Laura Gascoigne: Battle of the Sexes – March 2020

Laura Gascoigne
March/April 2020

Large woman to much smaller man at a party: “I love the idea of there being two sexes, don’t you?” James Thurber was the Thucydides of the gender war, dissecting its battlegrounds, victories and reversals with his pen: the fight in the grocery, the battle on the stairs; the rout where the men have the women briefly on the run and the surrender where their leader capitulates to a baseball bat-wielding Boadicea; the female capture of three physics professors and the female spy reporting back on crutches. It’s a nasty business, and judging from the eruption of hostilities in the pages of The Jackdaw it’s not over yet.

Alexander Adams’ Women in Art Today survey in September set out to demonstrate that women are now equally, if not over-generously, represented in the visual arts and consequently have no axes left to grind. The statistics he gathered from 2018 to 2019 showed more female appointments to administrative and curatorial positions, more female winners of fine art prizes and more female-only art events. He didn’t measure representation in public gallery shows, though a glance through the current exhibition schedules certainly seems to confirm a bias in favour of women. The Tate is devoting five solo shows to women artists – Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Paula Rego, Magdalena Abakanowicz, Maria Martuszová and Haegue Yang – over the next two years, and this year’s headline-grabber at the National Gallery is Artemisia Gentileschi.

Truly, a sexual revolution is upon us. The trouble, as Adams was too courteous to point out, is that the women chosen to represent their sex are not always that great. This is not because Brian Sewell was right and women artists are just not as good as men; it’s because historically they have tended to be saved from artistic oblivion by their association with male artists rather than their talent.

Check out the women artists given solo shows at Tate Modern over the past few years: Sonia Delaunay, wife of Robert (2015); Georgia O’Keeffe, wife of Alfred Stieglitz (2016); Dorothea Tanning, wife of Max Ernst (2019); Dora Maar, muse of Picasso. This does not necessarily reflect on the quality of the work ­ I enjoyed the Tanning and the Maar exhibitions – but it is noticeable that Agnes Martin (2015) is the only singleton (she preferred women) to have been so honoured.

Men are better than women at getting themselves noticed by clubbing together in art movements-cum-drinking schools. They understand the principle of critical mass. Lazy critics love an art movement; they’re less likely to miss a group of like-painting people than a lone original. Originality, although theoretically prized in art, is in practice often missed because it’s isolated. Women artists are less clubbable than men. They may club together over children but, perhaps because confined to quarters by said children, they tend to work in professional isolation.

Susan Wilson once wrote an article for the Guardian titled ‘I didn’t know you had a baby’ after a remark made by a male art teaching colleague when she joined the lads in the pub after work – something she felt she had to do to be taken seriously. It’s not surprising that some of the most dedicated women artists – Gwen John, Joan Eardley, Agnes Martin – have been childless, but they too were never really part of any movements; they were artistic dead-ends. Ironically, it may have been Gwen John’s association with a more famous male artist, her brother Augustus – who recognised that she was the greater painter – that saved her from falling through the cracks like so many of her female peers. There are, of course, also male artists who have been dead-ends, most of them mummy’s boys like Morandi and Lowry. It would be interesting to conduct a survey measuring how much testosterone contributes to artistic success. Can it be linked to that distinctly masculine attribute ‘genius’? I’ve never heard the term applied to a woman. 

Anne Desmet answered Adams’ points pretty comprehensively in her November letter, and I’ve got nothing to add. All I will say is that for a campaigner against identitarianism and its culture of victimhood, Adams’ whole project had a whiff of male victimhood about it. I’m also unconvinced that feminism, in the broad sense of the term, can be defined as identitarian. Being female is not an identity – not yet at least – it’s a gender. You can’t lump women together as ‘victims’ with ethnic or sexual minorities when you’re talking about half the population.

I won’t deny that it’s tough being a white male artist today; I have every sympathy for any non-ethnic minority man trying to make his way in the art world as currently constituted. I know of one white mid-career male artist who recently had a show at a regional gallery cancelled because the organisers felt they couldn’t justify spending public money on an artist from such a historically privileged group, and confessed as much. Adams is right to campaign against arts funding being devoted to social engineering. But although the constant liberal checking of white male privilege grates, it’s arguable that a correction is overdue. Plus the alternative is not an appealing prospect. Who knows what the fate of arts funding will be under the regency of Demonic Cummings, when he’s finished with the BBC? So far the visual arts have been beneath his liberal-tracking radar. Be careful what you wish for.

Time to call a truce? Imbalances naturally tend to level out. At the present rate of consumption galleries will run out of dead women artists unless curators do some serious research to dig out new ones. Those so far unearthed have been of uneven quality. The Baroque painter Michaelina Wautier, dusted off by the Rubens House in Antwerp in 2018, looks a serious contender, but the Renaissance nun Plautilla Nelli being promoted – and expensively restored – by a bunch of bien-pensante Americans in Florence marching under the banner of Advancing Women Artists is an obvious dud. The pages of Germaine Greer’s The Obstacle Race are sprinkled with muzzy monochrome photographs of paintings by forgotten women, some of whom – like Giovanna Garzoni with her exquisite Dish of Broad Beans – clearly merit further investigation, and maybe the funding will now be forthcoming.

Of living women artists there is obviously no shortage. But, as Anne Desmet points out, despite increasing parity in public gallery exposure women remain poorly represented by top-end dealers, who find it a fag to get their prices up – a difficulty that will persist until there are equal numbers of women collectors. Women may represent half the population, but the moneyed half doesn’t always want to buy what they choose to represent. One reason why women abstract artists like Bridget Riley and Gillian Ayres fare better in a male-dominated market than their figurative peers is that their work does not reflect female experience. The truth, and I may be trolled for telling it – except that I’m not on social media, tee-hee – is that men’s art tends to appeal to men and women’s art to women. What woman collector would want a late period Picasso?

If this is a problem, it will only be solved when the idea of there being two sexes loses its appeal. Call me old-fashioned, but I hope it doesn’t.