Feminist Art History: An Introductory Reading List

Feminist Art History: An Introductory Reading List

Source: JSTOR.

Beginning with texts written in the 1970s, this reading list shows how the major questions, critiques, and debates developed in the field of feminist art history.

Off the top of your head, how many women artists can you name? If you can list more than a handful or the ever-popular Frida Kahlo or Georgia O’Keeffe, you have the work of feminist art historians to thank.

Beginning in earnest in the 1970s, feminists began to question the lack of women accounted for in art historical scholarship and in museums. There was no lack of representations of women in art made by men, but little attention had been dedicated to women artists themselves. There was a new urgency to revise the traditional art historical canon and make space for the women who had been overlooked, diminished, or given no credit for their work. While there is, as always, more work to be done to account for women artists globally, there have been major developments in the field over the past five decades. This introductory reading list, while non-exhaustive, will provide a sense of how feminist art history as a field developed, including its major questions, critiques, and debates.

Nochlin, Linda. “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” ARTnews 69, no. 9 (1971): 22–39, 67–71.

In 1971, Linda Nochlin published this groundbreaking and soon-to-be canonical essay that helped initiate a new era for the writing and development of art history—one characterized by a serious turn toward women artists and the contexts in which they worked. Nochlin urges readers to question, rather than passively accept, “the white Western male viewpoint” and, with it, the notion of “male genius.” By doing so, it becomes possible to interrogate the forces that have historically prevented women from achieving the same levels of acclaim, including their lack of institutional support and access to a serious arts education upon which their male counterparts thrived. This essay has previously been covered on JSTOR Daily. You can read Ellen C. Caldwell’s take here.

Vogel, Lise. “Fine Arts and Feminism: The Awakening Consciousness.” Feminist Studies 2, no. 1 (1974): 3–37.

In this essay, Lise Vogel argues that the creation and sustenance of feminist art and art history begin in studio art, art history, and art appreciation courses. It’s not until more data is collected, she argues, that this work, and with it, a revision of “traditional” art history, can fully commence: scholars must begin with the “tremendous effort of basic, almost archaeological research” of “unearthing, documenting, and interpreting the art produced by women artists.” Vogel is explicit in calling on her contemporaries to explore how a feminist approach can open up traditional art history topics while also urging them to integrate the necessary intersections of race and class into their framework. For Vogel, feminist art history does not solely concern gender and sexuality, and therefore it cannot exist without proper and serious engagement with these additional factors that form “an integrated expression of the reality of social relations within capitalist society.”

Sandell, Renee. “Female Aesthetics: The Women’s Art Movement and Its Aesthetic Split.” Journal of Aesthetic Education 14, no. 4 (1980): 106–10.

While the women’s movement of the 1970s encouraged women artists and feminist art historians and critics alike to “change the art world to function in a more socially responsible, nonelitist way, while demanding equal opportunities and recognition for women in the arts,” such progress was not without controversy. In this essay, Renee Sandell provides an overview of an unresolved, yet ultimately productive, ideological debate concerning the notion of a “female aesthetic” preventing the total unification of the movement’s members. While some artists and historians believed that women’s unique social position translated into a distinctive and authentic “aesthetic language,” others argued that this idea is “essentially limiting, since it prescribes artistic forms and contents for use by women artists.” Ultimately, this debate allowed members of the field to consider whether gender informs how artists produce art.

Pollock, Griselda. “Women, Art and Ideology: Questions for Feminist Art Historians.” Woman’s Art Journal 4, no. 1 (1983): 39–47.

Griselda Pollock calls for a critique of art history, “not just as a way of writing about the art of the past, but as an institutionalized ideological practice which contributes to the reproduction of the social system by its offered images and interpretations of the world.” It isn’t enough to merely incorporate women into an art historical canon from which they have previously been dismissed, nor is it enough to merely list the ways in which they have been delayed or oppressed. Instead, art historians should work to contest the myths concerning masculinity and femininity propagated by traditional art history that reproduce and reinforce gendered hierarchies. Further, Pollock urges art historians to avoid homogenizing women artists, thereby treating them as “representatives of their gender.” Pollock argues that this practice ultimately masks, if not erases, the influence of unique factors, including race, class, and nationality, on women’s art production.

