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Social Conditioning: Do Art Professionals Unknowingly Fuel Sexism in the Art World?

by Brian Sherwin on 3/12/2011 11:45:05 AM

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,

Brian Sherwin

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Art & Prejudice: Dealing with Sexism, Racism, and Ageism in the Art World

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Carol McIntyre
Brian, I believe that you are correct that social conditioning plays an unfortunate role in how all of us perceive artists. Perhaps we should start with ourselves: I would like to challenge all male artists to name female artists who have influenced their art when they are asked - and it would be good for us women to do the same. It is disheartening to read the answer to that question in all the interviews (e.g., magazine articles, blogs) and rarely do I read or hear even artists such as O'Keeffe, Cassatt, Bonhear, etc.

Note also, that we do the same in other art venues such as in music; for example, American Idol. The public is much harsher on the women then the men in their voting. Who can name a female conductor?

Joyce Dade
Brian Sherwin, your article is timely, well informed, cogent and daring. Thank you for your candid commentary on a topic that surely raised the hackles on many a reader. Your chutzpah is refreshing as well as courageous. We need to discuss these issues and, I will venture a bit further to say, we need people, specifically Caucasian males to bring these issues forward. It was those Caucasians of good will who who stood up for human rights and values and fought for them as well during the Civil War, to usher in a move away from slavery and for women's rights as well. It is men of good will who in our times who are willing to be honest about the apartheid art world that will make the difference for artists of color and women going forward. You are one of the very few persons I have come across who has been willing to openly discuss the issue of male dominance and female oversight, artists of color and older artists and the issues of their suppression in galleries, the market place and subsequently history. You are not naive but circumspect to say it is not deliberate. I believe that it is. Curators will not even discuss these issues and my question is why not? You have my respect, my admiration and I will follow you as a fan if possible. Your contribution is well intended and very timely. Thank you and when the numbers of men such as yourself increase, we will have a more intersting world of art and art history. Until which time, artists of color, women artists and artists who are not "young, sexy and shocking," we will have to continue on and self promote, self publish and self represent and while doing so, save on the hefty gallerist commission. God bless us all.

Michael Cardosa

this is an interesting post that could fuel comments forever. Having said that, every time I've tried to put a decent comment together here I've gone back and deleted the whole thing. I think this attempt is the 4th try. I can't speak personally about how women have been accepted in the art world in the past. Today, and I am certainly open to being told I'm wrong, but whenever I read one of my art collector magazines that feature contemporary (and by this I mean living, not genre) artists, women seem pretty well represented. Is that a misconception on my part? Not sure. If it is I would hope that equal recognition for equal work becomes the standard and something we never have to consider in the future. Prejudice and preconceived notions about people, groups, ideas, art, pretty much anything limits everyone and most assuredly the prejudiced person without them even knowing it.


Carl Purcell
I couldn't agree with you more, Brian. We are all subject to and unwittingly trained by social conditioning. I was raised in a small town with rigid views on gender expectations among other things.

As an artist I have worked hard to overcome these pre-disposed attitudes to influence my thinking, but at times I know it comes to the fore, when I least expect it. Here is an example.

A number of years ago I was asked to jury an exhibit in a city some 300 miles away. I approach this work with a great deal of thoughtful consideration, and attempt to clear my mind for open evaluation. I mostly look for obvious control and exploration of the medium, Strong sense of design in the ordering of the elements of the painting, and especially a sense of the personal involvement of an individual in the process, an evident passion for the process imbedded in the work.

I kept coming back to a large watercolor, mostly abstracted of red rock country. The piece was so boldly and wonderfully handled that I awarded it "Best of Show". When I handed in my list of awards I remarked that his "the artist" approach was so powerful it simply dominated the show. The Lady said,"Oh she will be delighted. She is 92 and is still painting." I have never forgotten that experience and how it taught me of the complete error of assuming anything about the artist based on the visual aspect of the work.

