ART & FEMINISM: Can the Real Supporters of Female Artists Please Stand Up?

In my last blog, Art & Feminism: WTF is Feminism, I went over the different waves of feminism, I questioned if there is a fourth wave and what I believe feminism to be – inclusive not exclusive. I had no real intention of ever writing that blog post, it just kind of happened! After sharing it with friends, it seemed only natural for me to start creating this series “Art & Feminism”. It is important for me as a feminist artist to discuss this topic because I feel as though feminism is misunderstood and with that, I have a lot of questions.

A cave painting in Cueva de las Manos in Santa Cruz, Argentina.

Female artists are underrated and underrepresented. This is shown throughout history. It’s wild to wonder how women came to be oppressed within the industry. Prehistoric art indicates that women were often the principal artisans in Neolithic culture. We were creating pottery, textiles, baskets, painted surfaces and jewellery. Men were out hunting and we were left to make artefacts which were building blocks to culture. When the cave paintings were being made they often had human hands, 75% of which are identifiable as female. In places such as India, women and only women for thousands of years created devotional paintings of Gods and Goddesses.

During Classical Europe, pottery and painting were often created by both men and women, both genders worked alongside one another. Moving into the Medieval period, documents show that artists of this period were from a small subset of society. This status allowed them freedom from more strenuous types of work. Women artists were predominately from literate classes: wealthy aristocrats who created embroideries and textiles or nuns who often produced illuminations.

Angelica Kauffman and Mary Moser

The Renaissance period was fantastic for many reasons, not only was secularism becoming popular but female artists gained international reputations. This is mostly due to cultural shifts such as humanism, a philosophy affirming the dignity of all people and thus raising the status of women. Female artists from the Baroque era began to change the way women were depicted in art. Female artists were not able to train from nude models, the industry was inundated by men, but they were very familiar with their own bodies. It is noted that female subjects in paintings by women started appearing as conscious beings rather than detached muses.

During the 18th century throughout Europe, the Academies were the arbiters of style. They were responsible for training artists, exhibiting artworks and promoting the sale of art. Most excluded female artists. Women had limited, or no access to academic learning and there is no large scale work by women of this period. In England, two women, Angelica Kauffman and Mary Moser, were founding members of the Royal Academy of Arts in London in 1768. 

The Sense Of Sight, 1895 by Annie Louisa Swynnerton

Women’s development and education in Art continued to grow throughout the later centuries. Throughout the 19th century, the segregation of male and female education was still prominent and women were not allowed to join their male counterparts. Women were not allowed to draw live nudes of other females, but as a subpar probably religious and political rule they were allowed to draw men draped in cloth or suited in armour. To the detriment of female artists they found themselves exhibiting their art much later in their lives (beyond middle age) or retrospectively after death. Some were not even formally recognised as professional artists. This can be seen with artists such as Annie Louisa Swynnerton.

With that brief history it is astounding that art museums still fail at artist diversity today. A recent report from Williams College in 2019 found that of 18 all major US museum exhibitions 85% of artists were men and 87% were white. This is extremely disheartening to any future artists who are female, trans, of colour or have a culturally diverse background. The discussion regarding suppressed female forces within the art industry doesn’t just stop at creators. Curators also lacked a sense of autonomy over their accomplishments.

Peggy Guggenheim

Let’s discuss Peggy Guggenheim – an art collector, the woman who discovered artists like Jackson Pollock and married Max Ernst, someone who advocated and shaped the 20th century art world. As luck would have blessed her, she was born into the wealthy Guggenheim family. Her twist of fate begun when her Father died on the Titanic. Her uncle was Solomon Guggenheim, who established the Guggenheim Foundation, which would later would become the Guggenheim Museum. Although her fortune was much less than her cousins, she did inherit US$2.5 million when she turned 21 in 1919 (equivalent to US$36.9 million in 2019). 

While she worked as a clerk in an avant-garde bookstore where she fell in love with the bohemian artistic community. From New York City she moved to Europe and became close friends with writers Natalie Barney (who formed the ‘Women’s Academy’ and was wildly progressive for her time) and Emma Goldman (an open anarchist and women’s rights lecturer), who eventually wrote Peggy’s first biography. Through her biographies, which I recommend you read, you get an idea that all she wanted was credibility within the male dominated art world. Her devotion to female artists is incredible and often overlooked. Yes… she collected a lot of Picasso’s and Dali’s, however in 1942 she hosted a female only exhibition. It was titled ‘Exhibitions by 31 Women’ which included the likes of Frida Kahlo and Meret Oppenheim. The exhibition was to highlight the psychological, instinctual and erotic nature of women with a mixture of expressionistic and abstract female work. As a woman of stature Peggy Guggenheim was ahead of her time!

