Female Agency in Art


The problem with learning is that sometimes you learn things that you wish you could unlearn.

I’d been quite happy with my art historical world view provided by such feminist scholars as Linda Nochlin and others from the 1970s era of rewriting the canon. The argument that there are few women artists in the historical ‘white male canon’ because they simply weren’t allowed to be there for various reasons sat well for me. I liked this explanation, it’s neat and it allows you to write with a confident view that could easily be backed up with good sources.

Then somewhere around the late 1980s a bombshell got dropped. Someone said, ‘what if the women just… didn’t want to be artists?’. This… well… this causes me a problem.

In the same way that I don’t believe that women completely autonomously choose to be Page 3 models, I simply don’t believe that women through history would just simply choose not to be artists. I mean of course, some of them will choose. However I don’t think that choice would have just been as simple as ‘I’d rather be an engineer’ for example. Not least because that career path was, again, just not open to them for various societal reasons.

It’s kind of a bit like in your first Physics lesson at A-Level after successfully passing your GCSEs. When the teacher stands at the front of the class and basically goes ‘everything you learnt up until this point is pretty much bullshit’ and everything you thought you knew about light waves was destroyed. But then you realise that light can behave as both a wave and a particle and you understand how much learning you still have to do.

So that’s where I’m at right now. Feminist art history was simple. And now it is not. Now we have to consider that women may have made their own choices about their hobbies and employment however I still think that many of those choices will have been dictated by the heavily patriarchal world that was forced upon the women in question.

It’s tricky. But a good revelation going into my second year of study.