The following, published in ARTnews in January 1971, are the eight artists’ replies to Linda Nochlin’s “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” It is reproduced in connection with our coverage of Women in the Art World today.
Dialouge, by Elaine de Kooning with Rosalyn Drexler
Moving Out, Moving Up, by Marjorie Strider
Do Your Work, by Louise Nevelson
Social Conditions Can Change, by Lynda Benglis
The Double-Bind, by Suzi Gablik
Women Without Pathos, by Eleanor Antin
Artists Transgress All Boundaries, by Rosemarie Castoro
By Elaine de Kooning with Rosalyn Drexler
Elaine de Kooning: Well, first—that term, “women artists.” I was talking to Joan Mitchell at a party about 10 years ago when a man came up to us and said, “What do you women artists think…” Joan grabbed my arm and said, “Elaine, let’s get the hell out of here.” That was my first response to Linda Nochlin’s article. I was curious about how a man would react. Alex Katz thought it would be a cop-out to answer the piece. Sherman (Drexler) thought it would be a cop-out not to answer it. John Cage thought the question “divisive and an over-simplification.” I agree with all of them.
Rosalyn Drexler: There aren’t that many great artists in history for the name of this piece to make any sense. Miss Nochlin says “there are no women equivalents for Michelangelo, or Rembrandt, Delacroix or Cézanne, Picasso or Matisse.” There are no male equivalents for them either. However, I don’t object to being called a woman artist as long as the word “woman” isn’t used to define the kind of art I create.
E: To be put in any category not defined by one’s work is to be falsified. We’re artists who happen to be women or men among other things we happen to be—tall, short, blonde, dark, mesomorph, ectomorph, black, Spanish, German, Irish, hot-tempered, easy-going—that are in no way relevant to our being artists.
R: Well, Miss Nochlin thinks otherwise. She holds up the ideal of a “group of consciously united women…bodying forth a group consciousness of feminine experience that might…be stylistically identifiable as feminist, if not feminine, art. Unfortunately,” she goes on, “this remains within the realm of possibility; so far it has not occurred.” I can’t think of anything more fortunate. No one thinks collectively unless they are involved with propaganda. The Black Panthers, I believe, demand a certain kind of art that will promote their dogma, an art that may be defined as “black.” But the black artist, though he or she may illustrate certain concerns, wishes to be thought of first as an artist. Perhaps it is inseparable. Also there is ethnic art which is immediately recognizable as having a collective sensibility. But here again, women as well as men are absorbed into this style. You can’t tell which sex or race created the work. However, the mores of a culture might determine whether a man or a woman is the artist. For instance, have there been any women sign painters? In England or during Revolutionary times in the U.S.?
E: Let’s not get dragged into the past. I gave a talk on this subject in Provincetown in 1949 with the title: “Women fill the art schools; men do the painting.” I was working at the time on a piece for Mademoiselle based on my experience of art schools. I began to dig around in early American painting—primitives, amateurs—all of which brought to mind Virginia Woolf’s remark: “Anonymous was a woman”—which was reinforced when I began to scrounge around for European women artists and found them turning lip in the studios of Renaissance masters. I began to have my suspicions about any painting of a woman with a book or a drawing-pad or a letter in her lap—the self-portrait pose (at the time, I was still working on a series of self-portraits begun five years before), particularly the beautiful painting of a woman before a window by David, which has since been attributed to Constance-Marie-Charpentier. I began to get bogged down in all sorts of eccentric information and fascinating personalities like Marie Bashkirtseff and her fantasy life. The last straw was when I came across an extraordinary example of Magic-Realism by a 19th-century Swiss woman. I looked her up and it turned out she was born without arms and painted with her feet. That was when I decided it was not a subject for a fashion magazine and I gave up the whole project. Since then, a good many women artists have emerged. But before the 20th century, there’s no doubt that there were very few ways for a woman to become a serious, full-time professional.
R: Stendhal said 150 years ago: “All the geniuses who are born women are lost to the public good.” And Simone de Beauvoir, in The Second Sex, said: “To tell the truth, one is not born a genius, one becomes a genius and the feminine situation has, up to the present, rendered this becoming practically impossible.”
