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.
I’ve decided to reflect on one of my recent contributions to the FineArtViews blog. The article dealt with sexism, racism, and ageism within the art world-- and gave rise to a rather heated debate-- the focus of which was on the issue of sexism and the roles we all play in cultivating sexism within the context of the art world. Needless to say, many fingers were pointed as readers explored the issue. Thus, I feel that I should offer further clarification concerning my opinion on the matter.
I don't necessarily think art critics, gallery owners, or curators are making selections/choices out of malice-- or a 'know your role!' outlook. I doubt there are many gallery owners who wake up saying, "How can I foil women today!" or "I wonder what my manly artists are up to today?"-- though there may be some conflicted sorts who do. Please note my sarcasm. That said, I do think that social conditioning trickles into their decisions subconsciously just as social conditioning does in other aspects of life. This is surprising when you consider that the art world, in general, is often considered a very liberal-minded realm, so to speak. Is it naïve to suggest that social conditioning impacts curatorial choices and other aspects of the professional art world? I don’t think so.
Social conditioning infiltrates all aspects of our lives. Social conditioning gives birth to labels-- it is why you see little girls, like my daughter, who play with toy trucks, dinosaurs, and soldiers called ‘Tom boy’. Young children are often free from the conditions of adult assumptions and societal norms. However, as children grow older they gradually embrace social norms-- both subconsciously and consciously. Unfortunately, the end result often means a socially enforced indoctrination into the realm of various isms that define who we are-- it takes away from individualism… the most important ism of all, in my opinion. One could say that the freedom of youth is oppressed as we age-- and by the societal experiences we face simply by living.
I’m not suggesting that we should think like children-- I‘m by no means calling for some form of utopia based on innocence. That said, we should try the best that we can to gain back some of the freedom of thought that we take for granted when children. We all-- as a society-- need to step back and look at the labels we use and how they influence our direction. Obviously this issue is larger than the art world-- but the art world is a good place to start. Especially since it is the one ‘place’ in our society where free thought is almost always appreciated. The details of social conditioning can be changed over time-- and various art professional can help spur that change by relatively simple actions.
I’m not exactly blaming art professionals for the way things are. I say that because one commenter assumed that I was blaming gallery owners for the presence of sexism, racism, and ageism within the context of the art world, stating, “We can't lay all of the blame at the door of galleries.”. However, her response continued with a wide generalization that is based in the very stereotypes I strived to bring to light within the article. She stated, “After all, galleries are in the business of making money and they have found that the public perceives works created by male artists to be worth more than that of female artists." It begs the question-- does the public perceive that or have they been conditioned to assume that artwork created by males are “worth more” than artwork created by females? The question is definitely one that should be explored and I have no doubt that the answers-- and solutions-- can be found in social conditioning. In other words, we all share the blame.
I am of the opinion that social conditioning plays a large role in the discrepancies that have dominated the art world in regards to sexism, racism, and ageism. The professionals who ‘move’ the art world are in a position to condition change-- but very few, both males and females, do that. When they do place a focus on change they often stamp it with the very labels we should be striving to over-throw. Are we subconsciously drawn to art created by males because of the assumption that males are a better investment-- or more powerful than women? Perhaps. That said, if that is the case it still does not make it right.
As I said to this commenter-- if you want to make an omelet you have to break a few eggs, true? And who better to break those eggs than the individuals who serve omelets to the masses, so to speak. I do think art professionals-- such as gallery owners, art museum directors, curators, art critics and so on-- need to take more responsibility for the under-lining message they send to the public. However, in order to realize their actions, impact, and the message they are sending in regards to art culture they must step back and observe how they have been presenting art-- in some cases for decades.
There is a clear gender bias-- as well as racial bias-- if you look back at past decades-- specifically the 1940s, 1950s, and into the 1960s. I don't think anyone denies that. The blunt of widely successful artists who happen to be male from those decades are still coveted in high profile art galleries today-- they dominate visual culture. In a sense, they set the standard. No, I’m not saying that these traditionally white males don’t deserve their place in art history-- but it is obvious that many deserving women-- and others-- were placed on the back-burner because of negative aspects of social conditioning. The past often impacts the future.
My point is that perhaps the ramifications of past gender bias within the context of the art world has simply not played out yet. In other words, as more females gain praise and become household names as artists we will most likely see more balance in the future. Art professionals can play a major role in that needed change today. No, I’m not suggesting that there should be more opportunities for women just because of there gender-- the merit of the art itself should always be the focus. I’m suggesting that perhaps art professionals should focus more on why they are making specific choices. Is it about the art or is it about something else in addition to the merit of the work? That is what art professionals need to ask themselves.
The choices made by high profile gallery owners, art critics, curators and so on have a direct impact on art culture. It trickles down from the most successful art galleries in the world to alternative venues held within a rented space-- from large cities to small towns. In theory, small galleries and other alternative venues see high profile galleries exhibiting art created predominately by artists who happen to be male-- and it becomes a subconscious factor-- a 'monkey see, monkey do' type of choice. Perhaps some artists who happen to be female 'give up' due to that same factor. It is hard to say. That said, it is definitely worth exploring.
I think we can all agree that social conditioning influences how we interact with others-- subconsciously or consciously-- based on factors such as gender. Unfortunately, in all aspects of society we are generally conditioned to think that males are a step ahead of females. If that were not the case why have so many spoken out against it? You can see it in sports, in hard labor, and-- I'd say-- in art. Some of the comments received on my last article about this topic clearly revealed that. Several commenting readers implied that men do better in art because they are more aggressive, are natural takers instead of givers, and are more apt to create bold works of art-- stereotypes if you cut just under the surface.
We need to remember that socially conditioned stereotypes-- and the labels they fuel-- simply don't help to define an individual. Not all men are aggressive in their pursuits-- and I know women who would not know how to prepare a turkey if their life depended on it. Stereotypes would suggest otherwise-- but stereotypes don't reflect the reality of an individual. Thus, I’d say that art professionals need to take a step back and reflect on how they perceive an individual as well as the art instead of being hampered by labels. Stereotypes of artists should be avoided.
Public perception can be changed by actions-- social conditioning can be altered or re-directed with change. Unfortunately, many art world professionals are not taking the right actions in my opinion-- or if they do they stamp the exhibit with the very labels that have oppressed so many. Art critics label artists all the time. They fight stereotypes with stereotypes… generalizations with generalizations-- a battle-cry that rarely results in a victor. It is time for artists to be viewed as just that... artists.
In closing, I feel that all artists should have an equal chance-- free from the stereotypes of their gender, race, and age. Obviously the merit, and dare I say power, of the art should be the most important consideration when everything is said and done-- but let us not forget the power of an individual. That is the first spark toward spreading the flames of balance within the art world. I want to see an art world that is engulfed in the flames of equality.
Take care, Stay true,