Gouma-Peterson, Thalia, and Patricia Mathews. “The Feminist Critique of Art History.” The Art Bulletin 69, no. 3 (1987): 326–57.

Thalia Gouma-Peterson and Patricia Mathews provide a necessary and detailed survey of the developments and debates of feminist art history from Nochlin’s provocative 1971 essay through the 1980s. This essay is an essential primer for anyone interested in the history of the field as well as an overview of its major contributors. Gouma-Peterson and Mathews cover lots of ground, including such topics and debates as American versus European methodologies, art versus craft, the notion of female sensibility, female sexuality, and (often sexualized and/or moralizing) images of women.  Notably, the essay’s structure clarifies the differences between what the authors call the first and second generations of feminist art historians and critics, and the authors discuss the influence of feminist theory and criticism outside of the discipline on the second generation. The authors, too, provide a warning for those writing books on the lives of women artists that follow the precedent set by prior monographs on “great” male artists. The attempt to place women, through these texts, “within the traditional historical framework” is “ultimately self-defeating, for it fixes women within preexisting structures without questioning the validity of these structures.” Even more critically, the authors warn, this practice “comes dangerously close to creating its own canon of white female artists (primarily painters), a canon that is almost as restrictive and exclusionary as its male counterpart.

Hagaman, Sally. “Feminist Inquiry in Art History, Art Criticism, and Aesthetics: An Overview for Art Education.” Studies in Art Education 32, no. 1 (1990): 27–35.

Sally Hagaman, like Gouma-Peterson and Mathews, surveys first- and second-generation approaches to feminist art history, criticism, and, additionally, aesthetics. Most importantly, however, she centralizes the place of the art education classroom in the spread of a revised and expanded art historical canon. In traditional art history textbooks, the presence of women was (unsurprisingly) incredibly limited; Hagaman is concerned with the use of these texts in art teacher education. Though feminist inquiry was making waves within art history, criticism, and their specialized audiences, such change was slow to be reflected in art history textbooks, meaning pre-service art teachers (and therefore their students) were likely receiving an art history education that was more staunchly steeped in the field’s traditional values and approaches than one might expect. Hagaman calls for the broadening of art curricula to reflect the work and experiences of women artists, and she argues that it is the responsibility of university professors to ensure that their art history and art education students are prepared to teach and engage thoughtfully with these topics and issues.

Garrard, Mary D. “Feminist Art and The Essentialism Controversy.” The Centennial Review 39, no. 3 (1995): 468–92.

In this essay, Mary D. Garrard discusses the feminist movement’s incredibly divisive essentialism debate—one that impacted how critics wrote about feminist art that emerged in the 1970s. The essentialist position argued that “woman [the biologically female body] has an essence, inborn attributes that define her as an unchanging being across all time and cultures.” Critics of this position (known as anti-essentialists) took issue with the way feminism became limited to the female body and argued that gender and femininity were historically and socially constructed. Garrard then acknowledges this debate’s development along generational lines: “feminists of the early 1970s needed a clear-cut ‘us vs. them’ construct to unify and galvanize women against the male establishment they had only just realized was pitted against them.”  By the 1980s, Garrard states, women felt the need to “resist what they felt to be the restrictive and limiting dimensions of their feminist legacy.” Garrard then argues the subsequent turn towards victimhood and the “scapegoating” of essentialists came at the cost of endangering female agency and repressing women further.

Broude, Norma, and Mary D. Garrard. “Feminist Art History and the Academy: Where Are We Now?” Women’s Studies Quarterly 25, no. 1/2 (1997): 212–22.