E: Well, in writing and poetry a few of them managed to survive, as Miss Nochlin points out. I was discussing this with the poet David Shapiro and he read me an excerpt from a letter of Rimbaud’s: “When the infinite servitude of women shall have ended, she will be able to live by and for herself; man—hitherto abominable—will give her her freedom, and she too will be a poet. Women will discover the unknown. Will her world be different from ours? She will discover strange, unfathomable things—repulsive, delicious. We shall take them” David, by his intonation and a sly giggle, gave “take” the unmistakable meaning of “confiscate.” But then he relented and added the next line. “We shall understand them.” The letter, he said, was written May 15, 1871. After we hung up, I wondered just what Emily Dickinson was doing that day. It turned out May 15th was the day she died—but 15 years later, so there she was, 40 years old, completely absorbed in her work, unknown to all but a few choice friends. Maybe she was writing I’m Nobody! Who Are You? George Eliot, George Sand, the Brontës took men’s pen-names— but women’s state of mind now is completely different. When Miss Nochlin says: “If women have in fact achieved the same status as men in the arts, then the status quo is fine as it is.” Well, I think the status quo in the arts is fine as it is—in this country at least, women have exactly the same chance that men do. There are the same schools, museums, galleries, books, art stores. There are no obstacles in the way of a woman becoming a painter or sculptor other than the usual obstacles that any artist has to face.
R: You’re talking about woman as impetus to herself, but what this woman who wrote the article may mean is that there are people who manipulate the art-world—who can decide by tumeling up business by talking, by maybe buying articles, by collecting, by publishing—that they can build a reputation, and the people who do this may feel, subliminally—no matter what they say—that they wouldn’t do this for a woman or, at least, not for many women.
E: There’s no doubt, in terms of the numbers of women painters in this country, that women are not bought by collectors to the same extent that men are. On a given level, let’s say, in a given age-group, they’re not exhibited as adequately in museums, are not given teaching posts at the universities. I’ve taught and lectured at various universities around the country in the past 12 years and it’s noticeable how very few women art-teachers there are on the college level. So you’re right—there is prejudice in terms of the whole PR mechanism—but the question we’re discussing is not recognition; the question is the idea of being an artist.
R: Yes, but then the adjective Great also has to do with what’s available for coming generations to see. In other words, it has to be there, it has to be in the collections, it has to be in the museums.
E: I know, but don’t think you can force recognition. Any artist, no matter what his gifts, faces neglect. I remember 22 years ago, Bill (de Kooning) was invited to fill out an application by the Guggenheim Foundation. He was sent a form with an accompanying note saying that they had asked Meyer Schapiro to recommend some avant-garde artists because none of them seemed to be applying. Up until then, Bill just assumed it would be a waste of time to apply, but now he thought: Aha, so that’s the way they do it, and he filled out the application, and they promptly turned him down. He was furious because he had put himself in the position of being rejected. In fact he was furious even before he got rejected when he realized he had to bother a lot of busy people for recommendations and then fill out those dreary, endless forms—particularly because he had nothing to fill in, no list of one-man shows, no museum collections, no well-known private collections, no teaching posts, nothing. For the required statement of aim, he couldn’t think of anything to put down but “I want to paint and I’ll continue to paint whether I get this grant or not.” He ended his request rather pertinently, I thought, by writing, “And by the way, I’m the one that should be asking the questions.”
That kind of neglect is always going on. Bucky Fuller, who was one of Bill’s sponsors at that time, told me a couple of years ago that he had written 30 letters of recommendation to the Guggenheim Foundation over the years at a great expense of time and thought and that not one of his applicants had received a grant. He put this in writing to them that year—I think it was ’67. The 30 letters, he informed them, would constitute a book for which he’d like to have a Guggenheim grant to compare the subsequent careers of his rejected applicants with the recipients of the grants. And for the first time, one of his applicants was accepted—obviously a nervous reaction on their part.
Or look at the recent show at the Metropolitan that was supposed to cover the New York scene from 1940 to 1970. That was the most outrageous case of neglect on a large scale that I can think of. The inclusions were fine but the exclusions—artists whose work was indispensable to the character of the ’40s and ’50s—made the show a cynical falsification of history. And, naturally, it caused bitterness among the artists, men and women both, who knew they should have been included on a purely historical basis. If the show had had another title indicating it was simply one curator’s choice of favorite artists, nobody would have had a beef. You can’t argue with someone’s taste. The Whitney annuals, for instance. It’s ridiculous for women to demand to be included on the basis of some kind of democratic procedure or statistics. It’s like saying: “You’re including more Jewish artists than Italian; therefore you’re being unfair to Italian artists.” Or what about Gay Lib? Are they being adequately represented?
