Tuesday, January 05, 2010

The Lag of Success, The Lingering of Bias

Following up on this post about the Whitney Biennial's first-ever roster with more women artists in it than men...in which I couldn't help but wonder whether the leaner (some say, more meager) approach to the exhibition wouldn't get mingled with this milestone in some folks minds...today I read the following (from 100 years ago) in the ARTnews Retrospective for January 2010:
For the second year in succession the women students at the Royal Academy Schools have beaten the men and carried off the lion's share of the honors distributed at the annual prize–giving. . . . Explanation of the feminine successes rests in two facts; firstly, that women painters to–day are doing first–class work (e.g., Mary Cassatt, Boznanska, Cecilia Beaux, etc.), and secondly, that many men students are restive at the restrictions and old–fashioned methods of the Academy schools, and consequently year by year more and more of our cleverer young students are drawn away from the Academy to the Slade and other more up–to–date schools.
—"London Letter," January 8, 1910
A black friend recently confirmed that she still (even in this age of Obama) felt that black Americans need to be much stronger in their respective fields to be viewed as just as good as any white person in the same fields. She meant among white Americans who would argue they are not racist, to be clear. Indeed, in any context in which a minority begins to attain social equality, there seems to be this drag on perceptions among those who don't identify with the original oppressors. What I mean is, even when evidence points clearly to the contrary (i.e., a "minority" attains success), there seems to be a subconscious lingering of cultural bias that prompts people who can recognize the validity of the "other's" success or superiority to still look for rationalizations that suggest somehow the game has changed to facilitate this development.

Taking that "London Letter" above as an example, it's feasible that many more men were anxious to break away from the Academy than were women (just as it's feasible that the opportunities for women at those alternatives were not as good as they were at the Academy). It also seems possible that women were truly, career-wise, still determined to prove themselves at the Academy (as opposed to succeeding at Slade or wherever just to have the chauvinists find some rationalization as to why that didn't count). What seems most likely though is that the writer of that assessment had to find some explanation that didn't conflict with his/her long-internalized preconceptions about men artists vs. women artists. Indeed, the suggestion of the second explanation offered is that should the better male artists not have felt the need to reject the Academy, the lion's share of the prizes would not have gone to women. That women only beat the men because it wasn't the same old game.

There's a saying that goes "If you can't win the game, change the rules." I've never thought that was necessarily admirable in sports or leisure activities, but in business/career contexts...Hell yes, that's how you do it. So to my mind, it seems just as feasible that there's a third explanation for the results of the annual prize-giving: the women in London in 1910 conspired to convince all the men who might prove tougher competition that the Academy wasn't challenging enough for them, sending them packing off to the other schools, thereby changing the rules so that they could sweep the Academy prizes. Either way, it doesn't matter: history records that the women won. All the rest is Monday morning quarterbacking.

Labels: gender disparity


Blogger Brent said...

"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has." - Margaret Mead

This quote leaped to mind when talking about changing the rules when the game isn't working for you.

1/05/2010 10:23:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is just an observation, but I can remember some of the best artists that I went to school with being women. However, 10 years removed from school only one of the real great female artist that I can remember is still actively exhibiting while many of my male counterparts are still trying to make teh big time (Brooklyn etc). I would probably attribute this trend to the fact that most of the wowmen who are no longer actively exhibiting have started familes.

This observation has nothing to do with potential for wowmen to be great artists, but many wowmen face very different issues and obstacles to establishing their careers (that have nothing to do with sterotypes of crtical sleights). Most female artists who "make it", have to make very complicated decisions about their personal lives and honestly they make sacrifices far more often than men.

I think the biggest issues is how do women sustain themselves as artists, if tey do choose to have families. Most women I know would not put their art before their family, in contrast many men are able to pursue their art without it necessarily beinf viewed as a conflict of interest.


1/05/2010 12:26:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Man, everyone wasted their time complaining about the decade (41 comments!). Now no one seems to have enough time to think about the last two posts, which are much more worthy topics of discussionin my opinion.

What can you do Ed?

1/05/2010 02:22:00 PM  
Anonymous joannemattera@comcast.net said...

It's easy to complain, harder to do something about it, Anon.

Having spent a lot of time at the Miami fairs and written 22 posts about them, I can tell you that I saw a LOT, I mean a TON, of work by men. Certainly, women were represented--and kudos to the galleries that featured women artists in the Art Kabinetts (small solo shows) at Basel Miami, or devoted entire booths at the other fairs--but on the whole, the percentage seems skewed in favor of humans with a particular appendage.

I would mention that at least 50% of the dealers are women. And I suspect they're dealing with an issue peculiar to female dealers. If a woman dealer had a gallery that represented 10 women, it would be called "a women's gallery." If she had a gallery that represented 10 men, it would be called, all together now, "a gallery." So just to be safe, she probably skews toward the male side of the scale. This is the same issue for artists of color, whichever sex they are. And if you change "dealers" to "curators," I suspect the issues are the same at the selecting end.

