It’s quite shocking, really, the way that women have been institutionally excluded from art history. Not only is it shocking, but the implications of this exclusion are eye-opening.
Building on a Foucaultian methodology, Linda Nochlin’s Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists? (Nochlin, 1971) and Griselda Pollock’s Modernity and the Spaces of Femininity (Pollock, 1981) work to expose the systems involved in the above mentioned process of exclusion. Much more than Foucault’s rather dry and disengaged litanies in The Order of Things, It’s really driven home for me the way that positions are normalised – we think we act rationally but are really working to and through a set of prejudices.
The Nochlin and Pollock texts are from the early 90’s when Feminist Art Historical thinking was progressing beyond the rehabilitation of potentially hidden or forgotten female artists, into an area where the fundamental institutional structures would need to be addressed.
The realisation that applying the standards of “genius”, developed with respect to a male-oriented and produced system, to women was effectively playing into the hands of this patriarchal system by acknowledging and hence reinforcing those standards.
At this time it had become apparent to these writers that it was the system itself that, far from dispassionately judging the male and female artists equally, was biased in it’s very constitution towards one side. These “standards” relied on institutional systems that had been developed by and for the exclusion women – it was more or less impossible for women to attain to these standards.
Maybe I’m being naïve and maybe this is in the “nature” of things (the creation of any kind of standards), but for a group as large as a particular sex to be excluded in this way, and for this to go relatively unremarked upon for so long, firstly confronts you with the problems feminists were addressing at this moment in time, and secondly makes you think about what other exclusions may be in effect.
Thinking in terms of the judgment of artistic excellence that these particular exclusionary systems sought to address, it seems to me that in order to judge their effectiveness, far from looking at it from the point of view of their results (i.e. the artists that make it to the canon), one might first assess the ways to reach those standards and the systems that are in place to allow one to reach them. From there one may be able to identify the institutionally excluded groups by the inverse of those who are included.
Of course, one could always argue that any judgement excludes someone. In very real terms this is self-evident. However for a judgement to be “fair”, which perhaps is what is being striven for here (at least by feminists in this case and other excluded groups in other situations), it must be seen to have standards that are able to be applied equally and are applied equally in reality. That, however, is another story.
I have avoided getting into the whole what is “sex” and “gender” discussion (Irigary) as, at least for me, it would hopelessly complicate the matter. Maybe when I have a better grip of the argument . . .
- Nochlin, L. (1971). Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists? In Women, Art, and Power and Other Essays. London: Thames & Hudson, 1988. pp. 145–178.
- Pollock, G. (1988). Modernity and the Spaces of Femininity. In Mirzoeff, N. The Visual Culture Reader. London: Routledge, 1998. pp. 74–84.