Norma Broude and Mary D. Garrard call for feminists to resist identifying as radical scholars and instead confidently take hold of and embrace a new central position within the academy. The authors note that art history has been a conservative and slow-to-change (or “monolithic”) discipline, especially in comparison to fields like literary studies, and that in 1987, there were far too few feminist art historians holding professorships. Yet, they acknowledge that the doors have finally begun to open for departments to commit to and normalize this way of seeing.

Clark, Roger, Ashley R. Folgo, and Jane Pichette. “Have There Now Been Any Great Women Artists? An Investigation of the Visibility of Women Artists in Recent Art History Textbooks.” Art Education 58, no. 3 (2005): 6–13.

Through this fascinating study, Roger Clark, Ashley R. Folgo, and Jane Pichette reveal the extent to which women artists and their works have become more visible in art history textbooks since 1974. The authors conclude that gender plays an important role in the authorship of these texts. At the time of the study, textbooks solely authored by men, with no women co-authors, editors, or consultants, were unlikely to acknowledge women artists. Textbooks geared towards high school art teachers (most of whom were female) and which included women in the authorship process devoted more space to women and were also more likely to include, not just painting, sculpture, and photography, but also newly recognized art forms, including quilt-making and public art. Women artists from the twentieth century were also most likely to be acknowledged. The authors ultimately argue that the inclusion of these women in art history textbooks is a necessary step toward inspiring a new generation of female artists and encouraging the academy and the public to recognize their true greatness.

Kahlo, Frida, and Kathe Kollwitz. “Transgressive Techniques of the Guerrilla Girls.” Getty Research Journal, no. 2 (2010): 203–8.

After forming in New York City in 1985, the Guerilla Girls quickly became known for their feminist activism as they publicly challenged museums and textbooks for their lack of women artists. The true identities of the protest group’s members remain unknown. Notice the authors of this essay: Frida Kahlo and Käthe Kollwitz passed away in 1954 and 1945, respectively. Each Guerilla Girl takes on the name of a deceased woman artist to preserve their anonymity, allowing their focus to truly be on their fight against sexism and racism in the art world rather than their individual lives or careers. This essay provides an overview of the group’s “art of creative complaining” and how they have used posters, billboards, and publications to make their criticism both unignorable and publicly accessible.

Fields, Jill. “Frontiers in Feminist Art History.” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 33, no. 2 (2012): 1–21.

In this introduction to a special issue on feminist art history, Jill Fields surveys the major developments and debates in feminist art and art history since the 1970s. Importantly, Fields urges readers to consider the movement’s influence and developments outside of major urban centers such as New York City and Los Angeles: much of this work has taken place not just in large cultural centers but also in domestic, public, and educational spaces. As this special issue attests, our understanding of the feminist art movement on a global scale is born out of increased attention to local perspectives, or “the distinct experiences, innovations, accomplishments, and difficulties of artists working in varied locations,” including, in this issue’s case, collaborative exhibitions and communities in Chicago, Europe, and Israel.

Horne, Victoria, and Amy Tobin. “An Unfinished Revolution in Art Historiography, or How to Write a Feminist Art History.” Feminist Review, no. 107 (2014): 75–83.

Victoria Horne and Amy Tobin emphasize that feminism is a movement of uneven development and therefore cannot be boiled down to a singular approach. Instead of being “fixed as a particular methodology,” feminism is “a strategically adopted political position from which to write.” Additionally, the authors discuss the differences in feminist art history’s emergence in the United States versus the United Kingdom: past initiatives in the UK largely took place in collective and “radically contingent spaces” outside of the academy. Horne and Tobin ultimately argue that while feminist art historians of the late twentieth century collaboratively and “profoundly engaged in testing the limits of art historical knowledge,” feminism in the 2010s (and, perhaps, beyond) should “not be reduced to an optional tool or methodology.” The authors, then, propose that historians of all generations must come together informally to “interrogate our individual and collective motivations for writing political art histories.”