U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Linda Nochlin and Asking the Right Questions

Among many other excellent papers I heard this weekend, Leslie Butler’s “Woman Questions as Democracy Questions” was particularly thought-provoking. Although they could be asked separately, Butler’s research has proved how consistently in the 19th century the subject of women’s rights turned into a meditation on the value or the dangers of democracy’s implicit promise of universal suffrage. Discussion seemed naturally to flow the other direction as well: arguments on behalf of manhood suffrage consistently found the “aristocracy of sex” (as John Stuart Mill termed it) to be a sore spot which required further thought and a good deal more speech and writing.

Butler places her history within the nineteenth century transatlantic fondness for “questions”–the social question, the Irish question, the Eastern question, the Jewish question, et cetera. But of course what fell out of fashion over the course of the twentieth century wasn’t the value of questions to make sense of broad and snarled issues but simply the convention of conceptually arranging related problematics under such general headings. (Or maybe not–perhaps “isms” simply took the place of “questions.”)

I am also thinking of questions today because of the death this past weekend of Linda Nochlin, the author of the germinal essay “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” I encourage you to read both the essay and the obituary (both from ARTnews), but I want to close with this great and inspiring quotation from the former: 

It is the engaged feminist intellect (like John Stuart Mill’s) that can pierce through the cultural-ideological limitations of the time and its specific “professionalism” to reveal biases and inadequacies not merely in the dealing with the question of women, but in the very way of formulating the crucial questions of the discipline as a whole. Thus, the so-called woman question, far from being a minor, peripheral and laughably provincial sub-issue grafted on to a serious, established discipline, can become a catalyst, an intellectual instrument, probing basic and “natural” assumptions, providing a paradigm for other kinds of internal questioning, and in turn providing links with paradigms established by radical approaches in other fields. Even a simple question like “Why have there been no great women artists?” can, if answered adequately, create a sort of chain reaction, expanding not merely to encompass the accepted assumptions of the single field, but outward to embrace history and the social sciences, or even psychology and literature, and thereby, from the outset, to challenge the assumption that the traditional divisions of intellectual inquiry are still adequate to deal with the meaningful questions of our time, rather than the merely convenient or self-generated ones.