Amazingly, a new generation of women art students seems to think there's no problem. Despite a quick count of the gender of artists with solo shows in galleries and museums in a given month, the students--especially the young women--refused to see sexism as an issue. WTF.

I was heartened by a panel discussion at PPOW recently. Heartened initially, that is. An intergenerational panel of women spoke before a packed room, maybe 70 people--women and a good number of men. Expectation was high. And what happened? The discussion (de)volved, primarily by the young women in the room, into "Do we have to call ourselves feminists?"

And an interesting corollary issue here: when there are opportunities, the younger do-I-have-to-call-myself-feminist women, are walking through doors that a generation before them, women who did identify as feminists, pried open with their bare hands.

Casey mentions women who choose to have families. OK, but unless they're raising the children alone there's another person involved, and about 90% of the time, it's a man. Not shooting the messenger here, Casey, just noting that the act of birthing the baby shouldn't have to hold a woman back for 20 years, which it certainly does seem to do. This may be the great equalizer, alas, in the intergenerational feminist issue.

It's never just about the art, is it?

1/05/2010 06:55:00 PM  
Blogger jami said...

"Do we have to call ourselves feminists?"

As the mother of two very well grounded young adult women, I ask myself, why my girls shrug at the word feminists. Then I think back to a day I took my youngest, then 9 years old, to the dentist. I had always made sure my girls only visited female health professionals, my subtle feminist way of saying “yes you can”. This particular day a male dentist would be seeing her. My daughter's eyes grew wide at the sight of this man about to look in her mouth, and she asked “Mom, you mean men can be dentists?”

Many young women today have been misled to believe that there is no gender disparity to rectify. Universities are turning out more women artists than ever, but they are not aware of the feminist that opened those doors for them, as Joanne states “with their bare hands”

1/05/2010 08:27:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Joanne, you are right. It is never just about the art, which feminists among others are the first to imply. Art for art's sake is a bunch of BS. Art for whatever sake you want to make it (money, activism, celebrity, etc) is the new paradigm.

Although it would be nice to view art apart from the identity of its creator, so much of the meaning of art is tied up in the very identity of whoever is making it/ or viewing it.

Having said that, I have to side with the young female artists who don't want to identify themselves as feminists. If you take on that label, then that's all anyone will let you be. Feminism the movement has already happened, the task at hand is now to recognize and realize great artists ( particularly female) while at the same time not doing so under the pretext of feminism.

1/05/2010 08:30:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

While I do agree that the social achievements of feminist artists should not go unnoticed, I believe it's a disservice to artists of any gender, race, sexuality or ethnicity to define themselves in terms of those categories. It THE WORK that is important. That is all. Discussions such as these can be, and have been, self-propagating prophecies.

As difficult as it may be to admit, we cannot control the prejudice of a collector, dealer or curator. But we can manage their perceptions. Nowadays, artists who spend too much time complaining about the status quo are often perceived to be stomping on sour grapes; blamestorming instead of honing their abilities. Wouldn't all of that effort be better spent on making even better work than you've already made? The success will come if the work is great. The minute we start believing that is the minute we start looking for excuses for opportunities that have not been afforded us.

As an artist who is part of a minority, I would prefer that my minority status is as consequential to my work as my weight, my eye color or my preference for dogs over cats. No one ever discusses me in terms of my gender because I won't allow it. I go out of my way to make sure that when a curator comes to my studio, it is always about the work. I never discuss the work in terms of my struggle. I never complain that opportunities may have passed me by.

If we continue to make sexuality, gender and race an issue when we consider our feelings of entitlement, we continue to fan the flames of something unimportant to the work. And if we get burned, shame on us for playing with fire.

I, for one, have faith in the current generation of young dealers, curators, artists and writers. I have faith that they see beyond irrelevant labels. I have faith that they see only the work.

And my work is good. Very good.

1/05/2010 10:04:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


303 Gallery has 25 artists on the list of people represented.

Of that 14 are of one gender, 11 are of another. You can see for yourself which way the scales tip.

303 is not now, nor has it ever been, considered "a woman's gallery".

Instead, it is considered a world-class gallery. 303 exhibits the work of artists who the market, and the current global curatorial circle, support and rally around. All of their artists' successes are based on hard work, nothing else.

I believe the owner of 303 would bristle at any assumption that the gallery could ever be ghettoized as "a woman's gallery", despite the fact that the roster weighs more heavily on an X chromosome.

I would wager that even if the roster 303 were to become fully female, it would NEVER be considered "a woman's gallery". However, if she were to eventually find herself with a roster of all men, you can be sure that we'd be hearing from the peanut gallery about how criminal her decisions had become.

People are often desperate to blame their own inadequacies on the hatred and bigotry of others. It's easy to do.

1/05/2010 10:29:00 PM  
Blogger Lady Xoc said...

I'm grateful that younger women have internalized so much of the power and entitlement that we older ones had to sacrifice so much for (at the risk of sounding maudlin). I enjoy seeing my nieces go forward without a lot of ugly baggage. But the prejudice runs so deep, it still goes unnoticed. I saw this not long ago and still can't quite believe it.

