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On Sexism in the Art World

The following is a companion essay to Maura Reilly’s examination of the status of Women in the Art World, “Taking the Measure of Sexism: Facts, Figures, and Fixes.” Our coverage begins with our Editor’s Letter.

The art world, with its various marketplaces (the gallery, the auction house, the art magazine, the art school, the art-history or critical-studies department), is clearly not the same beast in terms of inclusion that it was in the early years after WWII or even in the 1980s and ’90s. “Women’s work”—both in the sense of art and labor—is now more accepted and respected than in the past. Nevertheless, as the revised Guerrilla Girls–type statistics released recently by Pussy Galore demonstrate (Fig. 8), we have a long way to go before those in the art world identified as female (artists, curators, museum directors, funding officers, academics, art critics) are treated with equal respect as those identified as male. Simply put, works by women artists are still worth far less than similar works by men from the same generation and locale.

What interests me now, having worked as a curator, art historian, and art writer for 25 years, is the way in which patterns of exclusion occur, drift away, or morph into something else. In terms of feminism, for example, alternative institutions were being built in the early 1970s but slowly atrophied and disappeared by the late 1980s and early 1990s (for example, the Woman’s Building in Los Angeles). The few major shows of feminist art in the 1990s—from “Bad Girls” of 1994 (appearing at galleries in New York, Los Angeles, Glasgow, and London) to Lydia Yee’s 1995 “Division of Labor” at the Bronx Museum of the Arts to my 1996 “Sexual Politics” at the Hammer Museum—were largely ignored or panned by the mainstream art world, with the exception of Catherine de Zegher’s highly touted 1996 “Inside the Visible,” which included powerful work but presented it in an ahistorical, apolitical, and unthreatening fashion. Then, around 2005 to 2007, major museums in Europe and North America showed a renewed, albeit brief, interest in feminism, culminating in “WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution” (curated by Connie Butler and originating at MOCA in 2007) and “Global Feminisms” (organized by Maura Reilly and Linda Nochlin, also debuting in 2007, at the Brooklyn Museum). Camille Morineau’s brilliant “elles@centrepompidou,” which opened in 2009, was the finale, capping that burst of interest in feminist art on the part of the mainstream, but still mostly Western or Western-dominated, art world.

We are now once again hard put to find at the big institutions feminist shows or exhibitions of works addressing gender, sexual, and other interrelated social inequities. The larger, staid institutions move slowly and demonstrate little interest in supporting more shows devoted to work by women of the past or to current feminist art, or in implementing feminist value systems (which, in my view, must highlight issues of gender as they relate to other identifications and political exigencies). They rarely attend to, or are called out for, ignoring inequities in exhibition and collecting practices. Meanwhile, commercial galleries and auction houses privilege work by artists who fit into “safe” categories (such as “white male painter” or “white male intermedia artist”). Clearly racist, classist, and geographically exclusionary, the system is also sexist and heteronormative: a “woman” is fine so long as she is white and not feminist and plays the role of “artist genius”; “gay” may be acceptable as long as the artist can be identified as male and white and fitting into a middle- or upper-class value system.

Always given top value is art that can be easily marketed, including not only discrete objects but also works created by figures who fit normative ideas of how a “great artist” looks and acts: Picasso, Warhol, Matthew Barney, even (weirdly) Marina Abramović. The body doesn’t have to be identifiably “male,” but the artist-subject has to fit into the masculinist category of “creative genius.” Barney and Abramović, while appropriating tropes and strategies, such as performance, from feminist and queer art and theory, freeze the performative into objects or spectacles that can be readily commodified. Again, a few “queer” tropes or “feminist” appropriations here and there are fine for the art world as long as the work is still by an artist who appears to be white and male (or, really, “masculine” and “phallic”). Call this the “Margaret Thatcher syndrome.”

Instead of belaboring the depressingly commodified state of the global art world, I’d prefer to focus on the alternatives in terms of venues and artistic/aesthetic strategies. These are continually being articulated, produced, and presented through public institutions that we might consider “minor” in scale and visibility but that are “major” in their capacity to affect an otherwise narrow-minded art world as well as broader audiences from the non-specialist public. Their impact lies in the different kinds of creativity they proffer, produced by artists who are usually far from being identified with the white male artist. While not disregarding the potential importance of large museum exhibitions and programming in foregrounding feminist goals, artists, and movements, I find these more modest venues more creatively vital at this moment for achieving feminist goals.

I have just returned to Los Angeles after living abroad for eleven years, and have been awed by the amazing ventures running on shoestring budgets while developing radical alternative content, such as: Human Resources L.A., a performance/art space showing queer, feminist, and anti-racist work, and featuring artists who stand on a continuum beyond the crude categories of “male” and “female”; the ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives at University of Southern California, where I teach (which, guided by director Joseph Hawkins and programming curator David Frantz, features performances and exhibitions relating to their extensive archive of queer historical materials); and the Blk Grrrl Book Fair initiative, organized by black feminist activist and journalist Teka-Lark Fleming and artist and curator Skira Martinez.

Finally, I’d like to say that the Blk Grrrl Book Fair, which mounted their annual event in March 2015 at Martinez’s Cielo Galleries & Studio in South Central Los Angeles, was one of the liveliest events I’ve witnessed in a long time. Fleming and Martinez brought together publishers, artists, poets, performers, along with books, zines, and artworks by radical feminist artists and writers, all identifying with the black (or “Blk”) community’s goals of promoting culture that is anti-racist and class-conscious in its feminism. The fair included the feminist films of Julie Dash, the anti-racist paintings of Lili Bernard, L.A. Queer Resistance’s “Transfeminist Revolt” lecture, readings of Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider, and the trash-talking poetry of Snatch Power (read off an iPhone). The Blk Grrrl Book Fair drew on strategies and attitudes from riot grrrl feminism to the Black Power movement, creating its own vibrant and politically exciting version of feminism. In fact, creating its own “art world.” This is the art world I want.

Amelia Jones is the Robert A. Day Professor in Art and Design and Vice-Dean of Critical Studies at the Roski School of Art and Design at University of Southern California. She is a curator and a theorist and historian of art and performance.

A version of this story originally appeared in the June 2015 issue of ARTnews on page 69 under the title “On Sexism in the Art World.”


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