Painting the universe

Women and art. What does it mean to be a woman in the fine arts?

Imagine a world - a world without maroon, violet, navy, marigold, turquoise, lavender, without beautiful complex colors. Now, imagine a world without yellow lemon, green and black striped watermelon, red globe grapes, or blueberries. Forms and colors have been central to identification and categorization, which in turn has helped our minds get trained in meticulous recognition of the benefits and dangers of our environment. Colors invoke emotions because they bridge the gap between the abstract and the material, the sense and the object. A study reveals, that our mental peace is hugely decided by the calming colors of the walls surrounding us. The perfect juxtaposition of an admirable art piece against a contrasting wall creates a warm environment where inspiration flow untethered. Have you ever wondered who made those art pieces? Have you ever met someone who sold it to you directly or through a dealer? Were any of those artists women? Were any of those dealers women? Probably no.

Art has been a male-dominated field where the entry barrier to women is a result of the normative practice of male privilege. The art pedagogy was a foundation of certain cultural institutions that systematically barred women from artistic profession and training until the 1870s. Before the second-wave feminism in the late 20’th century, art remained a sexist exposition of patriarchal values. The subjective understanding of the female experience was limited in art since the majority of artists were men. The most underrepresented experiences belong to women who were further marginalized in society. Their individualistic expression is stifled by societal expectations. Their art, invisible and flouted, because it is created by someone who is not accepted or cared for by the culture. In face of these challenging social norms, women found it easier to play the muse rather than the artist. Not to mention the immensely problematic representation of feminine hypersexuality in the work of various male artists (especially when the artist is a middle-aged man and the muse is a teenager). Therefore, women and art is an important discussion to have, because the vanguard of fine art has long been a world of prejudices and inequality. Using Woolf’s parallelism here, when we say women and art, we seem to refer to an overarching term which compromises - women’s life and expression being represented in masculine art (women as muses), women as artists, women as curators, women as gatekeepers, women’s expression of the self through art, woman’s perspective of other women through art and so on.

Amid some intense ongoing protests, from the civil rights movements to the Vietnam war, women started to spread their wings and find their voices. Women artists rose to demand the representation that they deserved. Several female artists emerged in a market that is saturated with homogenized perspectives. They were constantly challenging the traditional understanding and interpretation of gender, identity, class, race, empowerment, and expression. However, it is perplexing to think that even after several decades of strive for equality, the number of women making a sufficient living out of their art is alarmingly low. To those who argue that women don’t prefer to be artists all that much, I insist they drop their prejudice and consider the possibility of lack of representation, and hence the inspiration to pursue fine art as a career, rather than the lack of talent. In fact, as per the survey of the National museum of women in the Arts, 51% of the visual artists today are women. Whereas, their representation in the majority of the galleries and exhibitions has been consistently lower than their male counterparts. There is also a substantial dearth of female curators, creators, patrons and collectors, and even gallery representatives. Other cultural and interpersonal factors like the sexism of aging, the gender gap in the valuation of art pieces, and the lack of assertiveness in female artists emphasize the sheer underrepresentation we see today.

Here, knock yourself out with some solid facts driven by data.

The biases run so deep within the cultural landscape across the globe that it is difficult to extract them out of the culture without a radical shift. The systematic tool of oppression was devised to keep the sexist foundational values intact. These tools present themselves as two sides of the same coin. Some argued that women’s art is undervalued because their art is inherently different from the art created by men. While others argued that the behavioral pattern of gatekeepers and consumers indicate a preference for male artist. As per the argument, these people collectively feel either discomfort or disapproval towards the subjective experience of women, represented in their art pieces and hence the valuation gap. This argument at its best is fundamentally offensive. However, if you remove the lens of art you will immediately identify that the pay gap is a ubiquitous gender crisis emerging across various industries/occupations. Some famed sexists go even further in comfortably stating that women do not create art that can be of a particular value because their brain is not trained or capable of thinking in a particular way. If you think that is a ridiculous statement, then let me introduce you to the famous Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus, who infamously said, “Women do not think well in three dimensions”. I wonder if he made his own goddamn sweaters.

