Framesby Susan Bee
“Art is about framing things. But then what? I see now that a woman has to frame herself or be framed.”
As the daughter of a woman artist, I saw, first-hand, the toll of discrimination based solely on gender. For my mother’s generation, the misogyny of the Mad Men-era of the 1950s and 1960s was well known. And while the style of suits has changed, the discrimination persists.
In 2007, there were a number of important shows of feminist art including Global Feminisms, curated by Linda Nochlin and Maura Reilly at the newly opened Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum, and WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution, curated by Connie Butler, at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles and MoMA PS1 in New York. At that time, Mira Schor and I published an issue of M/E/A/N/I/N/G Online #4 (2007) to mark the interest that was being generated by those exhibitions, as well as the Feminist Futures conference at MoMA. Now, seven years later, we can examine the fruit of those events. There is definitely more awareness of the problems—for instance, various initiatives have been undertaken by MoMA to improve the representation of women artists at the museum such as the book, Modern Women, and another symposium, held in 2010 and titled, “Art Institutions and Feminist Politics Now”—yet many of the same troubling issues persist.
Gender disparities continue in gallery representation, in collections, and in the prices of artworks, but most of all, in being taken seriously in the written record of art history and criticism. Agnes Gund, President Emerita of the Museum of Modern Art and one of the most prominent collectors of contemporary art, makes these same points in her recent article, “Fame, Fortune, and the Female Artist,” featured in The Huffington Post on July 22, 2014:
I have collected art, and been involved with artists and the art world, for almost 50 years. Through all that time, I have wondered why female artists have less success, fewer exhibitions and attention, than male artists. I own works by women artists; it is hard for me to see, literally to see, how women and men differ in the quality of their work. Why are women artists less known and less admired?
The facts are dismaying. Dealers say that women artists are not as salable as men, that they are a poor investment. The paucity of women art collectors, no doubt, has an impact on the market. Women artists, no matter how well recognized they are, are seldom given solo exhibitions or featured in significant group shows. They are never top-ranked in auction choices. Skate’s Art Market Research, in a recent report, claims that women artists work in media that are “hard to collect,” a ridiculous claim that seems oddly akin to the old idea that women confine themselves to “female” subjects. (As the artist Elizabeth Murray famously said, “Cézanne painted cups and saucers and apples, and no one assumed he spent a lot of time in the kitchen.”)
Gund struggles to identify the problem, calling it a “mystery,” as though that is the explanation for the blatant sexism that was no less blatant 40 years ago. Gund never uses the word “discrimination” as a possible explanation: it may be too political a stance for her, but that would take the mystery out of the history!
The situation has improved since Linda Nochlin wrote her famous essay more than 40 years ago, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” in ARTnews. But it hasn’t improved enough. Many of us expected that the integration of women artists within the larger art world would eliminate the need for a “feminine” voice or a separatist agenda. But given the continued level of discrimination that persists in American society, with its racial, class, and other levels of disturbing imbalances flourishing, why should the art world not reflect society’s problems as a whole?
There are some signs of progress. Kara Walker’s magnificent A Subtlety was not without controversy, but it made a large impact on the public and stirred up many interesting discussions on gender and race. The 2014 exhibition at A.I.R. gallery, curated by Mira Schor, which examined the continued presence of the themes of Womanhouse (1972) into our era, generated an enormous response. Suzanne Lacey and Judy Chicago at the Brooklyn Museum, Lygia Clark and Maria Lassnig at MoMA/PS1, Amy Sillman at ICA Boston and Bard, and other accomplished women artists are showing throughout the country. I occasionally feel a bout of optimism when I see the strong work of my fellow women artists being prominently showcased and taken seriously. But even when woman artists are shown, the wall texts, catalogues, and reviews too often situate their work in relation to male artists, as if that is what makes the work valuable.
I don’t think it is a problem of women artists leaning in; I believe we have been leaning in for a long time. Rather, the issue resides with the glass ceiling that is perpetuated by the collectors, auction houses, and art world institutions. It seems that a women artist has to be close to death, or in fact dead, or in her late ’70s to ’90s, to get respect and a fair chance at showing at a high level. Look at the careers of Alice Neel, Nancy Spero, Ana Mendieta, Carolee Schneemann, Joan Jonas, Judith Bernstein, Howardena Pindell, Dorothea Rockburne, Louise Bourgeois, Joan Semmel, and many others.
This discrimination goes double for artists of color. Controversies such as the one generated by the Yams Collective (HowDoYouSayYaminAfrican?)at the Whitney Biennial highlighted the problems faced by artists of color. Tokenism is also an issue. It leads to artists of color being featured in small numbers in group exhibitions and occasional all-women shows, which belie the business as usual approach of all-male shows the rest of the year. Jeff Koons’s spectacle at the Whitney is proof in the pudding: while suspicion surrounds identity-oriented art of women and people of color, Koons’s straight, white, rich, male identity politics—for that is what is at the core of his work—is celebrated. Can you imagine if the Whitney had given Amy Sillman the whole museum for a retrospective? In actuality, Sillman’s mid-career retrospective didn’t even make it to the city.
At the same time, panels such as one that I recently participated in: “Ana Mendieta's Artistic Legacy and the Persistence of Patriarchy” at the Bruce High Quality Foundation; demonstrations such as The Clitney Perennial, staged by Go! Push Pops at the Whitney Biennial; and the No Wave Performance Task Force in honor of Mendieta in front of Dia Chelsea, are also adding to the lively atmosphere of dissent. These events are happening in the face of relentless attacks by the right wing on the civil liberties that have been hard won in the past 40 years in the United States. This is in addition to the fundamentalist attacks taking place on women worldwide.
Nobody will give up their privileged positions—unless we demand it. Our voices must be heard over the deafening blare of big money, which retains control of much of the art world. We must make our own history: women-run spaces like A.I.R. still need to exist. The struggle continues.