PRINT October 1975

When Greatness is a Box of Wheaties

Cindy Nemser, Art Talk: Conversations with Twelve Women Artists (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons), 367 pages, illustrated, hardbound.

I used to say the thing in this country was to be like a box of Wheaties—to turn out a product so that everyone knew you by that product.
—Alice Neel

THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN ART criticism and feminism has still to be carefully considered. What does a feminist critic do? In what context should she seek to understand women’s art? What is her relationship to women artists, old and young, feminist and not? Are the professional interests of criticism compatible with those of feminism? Critics have still to give these questions serious thought.

Nothing could reveal less thought of this kind than Cindy Nemser’s Art Talk. And nothing better magnifies the need to sort out and examine critical and feminist values. That Art Talk exploits the women’s movement is not the real issue. The social conditions that give rise to, and are perpetuated through, such books are. Art Talk teaches us that until we have figured out how these conditions affect people, we will not understand women artists as women or as professional artists.

Art Talk looks rather like other trade books about artists. Each of its 12 chapters is devoted to a single artist (Barbara Hepworth, Sonia Delaunay, Louise Nevelson, Lee Krasner, Alice Neel, Grace Hartigan, Marisol, Eva Hesse, Lila Katzen, Eleanor Antin, Audrey Flack and Nancy Grossman). The difference, aside from the fact that all the artists are women, is that each chapter is taken from tape-recorded conversations between Nemser and the artist. In these dialogues, the artists talk about their personal lives and their careers, the art world, feminism and other topics. As entertainment, the gossip and the life talk are far more vivid and moving than the art talk. Flashes of personalities caught by the tape recorder and pieces of lived experience that the women recount enliven many of its pages and give it what literary virtues it has. However, talk is often guarded—after all, it was being taped for a book—and conversations often become exchanges of empty generalizations and solemnly pronounced platitudes.

Art Talk, then, is an assemblage of diverse materials and voices. The one constant voice, however, is Nemser’s. She sets the tone and purpose of the book and is very much a part of the dialogues. In the latter, she frames questions, offers opinions, changes the subject and frequently imposes her own interpretations on what the artists say about themselves and their work. Her views, which permeate Art Talk, do not proceed from any substantive or developed thesis about women artists or art. Rather, they arise from a set of values and concepts for which she seeks confirmation in her dialogues with artists.

Her introduction leads the reader through a series of contradictory and unsubstantiated statements. Her key term is “greatness.” Art Talk is dedicated to the celebration of that quality in women artists. Nemser does not define it, but she tells us where to look for it: “I believe it will become clear that the highest accomplishment, greatness, in female artists is a rule rather than an exception.” However, on the following page, we learn that “greatness is not found en masse either.” We also read that great artists are, among other things, “awe inspiring,” but “not always easy to deal with” and almost always “egocentric.” Evidently, greatness is a marvelous but slightly unpleasant essence or property that adheres in people and things. Nemser emphasizes that greatness is not conditioned by historical or educational experience. Great women artists “achieve greatness no matter what the odds,” and they “transcend it all in the service of their art.” Greatness is not made; it just happens.

Nemser also tells us that women artists in all periods of history are as great as the greatest of their contemporary males, e.g. Michelangelo, Rembrandt and Cézanne, and that only bias and “art historical and critical brainwashing” have kept us ignorant of this fact.1 The proof is before our eyes. “Without needing to delve into the past, we have before our eyes the awesome works of Louise Nevelson, Barbara Hepworth and Eva Hesse.” Nemser is outraged that these and other women artists have been denied “the power and prestige of their top male colleagues” and not allowed “to compete and take laurels among male peers.” That is, simply being great is not sufficient to greatness; it demands rewards. Art Talk is meant to render women artists their due by changing things in the fields of criticism and art history. Nemser writes:

Well this feminist knew what she was fighting for. . . . I knew I would have to fight it [the status quo], to reverse it, to help win back for women artists their rightful place in the forefront of art history.

The mystery of greatness is immediately cleared up the moment one gets past the introduction. This greatness that resides in women artists, which bias has made invisible, turns out to be exactly the same greatness that is celebrated in men artists. Nemser does not question the authority of those notions of achievement against which women have been measured and found wanting; she affirms them and uses them to measure women. Specifically, she describes their achievements in the terms developed by established academic art history and orthodox criticism. Her aim is to represent women artists as the real innovators and leaders of “mainstream” vanguard art. She wants to establish that women did it, whatever it was, first. Why they did it is of secondary or no importance.

