This article is by Brian Sherwin, Regular contributing writer for FineArtViews. Brian Sherwin is an art critic, blogger, curator, artist and writer based near Chicago, Illinois. He has been published in Hi Fructose Magazine, Illinois Times, and other publications, and linked to by publications such as The Boston Globe, Juxtapoz Magazine, Deutsche Bank ArtMag, ARTLURKER, Myartspace, Blabbermouth, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Modern Art Obsession, Citizen LA, Shark Forum, Two Coats of Paint and Art Fag City. You should submit an article and share your views as a guest author by clicking here.
When one thinks of the art world, one thinks of a place of openness and tolerance-- yet that is hardly the case. The ‘art world’ shares the same prejudice we face in the real world. That said, the illusion of togetherness that has been constructed around the art world makes said reality even more toxic. Forms of sexism, racism, and ageism dominate art culture just under the surface-- which dictates our collective knowledge of art history. This is a topic that few gallery owners want to discuss-- because it is a topic that, more often than not, reveals a world of bigotry and unnecessary challenges placed before artists.
During my research for this article I contacted Elaine Kaufmann of the Brainstormers-- for those who don’t know, the Brainstormers are an art collective striving to force discussion concerning gender inequities within the contemporary New York art world. Many of the stats I used for this article are based on research the Brainstormers have conducted-- as well as information provided to me by an anonymous artist claiming to have association with the Guerilla Girls… a group that has fought against art world discrimination and corruption since 1985.
Kaufmann made it clear that when asked about exhibitions or gallery lists of artists that include overwhelmingly more men than women, curators and gallerists typically respond by arguing that what gets exhibited is based solely on the quality of the work. Kaufmann stated, “This seemingly lofty statement about quality disguises a belief that would be unacceptable to say outright, the belief that men make better artwork than women.” She went on to say, “Many perceive the art world to have long ago rid itself of discrimination against women. Unfortunately, it persists and continues to affect new generations of women artists.” Professionals within the mainstream art world obviously don’t want to face the reality of prejudice that they have helped cultivate-- which tends to spiral down into all aspects of art culture.
New York is considered the hub of the art world in the United States-- a place where you would think ‘openness’ and ‘tolerance’ would reign-- yet the average New York art gallery represents 76% to 96% male artists. Galleries representing the same percentages in favor of women can be counted on one hand. Over 77% of the galleries in Chelsea represent more males than females-- and only around 5% represent males and females in equal numbers. These gaps have fluctuated ever so often-- but artists who happen to be male continue to dominate gallery rosters. These numbers foster the myth that males are more apt to be better artists in the eyes of the general public. People in the position to bring about change-- such as curators and gallery owners-- tend to cling to the status quo rather than find solutions.
Some have suggested that the stat breakdown does not represent educational background-- which implies that art school graduates tend to be male. However, when you consider that the average MFA program in the United States has up to 20% more female students than male students an obvious gender bias is clear. In other words, the MFA argument is flawed because more women study art on an academic level than men nationwide-- yet men dominate mainstream art galleries where the value of an MFA is obviously considered.
The glaring percentages don’t stop there-- they can also be found in our public institutions. For example, in a typical art museum visitors will find that 95% of the displayed artwork was created by an artist who happens to be male. Thus, women are only represented visually by 5% of the displayed artwork in the average museum. True, there have been many museum art exhibits that focus on ‘female artists’-- but I don’t think a handful of special exhibits make up for the overall percentages and clear gender gap. It sickens me to think that artists are being placed on the back-burner simply because of their gender-- but this hardly a new problem within the professional art world. The problem of gender gaps in the art world should be explored further.
I can recall an interview I had with Sylvia Sleigh in 2007-- in which she stated, “I do think things have improved for women in general. There are many more women in Government, in law and corporate jobs, but its very difficult in the art world for women to find a gallery.” These words are haunting when you consider that the late Sylvia Sleigh is considered an artist who helped shatter the glass ceiling of sexism within the contemporary art world. Obviously that ceiling still exists-- research by groups such as the Brainstormers and Guerilla Girls bring light to the issue.
