Friday, October 19, 2018

A Sex Object Manifesto

In the Fall of 2018, I enrolled in a modern art history class taught at my local community college. At the beginning of the semester, I noticed on the syllabus that we would be doing a reading response to Linda Nochlin's 1975 article, Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?

At the time, I was in the beginning of my midlife crisis, feeling defensive about all the efforts I had put toward various projects which I gave up near completion, and so I anticipated having a powerful response to the reading assignment, which I did.

It became my manifesto, which I shared with numerous friends. And so, I put it out to the Universe.


Amy Lewark
ART 207 - Art History 1900-Present
November 8, 2017
S. Newton

Reading Response to Linda Nochlin's Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?

I have been curious about this reading since the day we were given the syllabus. There is a
certain amount of frustration I feel from growing up being told I could “achieve anything I put my mind to” and then experiencing the reality of being a grown female in the world, with or without children. A little validation goes a long way for me, psychologically speaking, and Nochlin’s article provided just that. I spent enough time in academia and the working world to understand what that looks like from a female perspective, and now sixteen years as a stay at home mother to see the “other side” of it. So my thought, originally, was that I could write a dissertation on the subject, but I will spare you, as I would probably be “preaching to the choir” as they say, anyway.

The first important point Nochlin mentions is that feminism must deal with scholarship, not just
real problems with everyday life. Certainly, aspects of everyday life are greatly affected by being female, and I do think that understanding traditional gender roles can help explain why even if there are actually some unrecognized great female artists, why there are so many fewer great female than male artists. I spend a fair amount of time reading sociological commentary on gender roles, being the parent of a boy and a girl, and living in a fairly non-traditional household (we are all home most days of the week due to our choice to homeschool and the way in which we do it, and my husband works from home and has a lot of free time). There was an article going around from a few months ago which a friend shared with me addressing many of the frustrations of being a working woman (Calhoun). I found it to be a little long, and somewhat of a diatribe, but a thorough discussion of the problems women in our generation still face. Through reading it, and also pursuing a line of inquiry of gender roles and human sexuality, I decided to turn my own midlife crisis into a body of art work. I am coming up with ideas fairly regularly which try to address the existential realities of being a man or woman in this world, and how modern societal framework helps exacerbate the negative implications of gender roles. That is a subject for another time, but I wanted to mention it because it is directly related to this reading and also to what I have learned regarding great modern art in the western world. The interesting thing about the Calhoun article was that although it was directed mainly toward working women, I shared it with the other stay-at-home and semi-employed women (not career-seeking) I know, and they still connected with the article. There was a particular part of the article which stoked our ire, all of us being the children of the women of the second wave of feminism, taught to believe we could accomplish anything with persistence, and it was this: men still largely shirk care giving behaviors. Even when there are no children in the picture, a woman is more likely to end up caring for an aging in-law than her husband would be. He is more likely to throw money at the problem.

So it is my observation that this generation X that is in mid-life, which is the most evolved mid
life generation in human history, still suffers from the problem of previous generations not grooming  men to be caregivers, due to an economic system that rewards itself for generating tangible goods and money over care and culture. Yes, women are “incapable of greatness” in the sense that their time and mental energy available for the creation of great art is, on the whole, much less than what men have.

I particularly liked Nochlin’s discussion of how listing the “great female artists” ignores the
question which can help us get to the root of the problem. In this class, we learned about Bonheur, Morisot, Cassatt, Claudel, Delaunay, Kollwitz, Modersohn-Becker, Goncharova, Hoch, O’Keeffe, Colter, Brandt, Hepworth, Savage, Lange, Karr, Krasner, Kahlo, and do Amaral, but only a few of those were ever household names (Cassatt, O’Keefe and Kahlo) compared to the dozens of male artists who most living adults would recognize. I believe most of these women never had children, which certainly simplified their cognitive load. Another troubling pattern in the art world is the role that women end up playing to male artists, which helps those men to be great artists. Think about Morisot’s body of work compared to Manet, Claudelle’s to Rodin, Sonia’s to Robert Delaunay, Kahlo’s to Rivera, and Krasner’s to Pollock. The women had far fewer recognized works compared to their lovers or husbands, but were no less skilled.

The one exception to this rule is probably O’Keefe’s body of work to Stieglitz, but she broke from him to save herself and thereby saved her art. I learned of two more troubling examples on my trip to Eastern Europe: Alphonse Mucha, who I had assumed married a woman who was from outside the art world, but he married a model who was also an artist. I don’t know if she gave up on her art to support his work and their children, but there are no examples of her art in the Mucha Museum in Prague and none in the book produced by the Mucha Foundation. Maybe her work was mediocre, but I will never know.

