Katy Hessel’s The Story of Art Without Men

Ernst Gombrich’s The Story of Art, originally published in 1950, has gone through many expansions and rewritings, and it has been much translated. It thus is as near to a universally recognized classic as can be found in modern art history writing. Gombrich has recently been much criticized for being Eurocentric and for including very few female artists. It is true, however, that while he devoted one treatise, Art and Illusion (1961) to European figurative art, he also did another, The Sense of Order (1994), which is even longer, about decorative art. But the issues involving representation have an ongoing interest as is not the case for the debates about decoration. It is also true that Gombrich lacked interest in contemporary art. And that he included almost no women artists.

While there were numerous arguments about some points of detail in The Story of Art, basically the book presented the art that was the focus of our grand Western museum collections and scholarly concern in the mid twentieth-century. Beginning in the 1970s, under the spell of feminist political movements, that situation started to change. Contemporary female artists demanded attention, and there was extensive discussion of some pre-contemporary women painters. Katy Hessel’s The Story of Art Without Men (2023), the latest stage of this process, is an amazing book whose title now seems almost inevitable. How, it asks, might we rewrite The Story of Art with an all female cast? The Story of Art Without Men is an effortlessly lucid, far reaching synthesis of the now extensive literature of feminist art history. And where Gombrich’s books are built around a theorizing armature, his account of representation as art historical progress, Hessel’s is an exercise in description, without any such historical structure, at least before we get to the immediate present. In chapter eight, for example, she offers a highly woven account of a much discussed movement, Abstract Expressionism. In twenty some pages she discusses Janet Sobel, who influenced Jackson Pollock; Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Joan Mitchell, Helen Frankenthaler, and Louis Nevelson, the familiar female me

mbers of that movement; and then Anne Alpert, Ruth Asawa and the women of the Japanese movement, Gutai. A lot of ground is covered very quickly. The most engaging part of her book is the focus on the immediate present, for it’s right now, so Hessel plausibly argues, that female artists became very important.

In The Story of Art Without Men almost every form of visual art is presented. There are paintings, sculptures and performances; figurative works, installations and abstractions; And the women artists are very varied. Many are poor, but a few were prosperous; a few of them are famous, while many are as yet little known. Considering the variety of Hessel’s examples, it’s obvious that art by women has no essence, no defining quality. Thanks to the efforts of many scholars and art dealers, she notes, “by the end of the (twentieth) century people of color, queer people and women were gradually integrated and accepted by mainstream institutions” (p. 326). This was an amazing, important and surprising achievement. In her plausible dating of this change, she observes that “it was in the 1990s that art institutions and biennials (finally) started to play more sustained attention to artists who were non-white, queer, and women” (p. 375).

Visual art has always had many diverse functions. The works in The Story of Art had sacred uses, political concerns, and decorative goals. And so when Gombrich composes his narrative, he’s bringing art with all of these very diverse goals into his framework, the story of the perfection of illusionism. The works presented in The Story of Art Without Men are equally varied, and so also have diverse functions. That said, the basis of Hessel’s narrative, at least when we get to what is her greatest interest, contemporary works, is art’s role as political critique. Thus in the 1980s “the Guerrilla Girls brought public attention to the inequalities and systematic discriminations in the art world” (pp. 357-8), Barbara Kruger “starkly represents the violation experienced by people of all genders when they are refused control of their own bodies” (p. 360), and Cindy Sherman “brings to life the stereotypical, passive roles assigned to women in both grotesque and glamorous ways” (p. 362). As with Gombrich’s examples, these works also of course have other functions. There is no reason, for example, that art involved in political critique might not also be entertainment. But it is political critique which unifies the concerns of these very varied examples. The general idea that the most important contemporary art involves political critique is a familiar concern of October. What is, then, original in The Story of Art Without Men is focus on an immense variety of examples of art by women of all races. Hessel is not a theorist; the strength of her book relies in the resourceful presentation of examples.

