Women, Art and Gender: A History

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Women, Art and Gender: A History An old New Yorker cartoon depicts a group of prehistoric women painting images on the wall of a cave. One of the women suddenly pauses in her work and asks: “Does it strike anyone as weird that none of the great painters have ever been men?” (Heller, 1987) This, of course is a parody of the long-held assumption that all prehistoric art was created by men. Why should we assume this, when we don’t even know why this art was created, much less by whom? It is because for many centuries, we have been taught that all great art was the product of men, and that art created by women was merely an attempt to copy the masters that came before. For many, many hundreds of years, women struggled to gain recognition as artists, and for the greater number of these years, they remained obscured due to the constraints of patriarchal society. Recently, however, in the feminist movement of the seventies, women have found a voice and a face and recognition in the world of the arts followed. Yet women today are finding that they have yet another battle to fight, one that demands that they be looked at as more than merely women artists in the light of feminism. They are individuals who create art in the context of their identities, which include “ethnicity, personality, life stage, religion, class, and politics” (Norwood, 1987 p. 4), as well as gender. Since antiquity, women have created art and not received recognition for doing so. It is difficult to obtain a proper history of women in art because many records have been manipulated, and a great number of works by women have been credited to their male teachers or relatives, as it was believed that no truly great art could be created by a woman. (Heller, 1987) A large number of artists from antiquity remain unknown, and many are of the opinion that perhaps “anonymous was a woman” (NMWA, 1998, p. 1). We know that women were creating art during this period through discoveries of unaltered records and images of women artists working, yet there are relatively few known female artists of this time. Hypothetically, if not in truth, we may conclude that works were better received with artist unknown, rather than to be attached to the name of a woman.
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