Women artists: looking beyond the controversy

The time has come to write about women artists. About their contributions, special qualities, position in the art world, and the degree to which they have or have not been given equal treatment by their male colleagues.

I will try to do so as fully and as honestly as I can. I must admit, however, that I'm somewhat uneasy about it. For one thing, although I've thought about this subject a great deal, I am by no means the final authority on it - as several women friends and my wife have frequently reminded me. For another, I wonder if any man, however well-intentioned, is capable of true objectivity on this topic. And third, I'm uneasy because this is such a highly volatile area, and such a ripe one for expressions of anger, arrogance, prejudice, cowardliness , and stupidity.

Although much of the blame for the latter qualities can be laid at the feet of men, all of it cannot. Some women, for instance, argue that any negative criticism of such a famous woman artist as Georgia O'Keeffe should be withheld because such criticism would only undermine the feminist cause in art. Such a claim is just as blind to what art is all about as one from a man who feels that no woman artist has ever been, is, or ever will be great because painterly greatness lies beyond any woman's capacity.

Both positions are wrong. The first because it is shortsighted, and the latter because it sees artistic greatness in strictly male terms. A ''cause'' cannot be enhanced or ''won'' by dramatizing the qualities or denying the weaknesses of one of its major ''stars.'' And neither can the creative potentials of women be denied on the basis of precedents established as the result of man's historic control over woman's marital, creative, social, and political identity.

Women simply did not have the opportunity truly to fulfill themselves outside the home - and frequently not even there. Once they were given this opportunity, however - or more accurately, once they demanded and took it - things began to change dramatically. With each succeeding generation, more women began demanding and receiving recognition until, at this moment, about half of the most promising young artists storming the art centers in the United States are women.

This explosion of women artists has had its effect. There seems to be a great melding going on of masculine and feminine attitudes toward one more-inclusive creative ideal. There is some evidence that the future definition of artistic greatness will take both feminine and masculine qualities much more into account. As a result, women artists will no longer be judged (and condemned) on the basis of largely masculine values.

I don't, however, want to evade the extremely sensitive issue of prior achievement. A great deal has been written recently about women's accomplishments in the visual arts over the past several centuries. The names of forgotten or only slightly known women artists have been brought to light, and a few others whose reputations had always been fairly secure have been reexamined and, in some instances, upgraded. All this may make painful reading to certain guilty male consciences - especially the accounts of women's accomplishments in painting, sculpture, printmaking, and so forth that have conveniently been overlooked.

There can be no doubt that by failing to give women artists their proper due, we have ended up with a distorted record of humanm achievement in the arts. At the same time, it does no good to claim that the main thrust of art history would be different had we not done so, nor that the women artists recently ''discovered'' have proved to be artists of absolute first rank.

No matter how extraordinary Angelica Kauffman (1741-1807), Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun (1755-1842), Rosa Bonheur (1822-99), or any of the dozens of other accomplished pre-1900 women artists were, they were not on the level of such male contemporaries as Goya, Delacroix, or Degas. But then, neither were the overwhelming majority of their male colleagues, a goodly number of whom, to set the record straight, weren't half as good as the women mentioned above.

It is here that the inequity lies, in the fact that a second-level painter who happened to be a man inevitably received more serious recognition than any woman (with the exception of Rosa Bonheur) of comparable or even considerably superior abilities. That is, of course, if she could gain any recognition at all , or even be taken seriously as a professional.

In an art world that denied women any true sense of professional identity, the fact that a few did achieve some measure of recognition is remarkable in itself - and evidence of these women's extraordinary determination in the face of indifference, ridicule, or hostility.

It wasn't until just before and during the early years of this century that women began to establish clear creative identities - although their professionalism, their ''seriousness'' was still very much in doubt in the eyes of the art community. Mary Cassatt, one of the best painters the US has so far produced (and one of its five or six finest printmakers), was (and still frequently is) relegated to ''dilettante'' status on the basis of her sex. And Berthe Morisot, Suzanne Valadon, Paula Modersohn-Becker, Gabrielle Munter - all painters of very close to first-rate talent and of definitely first-rate sensibility - have hardly fared any better.

If there has been one artist who totally disproves the theory that greatness in the visual arts is beyond the capacity of women, it is Kaethe Kollwitz. Her position as one of the world's most important printmakers is reinforced every time her work is given fair and comprehensive exposure. In addition, anyone studying the Russian Constructivists will soon discover that some of the most remarkable artists of that remarkable movement were women. We must also not underestimate the profound contributions made by Sonia Delaunay to this century's understanding of color, nor Georgia O'Keeffe's contributions to the American version of 20th-century modernism.

The list of excellent women contemporary artists becomes longer and more impressive every year. Without Helen Frankenthaler, some of the best male painters of the late 1950s and early 1960s might not have done as well as they did. And without Marie Laurecin, Barbara Hepworth, Marisol, Niki de Saint-Phalle , Louise Nevelson, Alice Neel - to list only a few of the most obvious - our cultural landscape would be quite different than it is today.

And finally, without the younger women artists of today, the current art scene would be even more stark and frenzied than it is. They may not be erupting with quite the same passion and force as the men, but they are providing us with qualities that may be of much greater value in the long run: a sense of continuity and growth, formal integrity and ingenuity, and a lightness of spirit and touch.

And yet, is it really possible so neatly to divide the contributions of one sex from the other? I think not. If it were, we would probably assume, on the basis of their work alone, that Odilon Redon and Paul Klee were women, and Rosa Bonheur and Kaethe Kollwitz were men. No, for all the differences between men and women, we really are much more alike than we care to admit. And I suspect we are slowly recognizing this fact. At least we seem increasingly less inclined to divide human virtues between the sexes, and then, for instance, to look askance if a man exercises an exquisite sensibility, or a woman reveals profound power.

We still haven't grasped the fact, however, that human and artistic greatness demands the highest possible fusion of both feminine and masculine qualities. Nor that divisiveness between the sexes in any area, distorts, trivializes, and delays our highest and deepest human potentials and achievements.

Our greatest art still lies ahead of us. I have no idea what form it will take, but I'm certain that it will be great at least partly because it more profoundly and evenly fuses the best of both the feminine and the masculine in mankind. And not because it arrogantly or shrilly isolates and monumentalizes what is exclusively male or female at the expense of the other.

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