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The Myth of the Artistic Genius

Ernst Gombrich, likely the most influential art historian of the twentieth century, is ripe for revisiting. His outlook on what constituted important art was white, elite, male, and Eurocentric. In his seminal The Story of Art (1950), which set out to track the entirety of art history, from ancient times to modernity, he included not a single female artist. In one of his final interviews, before he died in 2001, he defended his assessments, implying that, for better or for worse, white, European men with means, from Watteau to Picasso, had been the artistic geniuses throughout history. “Not everyone can do what a genius can,” Gombrich told the Independent, “and not everyone can produce a masterpiece even after long training.”

In a perverse way, Gombrich was right, because the problem has always been in the way we define genius. The Artistic Genius is certain of his talents; he is certain of his project. These men were emotionally brutal, sure in their vision, often blustering and quick to anger. When Gauguin abandons his family for Tahiti, he does so with confidence that his wife and children will understand that their lives are of minimal importance compared with the vast number of lives he and his art will touch.

Because the understanding of artistic genius has been so closely linked to privileges and traits associated with masculinity, women have forever been locked out of the conversation. “Why have there been no great women artists?” asked Linda Nochlin in her 1971 essay. “But like so many other so-called questions involved in the feminist ‘controversy,’ it falsifies the nature of the issue at the same time that it insidiously supplies its own answer: ‘There have been no great women artists because women are incapable of greatness.’ ” The very notion of genius is gendered, and thus defining it becomes a tautology: The Artistic Genius is male because men are most fit to be Artistic Geniuses. The goalposts of greatness are hyper-specific, socially manipulated, and ultimately less interested in the aesthetics of the work produced. And they are seldom scrutinized.

SOFONISBA ANGUISSOLA, LADY IN A FUR WRAP, CA. 1577-79

The first time I saw art by Sofonisba Anguissola, King Philip II of Spain’s court painter, and Lavinia Fontana, arguably the first-ever professional female painter in the West, a number of their works were not attributed to them. Anguissola’s painting Juana of Austria and a Young Girl (1561–62) was long attributed to Titian (it still hangs in the Titian Room at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, according to the museum’s materials). Up until just a few years ago, her Lady in a Fur Wrap was—and in many circles still is—attributed to El Greco (art historian Maria Kusche continues to contestthe question). Fontana had a number of works attributed to Carracci. Detective efforts by Nochlin, Kusche, Ann Sutherland Harris, and a few other art historians have since mostly straightened the record. Now, Anguissola and Fontana are at the center of an exhibition called “A Tale of Two Women Painters” at the Prado in Madrid. But these misattributions show the degree to which the legitimacy of an artwork is bound to both a cult of personality and to a specific understanding of gendered greatness. Fontana, for one, had “risen above the usual course of those of her sex, for whom wool and linen are the sole materials appropriate for their fingers and hands,” said the priest and historian Andrés Ximénez in 1764. But she had not risen so high as to achieve greatness—only female greatness, which was an altogether different qualification.

Yet their artworks, when misattributed to men, suddenly became genius, canonical. Such a mix-up speaks to the common desire to view the qualities of an artwork through the lens of the qualities of the artist. In a recent study, a group of people were shown a series of computer-generated paintings and told that the works were made either by a man or by a woman. The participants—but especially men from higher socioeconomic backgrounds, who, not so incidentally, are also the most frequent buyers of expensive art and therefore help set the prices and perceived value of those works—rated the randomly generated art said to be created by male artists as more “compelling” and “valuable” than the art said to be created by female artists. “Participants are unable to guess the gender of an artist simply by looking at a painting,” conclude the study’s authors. “Women’s art appears to sell for less because it is made by women.”

But when it comes to defining artistic greatness, the underlying issue is that the history of art has long been centered on the mythos of the artist rather than on the artworks themselves, a fact that almost always works against women. When we begin to question the personal qualities of artists like Picasso or Chuck Close, it feels as though we’re questioning our notions of art itself, rather than those specific artists, so bound together are the artwork and the cult of the artist.

Nochlin saw this obsession with the artist for what it was. It is “a naive idea that art is the direct, personal expression of individual emotional experience, a translation of personal life into visual terms,” she wrote. “Art is almost never that, great art never is … The language of art is, more materially, embodied in paint and line on canvas or paper, in stone or clay or plastic or metal—it is neither a sob story nor a confidential whisper.”

To overcome the bias toward white male artists requires seismic social shifts, but it also requires a reangling of how we view art history—as a history of the art, rather than of the artists.

Continue reading this essay at The Paris Review.

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