R: I don’t think it’s ridiculous for women to demand that they be represented in equal numbers at the Whitney. You have to start somewhere.
E: Well, then the percentage is probably wrong. In shows selected by artists where there is no consciousness of sex, as in the American Abstract Artist shows which began in the late 1930s or the Artists Annuals of the early 1950s, the ratio seemed to be between one third and one quarter women. The only way to arrive at a true ratio, I suppose, would again be to have artist-juried shows.
If the Whitney leaves out a lot of women, so did Miss Nochlin. It’s been my experience that a lack of recognition of the creative endeavors of women is much more common among women than men. I think the writer here is indoctrinated by the very attitudes she’s talking against when she says that “despite so many years of near equality, women have still not achieved anything of major significance in the visual arts.” As an art-historian, presumably familiar with the scene, she should have had a much longer line-up of contemporary women artists.
I don’t think that I’m “puffing up mediocrities,” to use her phrase, if I bring up Joan Mitchell, Marisol, Alice Neel, Jeanne Reynal, Grace Hartigan, Nell Blaine, Mary Frank, Jane Wilson, Jane Freilicher, Marcia Marcus, Louisa Matthiasdottir—or Dorothy Dehner, Anne Ryan, I. Rice Pereira, Isabel Bishop, Loren MacIver…
R: There are a lot more names: Fay Lansner, Alice Baber, Chryssa, Marti Edelheit, and we’re still leaving some important ones out. Why don’t we just make up a list of artists and hand it in and forget about this whole thing.
E: That was my inclination. But to go on. She says here: “It is certainly not terribly realistic to hope that a majority of men, in the arts or in any other field, will soon see the light and find that it is actually in their own self-interest to grant complete equality to women.” There’s no such thing as equality in the arts, and as far as I’m concerned, nobody had to grant me anything to become an artist, except for my mother. And now that I think of it, most of the creative people I know seem to have been triggered by their mothers—Bill, Franz Kline, Arshile Gorky, Jackson Pollock, Frank O’Hara—most of the artists and poets have swapped their “mother-stories.” The author stresses the fact that in the past, “a large proportion of artists—and almost all women artists—had artist fathers.”
R: Well, things change. Out of hundreds of artists I know, I can think of only two or three that have parents that are artists—Mimi Gross, March Avery…
E: Jimmy Ernst, Anne Poor, Emily Mason, Mercedes Matter, Michael Nevelson—that’s five fathers and two mothers, a likely percentage. But let’s put aside the “field of art” and the “majority of men” for a minute and talk about those “other fields” and the real majority of women. Women have had the vote for over 50 years. Where are the women in elective office? Women could have put them there. Who needs to grant what to whom?
R: I just read in the New York Post that at the U.N., supposedly a showcase for equal rights, there are no women in the top echelons of the secretariat, no women under-secretaries, assistant secretaries-general or officers of equivalent rank.
E: I agree when Miss Nochlin says “women’s experience and situation in society, and hence as artists, is different from men’s,” except for the “hence as artists.” Thirty years ago, the name of an article like this could have been “Where Are the Great American Artists.” Museum directors, art historians, collectors, dealers, all acted as though American artists didn’t exist. They were buying and exhibiting European artists (fortunately for New York artists, who got access to a quantity and variety of art unavailable in any other city in the world; I met Dubuffet in 1950 and he told me he never saw a painting by Paul Klee in Paris until after 1948). Actually, the “liberation” of the American artist was accomplished largely by women dealers. Peggy Guggenheim opened her Art of This Century Gallery in 1942 and was showing Frederick Kiesler (he designed the gallery for her), Jackson Pollock, Robert De Niro, Robert Motherwell; Marian Willard showed David Smith, Tobey and Graves; Edith Halpert at the Downtown Gallery showed Stuart Davis, Zorach and Ben Shahn; Betty Parsons had Hans Hofmann, Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman, Hedda Sterne, Mark Rothko, Lee Krasner, Ad Reinhardt. And there were others: Rose Fried, Bertha Schaefer…The big-time galleries which came along and scooped up the proceeds—Janis, Castelli, Marlborough, Knoedler’s, etc.—didn’t show any interest until the reputations were made.