When I was young, my mother had a book laying around the house called “Second Banana” by Dottie Lamm, wife of Colorado Governor Richard Lamm. I remember finding the title humorous and asking my mother what it meant, and she responded with the well-known phrase, “Behind every great man is a great woman.” It is actually a term used by comedians, another way of describing a “Double Act” where the comedic effort is uneven, but supported mainly through efforts of the “Second Banana.” A good example of this technique is the comic duo Penn and Teller. Teller has never uttered a word on stage, but without his supporting effort, Penn would certainly be a loudmouthed flop. Even Einstein was unable to do his work without a harsh agreement with his wife that she would not talk to him or otherwise get in the way of his thought. But he needed her to bring him food and otherwise take care of his needs so he could direct all his energies to his brilliant thought experiments. It is one thing to have a financial patron in order to pursue one’s passion, but yet another to have one taking care of all the human needs we have for food, clean clothes, someone to listen and provide validation and very importantly touch, and largely, throughout history, all these needs of the brilliant minds of our time have been met by women, because men have been unsuited to meet them, and generally do not meet them for women. The exception to this rule is in aristocratic life where it is possible to secure these services through servants. Again, men are able to throw money at the problem, whereas women must throw themselves at the problem. This is probably also why the great women artists that did exist were from families of some means, whereas great men artists come from diverse economic backgrounds.

The second example addresses a lot of the other concerns Nochlin raises in her article. Gabrielle Munter (1877-1962) has an enormous special exhibit at the Lenbachhaus in Munich which is home to many of the works of Der Blaue Reiter’s Wassily Kandinsky (a household name) and Franz Marc. I had not heard of her before, even after studying Der Blaue Reiter in our class. But it is my opinion that Der Blaue Reiter would not even exist without her. Did Stokstad even think to mention her? She received great amounts of private instruction from childhood onward, and dedicated herself to the pursuit of art. She traveled all over the world, spoke five languages, painted various subjects, met many famous artists, and kept on top of the avant garde trends in art. She was a prolific artist. The special exhibit at the Lenbachhaus makes a point to illustrate her diligent practice (she would paint the same scene many times) and intense curiosity about artistic experimentation. She never had children, and personally placed a priority on her art, probably rendering such “important” lifestyle tasks such as having clean dishes or freshly pressed or new clothes to the bottom of her task list. So, her mind was fully available to pursue her passion and develop her talent, and the relationships with other artists that would help inform her work, and theirs. She was the glue in her artistic community through her intense interest in and dedication to art. Not many women, even 100 years later, get to dedicate their lives to art in this way, either because they are married, or mothers, or because they are liberated and they now have the right to get paid as men do, so their “talent” is directed toward more lucrative professions (ultimately serving the patriarchy). Those who do pursue art or have a little free time to do it are either considered dilettantes, or consider themselves dilettantes on some level. (And, as Nochlin mentions, aristocrats don’t make particularly good artists, probably because their lives are not well-informed about the human condition.) This is part of the western white male narrative, which places value on money over cultural efforts to boot.

So why didn’t we learn about Munter in class? She is the entire reason Der Blaue Reiter
collection exists at the Lenbachhaus because she was a collector of her instructor Kandinsky’s works, as well as Marc’s. She carefully hid artworks in her house in Germany during World War II and they were never found, so that when she was much older she was able to give them to the city of Munich for display in the Lenbachhaus. Nochlin writes about the fundamental defect in Art History – that it is from the Western White Male perspective, and I think this is probably a big part of the problem with the lack of inclusion of Munter in Art History texts, valuing the same Western White Male qualities in artists. As Nochlin states, Art History accepts the “great artist as primary, and social and institutional structures within which he lived and worked as mere secondary ‘influences’ or ‘background.’” There had been rumors that perhaps Einstein’s first wife had participated in the writing of his 1905 Relativity Paper for which he won the Nobel Prize, and in fact their divorce agreement stated that she would receive half of the proceeds for the Prize, but even a female researcher, Galina Weinstein, who investigated the letters from both Einstein and his wife determined that because her letters did not contain references to relativity, she must have been no more than a “sounding board” (MIT Technology Review). Gabrielle Munter started out as a student of Kandinsky’s, and although Kandinsky was married, their teacher student relationship evolved into an extramarital affair. I propose that by being involved with Kandinsky sexually, the view of her by Art Historians may have been colored as to see her as part of Kandinsky’s support network, rather than as a great artist in her own right.

