Retrospective ,

From 1971: Sexual Art-Politics

Women are protesting the institutional and social barriers which handicap their careers, but in the arts, commerce seems to have played a more destructive role than prejudice

The following, published in ARTnews in January 1971, is a companion essay to Linda Nochlin’s “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” It is reproduced in connection with our coverage of Women in the Art World today.

There are increasingly vociferous protests from women artists that things are neither fair nor square. Much of this feeling came into focus during last spring’s Art Strike [see A.n. Sept. ’70], one of whose four “againsts” was sexism (the other three: war, racism and repression). Necessarily a fringe issue at the time of Cambodia, Kent State and Jackson, the situation of the woman artist is now becoming a cause célèbre. This has developed mainly through the efforts of a relatively small number of politically active art-world women—artists, critics, others—many of whom have been active in Art Workers Coalition and the Strike.

In the fall, a group of them1 demanded that the 1970 Whitney Museum sculpture annual include 50 percent women. True, women do not make up half of the community of working artists. Yet it was felt that a quota would be a corrective to virtual neglect. Some of the tactics used against the Whitney when the museum predictably refused to adhere to any quota were extremely bizarre,2 and there have also been a number of far-out manifestos.3 Since, there is a certain air of unreality to these actions, which often goes along with the tendency for art-world politics to resemble Happenings or Conceptual Art, it is well to remember the main point: that there is still serious discrimination against the woman artist.

Art-world discrimination does not fall into consistent patterns and is not always either conscious or deliberate; it has not prevented a conspicuous number of women artists from sustaining productive and successful careers. Yet today, at a time which is characterized by its self-awareness and often by its good intentions about such matters, at a time when there are more women artists and more successful ones than ever before, the protests are coming with ever increasing urgency. What exactly is the plight of the woman artist all about?

The question is a complicated one. There is still a broad social climate in which (despite decades of “emancipation”) women are not encouraged or motivated to take their work seriously. Most of them do not even consider seeking professional jobs. This is too large a matter to deal with here, but it is one major factor which keeps the number of serious women artists relatively low.

It is obvious that getting started as an artist is also extremely difficult for men. But the burdens inherent to surviving in a lonely, demanding and capricious profession fall with particularly destructive weight on women. The road-blocks they face can be overwhelming, especially to the early, shaky stages of a career. Women artists also face a set of special dilemmas. When young male artists are granted the benefit of the doubt though their work may be immature or undeveloped, women artists frequently have to persist in a unique kind of isolation. A notably painful case is when two artists marry, and the world assumes that the husband is the serious one of the pair. Career conflicts are not infrequent. Marriage and work are not mutually exclusive for men, but for women the alternatives often evolve into an either/or choice. This is the point at which many talented women artists stop work.

More specifically, the problems of the woman artist break down into three main categories: preparing to be an artist, earning a living and gaining recognition.

Linda Nochlin’s article in this issue points out that in the 19th century and earlier, pervasive institutional barriers were established which cut women off from essential professional training; thus even those who were determined and motivated were prevented from attempting to reach the higher levels of competence. Today this is largely changed. Art schools everywhere are more than half full of girls. Furthermore, there is no longer just one single road to becoming an artist; anyone near an active art-making center can have access to the broad sources of today’s art.

While it is no longer difficult for a woman to train to be an artist, one has only to look around to realize that genuine obstacles stand in the way of her further pursuit of a serious career. Once past art school, all sorts of difficulties appear and multiply. The problem of how an artist is to make money when work isn’t selling has always been a knotty one. However in recent years various kinds of flexible teaching appointments which pay comparatively well and may occupy only a part of the year, or grants of various sorts, have started to fill that gap. Women artists have not received a reasonable share of these jobs or grants. The professional art schools, as well as those in the universities, while they do not officially exclude women faculty members, give decisive preference to men. Most of the 50-per-cent-plus female art students now in the schools, if they end up making a living by teaching—and many of them do—find their jobs at the high school level or below. (The small number of women they had as teachers may convey the message that it is not realistic to aim too high.) The proportion of women on New York art school faculties is minuscule.4 There are, too, for those few women who are taken on, subtle and anachronistic job hierarchies which are disparaging by implication: women are allowed to teach how to draw but not how to paint, etc. In addition they are often hired in a peripheral capacity, often as a last-minute fill-in, often not given full payor tenure. They are, when hired at all, generally “cheaper.” Some schools also still bar qualified wives from teaching where their husbands do. While this situation has changed in the last couple of years under pressure of various equal opportunity laws, it is still much more difficult for a woman to get a job which has some relation to her own work as an artist, than it is for a man.5

