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The Trouble with Greatness

July 27, 2009

Recently, Jess McCabe of the f-word linked to a 2007 Washington Post article in which Blake Gopnik argues that feminist art is “[t]he most important artistic movement since World War II.” While it’s wonderful to see the vision and skill of artists such asYoko Ono, Cosey Fanni Tutti, and Eleanor Antin recognized, the framing of the article itself is problematic. Greatness is a painfully vague concept when it comes to art and while the scholars Gopnik quotes do better with making their superlatives specific (discussing, for example, extent of influence and transformation), using these to prove “greatness” represents a sort of gratuitous hierarchizing that ultimately betrays the spirit of much feminist art. Oddly enough, Gopnik even describes one of the reasons why:

Feminist art wasn’t about the “either/or” of traditional art history, where one preening artist — almost always male — tries to assert his way of making art as the “next big thing,” in part by elbowing rival artists and approaches out of the way. Feminism was about “both/and,” in the service of coming to grips with a massive issue that was more than any one artist, or way of making art, could ever deal with. Where men had always jockeyed for place, feminists believed in rewriting the rules of the horse race.

If this is the attitude within feminist art, then shouldn’t that apply to how feminist art is considered alongside other art forms?

To be clear, this is not to say comparisons should never be made. It is only to say that these comparisons should be about specifics, not who is on top, not who is the best. Greatness, as a concept, whatever details are used to support it, is about superiority, and that goes against what I know to be feminist.

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