Genius and Gender

Posted by on July 11, 2011

“Why are there no great women artists?” is a perplexing question consisting of several layers which Linda Nochlin and Christine Battersby attempt to dissect by evaluating the subjects of genius and gender.   In their evaluation, these feminist authors mostly agree that women have historically been oppressed by prominent institutions and authorities who determine what constitutes genius and therefore a great artist or work.  The major disagreement lies with the term “genius,” and whether it should be terminated from usage or reevaluated in feminist terms with the hopes of advancing feminist aesthetics.  Through this paper I will present the views of Linda Nochlin and Christine Battersby, while providing commentary on where they seem to agree or disagree.

Linda Nochlin starts her essay by stating that most feminists insufficiently attempt to answer the question by developing lists of women artists that have not been recognized in art history.  While she recognizes the existence of these overlooked artists, Nochlin astonishingly states that “the fact of the matter is that there have been no great women artists.” (ABQ 316)  She argues that no amount of griping about male chauvinism or manipulation of historical evidence will change that fact; rather the problem lies not in capacities of women but in the “role that social order plays.” (ABQ 317)  On the other hand, Battersby believes that there have been “great” female creators, but there have always been misogynic notions of genius which have “come to bar the way to recognition of female success,” with the Romantic conception of genius being one of them. (ABQ 312)

On this note, Nochlin argues that the assumptions that underlie the question are ones problematic intellectually beyond the issues of subjugation of women. For Nochlin, “genius” is a mysterious power that has been historically presented as being innate, atemporal, and which magically ties together the various Great Artists in history.  This assumption of “genius” is unrealistic as Nochlin proves through examples of great artists who were largely able to accomplish their feats due to supportive environments in which they grew up, and not necessarily some innate ability; most of these Great Artists grew up with supportive parents and well to do families.  The fact that women were not able to achieve similar greatness speaks to the unsupportive nature of their historical, social and economic environments, and not the lack of their ability. The most powerful statement that Nochlin makes is when she wonders what would happen if Picasso had been born a girl; thus she states, “would Senor Ruiz have paid as much attention or stimulated as much ambition for  achievement in a little Pablita?” (ABQ 318) Through these examples Nochlin proves that “genius” is not something innate within a creator, rather it is an ideological product of society where the creator is operated upon by various social factors including various opportunities and education provided by authoritative institutions.

Further making her point, Nochlin provides the example of nude models.  For the greater part of the Renaissance and up to the end of the 19th century, women were not allowed to study nude models, which was a subject necessary for any artist with serious aspirations for greatness. Because women were not allowed to study an essential subject, logically women were not able to create the highly valued types of art works.  Therefore, women were institutionally barred from being allowed to aspire for greatness and from being considered in the same conversation as male Great Artists in art history.  Nochlin concludes strongly that it was made “institutionally impossible for women to achieve artistic excellence or success on the same footing as men, no matter what the potency of their so-called talent or genius…” (ABQ 323)

Battersby agrees with Nochlin that women have been institutionally denied equality, but her feminist approach is slightly different.    For Battersby, artistic excellence has always been viewed as representation of genius and she argues that historically genius is something that has always been denied to women.  Whereas Nochlin strictly believed there have never been any great women artists, Battersby argues that “great female artists” have existed, but their individual achievements have been “obscured by an ideology that associates cultural achievement with the activities of males.” (ABQ 305)  Artistic representation of masculinity always won approval for greatness, while femininity’s been considered inferior.  Ironically, what is considered ‘feminine’ in one time period is labeled ‘masculine’ in another when it becomes valued, yet women still do not achieve recognition.  Battersby expresses her frustration at this duplicity when she states that “women continue to be represented as artistic inferiors…even though qualities previously downgraded as ‘feminine’ had become valuable.”  (ABQ 305)

While Nochlin believes that “genius” is a misguided term which obscures any type of scholarly work, Battersby believes “genius” is a term that can be used to progress feminist aesthetics through an alteration of its definition.  In her article, Battersby discusses four types of misogynic perceptions of “genius” which have held back women, and she offers a fifth definition which she believes to be pragmatic.  Genius in this case is defined as someone who creates work that “(a) marks the boundary between the old ways and the new within the tradition, and (b) has lasting value and significance.” (ABQ 312)  Through the use of this fifth definition, Battersby hopes that feminists will be able to eventually transform cultural history.

Nochlin and Battersby agree that the path to female success or greatness has historically been barred, whether through institutions and education or male chauvinism in art history.    Nochlin offers a method of reevaluating art history and its limitations through a study of institutional biases against women.  Battersby does the same through a study of the ideological biases against women in the evolution of the term “genius”, while also presenting a viable solution for properly assessing greatness in art history.  Although their approaches are different, both authors present compelling arguments requiring reflection by scholars in the field of art.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *