News & Politics  
comments_image Comments

Breaking Out of the Art World's Sexism

Heavy-hitting shows dedicated to feminist art are happening now on both coasts. But they stand in stark contrast to a past deeply in thrall to <i>man</i>-made art.
 
 
Share
 
 
 
 

Call it the year of the woman ... in the visual arts! With symposiums, heavy-hitting shows on the East and West Coast, and a smattering of smaller exhibits around the country all dedicated to feminist art happening now, it's a veritable gender insurgency waged on the hallowed white walls of the art world.

A small fraction of the timing was mere serendipity. That's what curator Connie Butler says anyway about "WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution," a survey of international feminist art produced during the 1970s, on view now at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. She conceived of the show over a decade ago, she says, when she noticed emerging artists, like Matthew Barney, referencing the work of that period "with no real understanding of the history."

The rest of this confluence was pure conspiracy. Activist patrons, artists, curators, and scholars organized these events to make a big publicity splash. And the Feminist Art Project (FAP) at Rutgers University in New Jersey, initiated in late 2005 by Judy Chicago and the late feminist art writer Arlene Raven, was its fountainhead. Organizers there are promoting feminist art's reach through 2009 with a series of publications, symposia, and exhibitions.

No wonder then that Chicago's iconic second-wave paean, The Dinner Party , finally found a permanent home this month at the Brooklyn Museum as it just unveiled The Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, a founding program partner of the FAP. The Sackler Center -- the first museum space devoted solely to feminist art -- also inaugurates the touring show, "Global Feminisms," an unprecedented compilation of contemporary transnational feminist art, by curators Maura Reilly, on the FAP's national committee, and Linda Nochlin, well-known art historian on the FAP's honorary board.

But this bluestocking barrage is an anomaly. While it is a step in the right direction, this glittering year of feminist art stands in stark contrast to the agglomeration of years past, which reveals an art world deeply in thrall to man-made art.

"Feminist art for complex reasons gets marginalized and doesn't get the central place it deserves, so to overwhelm that is really a brilliant move," said Carey Lovelace, art critic and author of the upcoming book, An Army of Lovers Cannot Fail: The Women's Movement in Art, 1968-2006 . "Judy Chicago has a sense of history," Lovelace continued, and these shows "get people to really look at feminist art."

Like Chicago, the present informs Butler's sense of history, too. "I think that certainly the cultural climate is so conservative at the moment, that people are nostalgic for a period when real social change was possible," said Butler. "And I think that conservatism in the art world has something to do with it."

Like Life
That art world conservatism is a miniature replica of real world conservatism is not surprising. Feminist writers often point out the relative lack of women's bylines in major national magazines compared to men. And progressive political activists who want more women in public office often see the major Sunday talk shows -- a crucial way to attract voter support -- dominated by male candidates. The litany of complaints by feminist artists, art historians, and curators is strikingly similar. Museums are notoriously conservative. New York galleries show mostly men. Women artists as renowned as Raphael in their time -- have you ever heard of Angelica Kauffmann? -- are all but erased from art history.

Despite this, quite a few people are noticing, including Maura Reilly, and doing something about it. Reilly's catalogue essay for "Global Feminisms" is a testament to taking heed. She marshals all the right dissenting voices. One is Village Voice writer Jerry Saltz, who has written extensively on sexism and art. In 2005, one year after the Museum of Modern Art reopened in New York, Saltz examined the artwork and found gross under-representation of women artists. "Of the approximately 410 works in the fourth-and-fifth-floor galleries, only a paltry 16 are by women," he wrote, a mere 4 percent.

The MoMA is not an isolated example, Reilly writes. And she cites The Guerilla Girls, an American feminist artist collective, who updated their famous 1989 poster Do Women Have to Be Naked to Get into the Met. Museum? In the updated 2005 poster, it says that fewer than 3 percent of the artists in the Metropolitan Museum of Art's modern art section were women, down from 5 percent in 1989. And the Guggenheim is no better: From 2000 to 2004, the Guerilla Girls reported, women artists were granted only 11 percent of the solo exhibitions.

The problem doesn't stop with museums. Saltz also reported in the fall of 2005 that only 17 percent of the solo shows in New York City galleries were by women. The same problem crept up last fall too. "According to the fall exhibition schedules for 125 well-known New York galleries -- 42 percent of which are owned or co-owned by women -- of 297 one-person shows by living artists taking place between now and December 31, just 23 percent are solos by women."

Greg Allen, of the New York Times , also noted an under-representation of women artist's work selling in auctions. In spring 2005, Allen found that out of the 861 works that Christies, Sotheby's, and Phillips were offering, a mere 13 percent were by women artists.

He also compared two equally estimable peers and found huge discrepancies in the prices their works commanded. Damien Hirst and Rachel Whiteread, prominent artists who came of age in the nineties, both won the Tate museum's prestigious Turner Prize. And yet Hirst's tiger shark in formaldehyde sold for over $13 million dollars, while Christies suggested a value of $400,000 to $600,000 for Whiteread's fiberglass mattresses.

Institutionalized and Internalized Sexism
Reilly's catalogue essay includes an anecdote of one curator's awkward attempt at explaining the conspicuous omission of women artists from her show. In spring 2005, the Centre Pompidou in Paris presented Dionysiac: Art in Flux , curated by Christine Marcel, who commissioned installations by 14 international artists: all white men. The show was a hit, tapping into the themes of intoxication, ecstasy, and revelry. But how did Marcel account for commissioning no work by women? Perhaps women just don't possess a Dionysiac spirit, Marcel wondered in her catalogue essay, as they are more concerned with personal fiction and narrative.

