Review of WOMEN, ART, AND POWER AND
OTHER ESSAYS. By Linda Nochlin, Harper & Row. 176pp.
The Women's Art Movement
has reached middle age. This season, Art in America
took time to pat its gray head and say nice things about
it. The May 2003 issue ran two flattering articles celebrating
its fusion of art and consciousness raising. Carey Lovelace
termed the phenomenon "arguably the late 20th century's
most significant art movement."
Maybe, but not for exemplary reason. Since
the late 60's, boosters of women's art � more a species
of pietism than a genre � have been bent in perpetual
fondu instructing us in the indivisibility of moral,
political and aesthetic judgments. In other words, in
the creed that the aesthetic value of art lies in its
This is the reasoning that denied the
1964 Lenin Prize to Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life
of Ivan Denisovitch, faulted for its lack of militant
spirit. Linda Nochlin's Women, Art & Power
is a model of the mindset. First published in 1988, its
influence persists. And calls for a second look. —MM
THE FRAGILE ART OF WRITING HISTORY,
in the words of Fernand Braudel, lies in working against the
grain of the profession and studying not only the prevailing
moment but also its opposite, "that harvest of contrary
experiences which fought hard before they went down." This
is the necessary task of feminist art historians. Linda Nochlin,
however, uses the discipline as a flight from history that ignores
the complexity of contradictory possibilities. Women, Art,
and Power and Other Essays, a collection of previously
published articles and lectures, disdains art and snubs history
where they cannot be made to serve a fixed agenda.
earned her reputation as an art historian with the 1971 publication
of Realism, an eminent study of mid-nineteenth century
social and intellectual life. In the years since, she has embraced
the romance of cultural propaganda with a fundamentalist's distaste
for the variousness and intricacy of the social predicament.
Art's reflection of women's participation in "the gendered
society" is significantly more nuanced than Nochlin's enthusiasm
admits. Despite its intellectualized format, the title essay
of the new book is squarely in the American evangelical tradition.
Animated by a subjective, quasi-ethnic antagonism, it points
toward cultural vigilantism and censorship in art. Not only
the nude but any representation of women at all and High Art
itself join mixed dancing and godless Communism as historical
obstacles to the New Pentecost. Those women who take issue with
the methods of this Awakening are dismissed as living proof
of "the patriarchal discourse of power over women."
Nochlin serves herself best with straight scholarship. The
lively essay on the Pre-Raphaelite obsession with fallen women
is undogmatic and useful. Here Nochlin stays close to her sources
and within the domain of her expertise. Her intelligence is
sharply focused and the commentary is lucid and authoritative.
This is the Nochlin of Realism, using art to reconstruct
the history of past assumptions which linger as our own. Examining
Dante Gabriel Rossetti as an artist typical of his time, she
traces the prevalence of the belief that the only honorable
role for women is within the family. Pre-Raphaelite interiors,
sodden with sexual gloom, were cluttered with details of the
fall and subsequent expulsion from the "parlor/paradise."
Nochlin exerts a historian's prerogative, viewing the paintings
as social realities that imply the preoccupations and conditions
of their age. The method is reliable here because the works
of Rossetti and his circle were a thicket of references to Victorian
A similar approach subordinated to ideological prescriptions
is strenuously unimpressive. The difference is one of empathy.
And, as the book indicates, of ambition. In Realism,
Nochlin's engagement with her sources was paramount. Since then,
her attention has shifted to a facile orthodoxy that decrees
its own conclusions with scant help from her material. The dislocation
yields a safe, middlebrow imitation of radicalism that comes
close to what Milan Kundera termed "kitsch of the Grand
March." Her brass wind piece on Florine Stettheimer is
a case in point.
Stettheimer's paintings — tongue-in-cheek insider entertainments
and whimsical flower arrangements — are frothy and fun.
But Nochlin unfurls them as evidence of the radical "social
idealism" of a "determined feminist." Eyewash.
Stettheimer's life was an exaggerated cakewalk to the influence
and attentions of men. Dedicated to the immaculate calling of
Art Hostess, the three Stettheimer sisters ("Virgins by
desire," crooned Carl Van Vechten) were all sublimated
sexuality decked in the trappings of rococo femininity ("Ultra-feminine,"
said Marsden Hartley). From one world war to the next, they
ran a high bohemian salon for a homeric catalogue of male notables.