Sharon Weaver
I am sure this article, like the last, will set off lots of comments. I think if you look at art as a business and analyze it that way you can see that the higher you go in price and the more prestige, the less likely you are to find women artists. As you descend to lower prices women start to be represented. There is a reason why women are number one in starting businesses online. Anyone can do it. Few of us, male or female, will achieve superstar power as an artist so I am not sure how much of an impact this really has on anyone's career but talking about it sure is like kicking the hornets nest.

Barb Stachow
Unfortunately people do and will continue to sterotype artist. I tend to agree with Sharon, few of us, male or female will ever achieve superstar status, partly due to our own self estemn as much as what the world percieves as a "expert" in the field.

Roxanne Rodwell
Your article, Brian,is timely and I appreciate your comments on ageism in art. Fortunately, I don't look my age and it is precisely because of this issue that I have attempted to not reveal it. After all,it is assumed, an older woman, no longer fecund (I know this is a strong statement along with Joyce's observation not "young, sexy and shocking") can't possibly be able to keep up with current trends or produce powerful art. A friend related to me her experience in a workshop when the artist gently indicated to her (without actually saying it) that in a workshop he and other artists didn't pay much attention to artists like her, meaning her age. Age used to be considered the repository of knowledge and experience.

I appreciate reading Carl's account of his experience regarding his enlightenment when he awarded a "Best of Show" award to a 92 year old woman. What a vindication for older women!

Marian Fortunati
I think your articles have served to identify a continuing issue within our society... not just the art world .. as you also pointed out.

I recently heard a news report that the "glass ceiling" still exists in the business world and men continue to earn higher wages for doing the same job as women do. HOWEVER that is something that has changed considerably over the years and there are many more women in higher management positions than there used to be...... except in the science and math worlds.

I agree that for the most part this is all due to subconscious influences but the more we bring these things to the forefront and the more the discussion becomes public the more likely it will be that our future will be more merit based rather than sex, age or race based.


Lori Woodward
Brian, excellent article - thoughts that need to be brought to light.

Social change (unless forced by governments) is slow. I'm seeing women artists rise to importance in the last ten years, and I have some of my friends to thank for that. Nancy Guzik, it Richard Schmid's wife. She is soft-spoken, never a pushy sales-person, but she quietly has developed a masterful body of work on her own during the last 8 years.

Being married to one of the kings of the art world has not been easy for her. The first step she took to procure her individually as an artist was to study at an Atelier in New York City where she could expose herself to excellent styles of art and education that were different than her husband's. Her actions took guts and committment. This time away helped her to find her own way, preferences, and self-esteem.

Today, she teaches at Weekend of the Masters, and let me tell you - she is not only an extraordinary painter, she is about the best teacher I've come across. There is no arrogance in her and she shares everything she's thinking in an intelligent way.

Another friend who is making strides didn't start approaching galleries until she was around 50 years old. In the past 5 years, her career has exploded, and even a show's sales are slow, this artist sells anyway. Her larger paintings are $10,000. Her work is sought out by important collectors. Not only is she a woman, but she's not what some would consider to be young either.

A third friend paints figurative and still life - her painting ability has grown in the last five years to a masterful level. This woman, married later than most and has 4 children at home. She has managed to create a cohesive, high quality body of work, and she has won several national awards in the last 2 years.

How does, "Woman #3" do it? She has the kind of husband who shares responsibility of cooking and raising the children so that she, the artist, can make strides during the prime of her life. Many women with children wait until their families are grown to pursue a professional career.

Making great art takes considerable time and study. Many professional artists women who seem to attain the title of Master have had no children and the extra time has helped them to fully pursue their careers from a younger age.

I myself, have to handle all the aspects of creating art and running my business by myself. Some days, it seems impossible for me to get everything done, and done well... If I had a spouse or hired a full time administrator to handle the business tasks, I'm sure I'd have more, and better, artwork to show for my time.

Thanks again Brian for bringing this important topic to light.

Virginia Giordano
Brian, I am so glad you covered this topic again, thank you for exploring it in more depth.

The Delaware Art Museum currently has exhibit where paintings by contemporary women and men are hanging side by side without names. People who see the show are asked to submit a ballot guessing gender for each piece. I don't think they are planning to publicize the results online. I left a message for the program department asking them to do that. Perhaps you want to check this out and if they release the info, write about the results when they are finished. You do this topic justice.

