Feminine strokes: the struggles of female artists

Da Vinci, Van Gogh, Monet, Picasso. The aforementioned names are some of the most famously credited and studied in Art History. Paintings like ‘Starry Night’ and ‘Mona Lisa’ are not only internationally regarded but are also acknowledged to be very high in their worth. In comparison, names like Frida Kahlo, a well known female artist, are rarely given the acclaim their work deserves, both through acknowledgement and financial worth compared to that of men. Da Vinci’s ‘Salvator Mundi’ was sold for 450.3 million USD in 2017 where Frida Kahlo’s ‘Two Nudes in the Forest (The Earth Itself)’ sold for 8 million USD in 2016. The 8 million USD was the highest a Kahlo painting had been sold for. The fact that the record-breaking cost of a well-recognised woman’s work is approximately 1.7% the cost of Da Vinci’s speaks volumes for the state of women’s recognition in art. Furthermore, the most expensive painting sold by a woman was 44.4 million USD for Georgia O’Keeffe’s ‘Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1’, less than a full tenth of what Da Vinci’s work sold for. The disparity in the valuation of the two paintings highlights the unfortunate reality of ‘well known’ art produced by women being valued and appreciated less than pieces produced by their male counterparts. Whilst there are aesthetic reasons that can contribute to the difference in the price of fine art, as well as the varying styles from impressionism to contemporary, there is a clear divide in the representation and appreciation of women in Art History.

Whilst it is plausible that paintings such as Salvator Mundi were produced in the age of these paintings’ peak stylistic trends, the gravitas previously given to them contributes to the price of the painting.  Nevertheless, it must be acknowledged that there has always been a myriad of barriers restricting women to enter the world of art. 

For example, from a young age within most primary and secondary art educations, the focus on Art History and examples of different styles have often been very male-centric in its selection. When we learn about impressionism, we learn of Monet and Renoir. Rarely do we appreciate the likes of Berthe Morisot, who was equally as talented at the peak of impressionist work. She had to present her pieces through seven anonymous art shows and is still rarely recognised to this day. This is a clear example of the idea that women were not accepted in the world of art back then nor are they now. Throughout the history of art, we rarely see the focus on women’s work; rather, the greatest representation of women in art is within paintings themselves. Women are often the subjects to widely acclaimed art pieces. Da Vinci’s ‘Mona Lisa’ and Johannes Vermeer’s ‘Girl with the Pearl Earring’ are clear examples of how women are the subjects of art but not the directors of their narratives or depictions of themselves. We see ourselves and our world predominantly through the lens of a male, a perspective that faces a world very different than that of a woman.

In fairness, this inequality has slowly shifted in the modern era of art. Even then, their works and the valuation of their art still barely compares to that of men even after the rise of feminism. It’s not as if women could not participate in the craft but it is simply that they were not allowed to thrive within their respective fields nor were they allowed the level of praise male artists were offered. The example of Berthe Morisot highlights exactly that; her need to only show her work anonymously for it to be seen speaks volumes to the oppression of female artists throughout time. Through this airbrushing of women in Art History and the removal of them from the spotlight, we contribute to a systemic exclusion that teaches women their identity in the art world is less than integral. We reinforce the archaic ideology that women can only exist and succeed in spaces where men leave gaps for them to do so, instead of helping them exist alongside men. The ideology speaks to the modern oppression of women under the patriarchy. Where some countries have given women the right to vote, own property, drive etc. there is still a level of oppression and suppression women face in their careers. The erasure of women in the art world speaks for women everywhere. It is not that we are inherently incapable of achieving, it is that it is harder for us to do so. The current state of the art industry highlights that precisely. 

Women’s exposure and importance in the art may have increased over the years but it is still nowhere near where it needs to be. In a 2017 study published by The National Endowment of the Arts, it was found that female artists will earn less than their male counterparts as they progressively age. They estimated that female artists ages 55-64 will earn 66 cents for every dollar that a male artist will make. This statistic only amplifies the issues women face as artists in the current gender climate. Not only will women’s work be sold for less but women are also underrepresented as a whole within the art business. In the 9th edition of H.W. Janson’s survey, ‘Basic History of Western Art’, only 27 women were featured out of the 318 depicted in the book. Not to mention that in Artsy (the renowned art database and search engine) showed that out of 3,015 galleries on display, 10% featured no women at all. What does this say about the representation of women in the modern arts? What does this tell budding female artists?

The fact that on average art made by women is discounted by 47.5% illustrates that women are nowhere near equality in the way we would have hoped since the first wave of feminism arrived in the mid-19th century. Whilst it must be acknowledged that progress has been made in the last few decades for women, simply making progress is not sufficient. We need to continue striving for equality beyond a surface level. The inequality in the representation of women in art speaks on a larger scale to how hard women have to work to simply compete in the industry with men let alone to thrive. In most fields, women will have to work harder than their male counterparts and the art industry is no different. Art in the modern day is less restricted in what is acceptable and yet potential opportunities are stripped from women solely based on gender. Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but what happens when the beholder’s vision is blocked based on something as uncontrollable as gender?

But why does this inequality persist in the arts today? Art historian Linda Nochlin argues that women in the past did not have the access to the same type and quality of social connections, materials or  education  in comparison to their male counterparts who have been considered ‘great artists’ – both past and present. This barrier in opportunity then led to the development of the belief that women were inherently less capable of achieving greatness in art. This belief has culminated into what stops women from currently succeeding in the artistic field. When we see brush strokes, we cannot see gender. And yet, a feminine name due to past oppression of women still affects their chances of succeeding today. Women are still being punished for being women, the difference being that the current form of discrimination is more subtle, more covert but just as insidious. 

Instead of restricting women’s ability to access materials to perform, we restrict the capacity in which they can display their art. Specifically, the lack of representation of women’s work across various platforms. Famous women’s activist Tim Symonds revealed that The National Gallery of London contains over 2,300 pieces of work and only 11 artists who have contributed are women. This long-standing system against women still upholds the patriarchy in fields typically considered ‘female’. For example, whilst 71% of art degrees in Australia are earned by women, they only make up 33.9% of work represented in state-run galleries and museums. Highlighting the sheer inequality of the arts towards women for factors beyond their control such as the gender pay gap, the pressure to become mothers, and the inherent sexist views of women.

So, what does this inequality mean to us modern consumers of art? Equality is hard to discuss in the world of art, given the [unfounded] assumption that it has already been achieved. Independent curator Gemma Rolls-Bentley says that because some female figures have ‘defied the statistics, their rare success misleads people into thinking women get an equal shot’. To truly achieve fairness in the field we must undo this thinking and do what we can to support women in art. Today, with such a plethora of information being made available to us, it is our duty to inform ourselves of the rampant inequalities that plague society in general and permeate into all aspects of our lives,  including our consumption of art. It should also be acknowledged that we should do our part in buying from female artists. 

When you see nice artwork on various social media such as Instagram and Twitter made by women, share it. Educate yourself on female artists, both historically and presently, who are just as talented as their male counterparts but have been ignored by the malestream art scene. To continue the progress we have made thus far, we need to do our bit in making the art scene more about appreciating talent for talent rather than devaluing it because of gender.

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