The women of pop art
Long sidelined, women artists slowly win recognition – and museum space.
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“We do live in a capitalist society,” Heller says, “but art is not pork bellies.” Nevertheless, the system where wealthy men collect easily recognizable, high-fashion art becomes “a vicious circle,” she says, which perpetuates the under-valuing of art by women.Skip to next paragraph
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Greg Allen (in a 2005 New York Times story) pointed out the glaring disparity in resale prices, citing evidence that an "X Factor" denigrates women's art. Only a handful of women have broken the $1 million mark at auction, while men's paintings have soared past $100 million. And it's not just paintings by historical figures. An old master as well as a new master still beats a Ms., generally by a 10-fold ratio.
What about for contemporary artists – the daughters of the feminist revolution? The Brainstormers, a young artist-activist group, document continued inequities. Brooklyn artist Danielle Mysliwiec, a collective member, cites the 50/50 ratio of male to female students in art schools, which disappears at commercial galleries in Chelsea, where more than 80 percent of artists are male. Even in galleries that represent emerging artists, males dominate (they account for 70 percent).
“Young women have a much more level playing field than they did twenty years ago,” Butler says, “but the numbers speak.” The numbers trumpet a higher economic value for art by men—disproportionate to cultural or aesthetic value. “They make me want to say ‘ouch’,” says Morris.
"You see a disturbing perpetuation of discrimination," Ms. Mysliwiec concludes, adding, "When you think about how an artwork increases in value, it depends on where it's shown, how many times it's shown, and in what venues." A problem with galleries preferring male artists, she says, is that "curators are dependent on gallery validation" to determine which artists to show in museums.
All acknowledge the benefits of increasing awareness of women artists' contributions. "We'd have an art [history] that represents who we are as a culture and what we're thinking about," Kahlo says. "Not just who the billionaire art collectors want to buy."
"Incorporating historical facts that have been removed because they were not seen as pertinent by a segment of society is incredibly useful," according to Morris. "It empowers half of the current culture and can teach us about how we've come to be who we are and what we need to do moving forward."
She adds, "I'd like my daughter to make assumptions about who she is in the world and what her history is and where she came from in ways I couldn't and my mother certainly couldn't."
Butler hopes the legacy of her generation of curators is to leave a more nuanced, complex, and complete version of art history than they were taught.
History is a mutable argument. It’s not set in stone, carved only by a male sculptor like Brancusi. Maybe it’s glued together—like a Louise Nevelson work—from fragments of wood. Not that one should replace the other. No one wants a ghetto-ized “Ladies Room” approach.
“To be judged on merit,” the young artist Danielle Mysliwiec sighs wishfully, “to have that be true.”