Course Design Reflection

“Why have there been no great women artists?” I repeat Linda Nochlin’s question during my first introductory lecture to a group of hesitant first-year writing students. They are caught off guard, unsure of how to respond to an interrogation that, at least at first, seems unrelated to their development as student writers. But my question-- Nochlin’s question-- is genuine and serious; it will become the theme of our course over the next fifteen weeks. Though my query at first glance seems more appropriate for the art history classroom, a reaction I register by the slightly confused faces that stare back at me, it quickly proves effective in breaking open my students’ understanding of the canon and the role gender plays in the gatekeeping of artistic creation.

My decision to adapt Nochlin’s 1971 essay as a pedagogical framework for the first-year writing classroom stems from a desire to diversify the creators and cultural productions we expose our students to. It is a practice of making unfamiliar or unknown (by no real fault of their own) artists accessible. The woman artist theme is a provocative way to acclimate students to conversations regarding canonicity and the politics of its inclusionary and exclusionary boundaries; it affords a novel way of seeing and asking questions about cultural productions in our world in ways that transcend habits of passive reception. Through careful research and analytical writing, students become active participants in the (re)construction of knowledge regarding women’s artistic productions, their biographies and manifestos, and the contexts in which they created. Women artists become subjects worth knowing, creators worth pursuing. Central to our seeking out women artists and their works is an acknowledgment of their diverse voices and labor. I stress to my students our ability to play a role in shifting recognition, and therefore power, back to these women and their work; through these acts of recognition and deep attentiveness, we, too, empower ourselves as worthy creators and consumers of art. One of the major goals of this orientation, then, is to inspire conscientious consumption of art and culture that will transcend the walls of the classroom.

The woman artist course theme can easily be adapted to accommodate Writing about Literature versions of first-year writing classes. In this case, the woman artist question provides a point of entry into thinking about how the acts of becoming a woman artist and their experiences are conveyed in literature; fictional accounts of women’s experience as artists abound in Anglo-American literature and intersect with conversations about domestic roles and obligations, ability and disability, and even the woman artist’s right to her own identity and self-image as artist. Literature-based courses also allow the interrogation of differences between literary representations of women as art and women as artists, becoming a space to consider agency and power in comparing works where women are consumed as art objects versus cases in which they claim their creative agency and subjectivity as artists. When paired with visual artifacts and nonfiction accounts, such an interdisciplinary approach allows us to perceive and value the variety of women’s artistic productions, and, perhaps most importantly, encounter the language women writers use when writing about and identifying themselves and their characters as artists. In this way, literature by women about women artists becomes a revelatory form of self-portraiture that might inspire how my students craft their own reflective writing and artist statements.

In either case, Nochlin’s essay provides introductory access to the politics of identity and its relationship to and reflection through art. Together, we can also complicate the language of her question to be more inclusive and consider what happens if and when we think beyond gender binaries. While not every student will identify themselves as artists-proper, they can find some resonance with the act of creation, for their very writing for our class are powerful acts of creation and expression. What institutional or societal barriers have eclipsed their ability or desire to create? For my female and marginalized students in particular, Nochlin’s question can encourage them to bravely confront the factors that have previously prevented or delayed their success or flourishing as artists in their own right.

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After posing Nochlin’s initial question for my students in the opening moments of class, I pause. The silence is palpable. Are they afraid to speak up? Do they know at least a few names but are drawing a blank after being put on the spot? I pass students an introductory survey, an ungraded diagnostic, because I want to see who they can come up with. Who can they name with confidence, and where did that knowledge come from? Many of the papers are returned to me blank; others confidently list Frida Kahlo, maybe Georgia O'Keeffe (if I’m lucky), but very few others. Some students have chosen to think beyond painters and sculptors and photographers, allowing Beyoncé, sometimes followed by “does she count?” scribble in the margins, to take center stage. Immediately, our interrogation of how we identify and value women artists begins.

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Skip forward with me to the end of the semester. On the last day of class, I pass out the same survey, attempting to the best of my ability to catch them off guard as I did on the first day. I try not to hint that this is coming; I don’t want them to study or memorize a list for the sake of trying to please me. This time around, no one’s paper is blank. It moves me how their lists grow and diversify: the names of Kara Walker, Lady Clementina Hawarden, Yayoi Kusama, and Isabel Villaseñor are confidently asserted. The five-minute overviews & discussions of artists we begin each class period with as warmups have paid off. They list professional painters, photographers, and sculptors who never made it into their elementary school art rooms, the formative space, they tell me, where they first learned the names of famous artists. Until now, many of my students never actively studied artists again, much less understood the politics behind the canon that placed Matisse and Van Gogh in those classrooms in the first place. Alongside excerpts from my students’ final critical essays that echo in the back of my mind, it is in these final moments that the interdisciplinary value of feminist art historigraphy becomes especially tangible. I am confident in the progress that we, together, have made towards creating spaces where these voices can be heard and their labor is taken seriously. 


References

Nochlin, Linda. (1971). Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists. ARTnews, 69(9), 22-39, 67-71.