Women have long complained and known about being seen as sex objects, and I wonder how
many great artists who were peripheral to a male are discounted because of amorous relationships with male artists. How many of those women’s careers suffer due to the pitfalls of becoming Second Banana, and how many male artists, due to the emphasis society places on men being success objects, become energy vampires for the equally talented and hardworking female artists in their lives? I think that in order to break this pattern, not just for women, not just for artists, but for all people, parents need to be aware of these false dichotomies and raise all children, regardless of gender, to be self aware and generous human beings. If I am never known for being a Great Woman Artist, I hope at least to accomplish this with my own children, so that any relationships they have can be cooperative in nature and so that no one person is Second Banana in all realms of the partnership. If we can accomplish this goal on a societal level, it is my hope that men will have less pressure to be success objects, and that women can achieve greatness in whatever field they choose, but also that the larger effect will be to shift the economy to one that values caregiving and culture just as much as it does monetary and tangible ends. To this end, I hope to raise awareness of these patterns and their implications through my art, and I shall continue to eschew the status quo to which many women dedicate their lives in reinforcement (to the detriment of humankind, but the benefit of the monetary economy), in order to free myself to make art like my life depends upon it.

What I have learned so far in this class reinforces what Nochlin writes regarding the concept of a “mystique” surrounding great artists. The secret to great art is the diligent pursuit of the passion (eudaimonia) without regard to the question of success. Great art requires collaboration with like minded individuals. The belief that individuals are somehow imbued with a genius does a great disservice to society. Along these lines, there have been scientific studies showing that praising gifted children for their intelligence encourages laziness, and so I have always been careful to thank or recognize my children’s effort to encourage effort in general. Giving them time to pursue their interests has enabled them both to appear quite “talented” in their respective interests (computer programming for my son and art for my daughter) while also fostering their general intelligence.

It has been my observation that families in which the Puritanical (dare I say Patriarchal?) mindset of busy-ness for busy-ness’ sake reigns engender a general environment of anxiety, stress, a lack of self-reflection, a lack of “talent”, mindless behavior, and overall mediocrity. In the 18th century, Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville noted a different mentality in the US from that of Europe, where Americans had a higher degree of stress due to the relentless pursuit of (empty) status, because there was no ceiling for what one could theoretically obtain through diligent work. I believe this mindset has engulfed our society, made people unaware of how their status-seeking impairs not only their own happiness, but also success, and how all the “status” we seek comes at the cost of someone else’s life. The question of women’s role in art is but one good example. Ironically, it was Einstein who wrote a note to a bellboy in Germany in 1922, when he did not have money to tip the bellboy, about how to achieve happiness (this note recently sold for $1.5 million at auction): “A calm and modest life brings more happiness than the pursuit of success combined with constant restlessness.” As Generation X women, this is what our mothers failed to acknowledge. Our mothers recognized our need to self-actualize outside the home, but they did not recognize the qualities or repercussions of empty, passionless success through servitude to the patriarchy. The second wave of feminism brought birth control and the ability to work in any field we desire, but it came at the larger cost of lost societal genius, as well as the growth of sociopathic and selfish behavior. When Nochlin wrote her prescient musing, women were still not allowed to wear pants to work, even though they were allowed to hold jobs and control the results of their own sexuality. Developmental stages in a child come in fits and spurts, with advancements always bringing chaotic behaviors as the new skills are assimilated within the context of old, outdated behaviors. I believe this is the typical trajectory for any sort of evolution, from the level of the cell to the level of society, and right now society needs to recognize that relentless pursuit of status is at direct odds with happiness, and also greatness. There will be no truly great female artists until there is equity among the sexes in caregiving, and also not until women recognize the potential in their free time and use their cognitive surplus for more meaningful pursuits than are currently encouraged by society (the patriarchy). It will require an irreverent disregard for soccer games, bake sales, mowed lawns, clean dishes, thank you notes, or anything else not proving meditative for the woman performing that task. It will require the ability to not worry about things that don’t necessitate worry, and for more behavior that, from the outside, might look selfish, but that will encourage more independence from the traditionally “cared for” populations (husbands, children). It will require us to be there emotionally for husbands and children, so they can learn to do that for others, too. As I like to say, “What’s good for the mothership is good for the fleet” and my pursuit of happiness through art is good for my fleet, it is good for me, and I hope it will prove to be good for society, too.

[EDIT 4/12/2021]:  This is how I feel about "The Male Gaze."

And here's how I feel about art, capitalism, and the use of my body.

Finally, here's how I feel about having used my body to share my message on social media.

Works Cited

Calhoun, Adah. The New Midlife Crisis: Why and How It’s Hitting Gen X Women.

Jones, Josh.  Albert Einstein Imposes on His First Wife a Cruel List of Marital Demands.

MIT Technology Review. Did Einstein’s First Wife Secretly Coauthor His 1905 Relativity Paper?

Nochlin, Linda. Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists? Art and its Histories: A Reader – Section III, Gender and Art. 1975.


  1. Wow! This is incredible, but also dense, you could turn it into an entire book. Maybe a 50 k word one in November .. I haven't decided about nano yet myself. But giving it serious right, I just need a compelling topic.

  2. Thank you for the comment, Lisa! I am seriously considering NaNoWriMo next month. Going to write today - I have a busy head - might as well tap it.