New Perspectives Needed: The Challenges for Women Striving Towards Gender Equity in the Field of Art History

It has been some time since I have been able to update here, for many reasons, but as I am researching for a paper I am currently writing and looking for a previously-used source, I was reminded of this paper I wrote for my Gender Studies class in autumn 2018. It remains true, with little significant movement in the year since it was written. The video below (above my article) is the one I specifically reference, and it is a short video produced by Artsy.

 

New Perspectives Needed: The Challenges for Women Striving Towards Gender Equity in the Field of Art History

            One of the primary issues of gender disparity in the field of art history remains how women artists are addressed in the field of study. The field of art history, as with other humanities, is dominated by women,[1] which might lead one to assume changes to the male-dominated canon would have been made and that scholarship on women artists would be at the forefront of the field. To some degree, this has been true, as women scholars have produced a great deal of feminist scholarship. However, there are still significant disparities whereby the canon itself has not changed, the way women artists and their work are discussed is still limited, and how women of multiple marginalizations (race, disability, queerness, etc.) and complex identities receive less scholarship and unequal exhibition opportunities. The field of art history and the production of art history have both embraced women to some degree, but they both still lean heavily on whiteness and discussions that place all of the emphasis on the artist as a woman more than as an artist.

According to an article on gender and tenure in art history, written in 2008, 65.5% of all doctorates in art history since 1969 have been earned by women, but only 42.4% of those women were in tenure track professions in 1999.[2] The article, titled “Equality and Illusion: Gender and Tenure in Art History Careers,” went on to investigate how marriage and parenthood impact a woman’s tenure opportunities, finding that in general men benefit and women do not (with the exception of when women marry men who have also achieved a PhD) from partnerships, and men are significantly less damaged by parenthood.[3]

The information available that shows women dominate the field is not surprising, in part because the humanities pay less than STEM, to begin with, and women have found themselves career tracked into teaching, history, literature, and social work (as well as the hospitalities and service industries) in disproportionate rates since women first entered the workforce. What is, perhaps, confounding is that this has not inevitably led to a more diverse and egalitarian art canon now that women are producing a significant amount of scholarship, taking on curatorial and directorship duties at institutional levels, and are the primary teachers of art history. In fact, a 2017 film produced by Artists for Gender Equality shares data from an ongoing project called “Gallery Tally” by Micol Hebron that states, “Artists represented by the top galleries across New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago are roughly 70% male.”[4]

In an interview in January 2018, art historian Andrea Iaroc said, “We need to amplify the voices that have not been heard because of European ethnocentrism and patriarchy. The way that we experience the world, the way we grow up, our background—all inform the way we interpret things.”[5] Art history, despite becoming a woman-heavy field, produces the same patriarchal interpretations, male-centered scholarship, and ghettoized exhibitions because women who go into the field are still informed by the patriarchal and heavily Euro-American ethnocentric world we all grow up in. While the feminist art movement of the 1970s, post-colonial movement and studies of the 1980s and 1990s, and increased push towards “diversity and inclusion” since have all contributed to significant improvements, the overarching disparities persist because it takes an enormous amount of effort to break free from the methodologies and practices ingrained in the field and overarching dominant culture. We are confined to the limits of our own imaginations.

The disparities that persist are also, at least in part, related to the very methodologies and interpretations we use to consider the work of women, especially women who are queer, trans, and/or of color. We are working within existing methodologies because another aspect of the gender (and other intersectional) disparities is that while white men are free to advance new methods, we are less likely to be taken serious if we do not work within the accepted frameworks. Mary D. Sheriff specializes in interpreting the work of painter Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, a French painter of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. In a 2003 essay she wrote about reception to her scholarship and quoted Toril Moi’s Sexual/Textual Politics: “It is surely arguable that if feminist critics cannot produce a positive political and literary assessment of (Virginia) Woolf’s writing, then the fault may lie with their own critical and theoretical perspectives rather than with Woolf’s texts.”[6] Sheriff applies this to the visual arts, adding “A new, more positive analysis of Vigée-Lebrun called for new perspectives…”[7] and goes on to describe how difficult it has been for women to create and produce work/scholarship utilizing these new perspectives while working within prevailing cultural institutions. Whole new ways of looking at art are necessary in order to create the change we wish to see in the field, but this requires the freedom to break free from the current gatekeepers of the field.

