I had been feeling vaguely ill for a couple of days over the weekend so I consoled myself with my kind of light summer reading, the gossipy Rogue’s Gallery: The Secret History of the Moguls and Money That Made the Metropolitan Museum by Michael Gross. The lesson I took from the book may be one that the author didn’t intend, but I need to be reminded of it occasionally. That is: It really does matter where you start out in life.
Among the rogues depicted, there were a few (especially in the early years of the Metropolitan Museum, which was founded in 1870) who rose to powerful positions after starting from very little, but they’re in the minority. Among the people in leadership positions, wealth and pedigree mattered, and in a way it still does. It matters to the people who are already there, with wealth and pedigrees.
Last winter, I met a delightful couple in Miami who, upon retirement, have started developing a new interest in art. They’re hungry to learn, and I enjoyed their company tremendously. They came to a talk that I gave and they asked me some really interesting and unusual questions. It was really so refreshing to talk with them, and I hope I helped them some.
Talking to them reminded me once again how much I wish I had read Linda Nochlin a long time ago.
In 1971, the art historian Linda Nochlin wrote her famous essay, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?”. In it, she argues that social and economic mechanisms had kept almost all women from having the means to become artists, and that the structures that determine how art history is written had kept those who had become artists from being recognized.
Nochlin grew up in better circumstances, and she’s well aware of it. Here’s a great little video of Nochlin accepting an award, and remarking on her good luck in having grown up across from the Brooklyn Museum. (She also makes some fantastic and succinct remarks on what museums can do).
It is highly unlikely that anyone reading this—including me—will be terrifically influential on the decisions made by the Metropolitan Museum. Or that anyone reading this (still including me) will be among the most influential artists in the world, or that any of us will get so rich that we never have to think about how much a work of art costs.
But culture is still ours. We can still learn about it and love it and maybe even possess a little of it. It will be worth the effort.
Welcome to Cultureburg.
"Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?" ARTnews January 1971: 22-39, 67-71