Art Feminism Studying

Is Feminist Methodology still relevant in History of Art today?

Since I’ve now had my results back from my second year at university, I can post the final essay for my Culture, Gender and Sexuality module. I got 80% overall in this module – 70% is required for achieving a 1st.




Is Feminist Methodology still relevant in History of Art today?


There is little doubt that the New Art Histories revolutionised the way that many art historians saw the world and participated in art historical academia in the 1970s (Rees and Borzello, 1986a, p. 3). The term ‘The New Art Histories’ came into use because of the book of the same name which tried to summarise emerging methodologies in the late 1970s and early 1980s (Rees and Borzello, 1986b). Other authors interpreted the term as an umbrella phrase for critical theory (Jõekalda, 2013, p. 2) and most would agree that the term the New Art Histories cover political, feminist, psychoanalytical and theoretical approaches (Fernie, 1995, p. 19). This poststructuralist approach marked an important shift away from art as objects and focussed instead on social context rather than concepts such as connoisseurship and biography. In this essay I will focus on how feminist art history methodologies do not address queer artists and artworks adequately, however it should also be considered that non-Caucasian, non-Western, and disabled people are also not addressed by mainstream feminist theory either – amongst other personhood statuses. The word queer itself is complex but for the purpose of this essay I will be using it to represent non-default gender, sex and sexuality.


Women were often left out of the traditional art historical canon and the New Art Histories enabled feminist art historians to rethink the past. Initially there was a push to rediscover women artists and attempt to place them within the traditional canon. This was primarily achieved by questioning assumptions about the difference between art and craft – many feminist art historians at this time believed that these definitions of art and craft were one of the primary reasons for women’s art being seen as inferior (Fernie, 1995, p. 20). However this approach relied on traditional canonical and biographical methodologies and the late 1970s saw a move by feminist theorists to challenging the discipline of History of Art itself. Academics began to suggest that merely inserting women into history was not the same as writing women’s history (Fox-Genovese, 1982, p. 6) and Griselda Pollock put forward the idea that women’s studies were not about women but rather the social systems that allow and maintain the dominance of men over women (Pollock, 1988, p. 1). One of the formative essays for feminist art history was Linda Nochlin’s ‘Why have there been no great women artists?’ (Nochlin, 1978) which warned against the idea of simply trying to name women artists who might be considered ‘good’ and insert them into the traditional male-dominated canon.


Feminist methodologies, especially when combined with Marxist theories, gave academics a powerful and alternative way of looking at both history and the present, yet feminist methodologies as applied to the history of art have remained reasonably static in their approach. While feminism as a political movement has moved on with successive waves of ideologies, feminist methodology for history art often still works from the same seminal texts (such as Nochlin’s) that broke the original ground.


In many respects feminist methodologies fit neatly into hegemonic, patriarchal culture – as much as their practitioners would like to suggest that they now champion intersectionality (McCall, 2005, p. 1771). They support the notion of a bigender society and specifically exclude those who exist outside of the gender paradigm that society currently uses to view the world and write history. Feminist art historical methodologies may well be the fight against the male dominated view of the history of art, but when viewing the history of art as a queer participant these methodologies only serve to reinforce the patriarchal structure and act as another hegemonic barrier that needs to be removed before a queer history can be composed. Traditional and New art histories combined act as a complete patriarchal version of the histories of art, a history that could potentially be rewritten by a new queer methodology.


Introducing queer methodologies to the history of art is unlikely to be as simple as just viewing the world from a queer point of view. Queer methodology must be counterhegemonic in its nature, allowing new paradigms to be enacted. It is not simply a case of rewriting the history of art from a gay or lesbian perspective, or even a transgender perspective. In order to create a truly queered history of art the bigender paradigm should not be used and another must be found; otherwise queer methodologies will become just another pillar that supports the dominant patriarchal norm by acting in support of male masculinities and female femininities (Halberstam, 1998, pp. 3–4). Stephen Bann’s suggestion that a new cultural critique can gain strength from the fact that old positions have already run their course is as relevant now as it was when he discussed the idea almost thirty years ago (Bann, 1986, p. 19) and so queer theory must learn from the limitations faced today by feminist theory. As McCall discuses in a paper on intersectionality, feminist researches are already very aware of the limitations of using gender as an analytical category (McCall, 2005, p. 1772).


