Recent Orthodoxies
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 political reliability.

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.

Nochlin 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 society.

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 mythomania.

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 19, 1988]

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