Artemisia Gentileschi, "Judith and her Maidservant" (ca. 1623–1625) (courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Since their curatorial dawn in 1977 with Women Artists 1550-1950, temporary exhibitions of all women artists have attempted to respond to the systemic erasure of women from art history. The latest temporary exhibition of the Royal Palace Museum in Milan — Le Signore dell’Arte (roughly translated to the Arts’ Mistresses) — goes back to this model by showcasing 34 Italian female artists from the 16th to17th centuries. Although this format was revolutionary in 1977, today this curatorial approach has been criticized as self-defeating in furthering a feminist art historical discourse. Le Signore dell’Arte allows us to reflect on the practice of temporary exhibitions of all women artists and its impact on an inclusive and feminist art history.

Quoting the exhibition’s curatorial rationale, Le Signore dell’Arte aims to showcase the “incredible stories of talented, modern women.” The attention is placed on these artists’ “talent” which justifies their presence in the exhibition. Framing artistic worthiness on the basis of talent has been problematised since 1971 by Linda Nochlin. Artistic talent and especially innate talent long stood as the defining quality of “great artists” and as the determining criterion of inclusion and exclusion from the art canon. On this premise, the systemic exclusion from art history of women artists was justified by the belief in feminine systemic lack of artistic ability.

To expand the canon, it would appear logical to frame women artists as equally capable as their male counterparts by measuring them against the same metric of talent used to describe great, male artists. However, by embracing this qualitative, standardized approach — based on the concept of talent — feminist art historians risk reproducing an ideologically oppressive practice that fails to recognize the systems of oppressions that held back certain demographics from becoming artists. As Nochlin argued, the under-representation of specific socio-economic groups in the arts doesn’t depend on their lack of talent but can be traced back to social and ideological institutions (childcare, family relations, school, church, etc) that create systemic social inequalities. These reverberate in the arts as in any cultural forum. A curatorial approach that aspires to be inclusive and rewrite a feminist art history should instead unmask the ideological elitism of the canon not as dependent on artists’ “talent” but rather on the favorable socio-cultural conditions — gender, class, and race — that they enjoyed.

This socio-cultural lens should also be used to scrutinize women artists. Including women in art historical narratives without addressing the bias of art historical evaluative systems can become a tool of oppression for other women and demographics. For example, showcasing “talented women” perpetuates a problematic discourse of exceptionalism that dismisses the existence of systemic oppression that held back the majority of women, only to raise the profiles of a few chosen ones.

Moreover, all-women-artists exhibitions face the risk of further ghettoizing female authors. In fact, these shows often leave the canon unchallenged as women artists’ contributions are confined to the sub-category of “female art history,” as specified by Le Signore dell’Arte’s curatorial guide. This way male artistic abilities remain the unchallenged standard as we can see in Artemisia Gentileschi’s exhibition profile which describes her as “a fair competitor of her male peers.” Scrutinising its selected artists Le Signore dell’Arte could have contributed to the research of an inclusive curatorial approach by questioning why women of colour and working-class artists are greatly under represented in the exhibition and in 16th–17th century European art history.

Additionally, temporary exhibitions can be problematic since they achieve an ephemeral effect on the feminist fight for inclusion without any long-lasting impact like the acquisition of women and non-binary artists in permanent collections. The Guerrilla Girls highlighted this trend in their 2017 Whitechapel exhibition Is it Even Worse in Europe? They showed that women’s artwork acquired in European museums didn’t increase over time despite most institutions marketing their embrace of alternative histories to expand the canon. Institutions’ actual commitment to inclusivity should be done through acquisitions since permanent collections are the ones shaping public opinion and framing how history gets recorded for posterity.

To conclude, rather than attempting to expand the canon through an additive and ephemeral gestures, feminist curatorial approaches should address the systemic discrimination faced by under-represented socio-economic groups in the arts. I agree with Griselda Pollock as she claims that this archival, additive work should be paired by one of ideological contestation and socio-historical contextualization. Failing to do so may only lead to the creation of another discriminatory canon firstly limited by the definition of “woman” and harmful for other demographics affected by intersectional discrimination.

Originally from Italy, Sofia Cotrona is a history of art student at the University of Edinburgh. She is a young freelance art writer and art editor for The Student and an advocate for youth art accessibility...

5 replies on “We Don’t Need More Temporary Exhibitions of All Women Artists”

  1. This is a damned if you don’t; damned if you do argument. We need to start somewhere to level the playing field and I’m thrilled museums are touting the works of women in special exhibitions throughout the country. These shows can lead to acquisitions and offer more exposure for women artists of all demographics. We must acquire more women in permanent collections but special exhibits are a start. The answer is more women museum directors and curators to push for more of these purchases. You’ll notice some museums are currently selling off works to diversify collections. Again, it’s a start and women will happily infiltrate the hallowed walls when possible.