Accordingly, Hepworth created “vitalist” sculpture and was “the first to pierce the stone in 1931.” The significance of piercing stone is not discussed. Sonia Delaunay was to be pushed into the role of the “moving force” behind another avant-garde movement (Orphism), but, as her interview makes clear, she protested so much that Nemser had to settle for giving her an “equal” role with her husband, Robert Delaunay. What Orphism was is not discussed, and apparently that question is not important to Nemser. Krasner is a co-inventor of the “over-all.” She, “simultaneously with Pollock had taken the risk. . . .” 1Lila Katzen is credited with having influenced the stained paintings of Morris Louis, and so on. Each “first,” or each portion of a “first,” in being given to a woman, is taken away from a man. The reader must conclude that greatness is not self-evident in the art of great artists, for it waxes and wanes in relation to what other artists have done.

Nor is there allowance for the possibility that sometimes women artists, because they have been socially and psychologically alienated from male-dominated vanguard groups, or disliked the role of women’s auxiliary into which vanguard men have often pushed them, chose to go it alone. Georgia O’Keeffe, Louise Bourgeois, Alice Neel and Louise Nevelson are all women whose work was developed in relative social, psychological and artistic isolation, and I suspect that this is a common condition for much women’s art in the 20th century. But the category of going it alone does not exist on Nemser’s checklist of greatness. What happens to women and their art without the kind of group support that male vanguardists enjoy is consequently not asked, although Neel and Nevelson, who more or less take over their own interviews, make comments that may be relevant. Neel says, “It’s sad to live on the shelf.” Nevelson also talks about being, feeling alone, (but Nemser tells her that “that seems to be the condition of the artist in our society”). In any case, Nemser explicitly denies that social or psycho- logical isolation is a barrier to influencing avant-garde art, declaring this idea an “illogical rationale.”

So the art talk in Art Talk is often taken up with who did what when and first. Nemser is so busy with her checklist, she does not do even the conventional job of the critic. She does not—nor does she let the reader—look closely at the art. The conversations, therefore, often read like short academic monographs. First there is the personal biography, then the art. (Neel insisted they were the same.) Chronological order is imposed as closely as possible (although Nevelson could not be controlled). Artistic influences and stylistic development are carefully noted, and any evidence to substantiate technical or formal innovation and influence is examined in detail. Artistic choices are given importance in relation to their subsequent popularity among other, preferably well-known, artists. Old masters are dragged in when Nemser thinks they are relevant for a contrast or a comparison (e.g. Nemser to Grossman: “These works don’t resemble Picasso’s collages of ‘found objects’ in that the things have not retained their original beauty”).

The old art-historical lens, the one that rings a bell for new styles and art movements, is the one that relentlessly prevails in Art Talk. That lens, which dims or filters out lived experience, is well suited to measuring artists in relation to each other. It simplifies content by reducing it to general categories of style, subject matter, or materials. The kind of thinking it represents both fuels and justifies the particularly fierce spirit of competition and envy that eats into the souls of so many artists. That spirit often hovers about the pages of Art Talk—in references to injuries that still fester, estranged friendships, comments about other artists’ opportunism, and the willingness to hear one’s work compared favorably to that of some close rival (I shall return to this subject of competition). Many of these artists decline to gossip, but enough of this comment remains in the edited text to reveal the not-very-astonishing truth that artists, whatever else they are, are as profoundly self-interested as the rest of us.

Nemser especially urges the older women to give evidence of their art-historical importance and also to testify against former male colleagues (and dead husbands) for having robbed them of the credit. In so far as she has a thesis to prove, this is the crux of it. She is, moreover, convinced that the primary needs of all great artists are fame and prestige. What she appears not to understand is that great artists, particularly older, relatively neglected ones, can be fussy about who celebrates them and how and why they are celebrated. But Nemser, awestruck when near to greatness, does not notice such things as ordinary human pride.

Hence, her conversation with Sonia Delaunay, which revolves around Delaunay’s lack of recognition, is a disaster. Nemser repeatedly tries to crown the eighty-nine-year-old artist with wreaths of achievement, but Delaunay keeps dodging her passes. Nemser tries a half-dozen ways to get her to say that she and not her husband Robert was “the moving force” behind Orphism. Delaunay does not cooperate. But Nemser won’t take no for an answer. That is where feminism comes in. She tries to raise Delaunay’s consciousness, i.e. to get her to admit how much she really wants a place in the forefront of art history for having innovated an important art movement.

