Since their curatorial dawn in 1977 with Women Artists 1550-1950, temporary exhibitions of all women artists have attempted to respond to the systemic erasure of women from art history. The latest temporary exhibition of the Royal Palace Museum in Milan — Le Signore dell’Arte (roughly translated to the Arts’ Mistresses) — goes back to this model by showcasing 34 Italian female artists from the 16th to17th centuries. Although this format was revolutionary in 1977, today this curatorial approach has been criticized as self-defeating in furthering a feminist art historical discourse. Le Signore dell’Arte allows us to reflect on the practice of temporary exhibitions of all women artists and its impact on an inclusive and feminist art history.
Quoting the exhibition’s curatorial rationale, Le Signore dell’Arte aims to showcase the “incredible stories of talented, modern women.” The attention is placed on these artists’ “talent” which justifies their presence in the exhibition. Framing artistic worthiness on the basis of talent has been problematised since 1971 by Linda Nochlin. Artistic talent and especially innate talent long stood as the defining quality of “great artists” and as the determining criterion of inclusion and exclusion from the art canon. On this premise, the systemic exclusion from art history of women artists was justified by the belief in feminine systemic lack of artistic ability.
To expand the canon, it would appear logical to frame women artists as equally capable as their male counterparts by measuring them against the same metric of talent used to describe great, male artists. However, by embracing this qualitative, standardized approach — based on the concept of talent — feminist art historians risk reproducing an ideologically oppressive practice that fails to recognize the systems of oppressions that held back certain demographics from becoming artists. As Nochlin argued, the under-representation of specific socio-economic groups in the arts doesn’t depend on their lack of talent but can be traced back to social and ideological institutions (childcare, family relations, school, church, etc) that create systemic social inequalities. These reverberate in the arts as in any cultural forum. A curatorial approach that aspires to be inclusive and rewrite a feminist art history should instead unmask the ideological elitism of the canon not as dependent on artists’ “talent” but rather on the favorable socio-cultural conditions — gender, class, and race — that they enjoyed.
This socio-cultural lens should also be used to scrutinize women artists. Including women in art historical narratives without addressing the bias of art historical evaluative systems can become a tool of oppression for other women and demographics. For example, showcasing “talented women” perpetuates a problematic discourse of exceptionalism that dismisses the existence of systemic oppression that held back the majority of women, only to raise the profiles of a few chosen ones.
Moreover, all-women-artists exhibitions face the risk of further ghettoizing female authors. In fact, these shows often leave the canon unchallenged as women artists’ contributions are confined to the sub-category of “female art history,” as specified by Le Signore dell’Arte’s curatorial guide. This way male artistic abilities remain the unchallenged standard as we can see in Artemisia Gentileschi’s exhibition profile which describes her as “a fair competitor of her male peers.” Scrutinising its selected artists Le Signore dell’Arte could have contributed to the research of an inclusive curatorial approach by questioning why women of colour and working-class artists are greatly under represented in the exhibition and in 16th–17th century European art history.
Additionally, temporary exhibitions can be problematic since they achieve an ephemeral effect on the feminist fight for inclusion without any long-lasting impact like the acquisition of women and non-binary artists in permanent collections. The Guerrilla Girls highlighted this trend in their 2017 Whitechapel exhibition Is it Even Worse in Europe? They showed that women’s artwork acquired in European museums didn’t increase over time despite most institutions marketing their embrace of alternative histories to expand the canon. Institutions’ actual commitment to inclusivity should be done through acquisitions since permanent collections are the ones shaping public opinion and framing how history gets recorded for posterity.
To conclude, rather than attempting to expand the canon through an additive and ephemeral gestures, feminist curatorial approaches should address the systemic discrimination faced by under-represented socio-economic groups in the arts. I agree with Griselda Pollock as she claims that this archival, additive work should be paired by one of ideological contestation and socio-historical contextualization. Failing to do so may only lead to the creation of another discriminatory canon firstly limited by the definition of “woman” and harmful for other demographics affected by intersectional discrimination.