed figures, since costume inevitably destroyed both the temporal universality and the classical idealization required by great art. Needless to say, central to the training programs of art academies since their inception late in the sixteenth and early in the seventeenth centuries, was life drawing from the nude, generally from the male, model. In addition, groups of artists and their pupils often met privately for life-drawing sessions from the nude model in their studios. In general, while individual artists and private academies employed the female model extensively, the female nude was forbidden in almost all public art schools as late as 1850 and after - a state of affairs which Pevsner rightly designates as »hardly believable.« Far more believable, unfortunately, was the complete unavailability to the aspiring woman artist of any nude models at all, be they male or female. As late as 1893 »lady« students were not admitted to life drawing at the official academy in London; even when they were admitted after that date, the model had to be »partially draped.«
The very plethora of surviving »Academies« - detailed, painstaking studies from the nude studio model - in the youthful work of artists down through the time of Seurat and well into the twentieth century attests to the central importance of this branch of study in the pedagogy and development of the talented beginner. The formal academic program itself normally proceeded, as a matter of course, from copying from drawings and engravings, to drawing from casts of famous works of sculpture, to drawing from the living model. To be deprived of this ultimate stage of training meant, in effect, to be deprived of the possibility of creating major art works, unless one were a very ingenious lady indeed, or simply, as most of the few women aspiring to be painters ultimately did, restricted oneself to the »minor« and less highly regarded fields of portraiture, genre, landscape, or still life. It is rather as though a medical student were denied the opportunity to dissect or even examine the naked human body.
There exist, to my knowledge, no representations of artists drawing from the nude model that include women in any role but that of the nude model itself, an interesting commentary on rules of propriety: it is all right for a («low« of course) woman to reveal herself naked-as-an-object for a group of men, but forbidden to a woman to participate in the active study and recording of naked-man-as-an-object, or even a fellow woman! An amusing example of this taboo on confronting a dressed lady with a naked man is embodied in Zoffany's group portrait of the members of the Royal Academy in London in 1772; all the distinguished members are gathered in the life room before two nude male models, with one noteworthy exception - the single female member, the renowned Angelica Kauffmann, who for propriety's sake, one assumes, is merely present in effigy, in the form of a portrait hanging on the wall. A slightly earlier drawing of Ladies in the Studio by the Polish artist Daniel Chodowiecki shows the ladies portraying a modestly dressed member of their own sex. In a lithograph dating from the relatively liberated epoch following the French Revolution, the lithographer Marlet has represented some women sketchers in a group of students working from the male model, but the model himself has been chastely provided with what appears to be a pair of bathing trunks, a garment hardly conducive to a sense of classical elevation; no doubt, such license was considered daring in its day, and the young ladies in question suspected of doubtful morals, but even this state of affairs seems to have lasted only a short while. In an English stereoscopic color view of the interior of a studio of about 1865, the standing, bearded male model is so heavily draped that not an iota of his anatomy escapes from the discreet toga, save for a single bare shoulder and arm: even so, he obviously had the grace to avert his eyes in the presence of the crinoline-clad young sketchers, who so clearly outnumber the men that one suspects this is a ladies' drawing class.
The women in the Women's Modeling Class at the Pennsylvania Academy were evidently not even allowed this modest privilege. A photograph by Thomas Eakins of about 1885 reveals these students modeling from a cow (bull? the nether regions are obscure in the photograph), a naked cow to be sure, perhaps a daring liberty when one considers that even piano legs might be concealed beneath pantalettes during this era; the idea of introducing a bovine model into the artist's studio stems directly from Courbet, who brought a living bull into his short-lived studio academy in the 1860s.
