Are There Still So Few Successful Female Artists?
Ben Davis, Tuesday, June 23, 2015
What will it take to finally put an end to sexism in art?
Currently this subject is back at center stage, thanks to the
Maura Reilly guest-edited June issue of ARTnews which collates
the dispiriting statistics, and elicits responses from art stars
ranging from Cindy Sherman to Jamian Juliano-Villani.
Things are a lot better than in the mid-80s, when the Guerrilla
Girls formed to picket a Museum of Modern Art survey that contained
just 13 women in a show of 169 artists. But they are still not
great: of all artists represented by galleries in the United States
today, just 30 percent are female, according to the stats from
Micol Hebron's "Gallery Tally" project, cited by Reilly.
And that total seems to have been stuck more or less in place
for some time.
Reilly's effort has provoked major discussion. On the other hand,
it has also provoked a major sense of déjà vu. Cindy
Rucker Gallery has organized a response show, cheekily titled
Pussy Don't Fail Me Now." The flyer for it begins:
On the heels of yet another expose of gender inequalities
in the art world
Last year, in a special issue of the Brooklyn Rail, edited by
Kara Rooney and covering very similar terrain, artist and critic
Mira Schor calls these periodic upsurges of feminism amnesiac
returns" (in fact, stressing the point, her piece was called
"Amnesiac Return Amnesiac Return.") Every few years,
it seems, there is a resurgence of interest in feminism, noting
the dismal progress towards gender parity within this purportedly
liberal realm. Statistics are collated; symposia held; protests
Then, before long, the subject fades from the center of discussiononly
to return again a few years later, because the problem persists.
To accompany Reilly's effort, ARTnews also republished online
Linda Nochlin's celebrated 1971 essay Why Have There Been
No Great Women Artists?" I am keenly aware that in what follows
I am at risk of coming off as mansplaining sexism, but rereading
Nochlin was a revelation. It made me think that a return to some
of the insights of her classic feminist scholarship might help
advance the contemporary conversationincluding my own previous
thoughts on the subject.
The Limits of Counting
Reilly's lead essay is titled Taking the Measure of Sexism:
Facts, Figures, and Fixes." It is, in essence, an epic exercise
in counting, surveying the statistics that prove ongoing bias
in gallery representation, auction prices, and museum solo shows.
Counting is one of the "fixes" as well. After surveying
possible avenues of redress, like advocating for feminist curricula
and pressuring collectors and museum boards to change their ways,
Reilly concludes by saying, "And, yes, we need to keep crunching
the numbers. Counting is, after all, a feminist strategy."
Indeed, such data-gathering is what continues to keep the issue
alive despite the industry's memory problem. Yet going back to
read "Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?" again,
I was suddenly struck by how Nochlin's approach can be read as
a critique of counting as an endpoint of analysis.
The question Why have there been no great women artists?'
is simply the top tenth of an iceberg of misinterpretation and
misconception," Nochlin wrote.
You could rephrase her argument like this: Simply counting the
number of great" female artists then comparing it to
the number of great" male artists didn't by itself
explain anything, and left room to smuggle in all kinds of erroneous
assumptions, unless the source of the discrepancy was adequately
Cutting ahead to our own time, the question being asked is Why
Are There Still So Few Successful Women Artists?" Yet as
with the earlier case, in taking only the most visible phenomena
of professional attainment as its object, the statistics on their
own leave only our assumptions to fill in why bias appears to
be so intractable.
Nochlin argued that in order to understand why women have been
underrepresented in art history, we needed to look beyond
the specific political and ideological issues involved in the
subjection of women." We had to dig into the premise of the
question itself, framing artistic careers not as the manifestation
of inbuilt "greatness" but as the product of institutional
structures. Only after these were understood could we give the
numbers their proper meaning.
Correspondingly, today I think that it may be helpful to take
a closer look at what success" really means and how
it is achieved. As in the earlier case, to do this it helps to
look more closely about our ideas not just about female artists,
but about the way the contemporary art system in general works
The Conditions for Artistic Success
Eight years ago, after another return of feminist protest against
festering bias within the art system, I wrote an essay trying
to answer some of these questions, titled White Walls, Glass
Ceiling" (which, in updated form, became an important part
of my book 9.5 Theses on Art and Class). There I argued that you
can't explain this phenomenon without getting at factors larger
than just art," and proposed two possible channels by which
the outwardly progressive art world might reproduce sexism.
The first was that the commercial art industry was about servicing
the appetites of the wealthy. Given the not-at-all equal distribution
of wealth in society, this reality ultimately meant that it was
about servicing the appetites of mena state of affairs bound
to produce bias.
The second was that, when you examined how artists achieved gallery
representation, it was through relatively invisible personal networks.
Grasping this, I thought, might explain how a boy's club"
mentality replicated itself, consciously or unconsciously.
I still believe that these factors are important. Yet after the
activism and debate of the ensuing years, I have come to believe
that my account in White Walls, Glass Ceiling" is still
too art-world centric. Today, I would put more stress on a third
One of the major recent themes of theoretical and practical debatein
the scholarship of Julia Bryan-Wilson and the activism of W.A.G.E.
(and in my own book)has been about the status of the artist
as worker. It has become increasingly clear to me that the idea
of the artist" as a professional identity is a near
myth, an optical illusion produced by what Nochlin would describe
as the romantic, elitist, individual-glorifying and monograph-producing
substructure" of the art industry.