R: And Mary Cassatt had a great influence on the taste of American collectors; she advised people to buy El Greco, Goya, Manet and Degas, to name a few. Museum collections are enriched because of her exceptional appreciation of what was “good” and important. Her reputation in this matter should be above Bernard Berenson’s. And, of course, she was herself a great artist—not just a critic.
E: And what about Gertrude Stein, the greatest discoverer of them all? I find artists are always generous to other artists. Jeanne Reynal bought Gorky, de Kooning, Noguchi, Rothko before any museum when they were broke and needed the money. The first paintings Bill sold were to artists and poets: Edwin Denby, Allen Tate, Rudy Burckhardt, Biala and Alain, Saul Steinberg—and Saul bought Richard Lindner before the collectors got to him. In fact, most of the artists I know own other artist’s work.
R: Yes, another artist’s response is very important. I remember how much it meant to me when David Smith came to my first show at a small downtown gallery in 1960 and told me he loved my work. He said, “Don’t give up sculpture; I’ve known women sculptors and they stop; don’t stop.” I feel sort of guilty now because I turned to painting and writing.
E: But you didn’t stop. One reason is that you were working in New York surrounded by fellow artists. I think what can make an artist stop is total neglect. And I don’t think that’s ever the case for artists—men or women—in major cities. In this country, it’s not the woman artist who is neglected but the “out-of-towner.” In ’57 , when I was teaching at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, I met a brilliant young painter, Joan Oppenheimer, who had been working there in isolation for some eight years after graduation. A 75 year-old artist, Raymond Jonson, who had and, I hope, still has a gallery there, asked her to have a show. Both he and she knew practically nobody would come to it. “But,” she said, “the brush was beginning to fall out of my hand until he asked me.” Raymond Jonson himself seems to have Emily Dickinson’s attitude. He is an excellent artist who has amassed an enormous amount of work which he just stacks away for a few people to view now and then. Artists like these are hidden away all over the country (and not clamoring for representation at the Whitney). I met two wonderful artists a couple of years ago in Missoula, Montana—Len Nye, who works as a bartender to support himself and his fantastic photography—close-up portraits of ranchers and winter landscapes that look like Japanese watercolors—and Don Bunse, who makes intaglio prints. Or in Pittsburgh, which is as out-of-town as Missoula, as far as the New York PR system is concerned, there are some terrific artists—Connie Fox, Marie Kelly, Douglas Pickering, Walter Groer; Lee Hall in Madison, N.J. and Marie Meinke in Eugene, Oregon—they’re all over. I’m astonished that these artists can keep going in the face of overpowering neglect—that they retain the art impulse.
R: When did you first have the art impulse?
E: When I was five years old, my mother took me to the Metropolitan. I remember being overwhelmed by the hush—the glamor of the place. Also I used to be mesmerized by the stained-glass windows in church—but it never occurred to me that anyone made them. I thought they were just there, like trees, chairs, houses and the reproductions on the walls at home. I was always drawing, but I didn’t make any connection. Then, by the time I was 10 or 11, other kids were asking me for my drawings and were referring to me as an artist. I hadn’t given the matter any thought. I just loved to draw. I loved the activity. But when they bestowed the title on me (by then I was reading about artists and going to museums on my own), I thought, oh yes, I’m an artist, and from then on I took it for granted—and I began to compete. I’d read that Raphael had done something by the age of 12 and I’d get very anxious. I became very time-conscious. If I read about someone’s great accomplishment at the age of 20, I’d heave a sigh of relief and feel, maybe there’s still time. How did you start?