Dinners were legendary: feather soup, oyster salad and squab
served on Old Roman damask and antique Italian lace altar cloths
amid grandiose floral schemes. Even Florine's biographer Parker
Tyler chirped, "A little removed from rough reality but
so what?" Nochlin rationalizes the flamboyant artifice
of wealth by interpreting Stettheimer's cupcakes as "social
investigations" and hers a voice for social equality:
Her sympathy for black causes can in addition
be inferred not merely from her work but from her close friendship
with one of the staunchest supporters of black culture, the
music critic, belle lettrist, and bon vivant, Carl Van Vechten.
Any such inference is irresponsible and suspect. Van Vechten,
white midwife and tour guide to the Harlem Renaissance, promoted
the patronizing idea that there is something innately different
in the way blacks respond to stimuli. He encouraged blacks,
true primitives, to express the eternal Negro soul in an appropriately
primitive art style. Black historian Nathan Irvin Huggins remarked
that Van Vechten would never have adopted Harlem the way he
did if he had believed blacks were like white people. Condescension
is the keynote of Stettheimer's poem to Van Vechten honoring
his novel Nigger Heaven: Nochlin quotes it without turning
a hair. "Darling Moses // Your Black C'hillun/ Are floundering/
In the .sea// . . . Holy Moses// Lead us on/to Happyland."
Black figures were nothing new in the work of white painters.
To earlier images of bucolic slavery and the dignified humility
of former slaves, Stettheimer added jazzy caricatures of the
night life that brought dear ole massa closer to Natural Rhythm.
Blacks appear in her work because they were sensational and
in vogue. In the twenties, white bohemia shuffled along to the
Savoy to be intime with the underside, and coon songs
were the rage. The popularity of Tin Pan Alley's "All Coons
Look Alike to Me" was a clue to the nature of white infatuation.
There is nothing insurgent about voyeurism and noblesse oblige,
but Nochlin has a syllabus to follow. She touts Stettheimer
as a visionary who "stresses racial uniqueness and self-identification
rather than brotherhood at the expense of authentic ethnicity."
Despite its high social cost, the glib romanticization of difference
suits Nochlin's separatist mood — a mood that presents
itself in opposition to "the white male Western viewpoint"
even at those junctures where it surrenders to or apes it.
The real significance of Stettheimer, a trained painter and
faux naïf, is that her life and work were a thorough capitulation
to camp, a predominantly gay male phenomenon dictating the larger
shift of sensibilities occurring in our time. Nochlin's claim
that women and gays are allies in the "subversive"
aspect of camp robs feminism of content and insight. The distribution
of Stettheimer's work and its visibility in three major New
York museums (compare the invisibility of Gwen John, Paula Modersohn-Becker,
the magnificent Kathe Kollwitz) is a testament to the concentration
of wealth and power and a male-dominated spoils system that
are very much intact. The only thing Stettheimer's work proves
is that it pays to have friends. She had Marcel Duchamp, founding
father of camp, who arranged a posthumous exhibition of her
paintings at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1946. Thus
is art history created ex nihilo.
Nochlin's exercise on Berthe Morisot should send readers to
the library for Hellmut Lehmann-Haupt's Art Under a Dictatorship.
Particularly relevant is its chapter on art education in the
Third Reich and the special mission of the art historian: to
popularize art history and exploit art appreciation in the service
of the people. In 1971, Nochlin cautioned against rehabilitating
minor careers such as Morisot's. Here she does just that, this
time from a debased Marxist angle. Morisot's slight, unresolved
Wet Nurse and Julie triggers a labored tour de force
on "the thematics of work" and women workers in the
nineteenth century. A brief history of wet nursing clobbers
the bourgeoisie while the historical Morisot, the nonpareil
of bourgeois advantage, evaporates into the thin air of Nochlin's
The essay is a parasite upon the painting's title. The work
itself is indistinguishable from any other image of a mother
and child. By sleight-of-mind, this gentle, superficial oil
sketch is metamorphosed into a daring, innovative "work
scene" of an importance "unparalleled in the annals
of paintings." Its insubstantiality was an accommodation
to the taste of the time for unfinished work and an extension
of Impressionist interest in the dissolution of form. Nochlin
exults as if it were a specimen of the Piltdown Woman. She galumphs
down the polemical path into a fractured sociology and rhetorical
moral order, trying to contemporize Morisot with a trendy reference
to surrogate mothers. An analogy between wet nursing and surrogate
mothering abdicates historical sense to a partisan stance. Worse,
it corrupts those distinctions on which moral choices are made.
