20 February 2009

“Hunter-Gatherers and Hyper-Capitalism: The Hiding of Great Women Artists”

The question of “Where Are all the Great Women Artists?” is one that has been asked before. Art historian Linda Nochlin received acclaim for her groundbreaking 1971 essay “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” in which she finds “The question has led us to the conclusion, so far, that art is not a free, autonomous activity of a super-endowed individual, "Influenced" by previous artists, and, more vaguely and superficially, by "social forces," but rather, that the total situation of art making… 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.”

In the 38 years that have passed, I find that this statement still rings true. Ways of creating art have changed, as have conditions for women and feminism in general. What I wonder now is whether the “social institutions” that Nochlin mentions have changed. As a white male it is too easy and almost simplistic for me to agree with Nochlin in her belief that conditions for women and female artists in general have improved greatly since the original publication. But I would be lying if I didn’t also see these “institutions” continue to perpetuate patriarchy and the idea of “the other.” We now see more galleries owned by women and more women become influential curators in the commercial art world. At the same time, there is still a lack of prominently featured female artists, with the statistics of major art institutions acting as logistical proof. I feel that the women who are displayed are still seen as oddities and exceptions. In this respect, female-made art works are still treated as “the other,” the “other” being treated as different and therefore inferior. This of course comes into complete conflict with what is marketable to the purchaser of fine art, and therefore what is considered valuable.

In reading over and editing statements written by the artists for this show, I found a reoccurring theme (though not in every case) of women being treated differently than men in the home, the studio, higher education and art communities of all size. Authority figures in these different institutions made their views crystal clear in direct and indirect means whether through policy or verbal communication and exercised their status to keep control. I must say I was by no means surprised. You can not discuss the lack of featured women artists without discussing capitalism and patriarchy and the relation between the two. Patriarchy came before capitalism, as hunter gatherer societies depended on women birthing children to ensure the sustainment of the group with future hunters. With the rise of the Agricultural Revolution and the creation of a surplus in goods that would set the motions in play for the rise of capitalism, capitalism worked to further engrain the lower social status of women in comparison to men.

Heidi Hartmann explained in her 1976 essay “Capitalism, Patriarchy and Job Segregation by Sex” that the division of labor was done by sex and resulted in this secondary status. Today we see a hyper-capitalism occurring with the rise of free global trade and imperialism performed by commercial means instead of direct political institutions. If what Nochlin said about the creation of art being determined by social institutions is true, then I believe we will continue to see a lack of women artists as long as these social institutions are still influenced by capitalism.

Submitted by: Eric N

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