The Laws of Nature

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Blogger Women and Guerilla Girls

Blogger women left to right: Kathy Cartwright, Margaret Ryall, Carolyn Abrams

Here we are at the Clark Museum in Williamstown, Mass! It was wonderful spending time with these very LOVELY ladies over lunch. We discussed our backgrounds in art, process, and ideas for the future. The only thing that could have improved our day is if YOU had joined us!

Returning to Cynthia Freeland's book, But is it art?, I've reached chapter five and a fascinating (and timely) discussion about the "Guerilla Girls." This is a group of radical feminist visual artists who emerged in New York City twenty-five years ago and are known for placing posters all over the city to protest the gender and racial imbalance of artists represented in galleries and museums. They've expanded their mission since then to include cinema as well. An anonymous group, they assume the names of deceased female artists and number somewhere about 100.
I you want to know more, they have a website at http://www.guerillagirls.com/.

Why does Freeland mention this group in her book? It's because she wants to answer the question: is gender relevant to art - to work an artist makes, or to meaning? And - what about sexual orientation? In my opinion, these are both good questions. One of the Guerilla Girls posters from 1989 asks "Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum?" In other words, only paintings and sculptures of female nudes give women entry into this prestigious venue. The rest of the text on the poster informs us that "less than 5% of the artists in the Modern Art Sections are women, but 85% of the nudes are female." Hmmmm....
Another GG poster lists "The Advantages of being a woman artist." Notably, one item on the list is "not having to deal with the pressure of success." And, another advertisement pointed out that the 1997 still-life exhibit at MoMA (The Museum of Modern Art) featured only 4 women artists out of a total of 71 artists.

So, we might also ask why there's a paucity of great women artists throughout history. Freeland explains that, historically, women were not in a social or economic position to become professional artists. They couldn't acquire the materials or necessary training, nor could they gain entry into the important social groups that would legitimate their status as artists. And then, there's the notion that a "woman's place is in the home."

It's only been since 1971 that women have risen in the ranks in the art world. For instance, Georgia O'Keeffe's work is now housed in her own museum. And, there are others. Nearly a decade ago I spent a week with a very famous female artist whose work hangs in museums all over the world. She bitterly complained to me that her work sells for a fraction of what her male counterparts get and there's nothing she could do about it. She also complained that the feminine palette and content in her work is considered less important to serious collectors. Don't get me wrong, her work sells in the six figures but still below her male peers.

The newest series that I've developed, The Laws of Nature, is deceiving. Someone recently remarked that if they didn't know me, they would have attributed these paintings to a man. They're decidedly masculine. Interesting - but, should that even matter??

There's more to this, and Freeland offers a banquet. Next time....

And now, it's time for your thoughts.

17 comments:

Joyfulartist said...

Being a woman has always had it's challenges throughout the ages. It's been a long and hard fought battle that brought progress in our part of the world but is still in the dark ages in middle east. Changing the hearts and minds of men does not come without a price. We are still paying it. It's not fair, but what is?

hwfarber said...

Nice photo.

This subject always riles me.

Deborah C. Stearns said...

I love the Guerrilla Girls! They raise important issues about gender in the arts. As you note, there are many reasons why there might be fewer notable women artists in the traditional canon, including lack of sponsorship, outright discrimination with regard to training or professional access, and a bias against women working for pay in a non-domestic sphere. I would add that there may well be quite a number of distinguished women artists who were not recognized or whose work was and is dismissed. Women's art may have been relegated to a lesser status and thus not noted or maintained for posterity. Women's work was often published under a man's name or as "anonymous". I was just learning about Alice Guy Blache, the first woman film director, and many of her films were attributed to male directors or were lost or destroyed. Even women who were accomplished artists may simply not be taught as part of the recognized "canon" of famous artists in history, due to ongoing sexism and devaluation of women's work.

I'm also really struck by the question of whether or how an artist's gender (or ethnicity or social class or sexual orientation) would affect their work. Is there such a thing as a "woman's voice" or a "feminine perspective"? I was just talking about this in a discussion of women in film. To the extent that women and men have differening social positions, they will have different experiences, and that surely has the potential to affect their art. And artists may create work that they believe will be acceptable to others based on gender stereotypes -- women painting gentle domestic scenes, men painting battle scenes, perhaps. But at the same time, there is so much diversity in the experiences of women and of men, and so much variation in their artwork, that it might be too essentialist to claim that there is a "woman's" and "men's" perspective.

What makes your recent paintings masculine? The lines, the colors, the theme, the perspective? Why are these things masculine? To me, so much of this is subjective. What might seem like a strongly masculine type of work to one person might not to another person. I think of the women who wrote under men's names and whose work was praised as quintessentially masculine, for example.

Stan Kurth said...

Time well change all. In my social circles and level of accomplishment there are more women artists than men and they win more awards, sell more paintings and make more money. There are more women jurors in the competitions I enter and I have been given more awards from women than men. I haven't done a count, but I think there are more women-artist-bloggers too. I don't think this would have been true a century ago. We've all seen the cave paintings in Lascaux. Do we know the artist(s) gender? I'm pretty sure they were human. Male dominance in the arts doesn't end over night, but it will come to an end. And by the way, I'm the first male to comment on this post (with the possible exception of the spammer).

-Don said...

I'll be the second man to comment, but only because I'm late to the discussion...