R: Well, I got started through Sherman. He was a painter but he had to work to support us. Rachel was eight years old. This was in Berkeley in ’54. He had a job at the Rockefeller mouse laboratory where they had the cleanest mice in the world. He had to go through a decontamination area to get in and out. He would feel sorry for the mice and would overfeed them, like a Jewish mother, and then he had to clean the cages like crazy. At that time, I would go to city dumps and collect all sorts of rusty objects which I loved and I made a rusty flower garden in my house, odd shapes in vases, and I invited people to my home to see my beautiful garden. There was a museum of very old pottery at the University at Berkeley and I wanted to have my own museum so I had to create all my own art. I wasn’t aware of the art-world then or of other artists. My very first art experience was actually coloring books which my mother brought me to occupy myself with when I was ill. I loved to color. I didn’t think of myself as an artist. I was a kid who tried to make a beautiful picture. I had a girl-friend, Ray, whom I considered to be a “real” artist. She did something I had not thought of: she put an outline in a contrasting color around the objects in the picture. This impressed me. We were poor. It was around the time of the Depression. We owned no art, no books. But a newspaper offered for a few cents, and a coupon, reproductions of famous paintings. My mother sent for a Turner seascape, a Rembrandt self-portrait and a Vermeer. This was the first great art I had ever seen. Then, when we were married, Sherman took me to the Museum of Modern Art. I remember Rousseau’s Sleeping Gypsy and the Matisse Blue Window and Léger. I was impressed but it was upsetting. I was indignant too. I remember arguing with Sherman about a Cézanne self-portrait. I thought it was ugly, awkward…
E: I think that negative response is often the way great art hooks us. I reacted to Cézanne almost the same way the first time I saw him when I was 14. Before then, I used to look at drawings in books and cartoons in newspapers. There was one artist I was mad about when I was 10. Her name was Nell Brinkley. She drew for the Hearst papers in the style—carried to unbelievably sugary extremes—of Aubrey Beardsley. I used to copy her endlessly. She had a technique of shading with very fine lines that fascinated me for years. I’d copy reproductions of Gainsborough and Reynolds using Nell Brinkley’s technique. Then I saw my first Cezanne and it jolted me. It was a Bathers. I didn’t think he drew well at all. I thought the figures looked stiff and wooden, but I was enthralled by it. I knew there was something there that was going to take me a lifetime to understand. What I took to be the crudity of his technique—that opened a door for me. I began to look at everything differently. That was the year I discovered Matisse, Picasso, Degas, Soutine—I began to go to the Museum of Modern Art every week. At the same time, I loved New Yorker covers—and El Greco. I didn’t mind mixing things up. Nobody was going to tell me what to like or what not to like. Until I was 17 I thought all real artists (I didn’t count commercial artists) were dead or foreign with the exceptions of Georgia O’Keeffe and John Marin, whose work I had seen at An American Place. I was overjoyed when I was taken to a show of the American Abstract Artists Group in ’37. They were all alive and they were American! My escort further interested me when he told me the two best abstract artists in America were not in the show—Arshile Gorky and Willem de Kooning, whom I met a couple of months later—when I began to study with him. When Miss Nochlin says, “What is important is that women face up to the reality of their history,” well, the point is, artists are always choosing their history from day to day and their history follows them as much as it precedes them. Were American artists “facing up to the reality of their history” when they turned to the School of Paris or to German Expressionism or Dada or Surrealism or de Stijl or the Bauhaus instead of to Copley, Peale, Eakins, Blake or Ryder; was Picasso facing up to the reality of his history when he snooping around African art for inspiration?
R: And here, 19th-century artists, critics and historians come under attack for turning “the making of art in to a substitute religion, the last bulwark of Higher Values in a materialistic world.” Well, maybe we wouldn’t put it in those words, but that’s what art is all about as far as I’m concerned. There’s a cross I made out of wood and rusty metal, hanging in St. Paul’s chapel on Vesey street in the financial district. People come and worship beneath it. It makes me feel very good. It was bought from my first show in 1960 and at the time, I couldn’t believe that anyone else would want to own it. But I understand it hanging in a church with all the gold and glitter and precious stained-glass windows. What has been discarded, used, thrown away, is still holy—if not holier. I think art and religion are very close—the spirit of reclamation and love.
E: And I’m all for the “free enterprise conception of individual achievement…”
R: That’s the concept of genius that she seems to find threatening to women as part of a male plot, part of “the romantic, elitist, individual-glorifying and monograph-producing substructure upon which the profession of art-history is based.”