Internalized sexism of that kind is rampant. Many women own galleries, curate shows, sit on boards of museums; yet gender parity is not a reality. On top of that, women comprise the majority of students at most of the prominent MFA programs in the country, says Maria Dumlao, who spoke at the Women's Media Center last month as a founding member of Brainstormers, a protesting art collective. And while many of these young women are thwarted professionally after graduation simply because of their sex, they resist the feminist label.

These women must be in on the little secret: Women artists tend not to sell well, and feminist art tends to fare even worse. According to Coco Fusco, a performance artist who was quoted in an article on Exquisite Acts & Everyday Rebellions , the Web site of the student-organized feminist art project based at the California Institute of the Arts, the problem starts in MFA programs. "If [young women artists] choose 'hot' MFA programs," Fusco said, "they will be routinely visited by famous female artists who will tell them in private in their studios that feminism is a bad word and it means bad work."

Feminist art, as a rule, does get a bad rap. But why that is may be outmoded. "I think the early efforts at feminist art were really clumsy," Lovelace said. "Women were dealing with this heritage of years of art history fraught with all sorts of problems. Some [early feminist art] was very literal; there wasn't a very nuanced approach."

Underlying the taste issue, Lovelace thinks, is "a culture problem with feminism." "I think there is a lot of difficulty dealing with women in power, with women seizing their identity as separate from men. [Young women] don't want to see themselves as separate, so they don't want to associate with people who are."

Take Tamy Ben-Tor, the Israeli performance artist, for instance. She shocked the audience at the 2006 panel discussion, "'Feminisms' in Four Generations" held at City University of New York's Graduate Center, when she said she did not see herself as a feminist. "I don't think about feminism at all," Ben-Tor said. "It is problematic to associate myself with any ideology. It's fine if it serves the weak, but I don't feel affiliated with it."

"There is no doubt that public identification as a feminist does carry risk," wrote Mira Schor in response to the Ben-Tor's comments on the Web site M/E/A/N/I/N/G. "Young women are afraid of the word, even when they are drawn to the concepts. They want to be at the center ... Thus, by extension, the center is not feminist, will not reward overt demonstrations of feminism."

Ben-Tor's agent, Zach Feuer, doesn't argue with this of course. "Feminism is not a selling point," he said bluntly without elaborating in a February 2007 Art News article by Jori Finkel.

"To understand the physics of the art world, one has to be clear that its primary motivations are not moral, theoretical or even aesthetic, but commercial," writes Ben Davis, art critic for ArtNet.com, in his March 2007 article, " White Walls, Glass Ceiling."

"Concretely this means that what is deemed "hot" new art must factor in what piques the interest of playboy European heirs, Japanese capitalists, newly rich Russian robber barons, American I-bankers, and the like -- all of whom are predominantly male, and less prone to buy overtly "feminine," let alone feminist, work."

The Corrections
In spite of this bleak assessment, Nochlin, author of the seminal essay, "Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?" published in ArtNews in 1971, sees improvement.

"I think we've made a lot of progress," Nochlin says in the February 2007 issue of ArtNews. "There are collectors and curators, who -- out of habit, laziness, or even misogyny -- simply don't bother with women. But that's happening less and less frequently."

Even though Nochlin sees progress, she and Reilly push for even more in "Global Feminisms." The exhibit is profoundly ambitious. It aims to counter not just sexism, but racism and a Western-brand of ethnocentrism. "This all-women exhibition aims to be inclusively transnational," Reilly writes in the introductory catalogue essay, "evading restrictive boundaries as it questions the continued privileging of masculinist cultural production from Europe and the U.S. within the art market, cultural institutions, and exhibition practices. By extension, therefore, it also challenges the monocultural, so-called first-world feminism that assumes a sameness among women." Hence, the plural "feminisms," which is more inclusive. The two terms -- global and feminisms -- are meant, Reilly writes, "to complicate the hierarchy of racial, class, sexual, and gender-based struggles."

And though her prose sometimes sounds generically academic -- deeply influenced as she is by writers Gloria Anzaldua, bell hooks and Gayatri Spivak, among others -- Reilly's essay is nonetheless inspiring. She makes clear to her readers that her literary forebears are the theory. "Global Feminisms" is the practice.

But like the literary theory that had some influence over the choices in the exhibit, some of the art -- like Angela de la Cruz's Self, an abstract painting in front of a chair -- can seem, to the layperson, inscrutable. While others, such as Sam Taylor-Wood's Hysteria, a video of a woman's histrionics so clearly a caricature of an overly emotional woman, are more readily accessible.

In all of these feminist exhibits, whether we understand the art or not is, to some extent, beside the point. "One of the most gratifying things has been the reactions of a lot of my peers," Butler said. "How the work seems to speak to people on the level of just artists who were sorting out, on some fundamental level, who they were and what it means to be an artist. There is something elemental about the work, and something also to the kind of social change they were responding to in the period."

More broadly, though, the larger statement these big feminist art explosions make is what is at stake: The art world needs to snap out of its collective complacency and stop perpetuating sexism, racism, and ethnocentrism. To be sure, these corrective attempts are cyclical, often fleeting and with long-term effects that can be hard to see. Still, Butler remains hopeful. "Do I think that any one show will redress institutional problems? Well, it happens in really small steps."

Jeanine Plant is a Brooklyn-based writer.

 
See more stories tagged with: