Why We Still Ask: Why Have There Been No Great Female Artists?

On a vibrant afternoon in the heart of Paris, the Dior spring 2018 show took off with a powerful statement. The runway presentation kicked off with a striking graphic T-shirt, emblazoned with the bold question: “WHY HAVE THERE BEEN NO GREAT WOMEN ARTISTS?”

This thought-provoking question, initially posed in 1971 by the esteemed American art historian Linda Nochlin, still resonates today. Nochlin’s grandson, Julia Trotta, revealed that Dior approached their family a few months ago to collaborate on this remarkable endeavor.

Nochlin’s essay challenges the underlying assumptions and reactions associated with this question, unmasking the biases against female artists. She delves deeper, extending the conversation beyond gender to encompass issues of race and class. In her essay, Nochlin astutely writes:

“Thus the question of women’s equality—in art as in any other realm—devolves not upon the relative benevolence or ill-will of individual men, nor the self-confidence or abjectness of individual women, but rather on the very nature of our institutional structures themselves and the view of reality which they impose on the human beings who are part of them.”

The audacity to distill decades of feminist scholarship into a simple designer T-shirt is bound to provoke diverse reactions. Yet, this appears to be precisely what Dior’s creative director, Maria Grazia Chiuri, aims to achieve. Breaking barriers by becoming the first female to lead Dior creatively in its 69-year history, Chiuri christened her appointment as “DIO(R)EVOLUTION.”

Chiuri’s debut collection showcased another empowering message through a slogan shirt that resembled the one unveiled on that Tuesday: “We should all be feminists.” This powerful quote originates from Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s book and TED Talk of the same title. The shirt quickly sold out at $700, endorsed by street-style stars, magazines, models, and even Rihanna.

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While many embraced this fusion of fashion and feminism, others criticized Dior’s approach, believing it commodified the movement. Critics argued that feminism was being reduced to a “cool new trend” by the brand. The New York Times pondered, “In her essay, Ms. Nochlin posited that part of the problem were rules made by the patriarchy, but Ms. Chiuri is not rejecting clothes dictated by the patriarchy.”

Trotta, Nochlin’s granddaughter, revealed that her grandmother was unaware of the “We should all be feminists” shirt when Dior first approached her. However, when informed of Chiuri’s interest in feminism, Nochlin responded with enthusiasm, saying “Well, GOOD.”

Due to health concerns, Nochlin, now 86, couldn’t offer direct comment. Nonetheless, Trotta, speaking on her grandmother’s behalf, shared her personal thoughts on combining feminism with branding. She emphasized that, irrespective of personal opinions, it’s crucial to embrace the questions and complexities that arise from this fusion. Trotta firmly believes in holding brands accountable for the messages they project and urges fellow feminists to do the same.

Reflecting on her grandmother’s enduring essay, Trotta acknowledged its lasting legacy. She described it as an elastic model of activist writing, capable of applying to multiple disciplines and subject positions. Nochlin’s essay continually challenges conventions, institutions, and preconceived notions—a vital practice that must persist.

Whilst Trotta experienced the Dior show firsthand in Paris, Nochlin herself could not attend. However, she expressed immense delight afterward. Permitting Dior to include her essay without financial compensation, Nochlin insisted on Dior’s support for an art exhibition titled “Women House” at the Monnaie de Paris. The exhibition, curated by Camille Morineau, showcases the works of 40 female artists from around the world. It will subsequently grace the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C., on March 8, 2018.

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In a world striving for gender equality, it remains crucial to question and challenge the status quo. Dior’s collaboration with Nochlin’s monumental essay serves as a catalyst for deeper feminist conversations. By embracing the complexities and contradictions that arise, we can progress toward a more inclusive and equitable future.

Discover more about the 5 W’s (Who, What, When, Where, Why) and their importance in storytelling at 5 WS.

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