Showing work, gaining recognition, establishing a reputation are the most nebulous, the most ambiguous, the touchiest objectives. It is here that the woman artist who hustles her work (not herself) in an enterprising manner is accused of being excessively ambitious and aggressive. It is likely to be said that the ambitious woman artist is also unbecomingly concerned with “commercial” proofs of success. It is also in this context that she is most frequently faced with the “explanation” for a difficult-to-breach status quo: ostensibly, that those women who are good enough do get ahead. The others don’t, and don’t deserve to, and any attempt to improve their position is an attack on “quality” in art.

It is obvious that good art has no sex. Women artists themselves are the first to assert this. Even so, dealers are rarely impartial about the sex of their artists. Many major galleries tend consciously to hold down the number of women artists they represent.6 Certain galleries (several of New York’s major avant-garde ones are conspicuous here) virtually—whether by design or not—exclude women. One well-known woman dealer has said openly that she will never take on a woman artist in her gallery; she says women “are not as good.”

Does this translate, “women’s art doesn’t sell as well”? The question is elusive. No surveys have been made, and to do so would involve delicate correspondences between male and female artists of “equal” quality, stature, productivity, style, etc.—impossible correspondences, of course, to pin down. While the general expectation is that women’s art does not sell as well, it is not entirely clear that this is the case. But as long as it is the expectation, it may as well be the case, at least in terms of perpetuating dealers’ prejudices. There have always been isolated cases of great worldly success among women artists. Today, one thinks of Louise Nevelson and Marisol—both have something of a separate existence as celebrities—as examples of women whose work has been in as much demand as men’s. But they are exceptions that tend to prove the rule.7

Finally, while figures which might clarify these patterns are not available, it is obvious that museums are less ready to support young women artists than young men. Women artists generally have to be extraordinarily well-established before being bought for collections, or given major exhibitions.8

It has often been noted that the art establishment is far from consistently male. Dealers are frequently women (influential ones have included Peggy Guggenheim, Betty Parsons, Martha Jackson, and, more recently, Virginia Dwan, Eugenia Butler, Paula Cooper.) Many critics are women. Even that rigidly stratified male-chauvinist preserve, the museum business, is gradually opening to qualified women. Yet most women who have influence have not leapt to champion women artists. Generally their attitudes have been ambivalent. At the very least, one can observe that the question of establishing a more balanced consideration of women’s art has not until now presented itself as any particular objective. It is possible that as the arbitrariness of the imbalance becomes better known, the situation will improve. A conscious attempt to be even-handed need in no way carry implications of diluted critical standards.

The Whitney annual opened in December with a representation of about 20 per cent women artists—22 out of 103 sculptors invited to show. This was something of a victory for the protesters: last year’s Whitney annual (which was a painting survey; there are more women painters than sculptors) had about five per cent women.9

It is ironical that the Whitney Museum became the target for pressure tactics from women. All along, it has shown pronounced if erratic tendencies in favor of women. Its founder was a woman. It has given them more solo shows than any other New York museum. At the moment it is holding a special show of women artists who are in its permanent collection, which was planned last spring.10 Co-incidentally, there is a group of paintings by Lee Lozano on view there too [to Jan. 3]. A large Nevelson show just closed, as well as a major retrospective of Georgia O’Keeffe.

However the Whitney annual itself was a different kind of target. Despite constant disparagement, people go to see it. It has the important function of disseminating information (if not exactly conferring prestige). And especially for younger artists, it represents a goal of sorts—the more so for the reason that it is the only thing of the kind in New York.

