Why is feminism resurgent now? One answer may be the galloping growth of an economic inequality that no amount of effort or merit can overcome. Recognizing this indisputable injustice has perhaps encouraged a clearer focus on other systemic and intractable problems of opportunity. Deepening political polarization, with extremist forms of (generally misogynistic) religious fundamentalism flourishing everywhere, only makes the problems clearer.
The upside to this alarming situation is that getting mobilized isn’t considered just an older generation’s solution. In a post-Occupy world, speaking out and working together for social change again seem logical and productive. And information is key to both finding common cause and broadcasting it. It surprises many people, women hardly less than men, that female artists aren’t as likely to succeed; there are, after all, so many success stories to point to (Cindy Sherman often comes into this discussion, along with, say, some of the women painters represented by Larry Gagosian). At panel discussions three colleagues and I have led this year, which have begun with a summary of our recent book on youngish women artists (The Reckoning: Women Artists of the New Millennium; all 24 of the artists included were born after 1960), audience members have asked things like, “I don’t get it, are you saying that women don’t have an equal chance?” This, after we’ve presented statistics showing that fewer than 25 percent of solo exhibitions in N.Y.C. galleries in the past dozen years have been of work by women. Another question we’ve heard is, “Are women really still angry?”
Well, actually, yes. But most acknowledge that things have gotten better over the last few decades, even if improvement is frustratingly slow and best seen in nonprofit institutions, from small artspaces to major museums and international round-ups like Documenta. The question about whether feminism is threatened by institutional neutralization comes up here, and I have to say, it puzzles me. If mainstream museums (for example) embrace feminism, or make a real commitment to showing work by women, that seems to me to be pretty uncomplicatedly good. The alternative would be for women to operate outside such institutions, which is of course, where so many have been stuck for so long. Thinking skeptically about cultural institutions was a crucially important development in the 1980s. Since then, the impulse has ballooned way past utility (tracking closely the rising prestige of curators). The artistic freedoms it was meant to facilitate are often forgotten in its shadow.
As to the question of whether there even is something that can be called a gendered voice: though I suppose it can only be answered one person at a time, logic says yes. Many factors are involved in the calculus of identity and experience, whence any form of expression (art included). And gender is no simple quantity to define. Nonetheless, I think it’s hard to deny that being female matters fundamentally.
NANCY PRINCENTHAL is a writer and art critic. Her most recent book is Agnes Martin: Her Life and Art (Thames & Hudson, 2015).