E: Yes, and her apparent reverence for the word “great” vanishes with that notion. “Underlying the question about women as artist…we find the whole myth of the Great Artist…Here we have the mad van Gogh, spinning out sunflowers despite epileptic seizures and near-starvation … Cézanne … braving public scorn in order to revolutionize painting; Toulouse-Lautrec, dwarfed, crippled and alcoholic… Gauguin throwing way…financial security.” Then in the face of these facts, accepted by artists at least, she concludes: “Of course, no serious contemporary art historian ever takes such obvious fairy tales at their face value.” I wonder if these serious art-historians feel that, perhaps Gorky, de Stael, Rothko, Pollock or Kline invited their deaths to enhance their monographs.
R: Her main conclusion is that “art is not a free, autonomous activity of a super-endowed individual ‘influenced’ by previous artists” but that it is “mediated and determined by specific and definable social institutions, be they art academies, systems of patronage…” and her solution is that “women should take part in the creation of institutions in which clear thought and true greatness are challenges open to anyone.” Well the point is, I don’t want to create any other institutions. I don’t want to be in any institution.
E: I think there are too damn many institutions on the face of the earth as it is. Robert Graves said: “As soon as women organize themselves in the male way with societies, memberships and rules, everything goes wrong.” I think that applies to artists, too. The artist stands for everything against institutions.
R: Institutions and clear thought are opposites. You can’t have one with the other.
E: Right. Institution to me means authority, coercion, mindlessness, bureaucracy; it means the Pentagon, the CIA, the army, organized denominational religion, prisons, mental hospitals…
R: The only clear thought one can have in an institution is—how do I get out.
Moving Out, Moving Up
By Marjorie Strider
On Being an Artist — or — The Artist as Being Great
Being: Existence; conscious existence. That which exists as an actuality or entity in time or space, in idea or matter. The fullness of life or perfection to a thing that exists.
Great: Large, big. Being much above the average in magnitude, intensity, importance, etc.
My History as Artist and Being Great
Endo, ecto…out into and back again…from painting to sculpture to performance, out from the wall into solid matter…out from manipulating materials, into manipulating living bodies…going from using illusionary space into actual space…going from stop-motion on a stationary surface to motion of materials, materials for motion being water, urethane foam, people…everything a movement from the wall, to the middle of the room and back again…a breaking out, a flowing…to make round and flatten out again… motion existing in going from fullness to fractional and back again…eventually, for the perfection or fullness of life, a synthesis of things…painting, sculpture, performance no longer designating division, but everything coalesced into one moving entity.
Anyone’s History as Artist and Being Great
From physical labor to headwork, to being in touch with oneself and back again…communication and idea exchange, intellect, emotion and conversation…breaking barriers, committing oneself, being involved…from being a man to being a woman, and moving in between…from being a child, to growing knowledgeable and returning to simplicity…from being free to being restricted, to being sovereign…from breaking out of restrictions in art to breaking out of restrictions in society…from being to art and it’s all the same…being, artists, male, female, sculpture, painting, performance, all conjoined in a great motion.
A Woman’s History as Artist and Being Great
Out from underneath to the outside…from being thought odd to being realized…from being an object to being a being…from great effort forced out to breaking out with ease…from not participating in political tactics to doing it with great work…from not sensitizing the public with cries of male chauvinism to blasting the public with terrific sculpture…out from subservience to serving and being served…from being whistled at on the street to doing the whistling yourself…out from society’s disapproval to your own approval is all that matters…out from need of escorts to going anywhere…out from sex as a barter system to sex as pure enjoyment…out from being unable to support yourself to teaching other artists…going out with society as it becomes more free into women being a part of that freedom…out from feeling maligned by society’s restrictions to feeling joy at being able to break barriers…out from being one of a few into being the best of many…to break through being a woman with the only proof that you are equal—great work, great intellect…from being set free by certain aspects of women’s liberation to disagreeing with most tactics being used…out from under being a woman into pride at being a woman…out from under “I thought a man did it” to it doesn’t make any difference who did it…from being dainty and delicate to being what you are…from difficulties with society’s disapproval with the way you live your life to realizing it extends over into being an artist…from realizing that some men are oppressed to realizing it’s all becoming easier…from ignoring the facts so that you can do your work to being able to admit them and still come through…from being small to being large and always moving only out and up…the motion being one huge expansion.
