Addressing Feminist Issues in “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” and “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”

Addressing Feminist Issues in “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” and “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”

In comparing the ways in which Linda Nochlin and Laura Mulvey address feminist issues in “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” and in “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” respectively, it is important to see one author as a probable catalyst for the other. Nochlin’s essay seeks to answer the inexhaustible question: “why have there been no great women artists?” by probing the validity of the “women problem” and by shedding light on the limitations of specific social institutions. Nochlin examines historical and social implications of the question; her argument, rooted in historical evidence, proves that certain social institutions: art academies, systems of patronage, mythologies of the divine creator, and artist as perpetual social outcast, contribute to the scarcity of great women artists.[1] Whereas Nochlin uses evidentiary support in the form of history itself to construct her argument, Mulvey employs Freudian psychoanalytic theory to explain many concepts proposed by Nochlin, specifically that of the female nude. In her article, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Mulvey explores the perpetual condition of the women as subject to male gaze within the contextual forum of cinema. This article functions as an analytic tool for many of the issues Nochlin discusses in “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” Although the two articles remain separate and distinct, for the purpose of this paper it is important to recognize how Mulvey’s use of Freudian psychoanalysis supports and makes sense of Nochlin’s claims.

Nochlin concludes that due to institutional disadvantages for women artists, particularly the unavailability of nude models through the 19th century, it was “institutionally made impossible for women to achieve artistic excellence, or success, on the same footing as men, no matter what the potency of their so-called talent, or genius.”[2]  The study of the nude, generally male, model was necessary to the training of every artist in order to produce the history paintings deemed as the highest form of art in the 19th century.  As such, Nochlin equates the unavailability of nude models to women artists with a medical student being “denied the opportunity to dissect of even examine the naked human body.”[3] This denial is made more apparent through Nochlin’s use of images to support her claims. Leon-Mathieu Cochereau’s Interior of David’s Studio is a visual representation of this lack of female students, as none are depicted in this male infused room. Emphasizing this notion is Johann Zoffany’s The Academicians of the Royal Academy, in which two nude male models are surrounded by all members of the academy except for the only female member whose presence takes form in a portrait hanging on the wall. The Academicians of the Royal Academy functions to reveal that, “it is all right for a woman to reveal herself naked-as-an-object for a group of men, but forbidden to a women to participate in the active study and recording of naked-man-as-object, or even of a fellow woman.”[4] Nochlin makes this assertion factually without further analysis; for in depth analysis we look to “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” in which the issue of objectification is thoroughly examined.

In utilizing film as her primary social construct, Mulvey discusses the male gaze as both the eye of the camera and of the audience. The viewer, actively looking and therefore male, takes pleasure in looking; he is scopophilic, a Freudian term, which at the extreme can produce “obsessive voyeurs and Peeping Toms whose only sexual satisfaction can come from watching, in an active controlling sense, an objectified other.”[5] Cinema satisfies a scopophilia as it functions to tap into the unconscious desires of the spectators whose repressed sexual instincts are projected onto the performer. Moreover, film satisfies the viewer’s ego libido, in that, scopophilia becomes narcissistic, as it “demands identification of the ego with the object on the screen through the spectator’s fascination with and recognition of his like.”[6] In combining sexual instincts and ego libido within a narrative, mainstream, Hollywood film satisfies the active male gaze by projecting his fantasies onto the passive, objectified female whose appearance becomes an erotic spectacle.  Not only does the woman function as erotic object for the spectator to gaze, but also as the erotic object for the male characters within the story. [7]

In employing certain films like The River of No Return and Vertigo to support her argument, Mulvey aims to assert that art does imitate life. This is also true in Nochlin’s use of relevant images. However, unlike Nochlin, Mulvey explores the psychoanalytic background of her observations. She writes, “Women in representation can signify castration, and activate voyeuristic or fetishistic mechanisms to circumvent this threat.”[8] If we take this Freudian logic as true, then we can conclude: “Men cannot bear the burden of sexual objectification. Man is reluctant to gaze at his exhibitionist like. Hence the split between spectacle and narrative supports the man’s role as the active one advancing the story, making things happen.”[9] This is not only intrinsic to film; we can implement this logic in our understanding of why women artists were forbidden to participate in drawing of male nudes in the 19th century. For example, in discussion of Emily Mary Osborn’s painting Nameless and Friendless, 1857, Nochlin writes, “Always a model but never an artist might well have served as the motto of the seriously aspiring young woman in the arts of the nineteenth century.”[10]

In “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” and in “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” the issue of female choice is discussed extensively. Mulvey addresses this issue using Freudian psychoanalysis, whereas Nochlin approaches it using a historical basis. Though completely different approaches, both authors come to very similar conclusions. Nochlin determines that women have continuously struggled with the choice of marriage or career.  For instance, if a woman were to become an artist, she would give up prospects of family. What separates the women from the men is that for women, the decision comes with immense guilt and self-doubt, truly epitomized in the way in which Rosa Bonheur justifies her choice to the public in order to “satisfy the demands of her own conscience.”[11] It is clear that great male artists such as Courbet gave up family life in order to pursue an unobstructed career as an artist. For these men this choice was not black or white, as they did not automatically deny companionship or sex. Moreover, they never even considered “that they had sacrificed their manhood or their sexual role on account of their single-mindedness in achieving professional fulfillment.” [12]  Men, then, can live out their passions wholly, and women are subject to an archaic, yet perpetual role as mother figure. Mulvey writes, “Women then stands in patriarchal culture as a signifier for the male other, bound by a symbolic order in which man can live out his fantasies and obsessions through linguistic command by imposing them on the silent image of women still tied to her place as bearer, not maker, of meaning.”[13]

Although Nochlin and Mulvey address feminist issues extremely differently, as seen in the examination of both articles, the woman as object of the gaze is central for both authors. Nochlin utilizes varied images, the idiosyncratic career of Rosa Bonheur, and history itself to support her argument that there have been no great women artists because of their continuous suppression by male enforced institutions. Mulvey utilizes cinema to support her claim that women are perpetually defeated by an objectified image and exist only in relation to castration. In implementing Freudian psychoanalysis to address feminist issues, Mulvey’s article functions to harmonize with Nochlin’s; as Mulvey approaches the issues analytically, Nochlin’s approach is matter-of-fact.

Works Cited

Minor, Vernon Hyde, "Feminism," in Art History's History, 157-165 (Upper Sddle River, NJ:

Prentice-Hall, Inc., 2001).

Mulvey, Laura, "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema," in Visual and Other Pleasures, 14-26

(Palgrave Macmillan, 1989).

Nochlin, Linda, "Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?", in Women, Art and

Power and Other Essays, 145-178 (NY: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 1988).

[1] Linda Nochlin, "Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?”, in Women, Art and Power and Other Essays, 145-178 (NY: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 1988). 158.

[2] Nochlin, 176.

[3] Nochlin, 160.

[4] Nochlin, 160.

[5] Laura Mulvey, "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema," in Visual and Other Pleasures, 14-26 (Palgrave Macmillan, 1989). 17.

[6] Mulvey, 18.

[7] Mulvey, 19.

[8] Mulvey, 25.

[9] Mulvey, 20.

[10] Nochlin, 168.

[11] Nochlin, 174.

[12] Nochlin, 167.

[13] Mulvey, 15.

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