For almost all contemporary artists," including a
majority of those who are actively showing in galleries, art sales
constitute a fraction of how they make a living. The reality of
the art life is largely one of maintaining faith in a creative
vision while doing something else (unless you are independently
wealthy or supported by a partner, situations more characteristic
of the average artistic success story than anybody cares to talk
Every year, a hungry new crop of would-be artists enters the
lottery, even as another bunch decides to abandon the field, having
exhausted their resources or their optimism. Summing up years
of hard-won wisdom recently in the book Living and Sustaining
a Creative Life, the artist Maureen Connor put it this way: [I]f
some career trajectories seem arbitrary in terms of who succeeds
and who does not, I believe it often comes down to crucial financial
Nochlin used the metaphor of the iceberg. If the statistics about
"successful" artists are the peak that we can see, the
realities within the non-art economy are the cold mass that these
rest on, largely hidden beneath the surface of the conversation.
The Pay Gap and the Representation Gap
What does this fact, which is as characteristic of men as it
is for women, help us understand about the specific condition
of female artists?
Responding to Reilly's article in ARTnews, the women behind the
Brooklyn gallery Cleopatra's suggest that aspiring female artists
may get fewer opportunities because they are less aggressive about
promoting themselves: Hands down the biggest observation
that we have made in the role of being four perfect targets for
artists to approach, pitch projects to, ask for a studio visit,
etc., is that probably nine out of ten people to hit us up are
Maybe if aspiring female artists really did just lean in,"
things would improve. Gender stereotyping sets in early, and means
that women are sometimes socialized to ask for less.
But I believe with Nochlin that ultimately the question
of women's equalityin art as in any other realmdevolves
not upon the relative benevolence or ill-will of individual men,
nor the self-confidence or abjectness of individual women, but
rather on the very nature of our institutional structures themselves
and the view of reality which they impose on the human beings
who are part of them."
So here's a third avenue towards an explanation of the same observation:
Maybe, for reasons that go beyond art, even the most assertive
aspiring female artist actually ends up with less time to approach
dealers, pitch projects, and ask for studio visits.
The vicious truth is that female college graduates today still
make about 22 percent less than their male counterparts, across
Women, on average, will therefore have 22 percent fewer resources
to go into making and producing art. Women will, on average, have
to work 22 percent harder to compete at the same level for scarce
opportunities. Women will have 22 percent less of the "crucial
financial support" Connor talks about to see them through
while waiting for that big break.
For African-American women and Latinas, the statistics on relative
pay are even more dismal. An African-American woman can in general
expect to make 36 percent less than a white male. As the National
Partnership for Women & Families pointed out recently, that
translates to the equivalent of 21 months of rent.
And the pay gap is really only one of the more visible aspects
of routine discrimination, from the US's spectacular failure among
industrialized nations to mandate any form of maternity leave,
to the nickle-and-diming stupidity of the so-called "pink
tax," the fact the same goods, like razors and deodorants,
tend to cost more when packaged for women (an issue publicized
by the French feminist collective Georgette Sand last year).
Here maybe the iceberg metaphor is still too benign. If artistic
careers are mainly subsidized by resources from outside of art,
such realities will be more like a black hole in the art universenot
directly visible, but warping all that is around it.
The Art World and the Real World
I know that the danger in this analysis is that it may seem as
if I am downplaying sexism within the art industry. Some portion
of discrimination is the work of base ignorance or outright misogyny
(cough cough, Georg Baselitz). There are plenty of female artists
who have achieved artistic "greatness" but still go
It was not so long ago that Evening Standard critic Brian Sewell
was opining, with dumbbell assurance, "Only men are capable
of aesthetic greatness."
Yet even sexism of this blatantly regressive kind finds its purchase
in terrain shaped by the larger context for women. How did Sewell
justify for himself his asinine generalization about female creative
capacity? With the following observation about the career paths
of female artists: "[T]hey fade away in their late 20s or
30s. Maybe it's something to do with bearing children."
Well, maybeor maybe it's something to do with having to
work extra hard to stay in the game and then, on top of that,
having some fool still say that you'll never achieve "aesthetic
In the end, exposing the fact that conditions within art depend
crucially on factors that go beyond it shouldn't let the art world
off the hook. In fact, it makes corrective initiatives within
art more, not less, important; K8 Hardy specifically makes the
case for artists fees on this basis.
But it does mean that the shameful statistics probably can never
be cancelled out by simply getting attitudes right within the
art industry. The numbers within art make a case for a feminism
that advances discussion and activism beyond it.
The Guerrilla Girls are the godmothers of counting as a political
strategy. Yet it is already a decade and a half now since the
great "Banana Split" of 2001, when Guerrilla Girls BroadBand
spun off as a group as committed to addressing issues beyond sexism
in art. These have included, among other things, abortion rights,
sexual assault, military recruiting, and discrimination against
women within the workplace.
Recently Minnette De Silva, one of the pseudonymous members of
the BroadBand collective, explained the new direction to the Brooklyn
Rail's Chloe Wyma:
What Guerrilla Girls BroadBand does is stand in the art world
and relate it back out to the rest of the world. What's really
important about the continued inequality of representation of
women and people of color in the art world is that the whole of
American society is still incredibly racist and anti-women in
certain ways. We see the art world as part of the world.
This is not an example of diluting the message. This is an example
of wisdom, won through struggle, about what it actually means
to take that message seriously.