I honestly do not consider gender at all when I look at works of art. I would never have associated male or female characteristics to your new series - they're just damn good works of art. For example, when I first saw Hallie's sculptures on ArtScuttleButt I had no idea whether they had been created by a man or woman, and didn't care - I just liked them. I think it was a couple months into our correspondence on ASB before I even knew her gender because it was always about the art.

What a great photo of you three blogger ladies. I would loved to have been a part of your fun day together. Maybe next time...

-Don

Carolina Moon Arts Studio said...

I'd like to add also that most of the administrative side of arts centers and galleries that i know of seems to be women. So many of the decisions to accept or decline work are made by women. Odd.

Kathy said...

Hi ALL - I appreciate the fair and unbiased attitudes that you express in your comments and would have expected as much from you, since I've gotten to know you over time. I think that the bias against women is much more pronounced at the museum level and the high-end market level. Deborah raises some interesting points about this, and I agree. We've come a long way, baby, but the journey isn't over.
Thanks for all your comments!!

Guerrilla Girls On Tour said...

FYI in 2001 the Guerrilla Girls split into three new and independent groups - Guerrilla Girls BroadBand, Guerrilla Girls On Tour, and Guerrilla Girls, Inc. www.ggontour.com and www.ggbb.org are 2 other web sites for more info. The fight continues against discrimination in many other areas of the arts and beyond.

Celeste Bergin said...

I do find the disparity disheartening. Throughout my life I have juggled everything that was expected of me in order to squeeze art in where I could. (I have stopped doing that to some extent--I make art a priority now..but in the past it was the reverse).

In contrast, I have a young male friend who paints 15 hours a day.. everyone is applauding him and understanding his drive. Women buckle under the pressures of keeping up homes and doing woman type things. Even though I am still operating at --oh say 20% of above mentioned male colleague's output I hear things like "god..do you ever stop painting, wow, you do soooo much work. geez, you are always on the internet, holy cow--where do you find the time" etc etc etc--and these things are said with a veiled accusatory tone.

ALAS! I am sorry that my culture looks at me with different eyes than my energetic male counterpart, but I am also aware that it is up to me to buck convention and get to work. It's up to women to fight back. It is not frivolous or selfish to pursue our path.

Did you know that John Singer Sargent's female cousin Margarett Sargent was a painter who achieved blue chip gallery status during her lifetime, only to buckle under the pressure and QUIT never to paint again! Asked why--she stated that "it was too intense".
(Chronicled in a fascinating book: The White Blackbird.)

Kathy said...

Hi Celeste - I've experienced the frustrations you mention and have had to wear "blinders" to comments that might hold me back. It's always disheartening when someone asks me what I do for a living and when I say "artist" they have no further interest. However, when the man on my right says he's an "artist," suddenly he becomes the center of interest. I suppose we women can't be taken seriously.

hwfarber said...

AdBroad had a very interesting blog yesterday--Defining His and Hers in Digital space, April 29.

http://adbroad.blogspot.com/

Kathy said...

Interesting, Hallie! I took a look. Thanks for this reference.

Dan Kent said...

Third man here, really late. My opinion: It is not the body that matters, but the artistic soul.

Cool that the guerrilla girls still exist! I didn't know that. Art history lives - and evidently it is still needed.

I was sort of thinking about this today. Most of the artists I encounter on the web are women, and I am constantly impressed. I honestly think we might be on the verge of a new era of respect for women in art.

And maybe your new "masculine" works will command higher prices, eh? After all you sign them K.A. Cartwright, right? Then the last laugh will be on them. :)

Finally, I think it is so great that you all got together. I daydream about having a real gathering of the the group that comment on this blog.

Kathy said...

Hi Dan - your fantasy about a real gathering of my blog commenters is my fantasy as well. Wouldn't that be great??? Maybe we could do this. Yes, I do think that women have emerged in large numbers on blogs and the art scene - BUT not in museums, important galleries, and the high-priced art market place. We still have to break through that barrier.

Chris Beck said...

I'm late to the discussion, but the topic is one that I've been mulling over since the award winners were announced for the big watercolor biennial in Shanghai a few weeks ago. To the best of my knowledge, all the awards went to men, although there were some very talented and accomplished women represented in the show. Seeing the photo of the award winners was like stepping back in time to the middle of the 20th century before the women's movement began. I found it profoundly depressing and have been seriously questioning the value of continuing to be involved in what is clearly a very skewed world. At some point, it becomes far too frustrating to keep beating your head against that wall. I haven't seen any other comments in blogs or on Facebook about this, and that's even more depressing -- I don't know if it's because women artists feel they were fortunate to be included at all, or if there is fear that questioning the status quo will result in a backlash.

Kathy said...

Hi Chris - I had the SAME reaction when I saw the picture of the winners! Truly a step back in time. I also wondered if this is a reflection of Eastern standards rather than Western. I really don't know. Nevertheless, I think that we women artists should persevere and do as much as we can to change this. The Guerilla Girls have the right idea! Keep painting, Chris. You have much to offer!

Chris Beck said...

Thanks for the encouragement, Kathy. I'm not a quitter by nature, so I know I will keep working, but it's nice to have the push!!

It also crossed my mind that this was a cultural difference, but with the continuing rise of China in all matters of the economy, I wonder how much those attitudes will come to influence life in the West.