Feminist art historian Linda Nochlin entertains, educates

An unprecedented number of people showed up for Monday’s lecture at the Clark Art Institute to hear well-known feminist art historian and writer Linda Nochlin, causing the audience to troop from its planned venue, the museum’s café, to the larger auditorium.

The talk was short, the energy high and the laughter frequent and genteel – most of the attendees were adults, not Ephs. While I must admit I’m not a fan of feminist criticism, Nochlin’s wry humor and easy manner quickly won me over. Nochlin, in case you didn’t know – I didn’t – is famous for her essay Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists? and largely responsible for the feminist movement in art history. But, she assured her laughing audience early on, “I’m not some grim and, shall I say, rhetorically-challenged feminist who thinks of absolutely nothing but equality for women.”

Onstage were Nochlin herself, Clark director of research Michael Ann Holly and Nochlin’s former student and current Clark Fellow Aruna D’Souza, who edited a tribute to Nochlin in 2000. Holly kicked off the talk, recounting an anecdote from graduate school, when she’d been to one of Nochlin’s lectures, to which the lecturer had worn a black cape. “Linda Nochlin’s work shook up art history as usual and opened up art history not only to feminism but all those wonderful ‘isms’ that charged art history forever. She really is a mythical figure,” Holly said.

“I don’t feel mythical,” Nochlin said, but the story of her childhood does have something of the mythic about it. Born in Brooklyn in 1931 to a family of what she described as “Russian Jews of a certain intellectual, left-leaning type,” Nochlin recounted the story of attempting to read Dostoevsky and Tolstoy at a young age but being unable to understand the material, a story which elicited laughter from the audience. “But it’s much easier to understand things like Thomas Mann, and Malreaux and Gide if you’ve had no experience in life. I recommend that you read before you’ve had experience in life,” Nochlin said. “If you’ve had experience it will interfere with the book.”

Modest Nochlin isn’t. She described herself as “fearless intellectually,” but her immodesty charmed me, as did her clear-eyed view of her feminism. She refused to disclose, for example, whom she’s planning to vote for in 2008. Political commentary was restricted to a comment about a lecture she gave in 2002, warning against the resurgence of “masculine” values post Sept. 11. She also spoke about the male fear (probably unconscious) of powerful female political figures. As for social commentary, she remarked strongly on the problem of class, which she views as particularly important. “Obviously it’s better to be a rich privileged woman than a poor man of color who’s being trod on and mistreated,” Nochlin said.

Whatever my feelings about such views, I did admire her for a comment she made a little earlier in the lecture. “I think being able to live with contradiction is central to feminism,” Nochlin said. “Why? Because we have to live in the real world -. I love beauty. Can I say that? I love beauty. My favorite composer is not a woman, but Johann Sebastian Bach.” She went on to name Gustave Courbet (famous for his vaginal portrait, titled The Origin of the World and his multiple, diverse self-portraits and noted in this talk for his resemblance to Johnny Depp and Nochlin’s father) as one of her favorite painters.

Nochlin next answered a few questions from the audience. She spoke about her affinity for the 19th century, mentioned some of her favorite contemporary artists, such as Jenny Saville. “She makes these enormous, threatening, huge, almost scary images of men and women – she’s done transvestite friends of hers, also – and she’s done a marvelous pig, a huge, threatening porky thing,” Nochlin said. “I like excess. I like it when people become excessive. I like the late Renoir for the same reason I like Jenny Saville.”

Nochlin’s lecture can be best summarized in her own words: “I think being a free spirit is how you’re a feminist.” Whether or not you’re a feminist, it’s hard to disagree with that.