After Some Advances, A Backslideby Martha Schwendener
The idea of “progress” was widely debunked by critical postmodernism, but it is hard to dispute the fact that some genuine progress has been made for women in the art world. However, what we realize after the various “waves” of so-called feminism, is that equality is also contingent upon race, class, and variety of other factors. The rights of immigrants, black Americans, LGBT, and the global south are “feminist” issues as much as how many women are represented by galleries and museums.
For me, the simple answer to why there has been a resurgence of feminist exhibitions, a renewed interest in self-identifying feminist art, and why we are still grappling with the issue of equality is that things are not going so well in the world. After some advances, a backslide.
This is simply because art is a part of society and what the global economic-political crises and ceaseless military conflict of recent years show us is that our societies are deeply unequal.According to a new Princeton study, the U.S.is not a democracy, but an oligarchy (more likely, a plutocracy). The wealthy have always funded art, but now art has become a financial instrument: a convenient place for rich people, including particularly unsavory rich people, like dictators and warlords, to park their money. For instance, you can lodge it in a freeport attached to an international airport where no one will ever see the art or even know it’s there.
Titanic auction prices are driven by billionaires. However, there are very few women billionaires—or even, as collector Agnes Gund recently pointed out, prominent women art collectors. But there are also very few women CEOs, senators, governors, presidents, prime ministers, and so on.
There are plenty of women in art school, but as critic Ben Davis wrote in 9.5. Theses on Art and Class (2013), their lack of gallery representation—the first rung on the ladder of making a career in art history—is due to the fact there isn’t an established system of networking and mentorship among women. There is not a long history of powerful women helping younger ones simply because, until recently, there were very few “powerful women.”
So what can critics do? We are poorly paid (if at all) and beleaguered and writing is hard. But we have choices. Sometimes these are clear: do I write about the show of a 30-something male art star (midcareer retrospective occupying an entire museum) or a veteran woman artist (entire career crammed into one floor of a lesser-known museum)? Do I “call out” this woman artist for bad labor practices? What about a show where social justice reigns, but the work is terrible?
Time, energy, and closing dates often dictate these choices, as well as the publication. Sometimes you can say what you want; other times you’re censored or edited until your edge is dulled. One of the counter-intuitive elements of criticism is that, because it’s not well paid, because it’s hard and there’s very little upside (no financial windfall, no tenure, almost no chief critic jobs left), you can stay as long as you like or are able. Because really: no one cares.
The longer you stay, however, the harder it is to write about art without addressing institutions. We do not live in a “good” institutional age of enlightened liberal patrons, cheap rents, and rampant alternative spaces. We live in a high-rent, high-debt, uneven-development, high-wealth-disparity period. Racism is rampant. So is the exploitation of women, children, immigrants, refugees, the poor—and “creative” people of all types, willing to work for nothing. (Literally: as interns.)
So what can art critics do? I repeat: when the “container” (institution) affects the art, the container must become part of the criticism. If an exhibition purports to represent “recent painting” or “new art” and it includes only one or two women, that is not an accurate representation of “recent painting” or “new art.” If MoMA has showcased merely a handful of women in their sixth-floor contemporary galleries, there’s something wrong with MoMA, not women artists.
If there is art that we feel brilliantly critiques inequality or suggests how it can be ameliorated, we, as critics, can support that. We can read and repeat in our writing what others have said and written that moved or inspired us. We can join others in the streets protesting rape, police brutality, capitalism, or Israel’s occupation of Gaza and the West Bank. And we can keep writing. That’s fighting inequality, but we can also call it “feminism.”