It is a disquieting performance that acquiesces in the judgment
that the only work worthy of the name is salaried. Much inferior
to Morisot's outstanding nursery scene The Cradle, Wet
Nurse and Julie is waved like a class action suit because
its title refers to wage-earning activity. This is the prejudice
that dogs the reputation of Mary Cassatt. The splendor of Cassatt's
command of form, her genius for summoning a human presence and
graphic mastery cannot quite be called great because they were
expended on women and children. At home. (Cassatt, passionately
outspoken on behalf of Dreyfus, broke with the anti-Dreyfus
Degas, a close friend, over the case. But she did not make a
point of painting Jews so she earns no credit as a Political
Thinker from Nochlin. Art, especially the discussion of politics
in art, gives scholars and critics a means to defend values
which need never be practiced.)
Grandniece of Fragonard, pupil of Corot, friend and sister-in-law
of Manet; affluent salon-goer and hostess to the culturati of
her time, Morisot was exquisitely placed for achievement and
recognition. Yet she did not produce a body of work the equal
of Cassatt's. Cassatt, acknowledged in her lifetime as Morisot's
superior, was largely self-supporting. Through her initiative
with Louisine Havemeyer, she aided the livelihood of other Impressionists
as well. Nochlin might have explored the meaning of this contrast.
But chivalry lives on in guerrilla scholarship and so Morisot
cannot be held accountable for her own secondary status. And
the powerful Cassett has to be ignored because she challenges
the "lack of self determining power" and "the
implicit context of passivity, sexual availability, and helplessness"
that Nochlin insists has been the condition of women artists.
Reprinted here is the 1971 essay that spurred the feminist
art movement: "Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?"
The answer, it seems, is that the movement did not really want
any. It preferred jeering at "the myth of the Great Artist"
and pointing a finger at the nature of art. Nochlin follows
her fine discussion of the fallacy of so-called masculine or
feminine styles with the contradictory suggestion that "no
appropriate language of form" exists for women. Traditional
definitions of art are "intellectual distortions"
reflecting the "unstated domination of white male subjectivity."
In other words, women should not be judged by "male"
standards of quality. By insinuating a false opposition between
women's abilities and concepts of quality, the argument is protectionist
and retrograde. Its implications recall Van Vechten and the
glamour of Negroness.
A rationale that absolved women from the history of human excellence
was a brilliant expediency for a movement seeking strength of
numbers. What Nochlin once derided as "the Lady's Accomplishment"
("a modest, proficient, self-demeaning level of amateurism")
was transformed by scholarly fiat into womanart and the Feminist's
Accomplishment: an immodest, not necessarily proficient, self-assertive
level of amateurism that coincided nicely with camp's assault
on taste. Less a revolution than a promotional tactic, the feminist
art movement was one more trick of the bazaar characteristic
of the culture it presumed to subvert.
A candid appraisal of that movement and of Nochlin's role in
it would be valuable. But Nochlin has ascended into certitude
leaving criticism behind under interdict. She pumps the same
dismal list of names that signals a discernment quarantined
by clubhouse politics. She barely nods to gifted women —
Nancy Grossman, Sandra MacKintosh, Nell Blaine, Lenore Tawney,
scores of others — who do not have the required ideology
or the party circuit to run interference for their work. Certainly
Barbara Hepworth deserves more than passing reference.
The historical spirit is critical but the burden of these essays
is catechetical. In the cope and chasuble of a doubly ordained
Art Feminist, Nochlin is as revolutionary as a 1950's Catholic.
Back then, ardent nuns devised apologetics classes to prove
Darwin wrong. High school students were exempt from the Regents
exam in biology, taking the diocesan substitute instead. The
Catholic intellect did not measure itself by secular standards.
And the Legion of Decency went to the movies with the same barren
disapproval Nochlin brings to unsanctioned art.
[Reprinted from The Nation, December