Mierle Laderman Ukeles performing Maintence Art

Fast forward a few decades to the early 1970s, the feminist art movement is starting along with the Second Wave. Mierle Laderman Ukeles wrote a manifesto entitled ‘Maintenance Art – Proposal for an Exhibition’ which challenged the domestic role of women and she proclaimed herself a “maintenance artist”. She would do live performances in art galleries where she would clean and cook. I would have imagined that Ukeles read Betty Friedan’s ‘The Feminine Mystique’, also another great book you should read.

Within the same timeframe the pioneer group The Art Workers’ Coalition (AWC) was developed. It was published in 1970 and contained a list of demands for equality and representation of female artists within museums. The AWC asked for free admission, better representation of ethnic minorities, late openings and an agreement that galleries would not exhibit an artwork without the artist’s consent. The AWC demanded that museums “…encourage female artists to overcome centuries of damage done to the image of the female as an artist by establishing equal representation of the sexes in exhibitions…” Something which is yet to be put into fruition by museums and galleries alike.

The AWC protesting at MoMA.

Continuing in the Seventies, Judy Chicago taught the first all women’s art class at Fresno State College in America. From there Chicago founded along with Miriam Schapario the Feminist Art Program where women could collaborate on art, hold reading groups and discussions about their life experiences which then would influence their artistic creations. Chicago didn’t stop there, she would go on to found The Feminist Studio Workshop with two other artists Arlene Raven and Sheila Levrant de Bretteville.

I believe that the infamous Guerilla Girls put it best “…do women have to be naked to get into the Met…”. The Guerilla Girls formed in 1985, towards the end of the Second Wave. They are art activists who wear gorilla masks in public and use humour, facts and visuals to expose gender and ethnic bias. They dabble in exposing disparities within politics, film and pop culture along with art. Okay, let’s go back to that quote I referenced above and discuss what that was all about.

During that pinnacle moment it was not uncommon for all, if not most renowned art galleries to have little to no representation of female artists and curators. It wasn’t surprising because they were privately funded by predominantly white males, meaning that these galleries or museums were no longer documenting art but power structures. Unfortunately for female artists at the time, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York had a largely male run board of directors (oh… and they have never had a female become head of the board, yet). In 1985 sexism in the art world was brought to the forefront by seven women (The Gorilla Girls) who launched a campaign against an exhibition being held at The Met titled ‘An International Survey of Recent Painting and Sculpture’, whose roster of 165 artists only included 13 women. Statistically, that’s still the same as it is now and we’re 35 years along.

Approaches such as what Judy Chicago did by giving the community all female art classes has been able to help other female artists further identify, collaborate and develop concepts together, much like how Socrates had The Academy with Aristotle and Plato (probably a bad comparison because they were all males, but you get the gist). But is all this debilitating to men? After all feminism is about inclusivity, not exclusivity. I think it isn’t at all. If anything it highlights the importance of creating more inclusivity for female (and trans) artists to close the gap between what is considered historically important.

Judy Chicago in her studio.

Female artists have often been mischaracterised. These misrepresentations have often been dictated by the socio-political conforms of the time. The oppression of women by not being able to hold positions of power within the art sector has been the key limiting factor. I wonder if back in the late 17th century if women were allowed to get the same education as their male counterparts would this have created a more inclusive environment for the future generations of female artists? I think about the hundreds of thousands of female artists before me who have had their artwork incorrectly attributed due to reassignment by art dealers.

So what can we do to change this imbalance between male and female representation? I am not sure I have the answer, but I believe that changing power dynamics within higher institutions is important to create change. Large museums such as The Met need to be open to what females can offer; whether that be more female curators, having a policy of more female art or having a woman as the Head of the Board.

I think we’re on the right track with this third/fourth wave of feminism. The internet is changing how we view and consume art. It’s allowing artist’s like myself, who have no formal training, to engage on a platform and be “discovered” by galleries, curators and patrons. I do think it is important for us to not rely solely on the internet, being able to discuss the statistics and asking what will change will most certainly plant the seed for change. So, let’s keep the discussions going IRL!



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e: studio@madbutt.com.au