The Legacy of Feminist Art History

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Fiona Carson and Claire Pajaczkowska. Feminist Visual Culture. New York: Routledge, 2001 - 336 pp., 24 b/w ills. $22.95 paper.

Linda Nochlin. Representing Women. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1999. 272 PP., 170 b/w ills. $24.95 paper.

Aruna D'Souza, ed. Self and History: A Tribute to Linda Nochlin. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2001. Includes essays by Ewa Lajer-Burcharth, Rosalind Krauss, Abigail Solomon-Godeau, Molly Nesbit, Robert Rosenblum, Carol Duncan, Kenneth Silver, Eunice Lipton, Tamar Garb, Stephen Eisenman, John Goodman, Robert Simon, and Carol Ockman; interview with Nochlin by Moira Roth; afterword by Nochlin. 224 pp., 102 b/w ills. $24.95 paper.

Despite thirty years of feminist scholarship, many college and university art history and humanities departments are still criticized for the underrepresentation of women artists in their courses. This is often "solved" by offering classes that focus on women in art (as both artists and subjects) rather than integrating these topics into mainstream narratives of art history. I have taught a few of these courses at several colleges; in the most problematic case, the class was billed as a two-for-one deal that fulfilled both humanities and "diversity" credits. Although it may seem forced or hopelessly outdated to ghettoize women artists' visual production into a pedagogic narrative that, by its nature, makes connections between individuals that often have only gender in common, such courses productively encourage students to question the constructed nature of the canon and the so-called neutrality of concepts, such as "genius" and "quality." Moreover, teaching to a class composed primarily of studio art majors affords a rare opportunity to discuss with young artists (male and female) issues that many of them will encounter once they leave the secure fold of art school, such as the gap between artistic intent and critical reception, the prejudices of the marketplace, and the commercial appropriation and commodification of artistic production in popular culture.

When teaching a lecture course on women in contemporary art, one of the major stumbling blocks is the lack of an introductory text on the history and methodologies of feminist art history for this period, particularly one that stays in print.1 Reading lists must be assembled out of monographic essays, recent catalogues, reviews, and articles, resulting in the lack of an overarching narrative. Such a collage of sources has healthy benefits in its open-endedness, but often leaves the students a bit adrift methodologically. Speaking to this need, Fiona Carson and Claire Pajaczkowska have put together an introductory reader, Feminist Visual Culture, that utilizes an approach very different from the compressed, encyclopedic strategies of Whitney Chadwick's useful 1990 survey, Women, Art, and Society (which, at times, reads like a laundry list of women artists and feminist arguments, or a mnemonic tool for those already well versed in the feminist canon).2 Feminist Visual Culture takes the opposite tack, sacrificing variety for thematic depth, discussing visual production by genre and case study rather than by a historically organized narrative. Although written from a British perspective, 1970s feminist art in America is not dismissed out of hand as naively representational, essentialist, or uncritical; in the section on sculpture and installation, for example, Mona Hatoum's Deep Throat (1996) is put in dialogue with Judy Chicago's The Dinner Party (7974-79). Since many texts on 1970s feminism tend to have a purely American focus, like Norma Broude and Mary D. Garrard's The Power of Feminist Art: The American Movement of the 1970s, History and Impact (1994), this survey offers a welcome view from the other side of the Atlantic. Students interested in getting a toehold in feminist theory and methodology are offered lucid introductions to key concepts of I ecriture feminine and psychoanalysis, for example, and the most influential readings of Mary Douglas, Judith Butler, and Laura Mulvey. …