In 2006, Linda Nochlin published “’Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?’ Thirty Years After” to consider how the gender disparities of the art world and art history had changed since her 1971 essay that had led the charge towards feminist art history. In her follow up essay, she enumerated the names and works of over a dozen women artists who have come to the forefront of the art world because of a conscious effort to challenge the male-centric and Eurocentric canon of art. She concluded by acknowledging that there was, in 2006, evidence of a backlash and a return to the concept of “the manly man” in the art world, and finally ended by saying, “Every time I see an all-male art panel talking ‘at’ a mostly female audience, I realize there is still a way to go before true equality is achieved. But I think this is a critical moment for feminism and women’s place in the art world.”[8] She went on to say it is necessary to acknowledge achievements made while still remaining conscious of the work it took to get there, the danger of its undoing, and the work that still remains.[9]

Twelve years later we are deep in the midst of the backlash Nochlin warned us about. Politically, socially, and culturally we find ourselves faced with significant oppression and suppression in response to the progressive gains made by and for women, LGBTQ communities, and people of color. As the larger culture shifts, the world of art is also impacted. More and more marginalized individuals are making art, and making art that is responsive to these shifts, and yet this has not substantially challenged who is afforded opportunities to exhibit, to publish critique and scholarship, and to build a career. Those opportunities remain exclusive to those people willing to be moderate in their viewpoint. The radical notions of an upheaval of the canon and of the very way we talk about art are still the whispers of marginalized participants who find ourselves forced into academia to learn the traditional methodologies and earn the traditional degrees that may or may not afford us the privilege of someday overturning them.

[1] Elizabeth Rudd, Emory Morrison, Renate Sadrozinski, Maresi Nerad, and Joseph Cerny. “Equality and Illusion: Gender and Tenure in Art History Careers.”

[2] Ibid. P. 228.

[3] Ibid. P. 235.

[4] Artists for Gender Equality. Gender Equality: Past, Present, Future. This information is presented in the “Present” video at the 1:13 minute mark. The accompanying text given on the site notes the source of the statistic.

[5] Joelle Te Paske. “An Interview with Andrea Iaroc, Founder and Executive Director of the CORAI Project.”

[6] Mary D. Sheriff. “’So What Are You Working On?’ Categorizing The Exceptional Woman.” P. 52.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Linda Nochlin. “’Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?’ Thirty Years After.” P. 321.

[9] Ibid.

Bibliography

Artists for Gender Equality. Gender Equality: Past, Present, Future. November 13, 2017. Accessed January 21, 2018. https://www.artsy.net/gender-equality/.

Nochlin, Linda. “’Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?’ Thirty Years After.” In Women Artists: The Linda Nochlin Reader, edited by Maura Reilly, 311-321. New York, NY: Thames & Hudson Inc., 2015.

Rudd, Elizabeth, Emory Morrison, Renate Sadrozinski, Maresi Nerad, and Joseph Cerny. “Equality and Illusion: Gender and Tenure in Art History Careers.” Journal of Marriage and Family 70, no. 1 (2008): 228-38. http://0-www.jstor.org.libcat.ferris.edu/stable/40056265

Sheriff, Mary D. “’So What Are You Working On?’ Categorizing The Exceptional Woman.” In Singular Women: Writing the Artist, edited by Kristen Frederickson and Sarah E. Webb, 48-65. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2003.

Te Paske, Joelle. “An Interview with Andrea Iaroc, Founder and Executive Director of the CORAI Project.” CAA News College Art Association. January 18, 2018. Accessed January 23, 2018. http://www.collegeart.org/news/2018/01/18/an-interview-with-andrea-iaroc-corai-project/.