Feminism in spite of all
Feminism in spite of all
Author: Ana Pardo
Estrella de Diego, a female Spanish curator, recently shared a peculiar work situation through her social media. Her male colleagues had suggested that she try to workon subjects other than feminism or projects involving female artists, which had been her focus for several years. De Diego is currently professor at Universidad Complutense de Madrid and considered a major expert of feminist art theory in Madrid.
They advised that she was at risk of being ‘pigeonholed’, and inquite a patronising way, it was suggested that she should try and speak about different topics. This led De Diego to ask herself, what did being ‘pigeonholed’ mean? Why were male critics, art teachers and curators not given the same pejorative label when they spend years and in most cases, most of their professional livesworking on the same topic?
When it comes to female artists or work made by women in art galleries and museums, the numbers and statistics are outrageous and they are still repeated and maintained everynow and then. The Guerrilla Girls group have over the last decades repeated the same action to signal this inequality. In 1989, they claimed that less than 5% of the artists in the modern art section of the MET were female, but 85% of the nudes were female. In 2004, numbers differed very little: 3% of female artists versus 83% of female nudes. And finally, in 2011, according to their poster, there were less than 4% of female artists in the modern art section but 76% of the nudes were female. These statistics repeat worldwide: Among a collection of more than 1160 oeuvres, there are, in 2020, only six works made by three female artists in Prado Museum in Madrid: Clara Peeters, Artemisa Gentilleschi and Sofonisba Anguissola.
Leaving aside some purple washing attempts (meaning art institutions include a number of activities linked to feminism to give the impression that they have achieved gender equality when they actually have not), in recent years, there have been numerous attempts to bring this imbalanceinto the spotlight.
Perhaps one of the most polemical was when Michelle Hartney undertook guerrilla action at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 2018. There, under the label of iconic paintings from Pablo Picasso or Paul Guaguin, she offered feminist guidelines, explicitly highlighting the macho, chauvinist attitudes of these painters, who are considered to be among the genius figures of the 20th century. The aim was not – as critics of the action accused – to take down the paintings from the gallery, but to widen the context of those iconic paintingsto the viewers.
Months after, feminist activist artists Guerrilla Girlsalso undertook a similar action called ‘Three ways to write a museum label wall when the artist is a sexual predator’, highlighting the sexual abuse perpetrated by some artists, which is still frequently ignored.
Both actions were visually engaging and broadcast worldwide, and the controversy rose. But it seems to be that when itcomes to feminism and art, there is always some controversy.
Months before Hartney took action, some newspapers reported that the Baltimore Museum of Art was selling part of its collection – specifically works from Andy Warhol, Franz Kline, Kenneth Noland or Robert Rauschenberg and buying works of female and African American artists from Amy Sherald to Jack Whitten, including Isaac Julienand Mary Reid Kelley. Again there was some controversy when the director of the museum openly claimed that there were some gaps in their collection due to conscious or unconscious prejudices, and that the museum wastrying to rectify this.
To help understand the museum’s actions, it is interesting to bear in mind that more than 65% of the Baltimore population are African American, and the museum director took actionas a way of integrating the museum with its local population.
The question is, would there have been the same controversy if instead of selling a painting from Franz Kline to buy the work of a female artist, the museum had used the proceeds to purchase another mainstream piece? It would seem thatmore than 30 years after the Guerrilla Girls first started signalling the difficulty women had to enter in museum collections, we’re still trapped in the same debate. Although the situation has improved, there are a scarce number of women who make it into exhibitions or receive awards. When attention is drawn to this fact, or women take action to address this problem, we are still at risk of being ‘pigeonholed’.
It is important to bear in mind that the equal participation of women in any profession, especially in the art and culture field (for these are the spheres I am more familiar with) is not a feminist question. It’sa democratic question. Women are not a collective, we are not a minority, we are 50%of the world population and the fact that we are still not included equally, female artworks still struggle to reach the art market, and female artists and criticsare not awarded is a result of a structured system based ongender inequality-patriarchy.
Related to thisquestion of patriarchy comes the last question I would like to pose -the question of gender quotas that is sadly still present in the art world.
Only when critics and curators claim thatthewider integration of women artists in a world still dominated by men is needed, is the gender quotaquestion taken into account.Suddenly, when gender quotas are discussed, the question of artistic quality becomes far more important – despite the fact that an unspoken quota of sorts has always existed, which favours male artists. The quality of the work by female artists who benefit from gender quotas is scrutinised far more than that of male artists. The fact that female artists usually have to deal with more difficulties and obstacles to reach the same levels achieved by male artists is often overlooked.
If equal representation within the art community is to be achieved, female artists must resist claims that focusing on that lack of equality results in their being ‘pigeonholed’. As much as the dominant male voices in this community want to silence us, we must continue to fight.
After four years living in Edinburgh, Ana has recently finished her PhD in History of Art at Edinburgh University. During this time, she has been involved with different art projects related to the promotion of emerging artists, constantly questioning the role of the critic in Art History. Both in Edinburgh and in Spain, her homecountry, she has been involved in different activist groups focused on questions of migration (Migrant’s Pride), feminism (Feminism in Edinburgh) or political ones (CREE, Consejo de Residentes Españoles en el Extranjero).
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