Germaine Greer – More Change, More the Same?

Germaine Greer’s recent opinions published in The Guardian have generated such vehement discussions in pages. I thought I’d review her introduction to her 30-year old book on women artists entitled The Obstacle Race. 1979.

She begins by noting that in Paris in 1906 and again 75 years later in Los Angeles, overview exhibitions of women artists took place. But they did not apparently recognize the talents of most of the same artists. It is Greer’s theory that each exhibition was not aiming to tell the full and true story.


The following paintings are by two little know artists today but to whom Greer introduces us.




This beautiful painting by Sibylla deBondorff is entitled St. Francis Kneeling at Prayer, 1478. What else did she paint? Recognize the name?




Then there is Maria van Oosterwijk, b. 1630, who at 28 went to Antwerp to study flower painting and whose patrons included Louis XIV, Emperor Leopold, William III of England and Jan Sobieski. She became well known in her time for..sunflowers…now rarely seen.

Men are not the only consumers of art nor are they the only art historians Greer reminds us women. She states that women have not been adequately vocal in promoting their cause as artists in order to develop strong value for their artworks. (Such an uphill battle while bringing home the bacon, cooking it up in the pan, etc., etc.)

Today’s question- is this still true?

Greer states then that there has always been a desultory interest in women artists as varieties of natural prodigies. Critics/writers/art historians have felt an obligatory sense of mentioning a few women artists along the way, but there has continued throughout the ages a condescending attitude in considering any artwork produced by a woman as merely a trifle.

References to any art has been dismissive, almost at best. Any work by a woman, however trifling, is as astonishing as the pearl in the head of the tad. It is not part of the natural order, and need not be related to the natural order. Their work was admired [by commentators] in the old sense which carries an undertone of amazement as if they had painted with the brush held between their toes. [The Obstacle Race, 1979.p.4]

If one were to review the lists of talented women artists (no not talented artists) compiled over the centuries, the list would change at the whim of the commentator, thus indicating the apparent insignificance of these artists. (Note that I do not say “women” artists.)


What I found interesting is Greer’s reasoning for writing the book and her authority in doing so. Her professed purposed was to take pen in hand to advance the talents of women artists of prior eras in response to the lack of serious consideration by the noted critics through the ages. She believes today’s artists can build on this recognition of the past. She says, and this is worth quoting, that she has tried inexpertly to address the question of women’s participation in the fine arts…by attempting to rejoin those freaks to the body of women from whom they have been separated, and by placing these women in some sort of social and cultural background….as members of a group having much in common, tormented by the same conflicts of motivation and the same practical difficulties, the obstacles both external and surmountable, internal and insurmountable of the race for achievement. [Ibid.p.6] She is not an expert!!


Another “aha” moment for me came with Greer’s admission that the book does what is can to give voice to the trials that artists therein had to face concerning the creation and recognition of their art as talented individual artists. (Again, no mention of gender.)


She does go on to admit that some women chose to use their creative powers by abandoning painting to working in the so-called minor arts. [Ibid. p.7] Greer offers insight into why they did so to demonstrate that these alternatives opened unnavigated avenues for their creativity, gave them a better voice for their vision in their worlds.


If one attempts to learn about these minor arts over the centuries, women exhibited major strengths in creating art in these media. Makes one think about the fine craft exhibitions of museums, traveling shows and galleries. Another question, what is the gender of the majority of these artists? Is entry to these shows and exhibitions more difficult for male or female? Who has more opportunity to make a living wage at these endeavors and why? Oh dear, perhaps I digress.


Back to The Obstacle Race. Two sentences at the end of the introduction spoke particularly to the conversations about Greer’s Guardian statements last month. She says that part of the function of this book is to stimulate the curious reader into making his own enquiries. And…women artists do not need to be discovered, for they are forcing the world to notice them on their own behalf and on their own terms. Hmmm.


Greer’s statements were published thirty years ago. My questions are-

  1. Do her current editorial commentaries attempt to disturb (check out the definition in your Webster’s Dictionary) us to cause us to re-act; for other consumers of art to do the same?
  2. Are textile artists, fiber artists, quilt artists, quilters, you pick the term that suits you, voicing their talents more loudly and effectively today? If so, why? If not, why not?
  3. And what is Germaine Greer really up to? Is she more curmudgeonly than ever or is she provoking increased action on our part? Just what is she up to?

2 Responses to “Germaine Greer – More Change, More the Same?”

  1. 1 Mathew Egbele April 8, 2008 at 5:03 am

    It is amazing to know these things.

  2. 2 June September 6, 2007 at 10:10 am

    I was one of those horrified at the Greer article in the Guardian, until I reread it and realized that I had almost certainly turned it upside down from Greer’s intent on my first reading. I think she was honoring the artist, Edwina huews (sp?), not dissing her.

    A thought about the place of women in the fine art world vis-a-vis our own little nest of quilt artists: — the quilt art world is a lot more comfortable — both to get established in and to maintain oneself in. It’s a bit insular and prone to getting its feelings hurt easily, but it is welcoming to newcomers and tolerant of egregiously bad art. It also sort of appreciates good art, so long as it stays with its bounds.

    As such the contemporary quilt art world is both a great place to begin and a terrible place to remain, because complacency can become intermingled with thinking that the standards of the quiltart world are those of the art world (I almost wrote “real” art world).

    That said, I find Greer’s comments on which women make “The List” of famous artists (that it varies enormously in a way that male artist inclusions don’t) is fascinating and true.

    But then, art is about context and the context of those art lists have to do with the content of the art lists from last year, and ten years ago and a hundred years ago. You can’t be famous until you’ve gained some fame……

    And that’s almost certainly enough for me to chew on today.

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