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It was my good fortune a week or so ago to hear the Luce annual lecture on American creativity, given by pioneer feminist art historian Linda Nochlin. The title of her lecture was Dislocating Tradition: Women Artists and the Body, from Cassatt to Whiteread. Having for years grappled in vain with the peculiar role of the body as both medium and message in women’s art, I hotfooted down to the Royal Academy and prepared to have my perplexities unknotted and my vestigial puritan revulsions dispelled.

It is a truism of feminist history that women have been regarded primarily as body, passive, fertile body, as essential to human survival as earth. If women artists were ever to engage with anything, they were going to have to engage with body as earnestly as Cézanne engages with landscape, and so they did. The model became the artist, but at the same time she clung to her role as model, so that she became her own subject. At first, this was manifest in a tendency to produce an inordinate number of self-portraits. In 18th-century France, Vigée-Le Brun never tired of painting flattering portraits of herself, which was quite a good move for a society portrait painter, who was expected to do a similar job on her clients. At the same time, Angelika Kauffmann produced dozens of dreamy versions of herself not only in portraits, but also in allegorical paintings in which she figured as the personification of art or music or both. Frida Kahlo could engage with no subject other than her fictionalised and glamorised self. Her proliferating faux-naive paintings are advertisements for the performance that was her life.

For the women artists of surrealism, in the words of Whitney Chadwick, “the idealised version of the woman as muse was no help … rejecting the idea of the Muse as Other, they turned instead to their own images and their own realities as sources for their art. Even when the subject of the work is not the self-portrait per se, there is a persistent anchoring of the imagery in recognisable depiction of the artist.” The thought of art as solipsism has me tearing my hair. The convention of the muse is simply a trope figuring forth male creativity; if the convention was useless to women, they could simply have done without it, but, as most of them also chose to become sexually involved with male artists, they wasted a good deal of time playing the muse’s illusory role, apparently unaware that the muse is rarely the artist’s actual bedmate. A male artist’s recognition of his consort in the role of muse is mere gallantry. Why did the women artists of surrealism have to follow such a sterile, narcissistic paradigm? As for their images being recognisable, they made sure of that by posing for at least as many photographs as they made paintings. Most of them put more paint on their faces in a lifetime than they did on canvas.

The advent of performance art produced a tide of women artists, many of whom were not content with starring in their own show without stripping. Since the 1960s, when Carolee Schneeman took off her clothes to perform art in New York basements, I have wondered what the connection might be between art and exhibitionism, and why it was that so many of the nude female performance artists had beautiful bodies. Could it have been coincidence? Even Helen Chadwick, a serious artist, took pride in displaying her own wonderfully elegant young body when somebody else’s would have done.

Professor Nochlin explained to us that Sam Taylor-Wood’s Portrait (1993) in a Fuck Suck Spunk Wank T-shirt, with her trousers around her ankles, was a “marvellous parody” of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus. She pointed out that the cabbage on the table was a reference to the volute out of which the goddess steps in Botticelli’s painting, but she didn’t explain why Taylor-Wood chose to pose herself and let someone else (Stephen White) take the photograph. Any of Taylor-Wood’s art-school chums could have put on the T-shirt and adopted the pose, and Taylor-Wood could have taken the photograph herself. Sarah Lucas’s self-portrait with fried eggs on her chest was correctly described as “as arrogant as any male portrait”, but why did Lucas pose it herself? The fried-egg reference would be as appropriate to any other woman, no? Why is Tracey Emin the subject of all her own work? Is this good or is it pathological? Why does Jenny Saville deconstruct her own body? Why can’t she use someone else’s? There is a possible answer, which is that the use of the nude is necessarily exploitative, and therefore a female artist who needs to use a body has no option but to use her own, but surely it can be no more than a sophistry. Why does a female artist need to use flesh in the first place?

The feminist art historian can no more ask these questions than she can ask why most women’s art is no good. Her duty is to cry up women’s work, to see it as reactive and transgressive, as dislocating tradition indeed, when the painterly tradition is always being jolted and set off on contradictory tangents, more often and more fundamentally by men than by women. The woman who displays her own body as her artwork seems to me to be travelling in the tracks of an outworn tradition that spirals downward and inward to nothingness.

Germaine Greer
The Guardian