Is there a glass ceiling for women in the arts? When it comes to visual art, a superficial glance by a visiting alien would see 21st-century Britain as one of the best places and times there has ever been for women working as artists. I went to Rome for my holidays. I gorged on paintings, frescoes and statues, from ancient Roman mosaics to Canova nudes. None of these great works of art of ages gone by are credited to women – which doesn’t mean there were no women artists at all before modern times. The Roman writer Pliny the Elder lists women artists. The Renaissance writer Giorgio Vasari also praises a handful of women. But art was organised as a male-only craft and women could only sidestep the guild system under exceptional circumstances, such as being the daughter of a painter, like the Baroque artist Artemisia Gentileschi.
The exclusion of women from art was a holocaust of talent, a denial of half the human imagination. That’s over. Modern art appeared at the same women campaigned for the vote. In Britain, the contemporary art boom that started in the late 1980s has – apparently – seen as many women as men become famous. Compare the art world of Tracey Emin with the art world of Artemisia Gentileschi and it’s obvious a lot has changed.
Or has it?