The question of the availability of the nude model is but a single aspect of the automatic, institutionally maintained discrimination against women. It reveals both the universality of the discrimination and its consequences, as well as the institutional rather than individual nature of but one facet of the necessary preparation and equipment for achieving mere proficiency, much less greatness, in the realm of art. One could equally well have examined other dimensions of the situation, such as the apprenticeship system, the academic educational pattern that, in France especially, was almost the only key to success; there was a regular progression and set competitions, crowned by the Prix de Rome, which enabled the young winner to work in the French Academy in that city; this was unthinkable for women, of course, and they were unable to compete for the prize until the end of the nineteenth century, when the whole academic system had lost its importance anyway. If one uses as an example nineteenth-century France - a country with the largest proportion of women artists - it seems clear that »women were not accepted as professional painters.« In the middle of the century, there were only a third as many women as men artists, but even this mildly encouraging statistic is deceptive, when we discover that even out of this relatively meager number, none had attended that major stepping stone to artistic success, the Ecole des Beaux-Arts; only 7 percent had received any official commission or had held any official office - and these might include the most menial sort of work - only 7 percent had ever received any salon medal; and none had ever received the Legion of Honor. Deprived of encouragements, educational facilities, and rewards, it is almost incredible that a certain percentage of women, admittedly a small one, actually sought out a profession in the arts.
It also becomes apparent why women were able to compete on far more equal terms with men - and even become innovators - in the field of literature. While art making has traditionally demanded the learning of specific techniques and skills, in a certain sequence, in an institutional setting outside the home, as well as becoming familiar with a specific vocabulary of iconography and motifs; the same is by no means true for the poet or novelist. Anyone, even a woman, has to learn the language, can learn to read and write, and can commit personal experiences to paper in the privacy of the home. Naturally, this Oversimplifies the very real difficulties and complexities involved in creating good or great literature, whether by man or woman, but it still gives a clue as to the possibility of the existence of an Emily Dickinson or a Virginia Woolf, and the lack of their counterparts, at least until quite recently, in the visual arts.
Then, of course, there were the »fringe« requirements for major artists, which were for the most part both psychically and socially closed to women, even if they hypothetically could have achieved the requisite grandeur in the performance of their craft. In the Renaissance and after, the great artist, aside from participating in the affairs of an academy, might well be intimate with members of humanist circles with whom he could exchange ideas, establish suitable relationships with patrons, travel widely and freely, perhaps politic and intrigue; in addition he had to possess the sheer organizational acumen and ability required to run a major atelier-factory, like that of Rubens. An enormous amount of self-confidence and worldly knowledgeability, as well as a natural sense of well-earned dominance and power, was needed by the great chef d'ecole, both in running the production end of painting and in controlling and instructing the numerous students and assistants who might flock to his studio.
The Lady's Accomplishment
In contrast to the single-mindedness and commitment demanded of a chef d'ecole, we might set the image of the »lady painter« established by nineteenth-century etiquette books and reinforced by the literature of the times. It is precisely the insistence upon a modest, proficient, self-demeaning level of amateurism, the looking upon art, like needlework or crocheting, as a suitable »accomplishment« for the well-brought up young woman, who naturally would want to direct her major attention toward the welfare of others - family and husband - that militated, and still militates today, against any real accomplishment on the part of women. It is this emphasis that transforms serious commitment to frivolous self-indulgence, busy work, or occupational therapy, and today, more than ever, in suburban bastions of the feminine mystique, tends to distort the whole notion of what art is and what kind of social role it plays. In Mrs. Ellis's widely read The Family Monitor and Domestic Guide, a book of advice popular both in the United States and in England, published before the middle of the nineteenth century, women were warned against the snare of trying too hard to excel in any one thing. Lest we are tempted to laugh, we may refresh ourselves with more recent samples of exactly the same advice cited in Betty Friedan's Feminine Mystique or in the pages of recent issues of popular women's magazines.
- It must not be supposed that the writer is one who would advocate, as essential to woman, any very extraordinary degree of intellectual attainment, especially if confined to one particular branch of study. »I should like to excel in something« is a frequent, and, to some extent, laudable expression; but in what does it originate, and to what does it tend? To be able to do a great many things tolerably well, is of infinitely more value to a woman, than to be able to excel in any one. By the former, she may render herself generally useful; by the latter, she may dazzle for an hour. By being apt, and tolerably well skilled in every thing, she may fall into any situation in life with dignity and ease - by devoting her time to excellence in one, she may remain incapable of every other.
