Women in the Arts: It's Time for Progress!
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, in her "We Should All Be Feminists" TED Talk, asserts that every human being has the responsibility to call him- or herself a feminist. She points out that when men or women do not embrace feminism, they are literally denying "the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities."
She recounts an instance when she went to a restaurant with a male friend in her home country of Nigeria. She had to have a man accompanying her in order to enter the restaurant, to guarantee she wasn't a prostitute in search of business. When she tipped the man who helped them find a parking spot, rather than thanking her, the man thanked her friend. The man thanked the friend when she paid him because it was inconceivable to him that a woman could be successful, educated, possess her own money, or make any independent decisions. Just as Chimamanda Adichie felt overlooked and discounted, this is how many women feel all over the world every day.
Jill Stein poster by Tylan Davis
We are hopefully approaching the end of the 227 year history of exclusively male Presidents of the United States. The population of the United States has been 51% female for a long time. Likewise, 51% of visual artists today are women, according to the National Museum of Women in the Arts. In spite of this, the Guerrilla Girls remind us that "Less than 4% of the artists in the Modern Art section of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art are women, but 76% of the nudes are female."
Is this really who we are--a society that views women overwhelmingly voyeuristically, rather than intellectually or by their level of artistic skill?
Check out this video about Fierce Women of Art:
In 1971, Linda Nochlin's essay "Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?"was published. In it, she writes:
"Why have there been no great women artists?" The question tolls reproachfully in the background of most discussions of the so-called woman problem. But like so many other so-called questions involved in the feminist "controversy," it falsifies the nature of the issue at the same time that it insidiously supplies its own answer: "There are no great women artists because women are incapable of greatness....The question "Why have there been no great women artists?" is simply the top tenth of an iceberg of misinterpretation and misconception; beneath lies a vast dark bulk of shaky idees recues about the nature of art and its situational concomitants, about the nature of human abilities in general and of human excellence in particular, and the role that the social order plays in all of this."
45 years after Nochlin's essay, in 2016, Artnet posted the Top 100 Lots by Living Artists: 2011-2016. This list features the 100 most expensive works of art that sold throughout the world for the highest prices during this most recent five year period. Not one of the works in those top 100 highest priced acquisitions was by a female artist.
It's certainly time to appreciate the phenomenal women artists in our midst. They are not only capable of greatness; they've already achieved it ten times over. It is time to spread knowledge of their works by writing about them, visiting their exhibitions, and collecting their works. We need to do this not just because they are women, but because they are making incredibly important art that communicates with us through a different lens.
Hung Liu, for instance, is one of the most consequential artists painting in the United States today. Hung labored in the wheat fields of China during Mao's Cultural Revolution; she worked tirelessly for years to get her passport from the Chinese government so she could attend art school in the U.S. She left all she knew behind in China, and came to the U.S. with nothing. Thanks to her unfaltering work ethic and skill, Hung Liu's paintings are now in virtually every major art museum in the United States.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie speaks of being suspected of being a prostitute when she entered any restaurant or hotel alone in Nigeria, but Hung Liu gives the concubines and peasants of China new life in her paintings. She paints the images of these bedraggled women as if they are royalty, surrounding them with fortuitous symbols and gold.
Hung Liu's artwork is currently the subject of a solo exhibition at American University's Katzen Art Center, coinciding with the election featuring the first female nominee for President of the United States. Hung Liu is a born warrior. In a true coup for women in contemporary art, the National Portrait Gallery is commissioning Hung Liu to paint great American actress Meryl Streep's portrait.
Another contemporary art icon is Squeak Carnwath. Carnwath's paintings are in permanent collections of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Yale University Art Gallery, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and many more.
Carnwath is an artist-philosopher whose work opens a portal into our every-day collective consciousness. Playlists, grocery lists, scam emails, color wheels...all ephemera of our shared human experience. Carnwath's highly personal symbolism in her art feels like the symbolism we use in our own lives. She is able to elevate the banal to the beautiful in her paintings. It would be hard for anyone--male or female--to match the artistic gesture, line quality, and painterliness in Carnwath's work.
New Mexico sculptor Karen Yank makes sculptural public art commissions of monumental scale, in addition to her gallery works. She is currently tackling a project design that will be more than two stories tall.
There are many more contemporary women artists we need to be learning about and celebrating. Take a moment to look at these amazing artists, who just happen to be women:
Sister, sister please take me down ( Lantern 1+2 ) / Nina Tichava / October 2016 / Diptych, 40”h x 60”w x 2.5”d combined / Painting and collage on canvas / Unframed with canvas edge / Title from: "Underground" by David Bowie
These contemporary women artists should be included in every art history book, and every art collector should know them:
I do not typically like to label artists by gender. This year, however, the political climate causes me to speak out in pride and support for women who are truly excellent in their fields. Like Adichie, I believe not speaking in support of women who are bullied, threatened, and intimidated, is the same as condoning it.
It is time to make our world--the art world--more just for both women and men. Women are certainly capable of excellence--and they demonstrate it--as often as do men. This is why every one of us, no matter our gender, should all be feminists, and recognize the excellence of artists who happen to be women.