‘Is it even worse in Europe?’, a campaign launched by arts pressure group Guerrilla Girls at the beginning of October, implicitly criticises the apparent lack of diversity of the artists represented in European museums. ‘We focus on the understory, the subtext, the overlooked and the downright unfair’, state the Guerrilla Girls. ‘Art can’t be reduced to the small number of artists who have won a popularity contest among bigtime dealers, curators and collectors.’
This is familiar territory for the Guerrilla Girls, who have been challenging the relative dearth of female artists in museum collections for years. Their principal charge is that institutional bias has led to the underrepresentation of female artists and artists from minority backgrounds.
But the assumption that institutions are biased against certain sections of society doesn’t hold up. General historical surveys of Western art are necessarily overwhelmingly white, male and Christian because the majority of practitioners were white, male and Christian (especially in certain genres and media). Up until the mass migrations of the latter half of the 20th century, Europe was simply far less ethnically diverse. The underrepresentation of women is more complex. This is not to say there have not been remarkable female artists, who have received great acclaim. On the contrary, Camille Claudel, Gwen John, Eva Hesse and Louise Bourgeois are rightly renowned. And the world’s leading figure sculptor today is arguably Berlinde de Bruyckere. Still, there is little denying that women artists working in major art fields are in a definite minority until the 20th century. There are four main reasons for this:
- Social standards strongly discouraged upper- and middle-class women from pursuing manual crafts for income.
- Women had difficulty in studying art because of restrictions on entering academies, taking up apprenticeships and gaining access to male life models, all of which led to few women gaining the necessary skills, experience and qualifications.
- Women were often barred from joining guilds and societies and were therefore impeded from engaging in professional commissions and making a livelihood.
- Childcare and domestic duties often restricted the amount of time women had to make art.
As a result, women artists rarely practised large-scale historical or religious oil painting and stone carving – the genres and media that were central to art-historical canons. Women artists often practised the ‘minor’ arts of drawing, watercolour painting, pastel painting, crafts and folk art instead. (A recent exhibition at the New York Public Library, for example, displayed the art of female printmakers.) These fields have traditionally been classed as subsidiary to oil painting and stone carving – much to the chagrin of practitioners, both male and female.
Historically, then, women did face significant obstacles to entering the arts, but today the situation has completely changed. Contemporary cohorts of art graduates are very diverse and often female-dominated. And there are small armies of scholars and students now researching overlooked female artists. This attempt to broaden our view of recent and new art has succeeded. But no matter how well intentioned are the proponents of identity politics, their agenda is essentially instrumentalist and reductive. It views artists as more important than art.
Feminists argue there is an implicit bias in judging what is suitable for art canons. If there are diverse criteria for assessing greatness, then no universal canon can exist. This conforms to certain strains of Marxist critical theory, which prioritise the analysis of the production and consumption of art over the formal qualities of the art.
These approaches clash with the observable tendencies of humans to develop aesthetic preferences, and for societies to reach consensuses and celebrate the exceptional. Art consists of objects appreciated for their subjective aesthetic qualities, and any theory that requires us to disregard (or at least subordinate) aesthetic appreciation and focus on who’s producing the art, confounds the whole basis of how we use and understand art.