Delaware Art Museum: Dele

Though the subject of gender bias in the art world is always important to consider, this writer offers nothing new, and in fact is such a terrible writer, so full of pretensions and cliches, that he does nothing to advance our understanding. This article only demonstrates the limitations of many artists who should stick to making art and stop bloviating.

Brian Sherwin
Thank you all for the comments-- I'll get back into the conversation soon. It is a daddy / daughter weekend. :)

Dianna, thanks for the feedback on my writing. I admire bold opinions.

Marsha Hamby Savage
Brian, thank you for this article. I remember the first one! I'm not sure I read all the comments though. I will have to go back and read them. And, I hope my statements from here will make sense. They are my feelings on the subject.

The content of this article really speaks to the problems we have in most industry. Art is no different and I found it a good statement when you said "This is surprising when you consider that the art world, in general, is often considered a very liberal-minded realm, so to speak."

We fool ourselves by thinking we are so liberal minded, though I think we are more so than most. But, we continue in our own way to perpetuate these biases by making statements that unconsciously are very telling. We are still products of our society and upbringing. I believe each generation gets a little better! Being a female artist and being an "older" artist, I have felt some of the bias we keep perpetuating ”¦ even by labeling myself as female and older! Then I have the next thought that says I am proud of who I am ”¦ female and older ”¦ and wiser perhaps.

But, I am not a gallery owner, or curator. I don't have the problem you speak of where I need to make sure I am not choosing artwork based on preconceived notions. Gallery owners are business owners and are making decisions based on how to make money. They are not in the business of helping an artist raise their name recognition.

As for shows, I have juried a few local art shows. Do I make decisions based on our societal ideas? I don't think so. I look at the art first. I have certain criteria to look at. I would never place a "young white male" artist's work ahead of another gender, race or age just because they "might be more serious." This is a statement I hear sometimes. Heck, I don't know what the artist is: male, white, female, young, old, etc. as it should be.

We see contests labeled for "under 21" or "over 21" and we have societies just for women. I am sure there are other labeled groups or contests. Most times I see these as just another way to "help" some artists not have to compete against a group of artists considered to be more advanced. Is this also perpetuating a bias? I believe it hurts the artist. They should be judged against any work submitted.

What steps can we as individual artists take? I would enjoy hearing some thoughts on actual things we can do. How can we help?

Brian Sherwin
Carol, you make some strong points about the influences artists tend to mention. I've interviewed 500 artists since 2006-- based on that group of artists I'd say that you are right in suggesting that males rarely mention females as influences. That said, I have noticed that women are more apt to mention other women as influences. Perhaps that goes back to this idea of social conditioning.

Part of the problem starts in the classroom-- I'm sure of that. For example, during my childhood and teen years I can't recall influential females mentioned at all. During my college years I can remember art history classes that barely touched on the contributions women have made in regards to art.

Brian Sherwin
Marsha, when I interviewed Sylvia Sleigh she suggested that the best direction we can take is to continue to talk about it-- obviously gender issues within the art world happens to be a topic that many individuals want to avoid. It is also one of those topics that people can take personal very fast-- as you can tell from some of the comments on the article that spurred this article.

Sleigh suggested to me that men and women involved directly in the arts should not dodge the issue as is so often case. She felt that it is an issue that will only be solved by continued discussion-- and by men and women working together toward a common goal. With private galleries options for forcing change can be rather limited-- but with public funded venues, such as the majority of art museums, people can make their opinion known simply by writing those in charge or taking part in forms of activism that brings further light on the issue.

Sylvia passed away last year-- but her message lives on within many individuals. She was partially blind and suffered from hearing loss when I had the opportunity to interview her in 2007. That said, her spirit was very much alive-- and I'd say it lives on in the hearts of individuals who want to see change within the art world.

Jo Allebach
Professionalism in the art world? the skill, good judgment, and polite behavior that is expected from a person who is trained to do a job well. Those who truly are professional would NOT be making these judgments for or against any one group.
There are groups who are always crying discrimination and then in the next breath expecting special treatment because of their difference. I hope as has been said that at some point we can all be Artist not a - hyphenated Artist. I wait for the magic wand.

