Features | Painting the gender divide

Amelia Schonbek wonders why women are largely absent from the Western art canon

“Why have there been no great women artists?” Linda Nochlin asked in her seminal 1971 essay of the same title. It’s a question that many others have considered as well. Walking through art museums in North America and Europe, it’s hard not to notice that it’s men who have created most of the works that hang on the walls.

And while women have done pioneering work to advance other art forms – Isadora Duncan or Martha Graham in modern dance, George Eliot, Gertrude Stein, and others in literature, for instance – the number of women who are known for their contributions to the Western visual art canon is nearly small enough to be counted on one hand. Certainly, this under-representation of women in visual art can’t be chalked up to women’s inability to create great art, nor can it be explained simply by mentioning the reality of women’s subordination throughout much of history. Instead, the reasons for current imbalances in the art canon are more complex. The status quo has to do with the way art education has been approached throughout history. It has to do with the spheres in which women have historically been permitted to exist, with the way museum collections are formed, and with the persistent misconception that women, when it comes down to it, are lacking some crucial artistic quality that would put them on the same playing field as men.

Statistically, the under-representation of women artists in classical and contemporary museums is astonishing. Women artists are responsible for only one per cent of the New York Museum of Modern Art’s entire collection of works created prior to 1970. They make up a mere 23 per cent of the artists represented in the permanent collection of New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art. At the Metropolitan Museum of Art, female artists created less than three per cent of the museum’s collection. Even when considering museums dedicated to newer work and exhibitions of contemporary art – which one would expect, in the time of gender parity and improved equality between the sexes, to include a more balanced number of male and female artists – an under-representation of women is notable. As evidence, women artists comprise a meagre 14 per cent of all the living artists given solo shows at the Guggenheim between 2000 and 2006.

In looking at the reasons behind this inequality, it’s important to realize that two interconnected issues play into the problem. One has to consider the conditions faced by pre-contemporary women artists that prevented them from creating art; these repressive conditions helped form and perpetuate stereotypes about women’s essential ability to create art. It’s also important to consider the degree to which contemporary women still suffer from the effects of these stereotypes, and whether it’s getting any easier for them to be considered as men’s artistic equals.

Historically, the reality is that far fewer women than men were able to make art due to the circumstances that governed their lives. Angela Vanhaelen, a professor of art history at McGill, notes that until the 17th century in Europe, artistic practices, like all other professions, were overseen by guilds to which women were denied admission. Guilds regulated who had access to the basic tools needed to practice painting, sculpture, and other artistic disciplines professionally, and by excluding women, guilds removed any chance they had to study and practice art. There were occasional exceptions to this rule – Italian Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi’s artist father taught her his craft, for instance – but these cases were rare.

Though guilds eventually disappeared and the creation of art became less strictly regulated, women still had to fight to receive training. Few women were admitted to art academies, and if they were granted entrance, they were not permitted to take courses that studied the nude figure. When women were denied access to the nude body, Vanhaelen says, it limited their ability to study the intricacies of human anatomy, and therefore their ability to portray the body in painting or in sculpture.

Anne Grace, the curator of modern art at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA), adds that even if women did receive the necessary training, often the subjects that marked certain periods or movements were often off limits to female artists. “When we think about the Impressionists or early Moderns,” she says, “men were painting in bars and places where women of a certain class, the class that artists would generally come from, wouldn’t be allowed. They weren’t allowed out on their own to paint these things. They were systematically denied access.”

While it would seem reasonable to assume that these barriers might diminish as time progressed, that’s not necessarily the case. Even as late as the fifties, women had difficulty securing artistic training. It wasn’t until the eighties that women artists were able to assume a place in the mainstream art world. That decade was marked by the likes of Jenny Holzer, Cindy Sherman, and Barbara Kruger, who were some of the key figures of their time. The fact remains, however, that in Western society in general, women and men are not equal. This truth permeates into the art world as it does everywhere else.

The museums as institutions and, by association, the curators, are also key forces that shape the art canon and have the power to uphold or challenge the under-representation of women artists. It’s evident that big museums are all driven by different agendas. Behind the scenes, a museum’s choices can often reflect factors as varied as the desires of a particular benefactor, the projected ability of new acquisitions to draw crowds, and the desire to raise the profile of the organization’s collection. All of these factors can potentially uphold the current under-representation of women artists.

At the MMFA, Grace says, many of the museum’s acquisitions are actually donations, meaning that in part, the permanent collection is “an accumulation of collectors’ choices and a history of those choices.” While she concedes that, “when we do exhibition programming, the reality is that we have to think about what will bring people through the doors,” Grace is careful to point out that marketability is only one of many criteria that go into the decision-making process. Although she says that gender can be taken into consideration when making choices about how to round out the museum’s collection, she believes it is most important to “highlight important and strong works. The museum certainly doesn’t discriminate against women, but the best way to serve women’s art is by showing it in a context where the woman’s voice is as loud as the man’s – where ideally, the gender of the artist is not a factor.”

The perspective, that it doesn’t do women artists any favours to recuperate their work and incorporate it into the canon merely for the sake of upping the number of women represented, accounts for the disparity between men’s and women’s work that viewers often see when visiting museums. According to Vanhaelen, it’s also an important way of resisting tokenism, or the incorporation of women’s work into collections, exhibitions, or books solely on the basis of the need to include a female artist or two, rather than on the merits of their work. Tokenism is dangerous, says Vanhaelen, because it’s one more way of marginalizing women. “Women are made to be exceptions in these cases,” she says, and it serves only to set them further apart and establish one more barrier to their full incorporation into the mainstream.

More barriers are the last thing women artists need. What becomes clear when looking at the historical trajectory of women in art is the that roadblocks that prevented them from inclusion in the mainstream in the past are far from disappearing. In museum collections the world over, women’s work is often kept in the archives, or, according to Vanhaelen, sometimes misattributed to male artists, particularly unsigned works by women who worked in the style of major male painters.

When their work is properly credited, women’s work is much more likely than men’s to be “read through their biography,” Vanhaelen says. “Caravaggio murdered people and we never take that into consideration,” she remarks. “But Barbara Hepworth had triplets, and after that, every time something appeared in her art in a group of three it had to be about her babies.” Grace says that in today’s world, “women have as many opportunities as men, and are represented in great force, making art in all different media, and dealing with all different subjects – not just with a feminist perspective.” But Vanhaelen emphasizes that to a certain extent, the common perception still holds that “women are naturally less inclined to have the drive to create visual art.” That sheer creative power has historically been gendered as male, and as a result it has been generally understood that work produced by women just couldn’t measure up.

“We will never be able to rewrite history, and the statistics are what they are,” Grace says. But she is hopeful that the art world will continue to change. “The days of excluding women on the basis of their gender are something of the past,” she comments. Here’s to hoping she’s right.


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