It is her art-historical scholarship, however, that will live on. Nochlin's pioneering essay "Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?" (1971) was a watershed moment that changed art history and practically initiated women's and gender studies in the arts and humanities. This evening, Mainardi posted on Facebook that her mentor's essay "was a game-changer, a paradigm-shifter, a breath of fresh air that blew through the art world like a tornado and changed everything and everyone in it. We are all her progeny." If that essay wasn't enough, Nochlin also was a specialist in 19th-century art, particularly that of Courbet, and she wrote an incredible number of social-historical essay about art that are still relevant and worth reading. Among some of my favorites are:
- "The Imaginary Orient" in which she applied Edward Said's groundbreaking post-colonial theories about literature and history to visual art, teaching us how to really look at exotic pictures of the Middle East;
- "Manet's Masked Ball at the Opera" in which she tackled prostitution and misogyny in Second Empire France through images of fragmented female bodies and the visual representation of sexual aggression by men;
- "Degas and the Dreyfus Affair" in which she explored whether one can find evidence of the Impressionist artist's anti-Semitism in his art, and then forced us to consider whether we could look past his anti-Semitism and still appreciate Edgar Degas as a great artist (I've always called this "Michael Jackson syndrome"--can you still like his music if you are disgusted by his actions toward children?--and was inspired to think of this by her article);
- and "Morisot's Wet Nurse" in which she examined Berthe Morisot's painting of her nurse breastfeeding the painter's infant daughter, considering everything from subject to facture in an attempt to explore the challenges of women having children and careers.
I have gone back to Nochlin's scholarship time and time again because of its insightfulness, but also because of its erudition. She never had to rely on abstruse literary and cultural theory to make her point. She always returned the reader back to the work of art. Some scholars may have gone on to challenge some of her suppositions through the years (that is part of the job, anyway), but everyone who has studied art history since the 1980s has had to contend and acknowledge her contributions to the field and recognize how her work changed things.
Nochlin will be best remembered for "Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?" Her conclusion ultimately was that because institutions and thus individuals prohibited women from studying properly as men had, it inhibited their ability to become the artistic geniuses their fellow male artists often became. At the end of her essay, Nochlin charged scholars to learn from this mistake of the past and change things for the future. Her words seem prescient for all forms of scholarship that consider minorities and otherness, although at the time she was inspiring women.
What is important is that women face up to the reality of their history and of their present situation, without making excuses or puffing mediocrity. Disadvantages may indeed be an excuse; it is not, however, an intellectual position. Rather, using as a vantage point their situation as underdogs in the realm of grandeur, and outsiders in that of ideology, women can reveal institutional and intellectual weaknesses in general, and, at the same time that they destroy false consciousness, take part in the creation of institutions in which clear thought--and true greatness--are challenges open to anyone, man or woman, courageous enough to take the necessary risk, the leap into the unknown.You can read more about Nochlin's life and work here, here, and here.
(Photo of Linda Nochlin by Adam Husted.)