Jaime Patterson | November 2018

Gender Disparities in Visual Arts

In 2016, Guerrilla Girls released a bumper sticker asking “Do women have to be naked to get into the MET Museum?”  It pointed out that less than 5% of the artists in the Museum of Modern Art sections are women, but 85% of the nudes [artworks] are female.” Sadly, the MET is not alone in those statistics. A recent study revealed that 70% of artists in NYC’s top galleries are male. A whopping 80% are white and 20% of them are Yale grads.   

Always a Model…

This is not a new fight though. Forty-five years before the release of that bumper sticker, Linda Nochlli wrote an article. She asked “Why have there been no great women artists?” You can find the original article in the 1971 January edition of ARTnews.  In it, she coins the phrase “always a model, never an artist.” She also points out that there have been some high achieving female artists. But, there are no equals when compared to the notoriety and success of male artists throughout history.
She also denounced the idea that female artists have achieved an alternate standard of greatness than that which exists for men. But creating a difference in definition of greatness would not help matters. Instead, it would assert that women’s work contains a “distinctive and recognizable feminine style – different in its formal and expressive qualities based on the special character of women’s situations and experience”.  Her argument hinged on the idea that female artists have not yet created art that rivals that of male artists.

What is “Great Art”?

Nochlin’s definition of “great art” is not a simple one. “A self-consistent language of form, dependent upon or free from, defined conventions, schemata or systems of notation, which have to be learned or worked out, either through teaching, apprenticeship, or a long period of individual experimentation.”   She utilized the concept of nude drawing as a specific example to point out the gender disparity throughout history. She chose only to detail this one point. But, she could easily have made the same case by referencing other parts of a male-dominated Western society. Think about it. The apprenticeship system. The academic education patterns. Artistic competitions. And those are just a few examples.  
Nochlin also pointed out the importance of nude model drawing studies in art education. Specifically, during the period of time between the Renaissance until the end of the 19th century. She explained how they were an essential component of classical art education. She also explained how nude model drawing lead to better understanding of how to draw humans. She even cites the fact that defenders of art in the 19th century claimed that there could be no great painting with clothed figures! Why? Because they asserted that costume destroyed the classical idealization great art requires.  

Double Standards

Nude models, female or male, were not available for women to work from. In some recorded instances, cows came into art studios during these drawing sessions. For what? For female artists to draw instead of human models. The impropriety associated with women drawing nude human models was far too scandalous! As late as 1893, “lady” students at the Royal Academy in London were not permitted to attend nude drawing sessions. Even once the academy permitted women artists to be present at the drawing sessions, the model had to be “partially draped.”  
There are several important points to identify.
1. Men felt that it was acceptable for fully-clothed men to view naked bodies of others for artistic purposes. Yet, they felt it was inappropriate for clothed women to view naked men (or women) for the same reasons.
2. She makes a comparison between artists and medical students. She likens artists being unable to view the nude human body to medical students forbidden to dissect or examine a naked body.
Woven into this argument is the truth of the issue. Women were prevented by societal expectations from excelling as artists. Those who did manage to rise to greater levels of artistic achievement did so in spite of (not because of) the expectations of women in those times.

Insurmountable Obstacles

Nochlin argues that the insurmountable obstacle is the expectations placed on women throughout history. Which is what? To put marriage and family above all else. (Many claim that men have no such expectation riding on their shoulders. Instead, they are free to pursue art through education and in their careers.) Nochlin writes, “One thing however is clear: for a woman to opt for a career at all, much less a career in art, has required a certain amount of unconventionality, both in the past and at present; …rather than submitting to the socially approved role of wife and mother, the only role, to which every social institution consigns her automatically.”
The author also cites a few examples of female artists who overcame the odds.  One she names is Rosa Bonheur. However, even with Bonheur’s great achievements, she still had to defend her “masculine” choices. (“Masculine choices” like remaining unmarried and wearing pants to better study the animals she drew and painted. Gasp!)

Disparities Continue

It would be nice if this trend had ended in the 1970’s when Nochlin published her article. But unfortunately, it seems that women in art are still getting the short end of the paintbrush.
Although 51% of visual artists are now women and women earn 50% of MFAs, only 5% of artworks represented on museum walls nationwide are by females. There is a gap of $51.6 million dollars between the highest auction record for a living male artist to that of a living female artist. According to Mental Floss, there is only one woman in the top ten selling lots from 2011-2016. There are only 2 women in the top 50 lots. (I stopped googling names after the first 50).  In fact, only 2 women made the list of “100 most expensive artists of all time”.  In Janson’s History of Western Art, from 0-1986 only 9% of artists mentioned are women.

Equality in Our Classrooms

Consistent (and hidden) gender bias in curricula and in socialization can lead to an inequitable education for all. So what can we, as arts integration educators, do to help ensure equality in our classrooms?  
– Ensure your class is utilizing the works of both female and male artists when the opportunity allows… especially when utilizing contemporary art.
– When you share information with your class, ask yourself if you are using texts that omit girls and/or women? Or minimize their experiences?  Are the boys or men in the text stereotyped?
– Do you find that the texts included in your lessons contain a higher ratio of male artists? Try to do some research to add notable women to the mix.
– Be aware of the number of female students you call on in class, and whose artwork you choose to promote.
– Be proactive in ensuring that you include all students in class discussions and work.
– Call out sexist language in example texts.
– Explain why there may not be many female artists in the “artistic canon”. Do this by providing historical context when studying art periods.
In the words of Nochlin, “it is important that women face up to the reality of their history and of their present situation without making excuses or puffing mediocrity.”  Deinstitutionalizing the gender disparity in your classroom is one step towards a future where the work of people of all genders and backgrounds has the opportunity to reach its potential of being truly “great.”

About the Author

Jaime Patterson is the Chief Communications Officer for The Institute for Arts Integration & STEAM. As the CCO, Jaime enjoys researching and writing for the Artist Chronicles podcast, supporting educators in the Accelerator platform, and working with her colleagues to provide quality resources to educators across the world. She is a proud lifelong supporter of the arts and is passionate about supporting educators in their pathway to teaching and learning through arts integration. Jaime resides in Hanover, Pennsylvania with her husband and their three children.