I recently became aware of the work of Linda Nochlin, pioneering feminist art historian and author of a groundbreaking essay published 50 years ago in Art News entitled "Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?". After somewhat definitively answering that question, IMHO, Nochlin spent her subsequent long career following her own sense that, to remedy the absence of women in art, it was necessary to show women's artwork, to make sure it was seen, and to write about it in ways that called out the implicit biases in much of traditional art criticism. If you haven't encountered the essay, please check it out along with her revisiting of the issue 30 years on in 2001 in which she concluded that while there had been progress, there was still much to be done.
One specific point in the essay really caught my attention, however. Nochlin challenges what she calls the major public misconception about art: that it is no more than personal expression translated in visual terms. Instead, she insists that "art is a language and a system of expression that must be learned" even if the outcome is work that seeks to reject that formal learning (which is the case with much modern art).
The idolization of those whom the art world anoints as "masters" (a predominantly white, male group) is dependent on what Nochlin calls the "mythology of genius." or the idea that the masters were all childhood prodigies who were possessed of uncanny talent. In reality, most of the artists whose work is lauded across the centuries were born into an artisan social class, if not into a family of artists that surrounded them with an environment that not only recognized their interest, but nurtured it and had the resources to see that it was properly developed. (Unless of course, with a few exceptions, the child had been born female.)
The mythology of genius is closely related to the myth of talent. Every hardworking, professional artist I know has had the experience of hearing an earnest viewer of his or her work say something like "oh you are so talented- I can't even draw a stick figure." But imagine telling a surgeon "oh you are so good with a scalpel - I can't even cut vegetables." Interest, plus opportunity, education and hard work, produces quality results in any profession, and art is no exception. Simply because responses to artwork are deeply emotional and unique to each observer does not mean that an artwork does not have intrinsic merit. Obvious self-interest aside, every member of a civilized society needs to nurture and appreciate the work of artists because art feeds the soul in the same way food prepared by a talented chef feeds the body. With care and encouragement AND a clear-eyed understanding of just how much education and hard work go into every artwork, we can all help to create the conditions where masterpieces that resonate across a broad spectrum of humanity can receive the broad attention they deserve.
All images copyright Jan M. Wagner Fine Art.