Carol McIntyre
Brian, I thought of our old school history classes and there is no doubt in my mind that they contribute significantly to social conditioning; this obviously is not only true in ART history but in all areas. We all loose by not having a broader education about everyone that has made significant contributions in their fields.

And thank you to Joyce for your comment above.


Joyce Dade
The discussion here is anything but "boring" if you happen to be a female artist and or artist of color who happens to be female. A discussion like this is what is necessary to take art and art history forward to a more balanced and beautiful place.

Roxanne Rodwell
Thank you, Joyce for speaking up. I wholeheartedly agree with your response! I often wonder where the women of color are. Surely there are many fine artists among them. Are they not being taken even less seriously? I hope that is not true.

Jo Allebach
People seem to forget that white, pink is color too.


When faced with an art dealer who asked me to sign my work with a male name”¦”Ěbecause male artists are more collectable than women artists”Ě I simply stopped doing business with him. His repeated requests for my work over the next few years were always answered with “I refuse to do business with anyone who thinks or promotes that mindset”Ě.

As a self-supporting artist for 40 years and a female I”ôve run head first into this problem throughout my career; note I identify myself first as an artist; I just happen to be female.
In the early 70”ôs I did an all women art show in California and was not comfortable with the exclusionist attitudes. I”ôve not joined women only art organizations for the same reason. Again it”ôs my art that”ôs important to me not so much my gender.

Yes earning less makes my life more difficult, makes my development and growth with my art more of a challenge. I”ôve made many sacrifices. Yet within that fight for survival I have developed a reservoir of strength and confidence which translates into my art.

I”ôve mentored young artists (mostly young women) and it”ôs my hope that with each successive generation the balance will become more equally based; by what we create than on who we happen to be.

It”ôs easy to slip into anger over the injustice of demeaning and exclusionist attitudes when you are the one having stand and face it. I try to cultivate a sympathetic attitude”¦the poor dears are so sadly outdated and old school.

Off the subject but does anyone know why my copy and paste from Word changes into some unknown language? This is the second time it's happened!

Raya (and anyone else interested in knowing),

When you type text in another program (especially Microsoft Word) then paste it in to a FASO text box, it also copies in unneeded code that can cause formatting problems.

We HIGHLY recommend that if you want to compile your entry in an outside program, use NotePad or a similar program that removes all the formatting first.

Patricia Pilipuf
When you say that part of the problem starts in the classroom I can heartily agree but in a related fashion. As an older woman finishing her education, I worked with a master teacher getting my education degree in art after completing degrees in fine arts and psychology. When a job opened up at our local college my master told me I was highly qualified for the job but he couldn't recommend me because I had a husband that supported me and a young man who was looking for a job had a family to support so he was the one who would be recommended. I trusted this man and worked with him for two years. I felt totally betrayed by him. As it turned out I went on to other good jobs. But I'll never forget the betrayal.

Brian Sherwin
Patricia -- I can understand your frustration. I would think your former teacher would have wanted to hire someone he knows would serve students well instead of basing the choice on family matters, so to speak. So much for being an equal opportunity employer... yikes.

On another note: Being back-stabbed, if you will, by ones alma mater is really not that uncommon. It never ceases to amaze me how interested a school is in your ideas while you are a student compared to how graduates are often treated. In the past an alma mater was considered to be like second-family-- that is not so much the case today.

That is one reason I think the old hat idea of school being just as important for networking-- and future work opportunities based on that networking-- as it is for education is not as solid as many feel. The problem is that so many colleges and universities still promote themselves as having those connections beyond graduation-- when really they don't.

Don't get me wrong-- I value education and I value the college I attended. However, I can honestly say that my alma mater has had 0 impact on my success as an art writer and has done little the few times I've sought help while being unemployed-- even though they promote themselves as being supportive of alumni in general.

The gender bias you speak of does not exist. This is all about failed artists who want to think their failure can be traced to their gender. They play victim to soothe their ego. There are many successful female artists.


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