So if the representation of women in the Whitney show suddenly shot up fourfold, what does this prove? That if you push museums hard enough, you get what you want? Or that there are plenty of good women artists, but they need political support before they can receive their due? Or, on the other hand, does such a shift betray, as some cynical observers have suggested, a surrender by the museum in the face of pressure and a consequent dilution of standards?

Some sort of compromise on grounds of expediency could perhaps be suspected on the basis of recent figures, if one actually believed that the museum had been genuinely doing its best before. But this is far from the case. It is not difficult to document that a substantial number of qualified women artists were being bypassed with inexorable regularity.

What is most surprising though, if one takes a slightly longer view, is that the peripheral showing of women in such events in recent years represents a puzzling loss of recognition. For in the 1930s and ’40s, large group shows normally included from a quarter to a third women, as a matter of course. During the ’30s and the ’40s, too, women’s careers in general were on the increase.

What happened, of course, is that the art world was subject to the same “counter-revolution,” the same shift of attitude that resulted in the overwhelming retreat-to-the-home movement for American women following World War Two. This was particularly strong during the ’50s, for a number of reasons which have been lengthily documented, analyzed and speculated about elsewhere (see Kate Millet, Betty Friedan, et al.). The only approved objective, even for the highly educated middle-class girl during that time (most artists have middle-class backgrounds) was marriage. The devastating effects of this period obscured favorable examples of women’s accomplishments of earlier generations, leaving only the horrible example of the frustrated, neurotic careerist; such stereotypes (perpetuated not only by the media but by even the best schools) naturally affected the woman artist’s stature as a professional, as well as her drive and self-esteem—as was the case with her counterparts in other fields.

The climate for women’s careers was more favorable, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say less unfavorable in the ’30s, for a number of other reasons. One important factor was the prestige of the few women who had been (without any particular sexual fanfare) active participants in the heroic phases of the avant-garde—for example, Georgia 0’Keeffe, Sonia Delaunay, Sophie Taeuber-Arp. Women such as these had consolidated some major accomplishments; the possibility of doing likewise was accorded their followers. In addition, pervasive liberal sentiments among ’30s intellectuals incorporated a relatively evolved view of women.

Also different was the fact that in the ’30s, many major group shows were juried by artists. Artists, despite competitiveness, tend to be generous toward each other, as well as comparatively objective and much more knowledgeable than any other group about the merits of work. Men artists have been consistently helpful to women of talent. More recently, large surveys have been put on mostly by museums, and the whole thing now has a more official air.

In the 1930s, ’40s and well into the ’50s, American art was not big business, either. In the early days, good art was made by a rather small number of people and was valued for itself. Whatever the gains which came with the maturing of American modern art, an undeniable side-effect has been its rampant commercialization. As its sale and promotion have become an extremely lucrative enterprise, the woman artist has been pushed aside. Whether or not women’s art is really potentially less salable than men’s, any discrepancies were irrelevant when men’s work was not bringing much in the way of prices either. But when certain artists’ works skyrocketed in the late 1950s, everything changed. The art world came under the sway of attitudes of the commercial world, which was never as impartial toward women as the relatively free and open art milieu.

(To over-simplify this progression, when art didn’t sell, women had a more or less equal opportunity to show. When the majority of the art which began to sell was by men, women were slowly squeezed out, first from galleries, and then also from museums, since museums rely heavily on dealers. It is interesting to note that most American collectors are either women or advised by women. Therefore it could be claimed that the “feminine mystique”—i.e., that women should not be professionals—has operated through women buyers, against woman artists. Another peripheral point in this connection is that many of these same women collectors, in encouraging young artists, also like to engage them socially, preferably as “extra men.”)

Thus the recent agitations which centered on the Whitney are, in some respects, an effort to reclaim lost ground. Despite any sensation of déjà vu, this is an important objective. It is an old problem, but it isn’t solved.

Nevertheless there is nothing resembling universal agreement among women artists that political-confrontation methods are the proper approach. To a number of them, there was something slightly unsavory about the Whitney affair. For one thing, it was unclear where demands for fairness left off and a generalized and perhaps opportunistic anti-establishment blitz began. The high-pitched style borrowed from war protest, civil-rights actions, etc., seemed incongruous for a cause which is largely a question of self-fulfillment in circumstances which, while still obviously disadvantageous, contain possibilities reasonably conducive to survival.

