The question of whether female artists have been marginalised over the years has been resoundingly answered: yes, quite blatantly. However, there’s little we can do about that now. It is appalling and regrettable that centuries of female artists’ work have been discarded, undervalued or flat-out ignored, but that bygone is bygone.
What about tomorrow, or in five years? Will there ever be a time where women are truly recognised on a par with male artists?
Things Look to Be Getting Better
By taking a single, narrow snapshot of the industry you can see clearly upwardly trending lines. In the Tate Modern for example, from the 1800s through to today, the percentage of its works by female artists has gone from less than a percent to around 30%. There are female directors of art galleries, aren’t there? And often as much as two thirds of art undergraduates are women!
These are positive statements, but only because the prior scenario was unthinkably biased. Put in perspective, these numbers do little to allay many misgivings about the gender disparity.
Though 60% of art undergraduates may be women, only 30% of artists represented by US commercial galleries are female. For the 33 most prominent museums in North America, 28 are headed by men. A study in London found that for both commercial and non-profit galleries, 31% of works were by women.
It’s a recurring number, this 30-31%. Will we reach 50% (and beyond?) or is this a ceiling past which the market will not tolerate female art?
Is Women's Art Actually Different to Men's?
When you throw away all the numbers and facts, this is what it comes down to, right? Art is a subjective world, and quality and expression are key. If only 31% of active female artists are good enough to reach that standard, then the discrepancy isn’t gender-based; it’s a matter of ability. But are men intrinsically more gifted?
I think the vast majority of people (artists or not) would say no. Women have been creating beautiful, political and meaningful art as long as men have – just without the spotlight or acknowledgement.
There is a perception – though it may be changing – that women’s art will always portray their inherently female characteristics. Things will be light and airy, or delicate, or revolve around domesticity or craft. A crucial step in normalising gender is to abolish the idea the women can only create girly pieces and to start appreciating an artist’s work for what it is.
The Independent has claimed that writing under a male pseudonym makes you 8 times more like to get published. Grossly inflated figure or not, it is a dilemma many female artists face during their careers. Would my work be worth more, or be more highly regarded, if presented under “John” and not “Jane”? If we are going to surpass the 31%, the market needs to adapt such that women can be accepted openly and without subterfuge.
We Need to Reach 50:50 Split Organically
Certain galleries are making strides towards promoting female artists, but sometimes creating a new inequality by showcasing exclusively women. This has opened doors for many female artists, but it’s exactly those appellations which are the problem: male or female. In an ideal world (or perhaps a more progressive industry) is would simply be artist.
Exposure to more artwork by female artists will help. The more buyers see that women are, remarkably, just as capable and brilliant as men, the more the gap should be bridged. With more buyers collecting art with social media, women may have a chance to better expose their work as they build up to gallery-level exposure.
There’s no obvious “answer” to whether (or how) the art world will reach a gender stability. Women-only displays are good to help emerging artists, but it also reinforces a single gender bias. The evidence suggests the numbers are on the rise, and since the rest of the world (politically, economically, socially) is becoming more aware of gender, they seem set to continue that way.
Man? Woman? Artist.
Georgia O’Keeffe famously argued that “The men like to put me down as the best woman painter. I think I’m one of the best painters”. Her admonishment that gender, when it comes to art, should be irrelevant resonates with her fellows today.
Much like how we are only beginning to promote original African artwork, it’s time we recognise that art should never discriminate. If any person in this world can create beautiful artwork, they should not be inhibited from success by such baseless barriers as race or sex - and we’re getting there.