Why we don’t need female-only exhibitions
Call me classy, but I love a pint. Ale, beer, lager (Italian, British or otherwise) — you name it, you’ll probably find me in one of London’s overpriced establishments of a weekend drinking it. Many of my lady friends enjoy a pint too and I daresay there are a few female artists in the world that might share my appreciation.
What, you may ask, does this have to do with art? Am I merely using Artfinder’s social reach to perpetuate stereotypes about Britain’s famed obsession with alcoholic beverages?
Well, inadvertently, yes.
But I have another point to make, and that is this: beer, though stereotypically imbibed by grumpy old men in their 50s also has the potential to appeal to grumpy young women in their 20s. (And women and men of other demeanours and ages aside.)
So it’s with some confusion that I ponder the title of the Saatchi Gallery’s ‘Champagne Life’ exhibition of female artists. Why not ‘Beer Life’, I ask myself? Or ‘Lager Life’? Or ‘Whatever-the-lady-wants-to-drink Life’?
Nigel Hurst, the Chief Executive of the Saatchi Gallery offers the following explanation for their selection of bubbly: “The light-hearted and ironic title throws into contrast the reality of those labour-intensive, lonely hours in the studio with the perceived glamour of the art world, with its endless launches and parties.”
Come on now, Nigel. Really? Presumably if ‘Champagne Life’ really does seek to present the irony of “the reality of those labour-intensive, lonely hours in the studio” in contrast to “the perceived glamour of the art world” then surely it should be an exhibition of male artists and female artists. Do male artists not expend many hours at the mercy of their craft as well?
It’s ok, Nigel. We all know what the true rationale behind the gallery’s choice of title. All women love Champagne, right? Certainly more than beer, or whiskey, or lager or any of those male drinks. Y’know, like Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby. And Bette Davis. And Brigitte Bardot.
Sarcasm aside, Hurst does make one valid point. There is a certain irony to the title of the exhibition: in the implication that the female artists exhibiting at ‘Champagne Life’ are even part of “the art world” as we know it. After all, in the 30 years since its opening, the Saatchi Gallery has not once granted equal exposure to up-and-coming female artists in any of their exhibitions, despite claims that they have “always supported the work of women artists over the years”.
It is unfair of me to isolate the Saatchi Gallery; the underrepresentation of female artists is endemic in the high end art industry. Of the top 50 contemporary auctions by living artists sold at Christie’s and Sotheby’s in China, New York and London in 2015, only four were by women and estimates show that only 5% of all artists in permanent gallery exhibitions around the world are women.
This also translates to trends of buying high-end art. The highest price paid for an artwork by a living female is $7.1m (£4.85m) for a work by Yayoi Kusama, whereas the highest male equivalent is $58.4m (£40.8m) for a sculpture by Jeff Koons. The same rings true for deceased artists ($44.4m (£31.0m) for Georgia O’Keefe vs. $142.4m (£99.6m) for Francis Bacon). One may argue that it is simply a question of taste — that the moneyed elite simply prefer the work of male artists to that of their female counterparts. But, I retort, who determines that taste and has determined that taste for centuries? Sorry, ladies. It ain’t us.
Of course, it is hardly surprising that it’s taking female artists a little while to catch up. Since time immemorial, it is overwhelmingly men who have been doing the do — whether that be hunting, writing or creating art — and it is females who have been the object of the male gaze. (One only needs to look at the ratio of female nudes to male nudes in art throughout the ages to appreciate this, the classical Greek age being one of the very few exceptions. Even today, as the Guerrilla Girls have remarked about the MET, ‘less than 5% of the artists in the Modern Art Sections are women, but 85% of the nudes are female’.)
Furthermore, I have already alluded to the fact that the institution of art has always been led by and defined by our men. Indeed even those who formed their own breakaway groups (for example the Impressionists with their Salon des Refusés) rarely featured women. (And as we know, the Impressionists have now been subsumed into The Establishment, so even their previous transgressions have been forgiven.)
So the sisterhood has been hard done by in the past and it’s still recovering. But are female-only exhibitions really the answer?
I return to Nigel Hurst:
“Though women artists are far better represented in contemporary art now, in terms of the number of women artists that are having their work exhibited and shown, there remains a glass ceiling that needs to be addressed,”
And as though speaking from the same hymn sheet, we have the following from the curator of Central St Martin’s new exhibition of work by its female alumni:
“We put this show together to make a contribution to the growing movement redressing gender disparities in graphic design.”
Whether these galleries aim to “address” or “redress” the issues surrounding gender inequality in the art world, the fact remains this: equality cannot possibly be achieved with either of these exhibitions.
Why? I hear you ask. We’re giving women what they want, right? Exposure where exposure is due after millennia of androcentrism? Wrong.
A quick google presents me with the following definition of equality:
Equality is ensuring individuals or groups of individuals are treated fairly and equally and no less favourably, specific to their needs, including areas of race, gender, disability, religion or belief, sexual orientation and age. Promoting equality should remove discrimination in all of the aforementioned areas.
So if these exhibitions do truly aim to redress issues of gender disparity and remove all traces of discrimination, where are all my boys at? (Granted, an exhibition exhibiting specifically female artists cannot, by definition, show a male artist.)
If you ask me, the solution is this: stop using the feminist cause as a publicity stunt. Address gender inequality in the art world by exhibiting the work of women alongside that of their male colleagues, not apart from them. Female-only exhibitions still set women apart from men, only this time our lady artists are being drawn to the fore. The fact remains that a gender-specific approach it is both discriminatory and patronising.
At Artfinder, artists are accepted to sell on our site on a meritocratic basis, free from gender bias — if your art is good, you’re in. And in this democratised marketplace, female artists form 52% of the artist community and outsell their male counterparts by 20%. Just goes to show that in an environment free from the shackles of the usual gatekeepers of taste, female artists are allowed to thrive.
So may the next exhibition be called ‘Black Velvet Life’. Now that would be ironic.