August 20th, 2023
Written by Ellie LeMonnier: Gallery Intern
I chose to intern at Gallery MAR for a number of reasons. The gallery resides on Park City’s bustling Main Street, sits close to Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory, has a gorgeous collection, and most importantly to me, is completely female owned and run.
As a young woman growing up in a time of drastic political change and uncertainty, amidst Roe v. Wade, and everything else that comes with living in a patriarchal and conditioned society, the topic of gender and power is consistently on my mind. I have found that one of my favorite sources of this thought-provoking material is in my art history classes that focus on the ideologies and structures of gender and power that influence what kind of art is made, how it is made, who makes it, and how/who is valued. I love art history because the things that shape art also shape our society and our daily experiences – allowing my school lessons to transcend the classroom and into my real life.
One of the most difficult, yet powerful essays we read was titled Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists? by Linda Nochlin. Written in 1971, her essay is considered one of the first major works of feminist art history.
(You can find the essay here: https://www.artnews.com/art-news/retrospective/why-have-there-been-no-great-women-artists-4201/ and an illustrated guide that I found helpful here: https://hyperallergic.com/377975/an-illustrated-guide-to-linda-nochlins-why-have-there-been-no-great-women-artists/)
After reading second-wave feminist literature in 1969, Nochlin’s entire view of feminism changed, causing her to dive into feminist art historical research. At one point, Nochlin was blatantly asked “Why are there no great women artists?” which became the catalyst for her essay and other ensuing works.
Nochlin’s most important point is that the question itself is inherently biased and offers its own answer: women are not capable of greatness and cannot naturally reach the same accolades of male artists. When feminists hear the question, often, their first reaction is to dig up examples of worthy female artists and proffer them to the world saying “here they are!” But, Nochlin argues we should instead try to understand the institutions and social conditions that underpin the difficulty of female artistic greatness. Rather than simply scouring history for female artists (which Nochlin notes is also a worthy venture), modern art historians and feminists need to question artistic production, the art world, and art history. Nochlin explains that “by attempting to answer [the question], people tacitly reinforce its negative implications.”
Although Nochlin speaks to the modern barriers facing women as well, she places much attention on women from the Renaissance through the 19th century to learn why women could not access artistic greatness like men could and how those sexist traditions still affect women today.
It is important to define greatness as something that must be learned and practiced – not a natural attribute given to the gifted few. For women during the 15th- 19th centuries, greatness was literally impossible to achieve because women were institutionally denied education, the most important step to greatness. Nochlin gives one example of these systemic barriers by explaining how drawing a perfect, male nude was an essential skill of being a “great” artist. Women were not allowed to study nudes and were physically kept out of the rooms where male artists studied the naked body. While men learned and and propelled themselves to artistic success, women were completely and institutionally excluded from reaching any sort of greatness.
Another common error of trying to find “great” female artists is the problem of essentialism (this section of Nochlin’s essay was my favorite). If great women artists are found, many people try to assert a specific kind of “greatness” that is only applied to women, based only on female experiences, and is easily distinguishable from the art of men. However, there is no essence of femininity that links all female artists and styles. Art does not fully summarize someone’s life and experiences and vice versa. Thinking like this would only limit feminist art history. We don’t analyze a male created work of art in terms of manliness; “Oh, he painted a truck because boys love trucks!” Not only does this skew the perspective, but it also reinforces stereotypes.
There is so much left in Nochlin’s essay that deserves unpacking and I really recommend that you read it! I found some parts as confusing as they were interesting, especially early on where Nochlin argues that women must look at their situation without self pity, but simultaneously with enough emotion to commit to the task of changing the world. The term “self pity” particularly struck me, especially if Nochlin wants motivating emotions. I still do not know how to think of this. One side of me thinks that self pity is required because it is the signifier that women see themselves as unfairly inequal. If there is no self pity, would women care about their lower status? Nochlin seems to skirt around the stereotypes of women being overly emotional and hysterical. There is so much emotion revolving around this issue, but handling it with too much could prove fatal to the cause — which is itself, a manifestation of the problem.
Nochlin’s essay explains how the world denies greatness to women, especially in the arts, but her essay also can be applied to today’s world and the institutional barriers placed on women that still exist. Nochlin makes it clear that she does not blame men or even women for these barriers, but rather institutional structures and persistent ideologies that continue to hinder women in all things.
One of Nochlin’s most famous quotes reads: “But 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. The fault lies not in our stars, our hormones, our menstrual cycles, or our empty internal spaces, but in our institutions and our education”
For me, I think about other institutional barriers that hold women back from achieving greatness in all fields. For example, lack of support in maternity leave and childcare often require women to choose between marriage or a career. Nochlin writes “solitude as the price of success or sex and companionship at the price of professional renunciation.” Once one opens their eyes to the unfair world we live in, one sees that gender and power continue to predicate every relationship, subconsciously affecting all members of society and limiting their opportunities.
This essay continues to appear at the forefront of my mind as I intern at a women-owned art gallery and surround myself with amazing women. It is indisputable that society places institutional and social hindrances on women in getting what they want, meaning that women just have to work extra hard. Women like Maren, Eileen, Rachelle, and Madison – the backbone of Gallery MAR – lead by example and prove greatness is achievable even if institutions and ideologies are against them.
Our newest artist, Samanatha da Silva, is another example of why I love working in Gallery MAR’s female-centered environment. Although I have not interacted with her much, her story and her work is truly inspiring both as an artist and a woman. Not only does she use creative and original artistic methods like collecting ores, dirt, and other natural materials to use in her paintings, but she also produces beautifully tactile pieces that speak to her exploration in the natural world.
One of her paintings, “Woman Seeks God” continues to catch my eye in the gallery and on our social media. The work is incredibly rough on the canvas, begging the viewer to feel the texture with their eyes. Her work is tough and heavy, similar to the attitude needed as a woman in a male-dominated art world. When I look at this painting of da Silva’s, I see an aspen tree, strewn and dripping with gold that speaks to the divinity of nature.
We are so lucky to have Samantha da Silva at Gallery MAR! I feel a special connection to her as an extremely talented and passionate woman that I can be inspired by. Although all of our artists are wonderful, today with Linda Nochlin’s essay on my mind, I am especially grateful for da Silva!