Where are all the great women artists?
As you enter an art museum or gallery, you may be struck by something unusual in the list of artists involved in the current show; where are all the women?
By Melissa Galley I 6 min read
Representation of women in the visual arts has never reached parity with artists who are men, but the level of this inequality might be more pronounced than you might expect.
- In the 2012 ELF audit of 134 commercial galleries in London only 31% of the represented artists were women.
- In the 2011-2016 Top 100 Lots by Living Artists (works sold at auction) only two women made the list.
- And of the Turner Prize winners, only 32% have been women and the first woman of colour to win was Lubaina Himid in 2017.
Across many professional spheres gender inequality is still prevalent, but what has led to such vast polarity in the art world, supposedly a progressive environment, and how can change be approached in the contemporary scene?
Jenny Holzer, 'Truisms'
The conversation surrounding gender inequality in the arts is not a new one, and a seminal analysis of why women have been overlooked or unable to create to their full potential is found in Woolf's renowned essay 'A Room of One's Own' [1928-1929].
Woolf argues that for any individual to create originally and effectively they must have two things; financial security and intellectual independence.
If we take Woolf's hypothesis and consider it in relation to the situation of women in society throughout history, it begins to make sense why there is a lack of well-known female artists.
In the essay Woolf uses the fictional figure of 'Shakespeare's sister' to illustrate this point. Despite being as bright and engaged as her brother in childhood, as she grows up the hypothetical sister is moved away from fictitious play and guided towards household crafts and etiquette.
Whilst her brother is given the facilities to create and write, which would ultimately lead to his later works of genius, Shakespeare's equally talented sister is given none of this support and actively steered into more 'suitable' pursuits.
The talent of the sister is lost forever, her creative voice silenced and instead, throughout history, we see the works of the brother, the son or the father.
Virginia Woolf, (1882-1941) - from The Red List Database
Throughout the essay - which was first delivered in 1928 as a set of lectures to two women's colleges at the University of Cambridge - Woolf urges her audience to take advantage of the change that has preceded them, acknowledging that they are among the first generation of women to receive such education and financial independence, and therefore in the best position to be truly creative.
If 'financial security' and 'intellectual independence' allowed for original creation, and therefore the possibility of 'genius', then suffrage was a key moment in the fight to gain this.
The Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) act was passed in Britain in the same year as Woolf's lectures - 1928, entitling men and women over 21, regardless of property ownership to vote. This signified a landmark achievement in British women's suffrage over its hundred year history.
The vote signified the beginning of women's independence and led the way for laws allowing all women to own property and access education.
But whilst many white women gained suffrage in the first part of the twentieth century, marking the widespread change in attitude and beginning of independence, women of colour around the world were denied this for many decades more.
In the United States it took until 1952 for the 'Naturalization Law' of 1790 to be overturned, and until 1965 for the Voting Rights Act to be introduced which prohibited racial discrimination in voting. In Australia it took until 1962 for universal suffrage for Australian Aboriginal men and women to be introduced.
President Lyndon B. Johnson shakes hands with Dr. Martin Luther King after signing the 1965 Voting Rights Act - History Net
Linda Nochlin's essay, 'Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?', expands from the concepts Woolf explored, not only considering the conditions necessary for women to individually make good art, but also how the culture and institutional systems surrounding them dictates how women artists and their work is approached.
'Let us, for example, examine the implications of that perennial question (one can, of course, substitute almost nay field of human endeavor, with appropriate changes in phrasing): "Well, if women really are equal to men, why have there never been any great women artists" (or composers, or mathematicians, or philosophers, or so few of the same)?'
When answering the question of her essay, Nochlin draws attention to the many ways that our responses can instead reinforce stereotypes rather than challenging the status quo.
For example, we may react to 'dig up examples of worthy or insufficiently appreciated women artists throughout history', and although such responses are worthy in drawing our attention to these women's achievements, this continues to 'justify' the question.
In a sense agreeing that there are no great women artists, only overlooked women artists!
Alternatively, one could answer that 'there is a different kind of 'greatness' for women's art'. But this is even more problematic than the first - creating the narrative that art by women has always got some 'feminine quality' and should be held separately to men's. Assessed in its own subcategory and never as its equal.
Käthe Kollwitz, 'The Prisoners'
Nochlin's third suggestion is the most beneficial - to consider the question itself. To realise how far we have been conditioned in our reading of such a question and to consider who is formulating it.
Nochlin suggests that the structure of this question creates this issue, in the same way that the 'poverty problem', the 'black problem' and the 'east asian problem' make us believe, through their phrasing and questioning, that there even is a 'problem' in the first place.
Further, the idea of a 'solution' is false - what these 'human problems' require is the "reinterpretation of the nature of the situation".
Nochlin challenges the institutions and orders that structure these questions - those who are complicit in the perpetuation of an environment that creates "human problems".
Barbara Kruger, 'Untitled', 1985
This approach has been used and continued in the feminist critique of the art world by many groups and individuals; though one of the most notable is the Guerrilla Girls.
'The Guerrilla Girls, a group of anonymous, feminist activists was founded in 1985. Each member takes the name of a woman artist from the past as a pseudonym and in public their identities are hidden under gorilla masks.
Using facts, humour and fake fur, they produce posters, banners, stickers, billboards, projections and other public projects that expose sexism, racism and corruption in art, film, politics and culture at large' - from the Whitechapel artist profile.
The Guerrilla Girls outside Whitechapel Art Gallery, as part of 'Is it worse in Europe?'
In their recent exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery, 'Is it even worse in Europe?' [2016-2017], the Guerrilla Girls displayed the results of a survey they sent to 383 directors at museums and art galleries across Europe, of which only 1/4 replied.
They aimed to expose the gender inequality prevalent in many of the leading galleries and centres, with questions that look critically 'at the narratives that are produced by cultural institutions'.
The questionnaire asks about the collections and shows the museum and galleries are hosting. The results follow the trend shown by the ELF Art Audit - a combination of lack of women in collections, solo shows and positions of authority within the institutions themselves.
The Guerrilla Girls have been campaigning against gender inequality in the art world for over 3 decades, Nochlin's essay was first published in 1971 and Woolf's essay was written 90 years ago.
Despite this, the arguments they present are still as powerful and relevant to the art world and women working within it today.
Their relevance shows that the change we have witnessed so far is not enough.
Although we have seen incremental improvement to the current structures that empower women artists and bring their work into the mainstream art narrative, the Guerrilla Girls, Woolf and Nochlin are fighting for this change to be faster and more holistic.
They ask us to challenge the status quo, to question the narratives put in front of us and to continue fighting for the conditions necessary for women artists to reach their full potential...
Tracey Moffat, 'Useless', 1994
Title Image - 'Young Girl Asleep by Sonia Delaunay.