This explosive question, buried deep in many minds but sometimes inexpressible, was first printed in a 1971 article in Art News written by Linda Nochlin, who is one of our most fearless supporters—and critics.
Nochlin went on to state, “The fact, dear sisters, is that there ARE no women equivalents for Michaelangelo, or Rembrandt, Delacroix, Cezanne, Picasso, or Matisse, or even, in very recent times, for de Kooning or Warhol.”
With great astuteness, she followed this by asserting that the fault lies, not in the limited capacity of women artists but in “our institutions and our education, everything that happens to us from the moment we enter the world of meaningful symbols.”
This great truth is resoundingly reinforced by Sarah Boxer’s crucial article, “Move Over, Michelangelo”—its very appearance in the mainstream The Atlantic (December, 2016) a proof of how far we have come.
Most of us now are ready, if somewhat belatedly, to agree with Boxer’s conclusion—and the title of her article—that it took a revolution in critical standards for the way women work to be given equal status with the way traditionally men have worked: that we work with what Boxer calls “the greatness in anxiety,” as well as with materials and methods that didn’t use to be taken seriously: found objects, cloth, thread, hair, furniture, lingerie, and what she calls “general fuzziness.”
It took the growth, development and slow-arriving acceptance of a generation of women critics, using the new insights of feminist theory, who found value in qualities “abject, viscous, formless or polyform” displayed in the work of women sculptors, qualities translated into other mediums, which traditionally had been ignored if not disdained.
Nochlin also observed that today “There is less and less emphasis on the masterpiece, more on the piece”—a conclusion with which Boxer disagrees.
Excited and moved by this article, which, frankly, I never expected to see in a mainstream magazine of great reputation, I was then summoned in a different direction by my morning walk with Pip, where the soft light of a chilly overcast winter day revealed the beauty in “pieces”—a big of moss on a stone, a tree limb, the fish slumbering in the iced-over pond, rather than the glorious blue sky and distant mountains which often rejoice my soul.
These blessed pieces remind me of the piece of surprise and wonder that came my way a few days ago in the form of a small brown padded envelope containing the self-published poems of two soldiers at a western military base.
Again, my limitations are showing: it never occurred to me that men on a military base would read—let alone write—poetry, although of course we have the example of Rupert Brooke, Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon and Robert W. Service, among others, as well as soldier-poets from our more recent wars. But these poets often wrote from the storm of combat rather than from the stultification of U.S. military bases.
In any event, the little book by two soldier-poets, whose verses reminded me of Rudyard Kipling’s now outdated war poetry, moved me, reminding me how excited I was as a child by such Kipling verses as “They are hanging Danny Deever/ They are marching of him round/ They have halted Deever by his coffin on the ground/And he’ll swing for a half a minute for a sneaking, shooting hound/Oh they’re hanging Danny Deever in the morning!” (I’ve corrected it from its original, in both senses of the word, Cockney) before other poems such as “The White Man’s Burden” woke me to the horror of the whole enterprise.
Now I am more likely to turn to Adrienne Rich’s superb “Dark Fields of the Republic”—the title alone gives me chills—for insight into these troubled times. But the “greatness in anxiety” Boxer so deftly celebrates calls into questions all heroism, as it has been defined, leaving us perhaps dissatisfied with the smallness of the “pieces”—kindness, humility, ordinariness—which seem to be all that are now available to us.