How to Achieve Gender Equality in the Art World?

October 12, 2018
Editor: Xie Wen

The Clark County Museum in the U.S. recently held an exhibition featuring famous artists in Paris between the 1850s and 1900s, focusing on works by nearly 40 European and American female artists, including Rosa Bonheur, Anne Klumpke and Marie Bashkirtseff.

Most of these works were biased towards the academic style, a feature that made them relatively different from the works of contemporary female artists. Although the works displayed didn't make much of a breakthrough at the auction, it provided the public with a rare opportunity to learn about the female artists of that era and made a positive contribution to breaking the gender bias in the industry.

Before the 19th century, most professional female painters were the daughters or wives of male artists. At that time, people opposed women engaging in artistic creation, much less making a living through it, which made it very difficult for ordinary women to enter this industry, and only a few dependents could be introduced to this profession by their husbands.

Seeing it from the perspective of art history, there have been few women among the world's great artists. One belief is that this phenomenon results from gender discrimination, which has overlooked female artists.

Therefore, some scholars and institutions have been working hard to introduce female artists to the public. For example, in 2017, the Uffizi Art Museum in Florence, Italy, held the first exhibition of works by Renaissance female artist Plautilla Nelli, to correct gender imbalances in the art collection field.

Nelli has not been enshrined in any of the histories of Renaissance only because she was a woman. But can female artists simply be "re-implanted" into art history? How positive is this practice for changing gender inequality in the art world? Famous scholar Linda Nochlin explored on such questions in the article, "Why have there been no great women artists?"

She believes this is a matter of ideology and the entire social mechanism and there are many established misconceptions behind it, such as disrespect for women, stereotyped characterization of the female, and so on. It is impossible to fundamentally change the marginalization of women artists by simply recommending their works if these have not been completely changed.

In the 80s, the feminist wave re-emerged, and some feminist artists formed a squad the Guerilla Girls, who wore gorilla headgear to carry out a series of activities, such as creating posters, bulletin boards and books, to continuously give a fierce critique of gender discrimination in the art field from a feminist perspective.

They also conducted various surveys and raised questions in a targeted manner based on this, for example, "why must women in the Metropolitan Museum of Art be naked?"

Before them, many feminists had analyzed the phenomenon of female nudity in art works, but the way they expressed it was relatively euphemistic and had not attracted enough attention. Whilst the behavior of Guerrilla Girls has brought this issue to the agenda of the art circle. They were keenly aware that many art works choose female nudes as the main subject, because many artists default their own audience as heterosexual men, which was not appropriate.

In the contemporary era, the restrictions on women in the social system have been greatly reduced. More than 50 percent of the graduates of many art colleges are women, but in terms of artistic achievements, women are still not as good as men.

This is manifested in the fact that under the normal circumstances, fewer works by female artists have been collected by art museums, and their works exhibited at  special exhibitions have been few and far between. Women-themed exhibitions have little influence in the industry, and female artists generally have lower incomes than male counterparts.

With the advent of the information era, the situation has improved. On Artfinder (an online painting trading platform where artists can participate), it is delighting to see that female artists' works sell better than male artists and have long been among the most popular with buyers.

In 2017, Artfinder published a gender equality report, which mentioned that the artists on the site reached a gender balance (50/50); and of the 10 best-selling artists, six were women. Since 2013, female artists had sold nearly 1.5 times more artworks than male artists.

The report also raised some thought-provoking questions. For example, women priced their works relatively low. On average, women's works were priced 513 US dollars per piece, men's 644 dollars, which directly led to female artists' relatively lower incomes. Does it show that gender inequality still exists in the art world?

Given this situation, Artfinder launched a campaign called "Stand up to ArtWorldSexism" to raise the awareness of gender inequality in the industry. They advocated in the initiative that "everyone can take action to promote and achieve gender equality."

This campaign has been trying to draw attention of the art circle and to change the public's opinion through debating, in an effort to promote the realization of gender equality.

The article was contributed by Chen Yaya, an assistant researcher of Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences.

(Source: Translated and edited by Women of China)

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