How does the idea of an “artistic genius” play a role in gender inequality?

Nochlin states “These assumptions, conscious or unconscious, link together such unlikely superstars as Michelangelo and van Gogh, Raphael and Jackson Pollock under the rubric of “Great”—an honorific attested to by the number of scholarly monographs devoted to the artist in question—and the Great Artist is, of course, conceived of as one who has “Genius”; Genius, in turn, is thought of as an atemporal and mysterious power somehow embedded in the person of the Great Artist. Such ideas are related to unquestioned, often unconscious, meta-historical premises that make Hippolyte Taine’s race-milieu-moment formulation of the dimensions of historical thought seem a model of sophistication. But these assumptions are intrinsic to a great deal of art-historical writing. It is no accident that the crucial question of the conditions generally productive of great art has so rarely been investigated, or that attempts to investigate such general problems have, until fairly recently, been dismissed as unscholarly, too broad, or the province of some other discipline, like sociology. To encourage a dispassionate, impersonal, sociological and institutionally-oriented approach would reveal the entire romantic, elitist, individual-glorifying and monograph-producing substructure upon which the profession of art history is based, and which has only recently been called into question by a group of younger dissidents” (Nochlin).


Nochlin states “Underlying the question about woman as artist, then, we find the myth of the Great Artist—subject of a hundred monographs, unique, godlike—bearing within his person since birth a mysterious essence, rather like the golden nugget in Mrs. Grass’s chicken soup, called Genius or Talent, which, like murder, must always out, no matter how unlikely or unpromising the circumstances” (Nochlin).


Nochlin states “The supernatural powers of the artist as imitator, his control of strong, possibly dangerous powers, have functioned historically to set him off from others as a godlike creator, one who creates Being out of nothing” (Nochlin).


Nochlin states ““Could, it be that the little golden nugget—Genius—is missing from the aristocratic make-up in the same way that it is from the feminine psyche? Or rather, is it not, that the kinds of demands and expectations placed before both aristocrats and women—the amount of time necessarily devoted to social functions, the very kinds of activities demanded—simply made total devotion to professional art production out of the question, indeed unthinkable, both for upper-class males and for women generally, rather than its being a question of genius and talent?” (Nochlin).


Nochlin claims “the answer to why there have been no great women artists lies not in the nature of individual genius or the lack of it, but in the nature of given social institutions and what they forbid or encourage in various classes or groups of individuals” (Nochlin).


Wayne states “But if all this is true, why are women artists discriminated against? If male artists are acceptable as quasi-females in female postures, why not women artists too? Because the male artist is camouflaged by the demonic myth, not the feminine mystique. He rides motorcycles, not subways; pops drugs, not iron supplements. Groupie girls with pale sheafs of stringy hair trail after him, not his kiddies. A hundred romantic props comprise his demonic image and most are macho to the hilt. But the woman artist is only underscored to be a woman by the feminine mystique. She is an instant Mrs. So-and-so living in a tract house with hubby and the babies, She is thought to dabble in oils in the family den which only she refers to seriously as her studio. And her art is assumed to be a matter of tight little landscapes and flower arrangements or decorative, derivative abstractions displayed over the couch in an all too dreary and domestic living room. To be a wife, a mother and forty is to suffer a fatal syndrome; no matter what the truth or how large the talent or accomplishment, she is only a woman trying to “pass” as an artist” (Wayne).


“The fact that we are still having this conversation is a strong indicator that women are discriminated against in the art world, as they are in many other sectors of our society. Women artists are underrepresented in museum collections and galleries today, as they have been historically. And, as reported by the New York Times last March, women run just a quarter of the biggest art museums in the US and Canada and earn less than a third of their male counterparts. The question is, of course: Is there a longstanding bias against women artists and art professionals, or have women not had the time and support to grow their careers in the face of societal challenges, including raising families or outright sexism?”

—Lisa Dennison, Chairman, Sotheby’s North and South America; Former Director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

“As hard as it is to find art by women from ancient times, it’s even harder to find art historians who appreciate the women artists. When they do give a woman praise, they speak as if she were an aberration of her sex because of her talent” (Guerilla Girls 15).

The idea of the “artistic genius” subscribes to the sentiment that an artist’s talent comes from outside of him or herself. This made it easy for critics and artists to claim that women were not able to make great art because the “genius” did not choose to work through women. It also gave men an excuse to choose to work in the arts sector without having to choose between their work and a family. Men were able to have both because the artistic genius allowed for it. Women could not have both a family and an artistic profession because women were seen as hobbyists, not serious professionals.

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