  2. This is another semantic argument. The term ‘talent’ isn’t a pejorative nor is it ethnically, socio-economically nor sex-based sensitive. Please don’t weaponize more of the English language than it already has been! The classification of ‘women artists’ as a lump term IS belittling. Exhibitions curated based solely on identity sex IS problematic and pretty much misses the point. (Imagine how meaningless a survey exhibition based on being male would be!) Creating binary competition with male artists is also curatorial misdirection. I completely agree, we should dismantle the bias toward exhibition and acquisition based on identity sex and move toward more localized, inclusive acquisition of artists contributing a diversity of ideas – brilliantly articulated – to our collective cultural record… in short, our representatives must be uber talented! Otherwise articulation and interpretation becomes muddled.

    1. Valerie and Catrina, much of your assessments are, IMO, spot on.

      However, there’s a feminist derangement syndrome at play here as well. A gallery in Italy showcases 34 female artists from the 16th to 17th century. A feminist is reviewing the show – catalog to wall signage.

      And yet not a word about any of the women, why they were chosen, or anything of importance about their art. What is implied and hinted at is that they lacked ‘talent’ [and thus are deservedly marginalized?]. You get the point. If feminist art criticism is nothing more than a perfunctory, boilerplate feminist rant that touches all the bases of systemic exclusion… of working class and artists of color… and the obligatory shout out to trans folk – without ever taking the opportunity to celebrate the artists in the show, to exercise critical inclusion, or to compare and contrast their work to their historic peers then how will it be possible to ever provide a healthy, balanced artistic ecosystem?

  3. Totally agree that exhibition-based display of female talent starts a revolutionary but then just becomes exhibitionism. I think this all. the. time.

    So, what we desperately need now that the temporary exhibition solution isn’t a real solution (it’s just a temporary action) is to rebalance permanent collections to, where fitting, add non-European non-male artists, and new exhibitions do the same.

  4. Feminist Art criticism needs to grow up and stop pandering to its self-manufactured echo chamber.
    First, I agree that art shows that promote an exclusive, bigoted range of entries will eventually produce a backlash effect instead of some kind of desired utopian historical correction. And feminists by far host more of this stuff than any other identity politic cohort. And even then feminists often co-opt many of those self-serving shows.
    Why disparage and dsimiss these feminist shows as “temporary” ? These shows account for a significant fraction of the available art show space. Other artists do not get to show even *temporarily* when the galleries are flooded with the aesthetic self-pity of feminists who somehow are led to believe that its a contest of volume and that there is no metric for the quality of anything – after all, “if a man can do it so can I”. There’s a self-serving and profit-driven cynicism in a LOT of this.

    Re: “Framing artistic worthiness on the basis of talent has been problematised since 1971 by Linda Nochlin. Artistic talent and especially innate talent long stood as the defining quality of “great artists” and as the determining criterion of inclusion and exclusion from the art canon. On this premise, the systemic exclusion from art history of women artists was justified by the belief in feminine systemic lack of artistic ability.”

    Long before 1971, Modern fine art had long orphaned the idea that ‘talent’ was the myopic criteria by which art was going to evaluated. Nochlin somehow missed the memo. And I would be astonished if museums then or now believe that the art they are custodians for was made by ‘great’ artists. in most cases artists were -cough- ‘included or excluded’ based on the bulk gifts from philanthropic donors whose esoteric tastes and appetite for acquisition had more to do with it than anything else. The accusation of ‘systemic exclusion…by the belief in feminine systemic lack of artistic ability’ from art history requires harder evidence than a feminist-audience-pleasing assertion. Its fair to say that the university art survey textbooks were unkind but, depending on the instruction, women were represented in discussions, slide-shows, and museums.
    Rather than argue artistic ability other factors are more likely responsible. The first being that Modern Art was largely driven by movements that were male-dominated and were often anti-art-establishment in their profile. Making it or breaking it depended on the pack and not the individual per se. A second factor is that woman’s art was and in many cases remains less commercially desirable than men’s. At the end of the day, galleries and museums must be profitable. That reality is as systemic as it gets.
    If such a thing as “male artistic abilities remain the unchallenged standard” exists it is certainly not global and likely to be quite localized in a backwater art community. The fact that a poorly thought out exhibition profile implies such a thing doesn’t make it so. And you don’t have to ‘unmask’ art history – study actual history and make a compelling argument that in recent times (500 years) that the artists we recognise had some kind of red carpet rolled out for them. Day to day living was challenging to say the least.

    This, “the feminist fight for inclusion without any long-lasting impact like the acquisition of women and non-binary artists in permanent collections” is what is so misguided about feminist art writers. And the problem is that it is self-generated and self-perpetuating. Art is not a contest. It’s not a fight. It’s not an identity rope-pulling contest. It’s just not.

    The author mentions the Guerrilla Girls who always manufacture select and misleading statistical evidence to promote the idea that everyone who might disagree with them is the systemic enemy. I will include a link to my blog where I do actual arithmetic about who is selected in gallery shows all over New England. I think its a fair sampling and contradicts the empty assertions of the Guerrilla Girls road show.

    And the last thing mentioned that’s worth debating is the idea that there’s an aesthetic Noah whose museums and galleries are dedicated to a three by three inclusion of every identity politic group regardless of quality or worthy selection. Parts is parts.

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