A man’s world? Sexism and gender issues in art
Has anything changed since the 1989 poster that asked ‘do women have to be naked to get into the Met Museum?’
Detail from Vater-Angst (2012) by Pawel Kleszczewski, from All Man: The Show at Dublin’s Talbot Gallery
A still from Mouth Breather by Anita Delaney, from Futures at RHA
One of the problems with feminism is that there’s a temptation to think the battles have all been won. Another is that some see the goal of feminism as being a world in which no differences between men and women are acknowledged. Neither of these things is true, but you’re not always allowed to say that, particularly in the art world.
The first statement is easier to take on: the figures speak for themselves. Artprice. com’s list of the top-priced 300 works selling at auction, between 2008 and 2012, doesn’t include a single woman. Gagosian Gallery’s current major survey exhibition, The Show Is Over, includes 34 men and just one woman. The existence of famous female artists, such as Tracey Emin, gives the impression that we have achieved equality; but Emin herself discovered the contrary in her 2006 documentary film, What Price Art, in which she stood outside Tate Britain asking visitors to the gallery to name three artists. Not a single woman’s name was mentioned.
It seems we haven’t come very far in the almost quarter century since the Guerrilla Girls’ famous poster from 1989 asked: “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met Museum? Less than 5 per cent of the artists in the modern art sections are women, but 85 per cent of the nudes are female.”
But figures and statistics only give an outline of the story; the question is why.
According to one of the leading post- war painters, Georg Baselitz, it is because women can’t paint. Earlier this year, the German artist said in an interview with Der Spiegel, that “women don’t paint very well. It’s a fact.” They “simply don’t pass the market test, the value test. As always, the market is right.”
Then there is Brian Sewell, the art critic for London’s Evening Standard, who wrote that “there has never been a first- rank woman artist”.
“Only men are capable of aesthetic greatness. Women make up 50 per cent or more of classes at art school, yet they fade away in their late 20s or 30s. Maybe it’s something to do with bearing children.”
Fuming in indignation at such comments, one is often not allowed to say that men and women make different kinds of art. At the Futures exhibition now on at the RHA (six women, one man), I could immediately tell which work was “male” and which wasn’t. It’s not an infallible talent, but I get it right often enough to realise that there are differences, both subtle and more evident, in the art made by men and women. It becomes more obvious when you think about it: we perceive the world in part through our bodies and through the way the world responds to us.