- So far as cleverness, learning, and knowledge are conducive to woman's moral excellence, they are therefore desirable, and no further. All that would occupy her mind to the exclusion of better things, all that would involve her in the mazes of flattery and admiration, all that would tend to draw away her thoughts from others and fix them on herself, ought to be avoided as an evil to her, however brilliant or attractive it may be in itself.
This sound bit of advice has a familiar ring: propped up by a bit of Freudianism and some tag-lines from the social sciences about the well-rounded personality, preparation for woman's chief career, marriage, and the unfemineinity of deep involvement with work rather than sex, it is the very mainstay of the feminine mystique until this day. Such an outlook helps guard the male from unwanted competition in his »serious« professional activities and assures him of »well-rounded« assistance on the home front, so that he may have sex and family in addition to the fulfillment of his own specialized talent and excellence.
As far as painting specifically is concerned, Mrs. Ellis finds that it has one immediate advantage for the young lady over its rival branch of artistic activity, music - it is quiet and disturbs no one (this negative virtue, of course, would not be true of sculpture, but accomplishment with the hammer and chisel simply never occurs as a suitable accomplishment for the weaker sex); in addition, says Mrs. Ellis, »it [drawing] is an employment which beguiles the mind of many cares. . . . Drawing is of all other occupations, the one most calculated to keep the mind from brooding upon self, and to maintain that general cheerfulness which is a part of social and domestic duty. ... It can also be laid down and resumed, as circumstance or inclination may direct, and that without any seri-out loss.« Again, lest we feel that we have made a great deal of progress in this area in the last hundred years, I might bring up the remark of a bright young doctor who, when the conversation turned to his wife and her friends »dabbling« in the arts, contemptuously snorted: »Well, at least it keeps them out of trouble!« Amateurism and lack of real commitment, as well as snobbery and emphasis on chic on the part of women in their artistic »hobbies«, feeds the contempt of the successful, professionally committed man who is engaged in »real« work and can, with a certain justice, point to his wife's lack of seriousness in her artistic activities. For such men, the »real« work of women is only that which directly or indirectly serves themselves and their children: any other commitment falls under the rubric of diversion, selfishness, egomania, or, at the unspoken extreme, castration. The circle is a vicious one, in which philistinism and frivolity mutually reinforce each other, today as in the nineteenth century.
In literature, as in life, even if the woman's commitment to art was apparently a serious one, she was naturally expected to drop her career and give up this commit-m t at the behest of love and marriage: this lesson is still inculcated in young girls, directly or indirectly, from the moment they are born. Even the determined and successful heroine of Dinah Craik's mid-nineteenth century novel about feminine artistic success, Olive, a young woman who lives alone, strives for fame and independence, and actually supports herself through her art - such unfeminine behavior is, of course, at least partly excused by the fact that she is a cripple and automatically considers that marriage is denied to her - ultimately succumbs to the blandishments of love and its natural concomitant, marriage. To paraphrase the words of Patricia Thomson, in The Victorian Heroine, Mrs. Craik, having shot her bolts in the course of her novel, is finally content to let her heroine, whose ultimate greatness the reader has never been able to doubt, sink gently into matrimony. »Of Olive, Mrs. Craik comments imperturbably that her husband's influence is to deprive the Scottish Academy of 'no one knew how many grand pictures.' » Then, as so often is the case now, despite men's greater »tolerance«, the choice for women seems always to be marriage or a career: solitude as the price of success or sex and companionship at the price of professional renunciation. If such were the alternatives presented to men, one wonders how many great artists, or even mediocre ones, would have opted for commitment to their art - especially if they had been constantly reminded from their earliest moments that their only true fulfillment as men could come from marriage and raising a family. That achievement in the arts, as in any field of endeavor, demands struggle and sacrifice, no one would deny; that this has certainly been true after the middle of the nineteenth century, when the traditional institutions of artistic support and patronage no longer fulfilled their customary obligations, is incontrovertible. One has only to think of Delacroix, Courbet, Degas, Van Gogh, and Toulouse-Lautrec, who all gave up the distractions and obligations of family life, at least in part, so that they could pursue their artistic careers more singlemindedly; yet none of them was automatically denied the pleasures of sex or companionship on account of this choice - on the contrary! Nor did they ever feel that they had sacrificed their manhood or their sexual role in order to achieve professional fulfillment. But if the artist in question happens to be a woman, a thousand, years of guilt, self-doubt, and object-hood have been added to the undeniable difficulties of being an artist in the modern world.
