Here’s my struggle this week (and I suspect for a good number of weeks to come): women’s art.
For this, as we know, is a tightrope act. On the one hand, we aren’t supposed to be addressing “women’s art” on its own, as if to do so implies a dumbing down, a declaration that women’s art is a less-than-distinctive act of creation.
On the other hand, how are we to look a slice of reality in the eye if we don’t?
The problem here goes way beyond a level playing field; it’s about the playing field itself (and is there more than one?).
This first set of stats are based on a distant memory of facts I haven’t been able to back up with hard data.
However, the spirit of these stats remains a shadow cast on all of us: a loose estimate is that 85% of all art students are women, while approximately 85% of all “successful” artists (as in getting exhibits, getting recognition, getting collected, on auction lists, making cash) are men.
And yet, even that 15% seems to be all but invisible to the players in what I call the 1% of the art world (more on that in another post!) who dominate the academic, social, political and financial gestalt of the visual arts.
In The Million Dollar Shark (2010), Don Thompson lists the top 25 “great contemporary artists,” which he put together from..surveying dealers, auction specialists and unspecified “other experts.”
Since no two of these sources gave him the same list, he put together what he calls a “consensus ranking,” based in part on his interpretation of Walter Sickert’s 1910 quote: “Have they so wrought that it will be impossible henceforth, for those who follow, ever again to act as if they had not existed?”
Women ZERO, men 25.
Moving forward, while remaining stationary (good trick, huh?), curator Gemma Rolls-Bently looked at the top 100 auction sales for 2012 (ranked by price, which is now considered the gold standard where the art dollar equals aesthetic value. Great art -> Big Bucks! Poor to middling -> keep your wallet in your purse.)
What did Ms. Rolls-Bently’s research come up with?
Women ZERO, men 100.
What’s the score out of 40 “Super Star Dealers,” Thompson lists?
Women 2, men 38.
The definitive list for what I call the 1% of the art world is dominated by male-run auction houses, men dealers, men artists, and men collectors–with the odd woman turning up here and there.
Keep in mind I didn’t say all, I said “dominated by.” When 100 of the top 100 best paid artworks are by male artists, you get a tilted playing field–all rolling toward the testosterone goal line.
Now heaven forbid someone thinks I’m dissing the talent and skill of good, if not great, male artists. This is not a jousting contest. We are not going for one up / one down.
We are going for what is…
That way, we can look the reality, which we have all participated in creating, in the eye and ask ourselves, as a culture, as an evolving work of art called humanity, what do we want?
Harmonious feminism understands that opening the academic, social, political, and financial flow of creative women means every one of us wins — big!
But the 1% Art Table, all their heads down, one hand loosely draped around a wine glass, hasn’t woken up from its deep patriarchal sleep, in spite of Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party all those decades ago.
I think the fairytales have it wrong. It’s the prince who has been cast under a spell of his own making and the princess who sits nearby, easel or sketchbook on her knee, studying the best way to offer the sleeping man-child a new vision of reality that will serve all of us.
Easy to say, I know. Also old-hat knowledge in a great many women’s circles, and yet here we are still–women artists as second class citizens of creativity in the rarified circles that dominate our collective consciousness.
Then, there are the women artists who pooh pooh that gender has anything to do with anything. They say, not only do they not think about it (the conclusion being it must not be important if you don’t think about it), but it’s a trivial distraction from the real goal of making art.
The fact that the top 1% of the Art World is dominated by men at all levels, and that the vision of what great art is equally dominated by testosterone-colored glasses, means, if you are a woman, you will not be invited to the “great art” dinner party.
Which begs the questions: how do you continue to value what you do when all the standards do not value you?
Ignore the rejection? Create like hell anyway? Or deep down start to feel disempowered (given you felt genuinely empowered to begin with, which is a big stretch for a lot of women artists), and, bit by bit, begin to question the validity of your own work.
Of course, an alternative route (and here’s where you come in because, with only my one brain, I can’t begin to come up with the range of alternative routes that you can…)… an alternative route can be a rousing of the 99%. (And, yes, I know I’m playing off of politics here–a tasteless insertion for many, but essential for me.)
What I do know is that I can no longer ignore the stunningly pink elephant in the room.
What, ladies one and all, are WE going to do about it?