I think that the general disproval of art by women and hence its lesser valuation is deeply sewed together by gender roles. For example, women flourished in the textile industries, since the old sexist paradigm normalized and even encouraged women to adapt textile art as a medium of creative endeavor. The unique characteristics of art created by women come from their shared and personal experiences which could be uncomfortable to a male-centric value system. The declaration of freedom in sexual orientation, gender, healthy body image, nudity, erotism, and motherhood are some of the very few feministic expressions which became a concerning matter for the society which has long suppressed the feminine form of self-acceptance. What went ahead to challenge the cultural conditioning, even more, was when female artists with proper education and merit in the field, were successfully evoking the consensus of common people by creating deeply relatable art.

The structure will slowly start to erode by the waves of this creative rebellion and the relentless wars waged for equal representation of women, not only as artists and critiques but also as collectors, dealers, and patrons. Behind the masked social biases lives a monster of prejudice, oppression, and control mechanism, that is still sabotaging the stage, pace, and visibility of women artists. The gigantic underrepresentation of women and especially differently-abled women, from diverse ethnicity, race, color, religion, different political and social liberty - says something about the inherent biases of our society and its immense lack of virtue. These biases are not without consequences. They give birth to gigantic social monsters on the back of which inequality sees the daylight. These biases impact someone’s reality, inhibit their growth, solidify their definition of self-worth, and deprive them of a livelihood or sense of fulfillment in a successful career.

If we cannot separate an artist from the art and celebrate it for its absolute genius, then I think we all know enough pedophiles, fascists, and bigots whose art should be banished instead of being displayed in the best galleries of the world. And since it is not the case, I am convinced that we are very much capable of separating art from the artist, then why judge women for their artistic methods and medium? Dead men don’t need our gallery representation anymore, struggling marginalized women do. When we fail to recognize their mode of art and give them representation based on merit - we deny them an agency to exist and express as they are, we reduce their subjective experience in the world. When we deny them equal valuation for their art pieces, we deny them an opportunity to work and equate their intellectual sense of self to their male counterparts. We essentially encourage them to remain intellectually inferior. Curbing, controlling, and inhibiting women from self-expression, a source of equal income, and a sense of self-respect while pursuing art is a different form of the same oppression we are trying so hard to eliminate in other professions and social scenarios. It is counterproductive for the whole empowerment movement in general.

The most important questions that we need to ask to shift the patriarchal value framework in the art industry and create space for women are as follows:

1. Who and what regulates art and quality?

2. Will art become decentralized and institutions become obsolete in the wake of digitalization?

3. How can social media be leveraged?

4. How influence impacts networking - how are associations formed?

5. Is privilege still an efficient cog of the patriarchal machine, if yes then what are the tools to dismantle this cultural giant.

6. What can the law do to enable and protect?

7. Can we identify, inform, and change policies at the stage where biases of culture and politics of gender interrupt the economic valuation of art?

Our collective awareness of discrimination and aspiration for equality, in how women’s art is being received and rewarded, is the only place where true cultural shift happens. The solution lies in creating demand. To bring women’s art from the fringes of obscurity to the mainstream art industry, we need to create demand amongst the patrons, collectors, and tastemakers who influence stylistic development and relevance. Demand and supply mechanisms can knock the social systems out of order since the economy turns on the wheels of consumer behavior. We as consumers should want to participate and encourage women and marginalized groups by altering our buying behaviors. This includes inclining more towards independent artists from various marginalized groups whose representation in the mainstream is skewed. It also includes nurturing an appreciation for art that is prejudiced to be feminine like handicrafts, textile, etc. Sexist outlook vanishes when you see a beautiful hand-crafted bamboo vase on your bedside table - nothing labels it as made by man or woman. What alone matters are the aesthetics and the usability of a bamboo vase.

Inclusivity is a culture shifting terminology that by now should be colloquial in the art industry and regularly discussed amongst its giants, gatekeepers, and gallery owners. The impervious market will otherwise pretty quickly obliterate the legacy of diverse people with different experiences and identities. Stifling their expression will put a nail in the coffin for all the conversation of diversity in art, and what will remain behind is a massive monolith of homogeneous art without the essence of the true culture. Lost will be the experience of culture and time that art so proudly claims to capture and represent. That being said I am enough upset about the stark imprudence of the traditional art industry to even begin talking about performing arts here. I will share my observations on that in another post. Until then, please remember to choose the befitting art pieces for your home or office with awareness and acumen.

Source: UN Women, National Museum of women in arts,

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