1/05/2010 10:32:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i think if 303 were 90 per cent or 100 percent Women it would be thought of as a "womans" gallery, just a good one.

1/06/2010 09:20:00 AM  
Blogger beardfallacy said...

I followed the link in Lady Xocs post that apparently offers an example of deep, lingering prejudice against women artists and, after taking some time to identify the offending element came to a contrary conclusion.
I hope I'm correct in deducing that it is the listing of women artists under the heading "OTHER". This is an unfortunate choice of words but it seems apparent that the site is still being constructed and that other categories of artists will eventually appear under this heading.

It seems to me that it reflects the reasonable belief on the part of those building the site that there are enough viewers interested in ONLY looking at female artists to make it a categorical priority.

I am not at all arguing with your assessment of the continuing existence of sexism within even supposedly enlightened subcultures but your reaction seems to illustrate an aspect of the generational difference between yourself and a younger woman who might want to disassociate herself from feminism. Such a hypothetical young female artist, perhaps in search of new artistic role models or sensibilities to empathize with, would be glad of the convenience of the separate section. I have taught and mentored for many years and have observed this strong desire for gender identification among female students.

I don't mean this to be critical- I've had many conversations with my mother about the political and perceptual changes (most importantly, for her, the new possibilities for a stronger self-perception)that have been fought for over her lifetime.

I also know that it is an experience that I can't really understand and that it runs deeper than statistics.

And apologies if I went on too long about a minor observation that might not even concern the same detail.

1/06/2010 09:25:00 AM  
Blogger Joanne Mattera said...

Anonymi: You're missing the point. One can be feminist without being a "feminist artist."

I'm feminist. My art is not remotely political or narrative.

As for 303 Gallery, great! (And it shows some of my favotite painters.) But it's on a short list.

1/06/2010 10:46:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I will just say that as an older woman artist, I don't look for and don't expect to find support from younger men or older men trying to cling onto youth, whether they be artists, gallerists, curators, or determinants of grant opportunities. I suspect that as today's young women artist age, they will be rooting through their mother's baggage, pulling out that 'feminist' word and finding it a good one. My work has improved and deepened through the experience that time affords but opportunities have narrowed. I wish I could see this differently.


1/06/2010 11:43:00 AM  
Anonymous kim matthews said...

I'm with you, Joanne. This dovetails with the discussion we were having weeks ago about identification by medium. I'm a sculptor who happens to be a woman, a liberal, and a feminist. I'm not a "(medium) artist, a (gender) artist, or a "political" artist. Once at a post-9/11 art opening at a gallery I was with, an attendee lambasted the artists for not making "political art," to which I replied, "In the current climate, any act of individuality IS political art."

1/06/2010 01:49:00 PM  
Blogger Lady Xoc said...

To beardfallacy: No apologies needed. Your assessment is clear and cogent, as well as sympathetic. But you are right in saying that it is an experience you may never understand, just as I will never entirely appreciate the perceptions and feelings of younger women as we go forward in history. But this generational thing is nothing new, nor is the essential hierarchy of power and influence in our society. I'm afraid the same old battles will still be fought far into the future.

My reaction was unapologetically kneejerk. In fact, I have no wish or need to know if an artist is a woman or a man. As much as I enjoy biography in general, I tend to avoid, as much as is possible, reading anything about the artist's life circumstances into the work. This is harder than you might think, given the contemporary curatorial propensity for TooMuchInformation in wall texts and catalog essays.

I think the sticking point for me was, as you mentioned, the unfortunate choice of language.

1/06/2010 02:20:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a woman now in my early 30's, I personally never felt sexism very much until I became a mother... so I do think Casey has a point about women making complicated personal/career decisions, although I do also think that the getting thrown off track part pertains mostly to the first years of the child's life and not necessarily for 20 years! Though many fathers are also very involved these days, the expectations of society seem to be quite different for fathers and mothers, especially of very young children.
In my case having children started out as a sort of replacement for the creative process, and threw me way off track, then through a series of complicated events had the opposite effect of throwing me wholeheartedly BACK into the fray as if my very sanity depended on making art! Now if I could just get a LITTLE uninterrupted time to actually develop ideas.... but I'm still working, and if I think small, I may just get there one day.
yes, it's still complicated, being a woman.

1/06/2010 07:54:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Being a man has its own, unique set of complications.

It's my guess that life's not easy for anyone and that the grass always looks greener over the fence.

1/06/2010 10:56:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

True, being a man has it's own complications as well, but being a man has historically been a privileged status compared to being a woman-- In the arts and otherwise. I could guess that is probably part of what makes being a man complicated. But that defeats the point of the thread, which is to discuss the unusual situation in which more women than men were invited to show at the Whitney Biennial, and the social bias towards men as artists that still makes that an unusual situation.

1/07/2010 10:11:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, stick to the point of the thread which seems to be:

'What will the disenfranchised feminists complain about now that they can't complain about gender bias in the 2010 Whitney Biennial?'

This thread has been silly from the beginning.

1/07/2010 01:43:00 PM  

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