An unconscious aura of titillation arises from a visual representation of an aspiring woman artist in the mid-nineteenth century. Emily Mary Osborne's heartfelt 1857 painting, Nameless and Friendless, a canvas representing a poor but lovely and respectable young girl at a London art dealers', nervously awaiting the verdict of the pompous proprietor on the worth of her canvases while two ogling
»art lovers« look on, is really not too different in its underlying assumptions from an overtly salacious work like Bompard's Debut of the Model. The theme in both is innocence, delicious feminine innocence, exposed to the world. It is the charming vulnerability of the young woman artist, like that of the hesitating model, which is really the subject of Miss Osborne's painting, not the value of the young woman's work or her pride in it: the issue here is, as usual, sexual rather than serious. Always a model but never an artist might well have served as the motto of the seriously aspiring young woman in nineteenth-century art.
But what of the small band of heroic women, who, throughout the ages, despite obstacles, have achieved preeminence, if not the pinnacles of grandeur of a Michelangelo, a Rembrandt, or a Picasso? Are there any qualities that may be said to have characterized them as a group and as individuals? While such an investigation in depth is beyond the scope of this essay, we can point to a few striking characteristics of women artists generally: they all, almost without exception, were either the daughters of artist fathers, or generally later, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, had a close personal connection with a stronger or more dominant male artistic personality. Neither of these characteristics is, of course, unusual for men artists; it is simply true almost without exception for their feminine counterparts, at least until quite recently. From the legendary sculptor, Sabina von Steinbach, in the fifteenth century, who, according to local tradition, was responsible for the portal groups on the Cathedral of Strasbourg, down to Rosa Bonheur, the most renowned animal painter of the nineteenth century, and including such eminent women artists as Maria Robusti, daughter of Tintoretto, Lavinia Fontana, Artemisia Gentileschi, Elisabeth Chéron, Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun and Angelica Kauffmann - all without exception were the daughters of artists in the nineteenth century, Berthe Morisot was close associated with Manet, Iater marrying his brother, Mary Cassatt based a good deal of her work on the work of her close friend, Degas. Precisely the same breath of traditional bonds and discarding of time-honored practices that permitted men artists to strike out in direction quite different from those of their fathers in the second half of the nineteenth century enabled women, with additional difficulties, to be sure, to strike out on their own as well. Many of our more recent women artists, like Suzanne Valadon, Paula Modersohn-Becker, Käthe Kollwitz, or Louise Nevelson, have come from non-artistic backgrounds, although many contemporary and near-contemporary women artists have, of course, married fellow artists, a recourse impossible to their masculine contemporaries since there simply would not be enough women artists to go around.
