Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s 1911 Version of “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?”
By Nava Atlas | On August 27, 2017 | Updated November 18, 2022 | Comments (0)
In 1971, Linda Nochlin, a well-regarded art historian and critic, asked the provocative question, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” in essay that quickly became iconic.
Now a standard of feminist art theory and history, it explores the institutional barriers that prevented women, but for a few exceptions, to rise to the level of their male peers in the art world.
Exactly 60 years earlier, pioneering feminist author Charlotte Perkins Gilman (best known for The Yellow Wallpaper) examined the same question in a chapter of one of her lesser-known works of nonfiction, The Man-Made World (1911) — originally titled Our Androcentric Culture.
Like Nochlin, Perkins looked at the history of women’s education, the nature of art and talent, and the obstacles faced by women who had a notion to try to break down those barriers.
Following is a portion of the chapter “Men and Art” in which Gilman explores institutional sexism in the visual art field:
The question: “Why have there been no great women artists?”
Among the many counts in which women have been proven inferior to men in human development is the oft-heard charge that there are no great women artists.
Where one or two are proudly exhibited in evidence, they are either pooh-poohed as not very great, or held to be the trifling exceptions which do but prove the rule.
Defenders of women generally make the mistake of over-estimating their performances, instead of accepting, and explaining, the visible facts. What are the facts as to the relation of men and women to art? And what, in especial, has been the effect upon art of a solely masculine expression?
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See also: Women and Economics by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
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Women were cut off from the joy of making things
Art as a profession, and the Artist as a professional, came later; and by that time women had left the freedom and power of the matriarchate and become slaves in varying degree. The women who were idle pets in harems, or the women who worked hard as servants, were alike cut off from the joy of making things.
Where constructive work remained to them, art remained, in its early decorative form. Men, in the proprietary family, restricting the natural industry of women to personal service, cut off their art with their industry, and by so much impoverished the world.
There is no more conspicuously pathetic proof of the aborted development of women than this commonplace—their lack of a civilized art sense. Not only in the childish and savage display upon their bodies, but in the pitiful products they hang upon the walls of the home, is seen the arrest in normal growth.
Relegated to crude forms of expression
After ages of culture, in which men have developed Architecture, Sculpture, Painting, Music and the Drama, we find women in their primitive environment making flowers of wax, and hair, and worsted; doing mottoes of perforated cardboard, making crazy quilts and mats and “tidies”—as if they lived in a long past age, or belonged to a lower race.
This, as part of the general injury to women dating from the beginning of our androcentric culture, reacts heavily upon the world at large.
Men, specializing, giving their lives to the continuous pursuit of one line of service, have lifted our standard in aesthetic culture, as they have in other matters; but by refusing the same growth to women, they have not only weakened and reduced the output, but ruined the market as it were, hopelessly and permanently kept down the level of taste.
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Learn more about Charlotte Perkins Gilman
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Women must be allowed to rise
Among the many sides of this great question, some so terrible, some so pathetic, some so utterly absurd, this particular phase of life is especially easy to study and understand, and has its own elements of amusement.
Men, holding women at the level of domestic service, going on themselves to lonely heights of achievement, have found their efforts hampered and their attainments rendered barren and unsatisfactory by the amazing indifference of the world at large.
As the world at large consists half of women, and wholly of their children, it would seem patent to the meanest understanding that the women must be allowed to rise in order to lift the world. But such has not been the method—heretofore.
Men’s interference with the art of women
We have spoken so far … of the effect of men on art through their interference with the art of women. There are other sides to the question.
Let us consider once more the essential characteristics of maleness, and see how they have affected art, keeping always in mind the triune distinction between masculine, feminine and human. Perhaps we shall best see this difference by considering what the development of art might have been on purely human terms.
An instinct to design
The human creature, as such, naturally delights in construction, and adds decoration to construction as naturally. The cook, making little regular patterns around the edge of the pie, does so from a purely human instinct, the innate eye-pleasure in regularity, symmetry, repetition, and alternation.
Had this natural social instinct grown unchecked in us, it would have manifested itself in a certain proportion of specialists—artists of all sorts—and an accompanying development of appreciation on the part of the rest of us. Such is the case in primitive art; the maker of beauty is upheld and rewarded by a popular appreciation of her work—or his.
Had this condition remained, we should find a general level of artistic expression and appreciation far higher than we see now.
Take the one field of textile art, for instance: that wide and fluent medium of expression, the making of varied fabrics, the fashioning of garments and the decoration of them—all this is human work and human pleasure. It should have led us to a condition where every human being was a pleasure to the eye, appropriately and beautifully clothed.
Spoiling the beauty and pleasure of everyday objects
Our real condition in this field is too patent to need emphasis; the stiff, black ugliness of our men’s attire; the irritating variegated folly of our women’s; the way in which we spoil the beauty and shame the dignity of childhood by modes of dress.
In normal human growth, our houses would be a pleasure to the eye; our furniture and utensils, all our social products, would blossom into beauty as naturally as they still do in those low stages of social evolution where our major errors have not yet borne full fruit.
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Applied art in all its forms is a human function, common to every one to some degree, either in production or appreciation, or both. “Pure art,” as an ideal, is also human; and the single-hearted devotion of the true artist to this ideal is one of the highest forms of the social sacrifice.
Of all the thousand ways by which humanity is specialized for inter-service, none is more exquisite than this; the evolution of the social Eye, or Ear, or Voice, the development of those whose work is wholly for others, and to whom the appreciation of others is as the bread of life.
This we should have in a properly developed community; the pleasure of applied art in the making and using of everything we have; and then the high joy of the Great Artist, and the noble work thereof, spread far and wide.
What do we find?
Applied art at a very low level; small joy either for the maker or the user. Pure art, a fine-spun specialty, a process carried on by an elect few who openly despise the unappreciative many. Art has become an occult profession requiring a long special education even to enjoy, and evolving a jargon of criticism which becomes more esoteric yearly.
Undesirable outcome blamed on male dominance
Let us now see what part in this undesirable outcome is due to our Androcentric Culture.
As soon as the male of our species assumed the exclusive right to perform all social functions, he necessarily brought to that performance the advantages—and disadvantages—of maleness, of those dominant characteristics, desire, combat, self-expression.
Desire has overweighted art in many visible forms; it is prominent in painting and music, almost monopolizes fiction, and has pitifully degraded dancing.
Combat is not so easily expressed in art, where even competition is on a high plane; but the last element is the main evil, self-expression. This impulse is inherently and ineradicably masculine. It rests on that most basic of distinctions between the sexes, the centripetal and centrifugal forces of the universe.
In the very nature of the sperm-cell and the germ-cell we find this difference: the one attracts, gathers, draws in; the other repels, scatters, pushes out.
That projective impulse is seen in the male nature everywhere; the constant urge toward expression, to all boasting and display. This spirit, like all things masculine, is perfectly right and admirable in its place.
Art is human, not masculine or feminine
It is the duty of the male, as a male, to vary; bursting forth in a thousand changing modifications—the female, selecting, may so incorporate beneficial changes in the race.
It is his duty to thus express himself—an essentially masculine duty; but masculinity is one thing, and art is another. Neither the masculine nor the feminine has any place in art—Art is Human.
It is not in any faintest degree allied to the personal processes of reproduction; but is a social process, a most distinctive social process, quite above the plane of sex. The true artist transcends his sex, or her sex. If this is not the case, the art suffers.
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- Our Androcentric Culture: Or the Man Made World: Full text on Project Gutenberg
- Reader discussion of The Man-Made World on Goodreads
- An Illustrated Guide to Linda Nochlin’s “Why Have There Been no Great Women Artists?”