Many also felt that the quota demand was fatal to any objective standard of quality, with implications of special treatment.

But most important, women artists want recognition on their own. They are artists and individuals before anything else. Recognition of their work on merit is desired in the framework of all art.

This highly individual attitude will doubtless dilute any all-women exhibition which may be organized—there is considerable pressure in favor of one, as well as considerable opposition. Provisional plans are under way for this summer. Like the exhibition of Black art done in Boston last year, an all-woman show is likely to have a number of major gaps.

Women artists today, despite problematical conditions, form a growing rank of professionals who are in the process of making their own individual contributions to a wide range of current styles. Works of women artists of the ’60s which are reproduced in this issue are only a general, and necessarily somewhat random indication of the breadth of what is being done.

Artists are an elite, women as well as men, and they choose their objectives freely. The overtones of martyrdom which dominated certain recent phases of art-world protest (not just that of women artists) hardly ring true. Lip-service is already being paid to women’s rights. The support of men artists, especially younger ones, can now be taken almost for granted. Women of substantial achievement in large numbers now have to develop their potential for major contributions into a reality.

The full emergence of the talents of any group which suffers from unusual circumstances, and women artists, even with their successes to date taken into account, do fit this description, takes a long time. With the number of younger women artists who are doing excellent work, one can surmise that this current generation stands closer to producing more excellent women artists than ever before. We may be approaching the last phase of having to consider the accomplishment of women artists as a special case.

1. Ad Hoc Women’s Committee of Art Workers Coalition, WSABAL (Women Students and Artists for Black Artists Liberation) and Women Artists in ReVolution (unfortunate acronym: WAR), along with many individuals.
2. First action: Eggs, raw, were nestled in sculptures, planted on stairways, in comers. 50 per cent were black, indicating a further stipulation that the show be half non-white. Second action: Tampax (stamped with “50% “) was strewn through the galleries. Later a brilliantly forged press-release went out, announcing a 50 per cent-woman, 50 per cent non-white Whitney annual, which the Whitney denied in a hasty Telex.
3. The most recent one, from W.A.R., demands 50 per cent female representation in all New York museums by 1973, with elaborately structured interim requirements for achieving this end.
4. One of the better records among New York art schools is that of the School of Visual Arts, with all of 7 women on its Fine Arts faculty.
5. In a new angle of attack (for the art world), efforts are being made by women artists groups in conjunction with the city’s Human Rights Commission to investigate legal steps which might be applicable in certain situations. Most crucial are proposals relevant to earning a living, and these are centering on the art schools.
6. Recent spot-check by telephone of ten galleries turned up 190 men and 18 women. The distribution was uneven. The galleries were ACA, Castelli, Dwan, Paula Cooper, Borgenicht, Marlborough, Bonino, Sachs, Wise and Rubin. Borgenicht, Wise, Rubin and Dwan represent zero women, Castelli, one.
7. That this discrepancy in demand and price also exists outside the purlieus of Serious Art was exposed recently in Life: it seems that Walter Keane, of the fabulously salable Keane-eyed crybabies, did not paint them at all; his divorced wife revealed that she was actually the art-maker in that household. But Walter promoted and sold the pictures under his own name because if people thought they had been painted by a man, they would bring a higher price.
8. In connection with contentions of women artists groups that what they want is equal attention, not special treatment, they have sent out a questionnaire to museums requesting information on selection processes for exhibitions—how many curators go to how many studios, what proportion of women artists are looked at, etc.
9. Figures of male-female breakdown in Whitney Annuals back to 1965 are as follows: 1969 (painting): 143 to 8. 1968 (sculpture) 137 to 10. 1967 (painting) 165 to 16. 1966 (sculpture) 146 to 12. 1965 (painting) 138 to 14.
10. The Whitney has hung one work each by 50 women artists from its permanent collection—the range is the entire 20th century, with a concentration from 1948 on. The show runs to Jan. 19.


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