It would be interesting to investigate the role of benign, if not outright encouraging, fathers in the formation of women professionals in the field: both Kathe Kollwitz and Barbara Hepworth, for example, recall the influence of unusually sympathetic and supportive fathers on their artistic pursuits. In the absence of any thoroughgoing investigation, though, one can only gather impressionistic data about the presence or absence of rebellion against parental authority in women artists, and about whether there may be more or less rebellion on the part of women, rather than men, artists. One thing, however, is clear: for a woman to opt for a career at all, much less for a career in art, has required a certain amount of unconventionality, both in the past and at present; whether or not the woman artist rebels against or finds strength in the attitude of her family, she must in any case have a good, strong streak of rebellion in her to make her way in the world of art at all, rather than conform to the socially approved role of wife and mother, the only role to which every social institution consigns her automatically, simply by virtue of her birth. It is only by adopting, however covertly, the »masculine« attributes of singlemindedness, concentration, tenaciousness, and absorption in ideas and craftsmanship for their own sake that women have succeeded and continue to succeed in the world of art.
....is instructive to examine in greater detail one of the more successful and accomplished women painters of all Rosa Bonheur (1822-1899), whose work, despite ...vages wrought upon its estimation by changes of ... a certain admitted lack of variety, still stands as an impressive achievement to anyone interested in the art ot the nineteenth century and in the history of taste generally. In Rosa Bonheur's career, partly because of the magnitude of her reputation, all the various conflicts, all the internal and external contradictions and struggles typical of her sex and profession, stand out in sharp relief.
The success of Rosa Bonheur firmly establishes the role of institutions and institutional change as a necessary, if not a sufficient, cause of achievement in art. We might say that Bonheur picked a fortunate time to become an artist if she was, at the same time, to have the disadvantage of being a woman: she came into her own in the middle of the nineteenth century, a time in which the struggle between traditional history painting and the less pretentious and more free-wheeling genre painting, landscape, and still life was won by the latter group hands down. A major change in the social and institutional support for art itself was well under way: with the rise of the bourgeoisie .......
History painting had not and never would rest comfortably in the middle-class parlor. >Lesser< forms of image art - genre, landscape, still life - did.« In mid-nineteenth-century France, as in seventeenth-century Holland, there was a tendency for artists to attempt to achieve some sort of security in a shaky market situation by specializing, that is, making a career out of a specific subject. Animal painting was a very popular field, and Rosa Bonheur was no doubt its most accomplished and successful practitioner, followed in popularity only by the Barbizon painter Troyon, who was at one time so pressed for his paintings of cows that he hired another artist to brush in the backgrounds. Rosa Bonheur's rise to fame accompanied that of the Barbizon landscapists, supported by those canny dealers, the Durand-Ruels, who later moved on to support the work of the impressionists. The Durand-Ruels were among the first dealers to tap this expanding market of movable decoration for the middle classes (to use the Whites' terminology) and Rosa Bonheur, who because of her sex would have almost certainly been unable to succeed so brilliantly as a history painter, climbed on board the bandwagon of burgeoning specialization. Her naturalism and ability to capture the individuality - even the unique soul - of each of her animal subjects again coincided with bourgeois taste at the time. The same combination of qualities with a much stronger dose of sentimentality and pathetic fallacy, to be sure, likewise assured the success of her animalist contemporary, Landseer, in England.
Daughter of an impoverished drawing master, Rosa Bonheur showed her interest in art early; at the same time, she exhibited an independence of spirit and Iiberty of manner that immediately earned her the label of tomboy. According to her own later accounts, her »masculine protest« established itself early; to what extent any show of persistence, stubbornness, and overwhelming vigor would be counted as »masculine« in the first half of the nineteenth century is, of course, conjectural. Rosa Bonheur's attitude toward her father is somewhat ............
Raimond Bonheur has been an active member of the short-lived Saint-Simonian community, established in the third decade of the nineteenth century by »Le Pere« Enfantin at Menilmontant. Although in her later years Rosa Bonheur might have made fun of some of the more farfetched eccentricities of the members of the community and might have disapproved of the additional strain that her father's apostolate placed on her overburdened mother, it is obvious that the Saint-Simonian ideal of equality for women - they disapproved of marriage, their trousered feminine costume was a token of emancipation, and their spiritual leader, Le Pere Enfantin, made extraordinary efforts to find a woman Messiah to share his reign - made a strong impression on her as a child and may well have influenced her future course of behavior.