‘Feminine success is always measured by male standards’ claims Halberstam (2011, p. 4), and so by acting outside of the expected standards we can relieve ourselves of the pressure to conform. Some ‘renegade’ feminists, Jack Halberstam argues, have addressed that failing might be better than success while in pursuit of the counterhegemonies and this is a lesson that could potentially be learned by any new approach to the history of art. For instance lesbians do not conform to the expected heterosexual framework so they therefore fall outside of patriarchal societies and could redefine what gender means to them (Halberstam, 2011, p. 4). This way of thinking allows us to begin to construct a different gender narrative for the viewing of the history of art, by enabling those outside of the patriarchal hegemony to apply their own definitions of gender and sexuality. However most feminist history of art is largely unconcerned with sexuality or gender-fluidity and therefore this is not a tool that would be used by most feminist art historians. In most feminist art history the assumption is that the artist is heterosexual, white and often middle-class; there is no discourse available for the kind of alternative femininities and masculinities that Halberstam addresses in their text on female masculinity (Halberstam, 1998).


Some feminist academics have begun to offer a kind of queer methodology – although still under the banner of feminism. The idea of introducing sex, gender and sexuality to feminist approaches is proposed by Mimi Marinucci (Marinucci, 2010, p. 105) and can be seen as part of the wider movement of mainstream feminism towards an intersectional approach. In some ways this approach works very well – there is real solidarity between the experiences of many women and those who are LGBT* (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex) due to the basic understanding of what it is like to be born into a state of patriarchal oppression. However there is also tension between the feminist and queer movements and as Marinucci points out there has been a history of feminist studies showing bias against lesbian women, gay men, minority sexualities and transgender people (Marinucci, 2010, p. 106).


It could be suggested that art history is now in a state of post-feminism; where equality has begun to be achieved in academic writing and galleries. Certainly the large art institutions in the United Kingdom, such as the Tate, have no problems with showing large retrospectives dedicated to twentieth-century women artists. Marlene Dumas (Marlene Dumas: The Image as Burden, no date) and Sonia Delaunay (The EY Exhibition: Sonia Delaunay, no date) are currently showing major retrospectives at the Tate Modern in London, Cathy Wilkes is showing at the Tate Liverpool (Cathy Wilkes, no date) and the Tate Britain has hosted retrospectives of well known women artists such as Susan Hiller (Susan Hiller, no date) and has a Barbara Hepworth exhibition opening in June 2015 (Barbara Hepworth: Sculpture for a Modern World, no date). I am aware that naming the exhibitions being held of women artists pushes me precariously close to being guilty of what Nochlin warned against, however it does certainly appear that women artists now have a roughly equal number of major exhibitions as artists who are men when considering twentieth and twenty-first century art. Most feminist art historians can be categorised as using one of the other approaches to art history (such as connoisseurship, biography or iconography to name just a few) so it could be suggested that feminist art historians should just continue to work under those banners rather than identifying as feminists since the feminist art historian label seems to be no longer required.


Marunucci presents the idea that queer feminism provides a new direction for feminism as a critical perspective. Introducing questions of sexuality into feminist art history would greatly increase the scope of the methodology. According to the label on the front of the book Art & Queer Culture it is ‘the first book to focus on the criticism and theory regarding queer visual art’ (Lord and Meyer, 2013). If this statement is indeed true it means that no feminist (or any other) art historian has been addressing the criticism and theory of queer art. This raises the question – if feminism was truly interested in any sexuality, sex or gender other than heterosexual women who were identified as women at birth, wouldn’t this book have been written years or perhaps even decades ago?


Even if feminist art historians use approaches borrowed from gay and lesbian studies, this does not go far enough. A relatively recent biography of photographer Claude Cahun (Doy, 2007) is a good example of why feminist approaches are often inadequate even when combined with gay and lesbian studies. Cahun was a photographer who lived from 1894 to 1954. Originally identified as female at birth, Cahun had romantic relationships with women and in 1915-1916 began using the gender-ambiguous name Claude Cahun instead of the assigned birth name of Lucy Schwob (Claude Cahun – Chronology, no date). Most of Cahun’s body of photographic work is self-portraiture and Cahun presents as outwardly male in a large portion of the images. Where Cahun presents as a woman in images it is often an exaggerated and drag version of femininity. The biography by Gen Doy deals extensively with Cahun’s theoretical interests in sex and sexuality and also recounts her preference of living with a woman multiple times, however the assumption is always made that Cahun is a lesbian woman. Not once is the idea entertained that Cahun could possibly be transgender (and therefore potentially heterosexual) or genderqueer and Cahun is referred to as ‘she’ and ‘lesbian’ throughout the text without any explanation. Both feminist and gay and lesbian studies have failed as approaches when it comes to artists such as Claude Cahun since they refuse to engage with major political and personal aspects of the artist’s life and work. A queer approach may well have shed more light on this popular photographer from the early twentieth-century.