Do Your Work
By Louise Nevelson
Linda Nochlin equates the feminists’ misconception of what art is “with the naïve idea that art is the direct, personal expression of individual emotional experience…” Then she goes on to say what “great art” is—“The making of art involves a self-consistent language of form…”
I believe both statements to be oversimplified. Emotion and intellect are integrated. Human beings are heir to all emotions. The basic work of creation is emotional and reflects the depths of humanity.
When we come on earth, we come with the equipment of awareness. In a given moment we can encompass the whole past and project into the future and that is the common denominator of humanity.
The world has thought up to now in “male” vocabulary. Now I think the door has opened. The level of awareness has increased in woman so naturally she will have to, by her very nature, hit heights of creativity that have been closed to her before.
Single-mindedness, concentration and absorption in one’s work come through the unfolding of the individual’s self-development and should not have anything to do with “masculine-feminine” labels.
If you have something to say, you develop a means, a structure by which to unfold. If the creativity is there, the impulse to do your work or art naturally finds its own unique order and is stamped by the particular artist and that is art.
People unfortunately have been plagued by guilts and frustrations from the beginning. But if we have insight, and recognize the forces that have subjected us, we can pass that stage.
In my case, I had no uncertainty or lack of conviction as far as art was concerned. That is my life. Society, personalities and problems are quite another story.
The whole slant of this article is a personal interpretation on the nature of art and the so-called nature of women. And to comment further in depth would mean a line-to-line analysis and that of course would interrupt my art.
Social Conditions Can Change
By Lynda Benglis
How am I to simplify the composite picture “female” and “artist” in words? There is not a doubt in my mind that we still exist in a very self-conscious, sexually-repressed time. Although our culture has been and is male-dominated, the sexual experience is not unique to males nor is the art experience unique to males. Different organs and physical responses do not necessarily preclude females from the activity of art.
I feel that art is an intellectual process which both questions and affirms the very nature of being. My concerns of identity within and outside the confines of my studio or working situation have everything to do with my experience. And my experience is primarily that of an artist and I am a female.
I agree that the presence of few female artists in the past is very much a social condition, not an esthetic one. That the social condition can indeed change, that it will change through the desires of female artists to exhibit their works is a necessity, simply because there are more females choosing to do art.
With the present-day consciousness-raising on the part of feminists, I understand the need to give a kind of historical perspective to female artists. Within this kind of female-consciousness, it is possible for more women who are in the art world to give justified attention to those current works they find challenging. Continuing consciousness-raising may depend upon mutual recognition by woman artists and the extent to which they take on the responsibility of transforming the present role-situation.
Both men and women are at fault in the present social dilemma, viz., the necessity to declare oneself female and artist in the same breath. If there were more female artists, and that will depend upon their effectiveness as examples, the term “artist” would no longer imply one sex only.
By Suzi Gablik
I used to reel back in horror at the tactics of women who burn bras, claim in WITCH and SCUM manifestos that men are “unfit even for stud service,” and introduce raw eggs and Tampax inscribed with messages about “equal rights” into museum galleries. I never really thought of women as victims of a mysterious fatality. Like Simone de Beauvoir, I refused to conclude that their ovaries condemn them to live forever on their knees. I believed that personal creditability was achieved by acid intelligence, enlightened will and superior effort. Since I never subscribed to the mystique of motherhood or to the cult of routine domesticity, I found myself by my middle thirties in the privileged position of being able to do largely as I pleased. Nevertheless, I have always been uneasy in an amorphous and unfocused way about the relatively small role of women in world-history, and plagued by the seemingly unaccountable lack of first-rate women artists. I have always assumed that this arose from the collusion which women on the whole practice by sacrificing aspects of their identity and development in return for “security” and the fulfillment of a stereotyped idea of femininity. From the beginning women face a conflict of roles which men by and large are spared: they are deluded into thinking that dependence and subordination offer in built rewards. That attitude is moreover authorized and encouraged by the society in which they live, and it is reinforced still further by the notion that womanhood remains incomplete and thwarted without a child.
