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Carrie Mae Weems Responds

The following is a response to Maura Reilly’s article “Taking the Measure of Sexism: Facts, Figures, and Fixes” about the current statistics of Women in the Art World. Our coverage begins with our Editor’s Letter.

Carrie Mae Weems, Abbey Lincoln, 2010, from the “Slow Fade to Black_Set II” series. ©CARRIE MAE WEEMS/COURTESY THE ARTIST AND JACK SHAINMAN GALLERY, NEW YORK

Carrie Mae Weems, Abbey Lincoln, 2010, from the “Slow Fade to Black_Set II” series.


Born in 1953, lives in Brooklyn and Syracuse, New York

There’s a reason Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In was so important. There have been wonderful changes for women artists in the past 40-some years, and I know these women now in a way that I didn’t when my career began. As a student I went to the library to find books on women photographers and found there were very few—among them, Julia Margaret Cameron, Diane Arbus, Imogen Cunningham. That was what first stimulated me to do research trying to locate women artists. I did a lot of that work as an undergraduate. Since then, there has been considerable improvement. However, although women artists are now being exhibited more, their work is still not valued to the extent of the male artists’. We are still a psychological and cultural distance away from recognizing and valuing them.

One factor may be that women artists tend to be isolated. They more often work alone, while men tend to work in teams. Look at Gregory Crewdson, whose production process might involve 50 assistants, while Cindy Sherman works quietly in her studio with maybe one assistant.

And then there is cultural isolation. I’m always calling my male friends to task when they work on a project and call their male friends for advice but don’t call me.

But all of this relates to larger problems. As a society we are still seeking ways to deal with gender disparity. The isolation of women is culturally imposed, and it’s a situation in which they participate. Rising to the occasion is a tall order. I don’t blame women. But I’m always trying to discern how we might be complicit in our own victimization. I’m aware of the ways in which we are isolated and realize how difficult it is to combat that.

Around the same time that Linda Nochlin wrote “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” Alice Walker wrote the book In Search of Our Mother’s Garden (1972), in which she asked, “What did it mean for a black woman to be an artist in our grandmothers’ time? In our great-grandmothers’ day? It is a question with an answer cruel enough to stop the blood.”

For my part, I find myself in constant battle with organizations, institutions, both male and female, about fair and equal treatment. I attempt in my work to negotiate the power imbalance. There is a certain lack of democracy, whereby women represent the womb of a democracy not yet born.

Only when we start to separate questions of feminism from the larger issue of democracy will we really be able to have the conversation in a way that doesn’t cause a large group of people to shy away from us. How do I do that as a black artist? As a woman? These are my ongoing questions. A whole generation was snowed by the idea of “political correctness.” The term wore on us, and we backed away—we didn’t want to appear “p.c.” The term substituted for a movement. So how do we pose the questions in a new way?

The feminist movement, which has been displaced and undermined, depends for its survival on organizing—that is still true. But what do we organize around? There has been a splintering of groups: blacks are over here, gays over there—everybody trying to do his or her own thing. And in the midst of it all, you tend to lose the greater social connections among those groups. Feminism as a larger movement was destroyed because these people weren’t working together and organizing around a larger principle of social change.

That is one of the ways in which the political right has won. At the end of the day, we are all human beings searching for equality in a challenging system. We need a narrative change. We need a new set of terms. And most importantly, we need to keep the conversation going. The extent to which you are willing to relinquish the conversation is the extent to which you’ve failed.

A version of this story originally appeared in the June 2015 issue of ARTnews on page 65.

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