According to government surveys only 93.9% of the adult population in the UK identified as heterosexual in April 2011 to March 2012 (Woodsford, 2012). Estimating the amount of transpeople in the UK is problematic due to the difficulty defining transgender status within current gender paradigms (do we consider self-identification as with sexuality or is medical intervention the standard for defining a transperson?), but a 2008 European study suggests that there could be as many as 1 in 20 transgender individuals within the male population alone using the most wide definitions – and this number is increasing exponentially (‘Transgender EuroStudy’, no date). Going forward feminist approaches do not offer enough scope to record and analyse these important aspects of an artists work and personal life.


Feminist approaches to art history are still an excellent methodology for looking at artworks in the past and for discussing women’s status in society. However the fact that feminist methodologies rely heavily on a bigender paradigm, as demonstrated by the earlier discussed assumption that women’s studies are about the dominance of men over women (Pollock, 1988, p. 1), means that they are not so well-placed to look at artists today and in the future. In a society that is slowly but steadily rejecting the idea of a clear-cut ‘male’ and ‘female’ status (Hird, 2000, p. 348) we need methodologies that can produce a discourse on this new approach to working practices. Feminism is still relevant to the discipline of history of art while examining the past, but it becomes less relevant as we move into the future when those writing about art will need to talk authoritatively on a wider range of gender, sex and sexuality than feminist methodologies currently routinely discuss.




Bann, S. (1986) ‘How Revolutionary is the New Art History?’, in Rees, A. L. and Borzello, F. (eds) The New Art History. London, England: Camden Press.

Barbara Hepworth: Sculpture for a Modern World (no date). Available at: (Accessed: 6 May 2015).

Cathy Wilkes (no date). Available at: (Accessed: 6 May 2015).

Claude Cahun – Chronology (no date) Claude Cahun Home Page. Available at:

Doy, G. (2007) Claude Cahun: A Sensual Politics of Photography. London: I.B. Tauris. Available at: (Accessed: 6 May 2015).

Fernie, E. (1995) Art History and Its Methods: A Critical Anthology. United Kingdom: Phaidon Press, Incorporated.

Fox-Genovese, E. (1982) ‘Placing Women’s History in History’, New Left Review, (133), pp. 5–29.

Halberstam, J. (1998) Female Masculinity. Durham: Duke University Press.

Halberstam, J. (2011) The Queer Art of Failure. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Hird, M. J. (2000) ‘Gender’s nature: Intersexuality, transsexualism and the “sex”/’gender’ binary’, Feminist Theory, 1(3), pp. 347–364. doi: 10.1177/146470010000100305.

Jõekalda, K. (2013) ‘What has become of the New Art History?’, Journal of Art Historiography, (9).

Lord, C. and Meyer, R. (2013) Art and Queer Culture. London: Phaidon Press.

Marinucci, M. (2010) Feminism Is Queer: The intimate connection between queer and feminist theory. London: Zed.

Marlene Dumas: The Image as Burden (no date). Available at: (Accessed: 6 May 2015).

McCall, L. (2005) ‘The Complexity of Intersectionality’, Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 30(3), pp. 1771–1800. doi: 10.1086/426800.

Nochlin, L. (1978) Art and sexual politics; women’s liberation, women artists, and art history. 4. print. Edited by T. B. Hess. New York: Collier Books (Collier books).

Pollock, G. (1988) Vision and Difference: Feminism, Femininity and Histories of Art (Routledge Classics). United Kingdom: London ; Routledge.

Rees, A. L. and Borzello, F. (eds) (1986a) ‘Introduction’, in The New Art History. London, England: Camden Press.

Rees, A. L. and Borzello, F. (eds) (1986b) The New Art History. London, England: Camden Press.

Susan Hiller (no date). Available at: (Accessed: 6 May 2015).

The EY Exhibition: Sonia Delaunay (no date). Available at: (Accessed: 6 May 2015).

‘Transgender EuroStudy’ (no date) TGEU. Available at: (Accessed: 7 May 2015).

Woodsford, S. (2012) Integrated Household Survey April 2011 to March 2012: Experimental Statistics. Available at: (Accessed: 7 May 2015).