But there is much more to it, I now realize, than these various forms of self-enchantment on the part of women. Society puts them in a double-bind from the start. An unmarried woman is regarded as a disadvantaged person, and her self-confidence is undermined. If, on the other hand, she follows her stereotyped role and limits herself to being a wife and mother, the echoes of male disparagement will haunt her: “It seems that women have made few contributions to the discoveries and inventions in the history of civilization” (Freud). Or, “Women have in general no love of any art; they have no proper knowledge of any; and they have no genius” (Rousseau). Should she strike out on her own and refuse to enter into the sexual bargain, she is once again subject to masculine contempt: “A man…must always think about woman as Orientals do…as a possession, as a property that can be locked, as something predestined for service and achieving her perfection in that” (Nietzsche). In general men suspect women who choose to make their own way, and so do other women.
Certainly the field of human actions tends to operate in probabilistic terms. However, those persons who develop an awareness of the factors which are conditioning them at any given time have the possibility of de-structuring the field and switching their conduct from the expected channels. In this reflective self-awareness lies the promise of an indispensable change in our culture, which until now has been saturated in assumptions, both conscious and unconscious, of male superiority.
Women without Pathos
By Eleanor Antin
I agree with Linda Nochlin that the question “Why have there been no great women artists?” is a useless one and that there are very real questions to be considered about the relation of women to the arts. Just now I consider myself something of an authority on the position of women as subject matter, having just mounted a show of object biographies called “Portraits of Eight New York Women.” I think my experiences with that show have some relevance to the discussion.
The show was conceived from the beginning as an argument against Flaubert, Tolstoi, Dostoyevski, etc. With the exception of Defoe and Ibsen, we have always been losers. It has been part of woman’s glamour as an artistic subject that she was seen as pathetic, passive, in short—the superb victim. Most artists are gentlemen and treat us with compassion—liberals are always compassionate—but their verdict is inexorable. Anna Karenina doesn’t leave her up-tight husband to become commissioner of railroads. She leaves only when she finds another host to live off. Tolstoi calls that bizarre practicality a romantic nature. Flaubert may say he is Madame Bovary, but she never locked herself into a room to write unpopular novels or went to court to defend them. I was determined to present women without pathos or helplessness. Since a life style is the ability to recognize in the morning the same person who went to bed at night, it can be said to be a person’s most important decision. My women had all chosen life styles independent of men’s. It is true that some life styles proved more successful in practice than others, but they were all interesting and complex enough to be worth the try. Finally I deliberately chose styles whose linguistic structures were ambiguous, because a puzzle is harder to love than a fact.
My sculpture is made of brand-new American manufactured consumer goods. In my previous show (“California Lives”) the portraits were done with objects purchased in discount centers. California is pathetic. It is Nixon’s world, lethal and very sad. I listened to Jeannie Seeley records for months while doing the show. And all my Californians were pathetic, men as well as women. I suppose one might say I was democratic in this. As in Chekhov. They all sat around while the redwoods fell down. For “Portraits of Eight New York Women” I deliberately chose expensive, shiny, glamorous objects. I chose bright colors, reds and pinks. And as much chrome as possible. I didn’t want the viewer to come too close. We women have had enough love. Frank O’Hara said once that he loved Marilyn Monroe. Protect us from such love! If Monroe hadn’t had yellow teeth or if her body hadn’t been deformed, would he have loved her then?
Artists Transgress All Boundaries
By Rosemarie Castoro
What does an artist want? Exposure. Something snaps our vision. The Body responds with production.
“Castoro, Castoro, I saw your paintings at Johnny’s. I liked them very much. I thought you were a boy.”
I turned around and went back to Spring Street, producing my next body of work. My energies in the world were for those not yet born. I laminated myself against the walls with my paintings. Cézanne didn’t live on institutional acceptance. Time validates and invalidates. What turns you on? Doing turns me on.
I became hostile. It kept me working. I finally isolated myself, climbing the walls in my studio, snarling at whoever crossed my path. I moved ceilings, cracked rooms, dumped paint in the streets. I went to Vancouver to build a 15-foot-square room lit with one 4-minute rheostated light bulb.
Upon return to my studio, I moved into the middle of the room, gave up the straight-edge, and released my energies onto hard surfaces which are growing into curved, free-standing, portable walls.
I think artists transgress all boundaries and should not be segregated according to the comfortable academic niches supplied by curators, let alone by society. Man, woman, black, white, big tits, big penises, Italian, Jewish. Every artist is something. I didn’t become an artist because there was a job vacancy. My altruism is for those who have already decided on who and what they are.