Women have been integral to the world of art for centuries. Yet, women in art are underrepresented and misinterpreted. The numbers don’t lie. In 2016, according to the Universities and Colleges Admissions Services, 63% of undergraduates studying creative arts and design were female. However, only 29% of the artists represented by London’s prominent galleries were women.
In 2014, 7% of the artists on view in the Museum of Modern Arts collection galleries were female. And in 2013, only 24% of museum directors were women. They were only making 71 cents for every dollar that their male counterparts made despite these galleries’ $15 million budgets. It should also be mentioned that in 2013, not a single artist in the top 100 auction sales was female.
Why can’t an artist just be an artist? Society still segregates women from men by referring to them as “female artists.” The divide is created when art created is categorized by gender. It might be done to address the gender imbalance in female representation in the press, galleries, permanent collection, and museum exhibitions.
The melancholy truth is that the belief that women are inferior artists still exist in the mind of those who have the ability to make decisions. Could Hans Hoffman’s “This is so good you wouldn’t know it was done by a women” sentiment on a painting by mid-20th-century painter Lee Krasner still be the same type of attitude that many influential men in the art world have towards artwork they discover was created by a female artist?
“Showing work by women exclusively is a way to get right at the heart of the stereotype that there’s just not enough good work by women”
“People come into our gallery where there is no obvious indication that all the work is by women. They read the information cards. They’re surprised. They buy.”122-year-old non-profit New York gallery, Pen and Brush
Women in the shadows of men
7th-century artist Judith Leyster worked at the same time as the Dutch master Frans Hals. Her works were indistinguishable from Frans’s. Even though Judith was well-admired during her lifetime, she disappeared into obscurity after her death. We can all guess that she was forgotten, dismissed, overlooked just because she was a woman. Later on, her paintings re-emerged when it was discovered that seven of her paintings had been wrongly attributed to Frans Hals. Meanwhile, Some female artists adopted male names like Claude Cahun and Grace Hartigan, who signed her works “George.” And some artists used their initials.
By 1970, tired of being patronized, being on the edge, some women determined to change the narrative and put a spotlight on female artists. In 1971, Margaret Harrison’s drawings became the first feminist art exhibition in London. Unfortunately, the cops shut it down because of what they refer to as “inappropriate art.”
In the US, art historians Linda Nochlin and Ann Sutherland Harris staged a show called Women artists: 1550-1950. It inspired revisionist debates about the history of art because this seemed an issue to art historians. Do they simply go back in time and just randomly insert pictures of female artists into the pages of art history? Do they write books just about women artists? But that only marginalizes, isolates these artists from the movements, errors that they have been a part of. This is still a hotly debated issue and led to a radical re-thinking of the way art history is presented.
By calling attention to identity, sexuality, history, and politics. Women artists have dominated the debates surrounding art for the past four decades and pushed the boundaries of art to represent today’s realities in many forms.