The political implications of Hessel’s far reaching analysis deserve attention. Her book’s potential unacknowledged contradiction, to adopt a Marxist vocabulary, lies in the fact that it is the booming art world economy which makes possible this development of so much radically new politically critical art. But although Hessel mentions the “skyrocketing art-market prices,” (415) she doesn’t really work through the implications of that important fact. Many art dealers are displaying and selling contemporary female artists, and there is great interest in earlier women artists. Museums everywhere are showing women’s works. And a major publisher, W. W. Norton, has presented The Story of Art Without Men. That the values of this art are at odds with its support system makes it easy to wonder about how what might be called the collector-class, the people privileged enough to buy major contemporary works, understand this art. When, for example, Hessel presents Julie Mehretu as someone whose “paintings emulate the motion of the world: on the verge of collapse, or the brink of transition” (p. 420), I wonder: did her patrons Goldman Sachs see her work in these terms when they commissioned a mural for their Manhattan headquarters? Perhaps not, for just as you can go to the opera without accepting Richard Wagner’s worldview, so you can appreciate her paintings without adopting this literal political reading.

If the central concern of The Story of Art is visual progress, the stage wise development of more accurate images, the basic focus of The Story of Art Without Men, at least when we get to the present, is political critique. In its most prominent visual art, the capitalist market system critiques its own values. Hessel’s account thus is an Hegelian history; for her art is a form of cultural expression. For Gombrich the story of art is ended, for the development of naturalism has gone as far as it can possibly go. In the end, a mere picture can not fully match appearances. By contrast, whether Hessel’s goal is achievable is less clear. Her hope, certainly, is that political progress is possible. And while, as everyone knows, the present economic problems are enormous, the expansion of the art world to include female artists of all cultures is a real achievement. How then does all of this change the way that we look at artworks from the past? “The power of great art is its ability to transcend time” (p. 391). This is a cliché, maybe a correct one, but certainly a claim that now needs more argument to be acceptable.

The basic principle of what might be called Hessel’s anti-historical history, the presentation of varied individual artists without setting them within a structure displaying progress, such as we find in The Story of Art, is by now a familiar period-style. Such diverse writers as Pepe Karmel in Abstract Art: A Global History, Julian Bell in Mirror of the World: A New History of Art: and of course the Octoberists in their two volume textbook Art Since 1900 have adopted this strategy. Gombrich’s belief that there was progress in art history no longer inspires assent. What, however, sets Hessel apart from these art writers is reading art’s recent history as a triumphant story of the birth of present day women’s art history. In that way, we of find real progress.

The Story of Art Without Men will be widely read and much discussed. It deserves to be, for it is a well balanced, far ranging analysis, and so is an ideal textbook.The account of the historical marginalization of female artists is spot on. It is clear, forceful and plausible. And important. As an academic who has thought about these issues since the late twentieth-century, when in my introductory philosophy class I included a full section on feminism, I am immensely thankful for this book, which is an answered prayer. This is a most important book because it offers the sketch of a plausible view of the present, and raises challenging issues which demand further discussion. “It is through a vast range of visual forms that artists reflect our ever-developing, contradictory world” (p. 413). Now it is the task of further commentary to spell out those contradictions and political action to resolve them.


I discuss Karmel’s book in https://hyperallergic.com › the-end-of-art-history; Bell’s in CounterPunch https://www.counterpunch.org › 2023/10/06 › Rethinking Fundamentals: The Important Lesson of Julian Bell’s Art History; and the Octoberists in Writing about Visual Art (2003). Julie Metretu, in “Public Art and Its Discontents. Julie Mehretu at Goldman Sachs”. ArtCritical: The Online Magazine of Art and Ideas

David Carrier is a philosopher who writes art criticism. His Aesthetic Theory, Abstract Art and Lawrence Carroll (Bloomsbury) and with Joachim Pissarro, Aesthetics of the Margins/ The Margins of Aesthetics: Wild Art Explained (Penn State University Press) were published in 2018. He is writing a book about the historic center of Naples, and with Pissarro he conducted a sequence of interviews with museum directors for Brooklyn Rail. He is a regular contributor to Hyperallergic.