»Why shouldn't I be proud to be a woman?« she exclaimed to an interviewer. »My father, that enthusiastic apostle of humanity many times reiterated to me that woman's mission was to elevate the human race, that she was the Messiah of future centuries. It is to his doctrines that I owe the great, noble ambition I have conceived for the sex which I proudly affirm to be mine, and whose independence I will support to my dying day . . .« When she was still hardly more than a child, he instilled in her the ambition to surpass Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, certainly the most eminent model she could be expected to follow, and gave her early efforts every possible encouragement. At the same time, the spectacle of her uncomplaining mother's slow decline from sheer overwork and poverty might have been an even more realistic influence on her decision to control her own destiny and never to become the unpaid slave of a man and children through marriage. What is particularly interesting from the modern feminist viewpoint is Rosa Bonheur's ability to combine the most vigorous and unapologetic masculine protest with unabashedly self-contradictory assertions of »basic« femininity.
In those refreshingly straightforward pre-Freudian days, Rosa Bonheur could explain to her biographer that she had never wanted to marry for fear of losing her independence - too many young girls let themselves be led to the altar like lambs to the sacrifice, she maintained - without any awkward sexual overtones marring the ring of pure practicality. Yet at the same time that she rejected marriage for herself and implied an inevitable loss of selfhood for any woman who engaged in it, she, unlike the Saint-Simonians, considered marriage »a sacrament indispensable to the organization of society.«
While remaining cool to offers of marriage, she joined in a seemingly cloudless, apparently completely platonic, lifelong union with a fellow woman artist, Nathalie Micas, who evidently provided her with the companionship and emotional warmth that she, like most humanbeings, needed. Obviously, the presence of this sympathetic friend did not demand the same sacrifice of genuine commitment to her profession which marriage would have entailed; in any case the .... of such an arrangement for women who wished to avoid the distraction of children in the days before reliable contraception are obvious.
Yet at the same time that she frankly rejected the conventional feminine role of her times, Rosa Bonheur still was drawn into what Betty Friedan has called the »frilly blouse syndrome«, that innocuous version of the feminine protest which even today compels successful
women psychiatrists or professors to adopt some ultrafeminine item of clothing or insist on proving their prowess as pie bakers. Although she had early cropped her hair and adopted men's clothes as her habitual attire, following the example of George Sand, whose rural romanticism exerted a powerful influence over her artistic imagination, to her biographer she insisted, and no doubt sincerely believed, that she did so only because of the specific demands of her profession. Indignantly denying rumors to the effect that she had run about the streets of Paris dressed as a boy in her youth, she proudly provided her biographer with a daguerreotype of herself at sixteen years, dressed in perfectly conventional feminine fashion, except for her shorn head, which she excused as a practical measure taken after the death of her mother; »who would have taken care of my curls?« she demanded.
As far as the question of masculine dress was concerned, she was quick to reject her interlocutor's suggestion that her trousers were a symbol of bold emancipation on her part. »I strongly blame women who renounce their customary attire in the desire to make themselves pass for men«, she affirmed, thereby implicitly rejecting George Sand as a prototype:
If I had found that trousers suited my sex, I would have completely gotten rid of my skirts, but this is not the case, nor have I ever advised my sisters of the palette to wear men's clothes in the ordinary course of life. If, then, you see me dressed as I am, it is not at all with the aim of making myself interesting, as all too many women have tried, but simply in order to facilitate my work. Remember that at a certain period I spent whole days in the slaughterhouses. Indeed, you have to love your art in order to live in pools of blood... I was also fascinated with horses, ad where better can one study these animals than horses, and where better can one study these animals than at the fairs surrounded by horsecopers? I had no alternative but to realize that the arments of my own sex were a total nuisance. That is why I decided to ask the prefect of Police for the authorization to wear masculine clothing. But the costume I am wearing is my working outfit, nothing else. The remarks of fools have never lothered me. Nathalie [her companion] makes fun of them... It doesn't bother her at all to see me dressed as a man, but if You are even the slightest bit put off, I am completely prepared to put on a skirt especially since all I have to do is to open a closet to find a whole assortment of feminine outfits.
