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Women do paint very well

Is there gender inequality in the art market, or is it just inefficient?

George Pendle | June 9th 2015

At the cutting-edge Maccarone gallery in New York last week, a packed, largely female audience gathered to hear a powerhouse of women artists discuss feminism and painting. Moderated by Alison Gingeras, a former curator at the Centre Pompidou and the Guggenheim Museum, the panel featured the much-lauded British painter, Cecily Brown, who is famous for her abstracted erotic imagery (detail, above); the emerging American artist Rosy Keyser, whose decimated lace-draped paintings billow with an unsettling power; and Joan Semmel, who has been demanding gender equality in the art world since the 1970s, and who, at 82 years old, is still painting naked self-portraits with remarkable candour. “It’s great to have such a large turnout,” remarked Semmel, “considering I was told long ago that feminism was over and painting was dead.”

Despite the gains made by Semmel and her feminist colleagues, examples of gender bias were still easy to point out. The concept of the “male gaze”, the way that visual arts have traditionally been structured around a male viewer, appears to be as strong as ever. Brown described her frustration at painting full-frontal male nudes: “people kept saying ‘they’re so gay’ even though [a woman] was painting them.” Much of the conversation surrounded the 1971 feminist essay by Linda Nochlin, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” “There always have been great women artists,” said Semmel, to whoops from the crowd. “There just haven’t been great celebrated women artists because the powers-that-be haven’t been celebrating them.” However, when the conversation turned to efforts by museums to right this balance, such as targeting acquisitions of works by women artists through programmes like MoMA’s “Women’s Project”, there was less concord. Brown and Keyser thought it, on the whole, a positive development. Semmel decried it as mere “tokenism”.

What is not in question is that the subject needs to be addressed. ARTnews has just dedicated its entire June issue to women in the art world, releasing a wealth of statistics that point to significant gender inequalities within museums and galleries in America and Europe. Since 2007, less than one third of all solo shows given at the major contemporary-art museums in New York have been by women. Similarly, women are woefully represented in the permanent collections of these museums: only 7% of all the art on display at MoMA was made by women. It is, however, in the art market where the deepest disparities lie. While the auction record for a work by a male artist is held by Picasso at $179m, the auction record for a female artist is less than a quarter of that at $44.4m, held by Picasso’s contemporary Georgia O’Keeffe.

These statistics arrived alongside the latest pronouncements of Georg Baselitz, a well-known German postmodern artist, who has become infamous for his 2013 proclamation that “women don’t paint very well. It’s a fact.” Baselitz recently doubled down on this stance, declaring in the Guardian that “the market doesn’t lie...Even though the painting classes in art academies are more than 90% made up by women, it’s a fact that very few of them succeed.” (Women make up only 20% of all artists represented by contemporary-art galleries in America, according to ARTnews.) Baselitz’s comments caused a furore, but he was merely voicing a prejudice that can often be found in the mouths of museum spokespersons and collectors when they announce that they are collecting based “not on gender, but on talent”. Aside from crediting themselves with an almost god-like objectivity—no one is ignorant of an artist’s gender when they buy a piece of art—such seeming high-mindedness is actually a way of sugarcoating sexual bias. If you say you are only buying work based on talent, and you are only buying male art, then you are merely parroting the Baselitz line: that women are not as good at art as men. Since no link has yet been found between aesthetics and sex chromosomes, the imbalance seems more likely due to social than biological reasons.

What is more interesting is the faith that Baselitz and others place in the efficiency of the art market as a final decider of value. If these gender variations in market value prove anything, it is that the art market is ludicrously inefficient. If women artists are just as good at producing art as men—and there is no good reason to think they are not—then they are massively undervalued commodities. Georgia O’Keeffe once said, “The men liked to put me down as the best woman painter. I think I’m one of the best painters.” As much as the art world needs feminists to help reshape its mindset, it could also do with some arbitrageurs to bring efficiency to its marketplace. 

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Rodrigo Pissarra - November 8th 2015

Sometimes Art just reproduce old habits.