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Seattle Art Museum has done a striking thing. It has removed all works by modern male artists from its galleries and filled them with works by 20th- and 21st-century women artists from Georgia O’Keeffe to Pipilotti Rist.
Works of art by Jasper Johns and Jackson Pollock have gone into storage. Instead, you can see paintings by Pollock’s wife, Lee Krasner, and her fellow abstract expressionist Helen Frankenthaler.
Is this the best way to rebalance art history? After all, patriarchy is not the personal fault of, say, Robert Rauschenberg – another of Seattle’s vanished dead white males. Rauschenberg is a highly original, compelling artist whose work inspires artists today – male and female alike. One young artist who seems to me to work in his tradition is, for instance, Lucy Skaer.
In fact, the stunt in Seattle is only for a few months: the big macho names will be back in town soon enough. But still. This is a slightly old-fashioned political art gesture, surely?
The story of art is an iceberg of gender inequality, a daunting frozen mass of male power. Before the 20th century, the apprenticeships and academic training required to learn representational skills put chilling obstacles in the way of women, who were excluded from such institutions. In the 20th century, the ice started to melt – but arguably this created more insidious and hypocritical forms of inequality.
In Artopia, art is gender-neutral. This does not mean we deny that women, for one reason or another, cannot offer art that deals with what are sometimes called “women’s issues.” And men can deal with “women’s issues” too, or for that matter, topics deemed male or manly by our weird little culture: sports, war, guns and cars (as if women were immune to these). Nor do we need to ban particularly womanly subjects such as birth or menopause. In fact, participant perspectives are always worth having, as I think Judy Chicago proved ages ago, with both her Dinner Party and The Birth Project.
The point is that unless you are ridiculous enough to hold to the old-fashioned notion that art itself is gender-specific (i.e., specific to males), it behooves us to look at the art itself. Some men have mothers, wives, daughters and want to know what goes on inside of their heads. If we need art at all — and we do, now more than ever — we cannot afford to avoid more than half of the art produced, simply because men have not produced it.
Statistically, more male than female artists are famous, but this is merely documentation of oppression, or at best the sociological facts. In our culture, little girls are expected to be “artistic.” In spite of this, some of them go on to art school and actually develop the notion they can be full-fledged culturistadors, on a par with Michelangelo and van Gogh.
So the short answer to my question is that women artists want to be treated fairly as artists. Women want success.
Let us leave aside for the moment the definition of success that equates it with commerce. Even what we might call spiritual success in art is dependent upon support systems and supportive persons, but at this late date, when feminism is thought to have won out, there are few fully developed support systems and support persons for women artists, even among women. Show me the art dealer who represents more than one or two women artists; show me the art critic, male or female, who writes about more than one or two female art stars; show me the collector who puts her money where her gender is.