Yet at the same time, Rosa Bonheur is forced to admit: »My trousers have been my great protectors. . . . Many times I have congratulated myself for having dared to break with traditions which would have forced me to abstain from certain kinds of work, due to the obligation to drag my skirts everywhere ...« Yet the famous artist again feels obliged to qualify her honest admission with an ill-assumed »femininity«: »Despite my metamorphoses of costume, there is not a daughter of Eve who appreciates the niceties more than I do; my brusque and even slightly unsociable nature has never prevented my heart from remaining completely feminine.«
It is somewhat pathetic that this highly successful artist, unsparing of herself in the painstaking study of animal anatomy, diligently pursuing her bovine or equine subjects in the most unpleasant surroundings, industriously producing popular canvases throughout the course of a lengthy career, firm, assured, and incontrovertibly masculine in her style, winner of a first medal in the Paris Salon, Officer of the French Legion of Honor, Commander of the Order of Isabella the Catholic and the Order of Leopold of Belgium, friend of Queen Victoria, should feel compelled late in life to justify and qualify her perfectly reasonable assumption of masculine ways, for any reason whatsoever, and should feel obliged to attack her less modest trouser-wearing sisters at the same time, in order to satisfy the demands of her own bad conscience. For her conscience, despite her supportive father, her unconventional behavior, and the accolade of worldly success, still condemned her for not being a »feminine« woman, since built in by the unconsciously incorporated prescriptions of society itself, it too was intractable to reasoned arguments of reality.
The difficulties imposed by these unconscious demands on the woman artist continue to add to their already difficult enterprise even today. The noted contemporary sculptor, Louise Nevelson, combines utter, »unfeminine« dedication to her work and conspicuously »feminine« false eyelashes; she openly admits that she got married at seventeen despite the certainty that she could not live without creating because »the world said you should get married.« Even in the case of these two outstanding artists - and whether we like The Horse Fair or not, we still must admire Rosa Bonheur's achievement - the voice of the feminine mystique with its internalized ambivalent narcissism and guilt, subtly dilutes and subverts that total inner confidence, that absolute certitude and moral and aesthetic self-determination demanded by the highest and most innovative work in art.
We have tried to deal with one of the perennial questions used to challenge women's demand for true, rather than token, equality, by examining the whole erroneous intellectual substructure upon which the question »Why are there no great women artists?« is based; by questioning the validity of the formulation of so-called problems in general and the problem of women specifically; and by probing some of the limitations of the discipline of art history itself. By stressing the institutional - that is, the public - rather than the individual or private preconditions for achievement in the arts, we have provided a model for the investigation of other areas in the field. By examining in some detail a single instance of deprivation and disadvantage - the unavailability of nude models to women art students - we have suggested that it was made institutionally impossible for women to achieve artistic excellence or success on the same footing as men, no matter what the potency of their so-called talent or genius, or their lack of this mysterious ingredient. The existence of a tiny band of successful, if not great, women artists throughout history does nothing to gainsay this fact, any more than does the existence of a few superstars or token achievers among the members of any minority group. A brief glance at the inner conflicts - and real difficulties - experienced by two highly successful women artists confirms the obvious truth that while great achievement is rare and difficult at best, it is still rarer and more difficult if you must wrestle with inner demons of self-doubt and guilt and outer monsters of ridicule or patronizing encouragement, none of which have any specific connection with the quality of the art work as such.
What is important is that women face up to the reality of their history and of their present situation, without making excuses or puffing mediocrity. Disadvantage may indeed be an excuse; it is not, however, an intellectual position. Rather, using their situation as underdogs in the realm of grandeur and outsiders in the realm of ideology as a vantage point, 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.