Make feminist art history chic again
Illustration by Josephine Glover
The Courtauld’s feminist art historian, Mignon Nixon, is leaving to join the feminist powerhouse created at UCL under Tamar Garb and Briony Fer. This is a massive loss to the Courtauld; Professor Nixon ran the only programmes here exclusively concerned with feminist theory. I for one applied to the Courtauld with the hope of studying under Mignon and was devastated to see her masters programme, Sex and Violence in American art, cut after this year. The fact that she is leaving leads me to believe there is a fundamental issue concerning the future of feminist art history at the Courtauld; is there a place for it here? If yes, then why is it merely addressed with two arguably unfocused and insensitive lectures as part of the BA2 Frameworks series?
Feminist theory has been a rampant part of art history departments throughout the world ever since its emergence in the seventies surrounding the events widely summarised as the women’s liberation movement. Feminist theory has adorned university syllabuses, library shelves and students’ iTunes libraries with vibrant pink yonic covers (think Georgia O’Keefe’s Bleeding Heart, Wet: On Painting, Feminism and Art Culture and Nicki Minaj’s The Pinkprint). Surely feminism deserves more than an ornamental position at the Courtauld in order to be studied and embraced by students who will end up being future key players in the art world.
The umbrella issue, of course, is the disproportionate amount of women artists, art historians and theorists represented amongst most of the programmes taught here. It is a known fact that women artists are scarcely recognised before the twentieth century, but little effort has been made to consolidate this with female historians and theorists. The Courtauld is famous for its disproportionate amount of female students, yet the syllabus is so male-centric and somewhat discouraging to future female academics that sit amongst us in the library and lecture theatre.
We have wonderful resources in Queer and Gender studies (thanks Satish and Gavin) and Sarah Wilson covers very interesting female artists and écriture féminine within her writing and classes; but there is seldom the chance to study feminist art and theory in the undergraduate programme. Robyn Sampson (BA2) told me that ‘despite enjoying the Foundations course last year, I found the lack of emphasis on women quite depressing. Although there was sometimes a mention of female works; it never seemed like the focus. I feel the course has room to reference the role women have played on the story of art a lot more - not just female artists but also female theorists.’
The solution, or rather, a way around this problem (until a prominent feminist art historian is restored into the Courtauld faculty) is to create dialogue of our own surrounding female creatives and theorists. We have copious femme-centred literature gathering dust in the library and discussion of gender theory is relative to all aspects of study here. So, tell your friends about your favourite female artist or writer, bring up your favourite Niki de Sainte Phalle in discussion class and centre conversation around female creatives. Since being at the Courtauld, a traditionally conservative institution, I feel as if my feminism and interest in feminist art and theory has been repressed through the conservative and often phallocentric topics of study and materials we are exposed to. Whether in your own writing or over a gin and tonic in the Tavern, it is possible to enrich your Courtauld studies with important works by the likes of bell hooks and Ana Mendieta.