In the recent past, it was not uncommon to see only two solo shows by artists who happened to be female for every dozen solo shows to open in New York. Women exploring painting as the focus of their artwork stood even less of a chance of receiving a solo show compared to men. I doubt the situation has changed that much over the years. It troubles me that in the mainstream art world-- often noted for being liberal in thought-- such clear prejudice based on gender continues to dominate. This veiled prejudice fosters the idea that art is a man’s game-- and shoves that mode of thought into the psyche of the viewing public.
Due to this glaring bigotry, I find myself loathing the labels and descriptors that art world professionals, specifically art writers, use to group or categorize artists based on sex, race, and age. For example, this form of prejudice based on gender within the art world can be observed in mainstream art magazines, art blogs, and in the media as a whole when art is the focus of an article. It leaves one to ask why in 2011 artists who happen to be female are often stamped as ‘female artist’, ’female painter’, and other gender-specific descriptions that are never used when describing artists who happen to be male. It is almost as if the writers who describe artists in this way are giving females a pat on the back for their attempts. It is insulting.
Prejudice within the art world does not stop there. Race also becomes an issue. For example, you never read an article about an artist starting with so-and-so is a “Caucasian artist from…” to describe an artist who happens to be white. That said, if an artist is from any other racial background you can almost be assured that race will become a descriptor for that artists efforts-- “African American artist from…”, “Hispanic artist from…”.. the list goes on. While it is true that race can define an artists visual message-- if that is his or her direction-- I don’t think placing race before artist is a sound choice to define an artist in general.
The issue of age is apt to pop up in the fray of art world prejudice. Age is arguably the most offensive way to define-- or should I say label?-- an artist. I say that because the age factor often meshes with the two forms of prejudice I mentioned above. For example, most art critics, gallerists, and artists will tell you-- if they are honest-- that the majority of 30-something exhibiting artists who happen to be female are near career- end. That decision is not by choice-- it is fueled by age and gender alone in association with the prejudice of art dealers representing them.
After all, there is a double standard within the context of the art world-- artists who happen to be male in the same stage of life are often viewed as coming into their own. Sadly, I don't think the majority of art dealers, curators, and art critics realize that they are creating-- or helping to maintain-- a cloud of prejudice over the art world. It is almost as if it has become the status quo-- supported by feeble arguments that tend to bypass the issue altogether.
If you are not an artist who happens to be white, male, and are past the age of 35, it is likely that your career within the mainstream art world is playing an unwilling game of Russian roulette with three bullets in the chamber. I say that because the descriptors involved with those three factors often are reduced to art market trends and fads-- labels that artists don’t necessarily want for themselves but get stamped with anyway. This prejudice is an ugly stain in what is otherwise one of the most liberal thinking aspects of our culture.
I, for one, feel that it is time for art critics and the media in general to drop descriptions based on gender, race, and age when describing an artist unless that information is vital to the artists work. Gender, race, and age should not come before what an individual does when writing about said individual. Yet it happens all the time-- and most of the major art publications have long been guilty of this. Who knows how many artists could have continued to shine had it not been for these three factors serving as obstacles. These labels/descriptors breed prejudice no matter how you try to warrant it. It is time to look at the artwork and what artists have to offer instead of being so focused on their gender, race, and age.
In closing, we-- and I include myself in this-- have allowed the mainstream art world to become a place where maturity is punished, the color of our skin reduced to a mere exhibit qualifier, and our sex twisted into age-old stereotypes. It has become a place where the wisdom that comes with age is abandoned for youthful ambition, a place where an artist is defined more by his or her race than what he or she creates on canvas, a place where the likes of Tracey Emin will always be viewed as an adolescent girl breaking the rules-- even when she is 80! It is time to come together in order to deal with the issues of sexism, racism, and ageism within the art world as a whole.
Take care, Stay true,