Why Women's Studies, 1974

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WHY WOMN'S STUDIES by Linda Nochlin Vassar Miscellany News 12 April 1974

Women's Studies progras in general are important for two reasons: first, because they bring to light neglected or unknown aspects of the various fields which are their concerns; secondly, because they force a reconsideration of the methodology or angle of approach controlling, often unconsciously, any given field of scholarship. In my own field of art, for example, approaching some of the material from a feminist angle — take the subject of the nude for instance — has brought to light unexpected connections between "high" art and "low" or popular art, and at the same time, called into question the so—called "objectivity" of standards of judgment used in evaluating all art works; in class we have examined the relation between certain expectations about male and female behavior and con- ventions determining the visual representation of the male and female nude in the 19th and 20th centuries. In studying the work of women artists over the course of the last 200 years, we have not merely brought to light works previously neglected or passed over, but at the same time, called into question the intellectual and aesthetic presuppositions governing the period as a whole; for example, looking at women "primitive" artists or quilt makers might lead us to re-examine the rela- tion between decorative art and contemporary abstraction; examining the achievement of women genre painters in the 19th century might make us ask why this sort of narrative approach to everyday subject matt er has been neglected - whether the artists in question happen to be men or women; asking whether the fact that an artist is a woman can have no effect on her style can lead us to ask interesting questions about the relation of biographical or social context to the nature of style generally. In other words, I see Women's Studies, taught with the proper degree of seriousness and rigor not as an instrument of propaganda, drum—beating or breast beating, but as an innovative, challenging and productixe field of intellectual investigation. We are just beginning to formulate the questions and the methods in the various fields of Women's Studies — at times, we must indeed step across traditional boundaries separating the disciplines. But of course, this has been true of almost all novel disciplines: sociology, political science and art history itself had to be formulated out of new needs and new ways of looking at material, just as Women's Studies has to be created today.