Gender Bias in the Discipline of Art History

A publication of the National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, D.C.

A publication of the National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, D.C.

In the opinion of this report, we cannot wait--nor should we wait--for appropriate textbooks to lead the way for revision of the curriculum. But just how these changes can be made in course content is not always clear. For example, a strong case has been made for the inclusion of Women's Studies in the academic curriculum, yet it remains unclear to many just how this should affect courses such as Art 1A-B. Among articulate thinkers and writers who happen to be women are those such as Riane Eisler who are not happy to see the historical (and artistic) achievements of women merely relegated to some sort of Women's Studies closet. See: Riane Eisler, The Chalice and the Blade:  Our History, Our Future (Harper and Row, 1986).

Gender bias in the discipline of Art History is real, exists and persists on several different levels, and requires the thoughtful attention of peers, academic administrators and students as well as future textbook authors. One might argue persuasively that greater importance should be given to paleolithic and neolithic art, stressing with Eisler the significance of the "partnership" or "actualization model" of culture, rather than accepting unquestioningly the "denominator model" of so-called, self-serving, patriarchical "high" civilizations, the notable attainments of the eastern Mediterranean and Europe notwithstanding. But the real problem cannot even be presented for the curiosity and contemplation of students simply by adding Georgia O'Keefe slides to a lecture, or by adding a discussion of Judy Chicago's Dinner Party to a text. After all, neither the de la Croix and Tansey nor the Janson texts, both published in 1986, saw fit to include even mention of Andy Warhol, let alone an illustration.

Certainly some of the real problems of cultural gender bias, as eloquently formulated by Riane Eisler and others (including writers who happen to have been male, such as Robert Graves and James Keys), are much deeper than perceived slights to be assuaged with superficial and cynical nods. Quite simply this has to do with the place of art (and by extension of Art History, aesthetics and related studies) in our present local, state, national and global culture. The news media accord scant attention to art--unless the story involves censorship, bogus morality or vast amounts of money--and yet give harping accounts of financial improprieties, warfare, violence and death: stuff from "the story of how the original partnership direction of Western culture veered off into a bloody five-thousand-year denominator detour." Our most troubling problems today derive from this presumed patriarchal usurpation of power for cultural domination, which also perverted art from sacred process to the venal production of scarcity commodities. For on a deep level, the emblematic female consciousness-- in a balanced original partnership relation with the male--originally provided technologies that sustained and enhanced life, together with ecological consciousness, art, poetry, music, respect for nature, animals and children, and a sense of humor. See: Eisler, p. xxiii; Mania Gimbutas, The Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe, 7000-3500 B.C., (University of California Press, 1982); and The Language of the Goddess: Images and Symbols of Old Europe (Van der Marck, 1987).

Excerpted from "Curriculum Review: Art 1A-B", by Kurt von Meier, August 1990
Attached to a letter sent on November 4, 1990 to Donald R. Gerth,
President of California State University, Sacramento