What is Art?

Recently, I read Linda Nochlin’s essay Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists? She first wrote the essay in 1971 for ARTnews and I couldn’t help wonder if it was relevant for 2010.  Nochlin’s impressive experience includes being a writer, professor, and art historian.  She has worked at Yale University, City University of New York, Vassar College, and the Institute of Fine Arts.

However, how can one answer the question Nochlin proposes?  In her paper she describes how people in the past have attempted to answer the question.  For example, one could say that women just aren’t good enough, they have a distinct feminine style, and their experience in society is different.

Nochlin asserts that the real question should be:  What is art? Nochlin: ”The making of art involves a self-consistent language of form, more or less dependent upon, or free from, given temporally defined conventions, schemata, or systems of notation, which have to be learned or worked out, either through teaching, apprenticeship, or a long period of individual experimentation.”

She also discusses the fantasy of the “great artist” myth and its origins.  Nochlin sarcastically wonders why there have been no great artists from the aristocracy.   She points out that women and aristocrats had the same social pressures that demanded their time and attention. Nochlin: “Those who have privileges inevitably hold on to them, and hold tight, no matter how marginal the advantage involved, until compelled to bow to superior power of one sort or another.”

Could the “artistic genius” be a product of social grooming and not necessarily something innate?  Nochlin: “…the development of the art maker an in the nature and quality of the work of art itself, occur in a social situation, are integral elements of this social structure, and are mediated and determined by specific and definable social institutions, be they art academies, systems of patronage, mythologies of the divine creator, artist as he-man or social outcast.”

Has it really changed since 1971 for women artists?  I think it would be interesting to compare statistics on women artist solo shows then and today.  Nochlin: ”If women have in fact achieved the same status as men in the arts, then the status quo is fine as it is.”  However, the right questions need to be asked in order to get the right answers.

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