The Cycle of Cultural Bias
While I was in Rancho Mirage, CA over the winter, I was irked by an art book that was in the collection at my rental home. Titled “1,000 Paintings of Genuis”, this large format, glossy coffee-table book chose its genius works from the Renaissance through to the present (meaning 2009, when the book was published).
Touted as “an artistic, cultural and educational resource as well as an essential tourist guide that will make readers want to visit the museums that house the various masterpieces”, I was disgusted to find that although one of the four authors was a woman, not one of the 1,000 paintings presented was created by a woman artist.
NOT. A. SINGLE. ONE.
Seriously?! In 2009?! Even my vintage copy of Art Through the Ages (c1990) lists a few female artists in passing. It’s disheartening to see books like this still being produced as recent as the late oughts.
I think back on my own experience in 1992, as a young woman sitting in Art History 101. Seeing almost no examples of women artists represented in a standard text that was used to educate next generation artists definitely affected me. It planted a seed of self-doubt; as a woman, if I decided to make a career out of art, I shouldn’t expect to be either recognized or remembered.
Homogenized books like 1,000 Paintings of Genius perpetuate the belief that genius is reserved for – mostly European — men. I wonder, was it this lack of representation that factored into the fates of many of my female contemporaries?
So many of them reined in their goals, shone a little less brightly, or stopped making art altogether. When you don’t see yourself represented, it makes an already challenging vocation feel mentally and spiritually impossible (and, yes, I say this fully aware of the fact I have more privilege than many).
While the bias in culture is pretty insidious (the past 5 years has made us hyper aware of this), thankfully culture is starting to cast a wider net of who is worthy of being remembered.
My husband, who reads news stories voraciously, asked if I’d ever heard of the artist Lavinia Fontana. He had just finished reading an online story published by The Guardian (Lavinia Fontana was a highly skilled painter from the Renaissance age. She was a woman. So, of course I’d never heard of her).
Sarcasm aside, Fontana was a sassy, sassy gal. Not only was she performing unprecedented acts to create her highly skilled paintings (the article states that Fontana is the first woman painter documented to have painted nudes) she seems to have used the classic Renaissance subject matter of the time to subversively illustrate the climate of #metoo hundreds of years before it was called out and given a name.
For every Lavinia, I imagine many more women who were creating in the shadow of their male colleagues. What would today’s culture be like if these women had initially been given space in the written history of art?
Last week my accountability partner, Lisa – who is always up to something juicy – had “order copy of The Story of Art Without Men” on her to do list. Curiosity piqued, I Googled it.
TSoAWM, published in 2022, is authored by Katy Hessel, an art historian and founder of #thegreatwomenartists podcast and IG account. Hessel’s book highlights more than 300 works of art from the Renaissance to present day, all by women creators. It presents widely known favorites (such as Frida Kahlo, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Kara Walker) alongside obscure women artists whom I haven’t yet heard of (Alma Thomas, Elisabetta Sirani, and Clara Peeters to name a few).
I’ve ordered my copy and can’t wait to see who else is lauded within its covers. While I wait for it to arrive, I’ve been thinking about whom I might have included if I had written the book.
Paula Rego, Marilyn Minter, Julie Becker – I don’t doubt that these three are included. I only learned of these artists’ existence 12 years ago, 6 years ago, and 4 years ago, respectively. I’d also include Coille Hooven, Sarah Lucas, Ellen Gallagher, Liza Lou, Jessica Stoller, Kate Klingbeil, and Erin M. Riley (all whom I’ve learned about within the last 2 to 8 years).
I have to admit that while I’m certainly excited about this book, I’m also dismayed that men have to be removed in order to celebrate femme-creations throughout the ages.
Fueled by frustration, I’m going to keep making art – and lots of it.
If you’re a creator, I encourage you to do the same: apply to opportunities, go to openings, meet other underrepresented artists and start a revolution. Make yourself undeniably visible and strive to someday have your work recognized at the institutional level. Force the current cultural bias to reshape, expand, dissolve.
One day, hopefully, what gets published in an art history tome will feature “genius” as viewed through a broad-spectrum lens.
If you were to write an art history book, which artists would you include? Please share in the comments!