Happy International Women’s Day, everybody! Originally, I was planning to celebrate by publishing a list of my favorite female artists. From Georgia O’Keeffe to Jenny Holzer, Julie Mehretu, and Catherine Opie, my list certainly would have been pretty diverse and extensive.
But as I went about compiling my list, I began to wonder if I was actually reinforcing the male dominance in art by focusing on artists purely based on gender. Why is there so much attention focused on the supposed “femininity” of women artists anyway? What are the differences between “feminist art,” “female art,” and “art made by women”? Would the Venn diagram of those three terms just be a circle – and if so, why?
It does seem like many female artists are being pigeonholed as “feminist” artists, simply because they explore themes of sexuality, oppression, and identity within their work. And because they are women, they naturally focus on female sexuality, female oppression, and female identity. Are male artists similarly being boxed up or categorized for exploring the same themes? I think not, because exploring the self – exploring identity, society and the way we fit in it – is what all art is about. What makes a woman’s exploration of it so special? Why is a man’s exploration of life and death deemed to be universal, whereas a woman artist’s is viewed to be inherently female, or explicitly feminist?
These are, of course, questions that span way beyond the realm of art. But it’s surprising (to me, at least) how patriarchal the art world remains today. In high school, girls are usually seen as the neat, artistic, aesthetically-competent ones. There are two boys in my art class compared to eight girls, and there are three female art teachers compared to the single male teacher – who happens to be the head of department, nonetheless. But still, all the highest-paid living artists (Hirst, Koons, Murakami…) in the world are men. Historically, the list of most expensive paintings ever sold are utterly dominated by male artists. And as a high school senior going off to college in the fall, faced with various prospects of my future education and career, the gap between high school and the reality of the professional world has never seemed so big – especially for a girl who’s always been told that she could do anything. I’ve always wanted to be a writer, but the number of male authors (both reviewing and being reviewed) in top literary publications still heavily outweigh their female counterparts. Male reviewers dominate our taste in books, in movies, in TV shows, and in art. Unfortunately, there aren’t many ways we can avoid it except to define our own.
Beginning in the 1980s, a feminist group called the Guerilla Girls started a campaign against gender and racial inequality within the art world. Did you know that in 1985, only 5% of the artists represented at the Metropolitan Museum of Art were women, but 85% of the nudes on display were of women? Did you know that things have actually gotten worse - that in 2007, the number of female artists on display at the Met dropped to an astonishingly low 3%? The Guerilla Girls pose the question: “When racism and sexism are no longer fashionable, what will your art collection be worth?”
The essay “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?,” written by Linda Nochlin in 1971, reveals that “in the field of art history, the white Western male viewpoint [is] unconsciously accepted as the viewpoint of the art historian.” The language of art history, such as “old masters” and “masterpiece” is shrouded by the patriarchal shadow of “dead white males.” In his seminal essay “Ways of Seeing,” John Berger declares about the female nude that “Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.”
Not much has changed since then.
So is it silly to praise certain artists, to compare, or to exhibit female artists alongside each other merely due to their gender? Will “Feminist Art” cease to be a movement when true gender equality is achieved? Does art actually have anything to do with gender at all – or should it be viewed as an autotelic sum of visual parts, disengaged from its creator, for as Frank Stella said, “What you see is what you get”?
There are lots of questions and not many answers, especially the “right” ones. But if I were an artist (although I’m not), I don’t think I would mind being called a “woman artist.” It’s the truth, after all, same as “human artist,” “Chinese artist,” or “living artist.” I don’t think I would mind being occasionally called a “feminist artist” either, because I actually am a feminist. But the problem arises when such adjectives turn into all-consuming labels. I wouldn’t want all interpretations of my art to center around femininity because I am a woman, or politics if I were political. Just because artists are human doesn’t make their work any more “humane,” just as not all art by Leonardo, Michelangelo, van Gogh, Monet, Picasso, Pollock, Johns, Hirst (I could go on and on) is about “being a man.” So why are those standards being imposed on women?
There may not be any answers at all, but these are still conversations worth having. Take a moment to think about your favorite women artist today – and wonder what her work, reputation, or career would look like if she were a man.