Nemser: Isn’t that one of the problems of being a woman artist? If you are married to a man who is an artist, you put his career first. You want him to prosper and then you have a tendency to efface yourself—to make yourself less important.

But Delaunay persists in claiming, even under extensive examination, that this kind of “importance” has nothing to do with making art. She alleges that she prefers “freedom of thinking and living” and making art “very much for myself” to “having a dealer” and making products that have to be exhibited and publicized, even though she engages in the latter. Nemser cannot believe this and is determined to make the old woman tell the truth: “You mean you really don’t care if your work is publicized or not?” “I don’t care very much,” answers Delaunay. But still Nemser presses her: “It seems extraordinary to me that you care so little about being recognized as a great artist.” Delaunay does not think it is extraordinary and says things about how doing art is better than being recognized for doing it. Nemser knows that this is the subterfuge of an unraised consciousness and boldly continues her line of questioning. Finally, Delaunay, clearly repelled by Nemser’s questions, erupts:

But I don’t want it. It’s a false idea you have—an American idea that artists must be famous. That’s an idea of today. . . . Between me and painting there is nothing.

(Even then Nemser does not let up, but she never gets a confession.)

I do not want to leave the impression that specific works of art are never talked about in any depth or that they are discussed only in relation to other works of art. Some of the artists, as well as being gifted talkers, are intent on saying something about the ideas, feelings and experience they bring to their work. Neel, Antin and Grossman talk very much about their art in these terms. Flack and to some extent Marisol make interesting comments about their subject matter. Hartigan, on her Grand Street Brides, and Hesse, on the “absurdity” of her work, also provide moments in which art-making is treated as something relevant to experience beyond the art world.

But talking about art is not the specialty of these professionals. Some of them get stuck with words so that meanings are left tentative, and they frequently indicate that interpreting art verbally does not interest them. Nemser often seems at a loss to bring them out, and sometimes, in seeming to agree with them, she contradicts them, a habit that is not conducive to conversation. Always her anxiousness to legitimize them as significant artists in established terms acts as a block to thinking, feeling and talking about their work in relation to the world beyond the art world. When Neel begins to talk about specific historical experience relative to a portrait of her son Hartly (“he was twenty-five and threatened with Viet Nam”), Nemser continues to declare the work “universal” in meaning, a portrait of “Everyman.” Aside from whether or not a mother can see her son as Everyman, that is not what Neel was saying.

In the interview with Antin, the latter is pushed into an exchange that not only appears to silence her but also cuts the center out of her work. Antin had been discussing Carving: A Traditional Sculpture (a series of unflattering photographs of herself nude, taken while dieting) and other works that grew out of her experience of herself as she is, in opposition to glamorous fantasy images that, as a woman, she has internalized. It is one of the few times in Art Talk that we hear someone with a highly raised consciousness whose work grows directly out of that consciousness. Nemser appears to be made uncomfortable by it and suggests that Antin’s work is “universal.” But Antin continues to talk about how Carving grew out of her experience of her body. Nemser puts an end to this by raising the question that everyone is asked:

But though your art is, of course, a woman’s art because you did it, can it really be called woman’s art—in the sense that only a woman could have done it? After all, couldn’t some man have had the idea to do a piece of a woman dieting taking all the pictures and putting them up just as you did? If you didn’t tell me, you, a woman, did it, how would I know the sex of the artist?

Antin appears surprised by the question, but then agrees that a man could have conceived it. The unlikeliness of that possibility is not discussed, and the subject is quickly changed.

Nemser’s purpose is consistent with the logic of her main thesis: if women artists are as great as men artists, their art must not be different, literally. Greatness manifests itself in the same way all the time. It is a universal quality. Indeed, as Nemser must even sense herself, if its products are examined too closely in the context of specific human experience, e.g. being a woman in a woman’s body, greatness as an essence begins to dissolve into the contingencies of life. In its preservation then, she must obliterate the idea that women’s art can grow out of a consciousness and experience that is typically female. That idea threatens the acceptance of women’s art as “normal” great art, indistinguishable from the “highest achievements” of patriarchal culture. Underneath it all, greatness is male.

Thus, while the question of female experience in relation to art often comes up, the way Nemser inevitably frames it (could not a man have made this work?) precludes any serious exploration of it. Nor does she express anything but contempt for organized women’s art groups, characterizing them as competitive and without standards. Feminist art workshops and the problems that young women art students have in identifying with the role of the professional artist are never discussed. It is true that most of the women in the book formed their identities as artists when the terms “artist” and “woman” were considered mutually exclusive. Indeed, theirs is the psychology of the exceptional woman, and despite the women’s movement, most of them are still highly ambivalent about reconciling what for them is a contradiction: being a woman and an artist. Nevertheless, images of brides, mothers, babies, and cosmetics come up in their work as well as in the work of younger women. (Hepworth, Neel, Hartigan, Marisol, Antin, Flack and Grossman all treat one or another of these themes.) The pity is that the reader is never invited to consider in depth how each generation handled them and what kind of feelings they evoke in us.

Whatever Nemser thinks and feels about these works, she has not provided herself with a format in which she or others can give them serious attention. Certainly she appears to like art. But, with the exception of comments she makes to Krasner, she does not leave the impression that she is drawn to particular works because they say something to her that she urgently feels should be said, because they give conscious shape to or illuminate some aspect of existence as she experiences it in a form that seems exactly right. Instead, she identifies and catalogues. This cataloging, however, is consistent with her purpose. Nemser is not a critic, she is a publicizer. She publicizes things as art rather than explicating their qualities. The difference is not merely a literary one. In the art world, objects of art have double identities: they have interior meanings for their viewers, and value as commodities. Similarly, criticism advances the understanding of the values of the work as art, and by so doing augments its exchange value on the market. Since her ideology hobbles her insights into the work, her comment becomes blatant puffery.

Her failure to criticize, in combination with the artist-interview format,leaves these artists in a very ambiguous position, and a vulnerable one, too (but then, women often do end up in such positions). In our society, professional artists, even if they are more gifted as critics than most critics, cannot speak for the art value of their work in the same way that a critic does. Insofar as an artist seeks or even wants to achieve professional recognition—that is, if she wants to be an artist to someone other than herself and her friends—her work must have the value of art to others in her professional community. Someone other than the artist must buy it or exhibit it or treat it as art in some demonstrable way. Criticism is one of these demonstrations. But Nemser prizes the artists’ statements only to confirm her propaganda about them as individuals, not to illuminate her independent experience and judgment of their work. As a result, she not only imposes on us her own sycophantic and hence dehumanizing relationships to these women, but she also blocks our view of their work.

Because the artists in Art Talk get publicity and not criticism, they are left in the position of having to do their own mediating. As they have allowed themselves to be put in this position, they are all the more vulnerable. Talking about art with friends is one thing, but talking about it to a critic who does not criticize and who is holding a microphone and is going to make one’s words the text of a book that claims things about one’s contribution to mainstream vanguardism—that is something else. What can an artist say under such circumstances; or rather, what happens to her credibility under these circumstances?

Almost anything she says can appear to be self-promoting. The kind of artist-image she projects, how she talks about dealers and curators, whom she claims as artistic influences, what she says about her work and how it is distinguishable from the work of others—all this can be translated into plusses or minuses according to various critical value systems. (In fact, that is what Nemser’s checklist is about.) Does she take care to name the year she became a friend of a now-famous and innovative artist because it is relevant to her work or because it credits her with having been among the first in some particular vanguard movement? Did she change her style for the esthetic reasons she gives? Was she as unaware of what others were doing as she says? It is no surprise that art-world people read interviews with artists with cynicism. The ambiguity of the situation calls for it. By failing to argue the value of the art as a genuine outsider, the critic provides a forum in which the artist can only appear as a publicity-seeker.

It is not cynicism that I propose as the attitude with which we approach Art Talk. On the contrary, Nemser inadvertently produces an opportunity to understand the conditions that create cynicism. If the words in this book are surrounded with ambiguity, and if it is uncomfortable to read, it is because the social discourse it records is uncomfortable and ambiguous. But the cause of this ambiguity, the failure of criticism, also opens a door. Because so many pieces of fact, fantasy and feeling float around unrelated or contradictory to the “thesis” they are supposed to demonstrate, the reader is allowed to glimpse what the “skilled” critic knows how to conceal. Unwittingly, Art Talk reflects something of what happens throughout the art world—that complicated community that makes, exhibits, explains, promotes, buys and sells art. This world of social and economic relations, with all its clashing interests, creates a background racket throughout the book. The professional critic disguises or obliterates that sound by focusing the reader’s attention only on the art in relation to other art, or immediate perception, or the artist’s psychology and background, or cultural, social or historical experience. The socioeconomic relations of the art world itself, the social conditions in which works of art are produced, if they are pictured, appear idealized, sublimated as a process of cultural evolution, or as creative dialectics on the perimeters of the vanguard. But Art Talk is filled with contradictory pictures. No one of them firmly controls the book or gives it a unified ideology in which all the conflicting versions of reality can be assimilated.

In the gap between reality and ideology, the noise of the art world breaks through. In that world, hundreds of artists fight for the few critics, dealers, buyers and others who constitute a relevant audience for their work. There, every year, artists make thousands of works whose value as art is intelligible, accessible, and of interest to only a few people. Becoming visible, staying visible or becoming more visible to those few people consumes much of their time, energy and emotion. The artists in Art Talk, as experienced professionals, know that they must compete for attention and that their work will be judged in relation to the work of other artists. They know that they must compete with each other through their art even as they seek from each other the companionship of fellow professionals. They know what is selling and what is not, even if such considerations are unrelated to why they are artists. As artists they live capitalism and they live despite capitalism. Whether or not they like it and whether or not they are fully conscious of it, they must learn to think about their work in relation to the work of other artists if they want to survive.

There are few professions in which so much competition is covertly encouraged and overtly denied at the same time. Individual artists, however they try to make peace with this contradiction and whether or not they understand its causes, cannot transcend it. They live it—through the things they make or do, through what is said about those things, through what they say about themselves and look for in others, and above all, through their own ambitions, whose very shape and substance reflect the relationships that constitute the art world. Committed to the values through which their art becomes intelligible—even while they anxiously calculate how to attract away from others and onto themselves the attention of those few available critics to whom their work is relevant—artists become cynical. As June Wayne has astutely observed, the cynicism of artists is founded on their sense of helplessness and finds expression in "hostile passivity.”2 Their situation, however, produces not only cynicism. It is not unusual to hear artists alternating rapidly between cynicism, artistic idealism and dreams of megalo-success.

Artists as professionals must compete, but they must not appear to compete. They need publicity, but must seek it in a form that is not publicity. They must not let their interests as professionals show.3 At the same time, they are artists who seek social recognition as artists through their work. Publicity alone, or—as in Art Talk—barely disguised publicity, distorts their artistic seriousness and renders them as exploited objects.

Thus Nemser ends by reinforcing and capitalizing upon the very conditioning that oppresses artists in general and women artists in particular. Given the pressures that compel artists to seek critical attention, her offer to make a book of their words must have seemed attractive. But Art Talk perfectly exemplifies what happens to most women artists and their work, no matter how little they have embraced the standard, neutered categories that validate art for the market. They and their work are not well treated. Subjected to the competitive-comparative systems that rank and catalogue, the qualities of their work that speak of shared concrete experience—female as well as male—are diminished.

The galleries, museums, magazines, art schools, life-styles and talk-styles of the art world are geared to the cultivation and merchandizing of artists’ ideals and sensibilities. In the dynamics of the art market, in which all efforts are inevitably weighed, personal and social idealism are used as ideological wrappings for the latest salable objects. Now as in the past, artists with causes become trademarks for their own commodities; feminists, too, run the danger of merchandizing their social aspirations. More and better criticism within established modes—old art history with women added—these are not real solutions. The value of established art thinking and how it functions as ideology must be critically analyzed, not promoted anew. It may not be possible to resolve the contradictions within which artists work, but it is possible to clarify them. Equity within present circumstances is better than nothing, but we do not have to accept those circumstances blindly and whole. Nemser’s idea of greatness, like Alice Neel’s box of Wheaties, is made to be consumed, not to nourish. Let us find out what it conceals, face the contradictions we have been taught not to see, and consciously choose what lines we are going to draw and where we can draw them..

Carol Duncan teaches art history at Ramapo College of New Jersey.



1. Nemser is trying to refute Linda Nochlin’s “Why Are There No Great Women Artists?”, Art News, January 1971, pp. 22, 39.

2. See June Wayne, “The Male Artist as a Stereotypical Female,” Art Journal, Summer 1973, pp. 414–416, for a lively description of artists’ attitudes. Wayne goes on to suggest a number of ways artists can organize to solve their problems. In my view, these suggestions are unrealistic because they proceed from the false assumption that artists are a proletariat. Wayne also appears to assume that elitist culture can be democratized, an assumption with which I do not agree.

3. Ambiguous publicity, that is, publicity that is artful or art that publicizes, produces ambivalent feelings in the art community, e.g. the controversy surrounding the Linda Benglis ad in Artforum (November and December, 1974).