Who Says There Have Been Great Women Artists? Some Afterthoughts

By Clark, Roger; Folgo, Ashley | Art Education, March 2006 | Go to article overview

Who Says There Have Been Great Women Artists? Some Afterthoughts


Clark, Roger, Folgo, Ashley, Art Education


Last year we addressed an issue in these pages that echoed Linda Nochlin 's (1971) haunting question, "Why have there been no great women artists?" (Clark, Folgo, & Pichette, 2005). In that essay we examined our question, "Have there now been any great women artists?" through a study of art history textbooks primarily written for college students. We reasoned that if women artists are to be reckoned great, their achievements would have to be recognized by the writers of such books. After all, as Barbara Ehrlich White (1976) observed, women artists simply did not appear in any of the basic college art-history textbooks-Janson, Gardner, Gombrich. So what were the chances that students of art would consider any of them great? What were the chances that potential great women artists could draw any inspiration from such texts?

The good news of our initial study was that more recent art history textbooks-textbooks written in the last 15 years or so-are much more likely to recognize women artists than their pre1974 counterparts. Käthe Kollwitz, Sofonisha Anguissola, Mary Cassatt, Artemisia Gentileschi Judith Leysterjudy Chicago, Dorothea Lange, Frida Kahlo, Louise Nevelson, and Georgia O'Keeffe are recognized in almost all contemporary college texts. The bad news was that there are still some influential books that have held the line against acknowledging distaff contributions. The 2002 edition of Gombrich, for instance, failed to recognize a single woman artist other than Kollwitz. Still, there is great variation in the degree to which college texts acknowledge women artists.

Our investigation of nine contemporary art history texts led us, even in that earlier article (Clark, Folgo, & Pichette, 2005), to speculate that there are essentially two types of authors who say there have been great women artists: women art historians and authors who self-consciously address high school audiences. We could only speculate about these two types of authors, however, in that investigation. Here, having pursued new data, we answer our question more definitively.

A Word About the New Data

Previously, we looked mainly at art history texts for college students (Clark, Folgo, & Pichette, 2005). We found that college texts authored or co-authored by women, like Stokstad's (2002) Art History and Preble and Preble's (1994) Artforms, were much more likely to devote space to women artists than ones authored exclusively by men. We looked, almost by chance, at one text designed for high school students, Gene Mittler's (1999) Art in Focus, a book that gave extraordinary attention to women artists, especially compared to college texts by male authors.We wondered whether authors who wrote for high school students (and, perhaps not incidentally, their primarily women teachers and/or their interested-in-promoting-diversity school boards) were more likely than male authors writing for college students (and college professors) to promote the women artists as exemplars of artistic creativity. We looked to another high school art history text by a man, Brommer's (1997) Discovering Art History,and found that it, like Mittler's text, was much more likely than college texts by male authors to include women artists and their works. Could it be that authors of high school texts, whether male or female, really were more likely than male authors of college texts to write women into their histories of art?

This time we expanded our sample to include more texts aimed at high school students.We determined that a text was designed for high school audiences in either of two ways:(1) it said so in its front matter (e.g., preface or introduction); or (2) its advisors largely had high school affiliations.

Our college library serves a large education program and therefore has a relatively large number of recent art history and art practice high school texts that refer to the work of numerous exemplary artists. We looked at all seven of these texts in our current investigation. …

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