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Should Women Artists Agree to Participate in All-Female Exhibitions ?

  • women artists
April 16, 2016
Runs, does yoga.

Let’s start this discussion by acknowledging the fact that a difference is still being made between men and women artists. Does this sound like an utterly unsolicited and unwelcome division at first, or is it just me? Most of us take feminism as an endeavor to make women and men equal; and yet it often happens that the personal experience and lifestyle of a woman doesn’t relate to this issue at all, meaning that these women never feel the need to equalize with men. This isn’t because they think that men are somehow better or worse, but simply because the matter itself is non-existent to them. Let’s put it this way – just like the people in Plato’s cave could not comprehend the existence of the sun, some people remain ignorant of these gender battles for as long as they can. Once they get out the cave, however, there is no turning back – they cannot erase and rewind and set their brains back to ignorance. They know now that there is a global need to set things straight between the sexes, and they also know that that need is called feminism. To most of us who were born into the contemporary world, this is the beginning of all inequality.

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Recent All-Women show at Saatchi Gallery – Champagne Life. Displaying: Mia Feuer – Jerusalem Donkey (via

Fighting (for) Injustice

Now, before we get all carried away, it should be noted that this foreword refers to the Western civilization in the 21st century, and it does not aim to speculate on the significance of the movement and the goals that it had achieved in the past; which brings us to the second point in question. The fact that people didn’t “see the sun” doesn’t mean that there is no sun, of course. Gender bias is real (even in the 21st century). In many cases, the need to react to injustice is more than welcome – starting with domestic violence, or unfair treatment at work and during the hiring process. So there is no doubt that there is injustice in this world, no question about that. But here is the real question – in what way should we react, in order to be productive, rather than stubborn or angry? Let me rephrase that. If we constantly call for justice in the same way, do we achieve it, or do we actually obstruct it?

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Sarah Lucas – NOB, installation view, Secession 2013, London. Photo Wolfgang Thaler

Women Artists and Artists

If we call someone a woman-artist, it kind of sounds like all the “normal” artists are determinately male. We all know that this is not true, and yet we continue to use the term women artists or female artists on a regular basis. I have never in my entire life heard anyone say male artist. This doesn’t need to be a problem, if we agree that this is a world which consists of 51% yin and 49% yang, and that there is always an A before B, and someone has to be the B. I personally believe that this equilibrium changes with time, just like everything else does, and that men and women are constantly switching roles. A bit more conservative people probably believe that there are things in which men are better than women, just like there are things which women do better than men, and so it seems like the balance is there. But let’s see what the facts “believe”: on the list of the most famous artists provided by Google’s search engine, there are 12 men, then Frida Kahlo, then a couple other men, Georgia O’Keeffe, and then around 30 more men. So how about that?

women artists museum american painter mary arts list york national century
Laurie Simmons, Cindy Sherman and Sarah Charlesworth, 1991. Credit Jay Gorney, via nytimes

All-Female Exhibitions

An article was written recently, for the NY Times, and a similar topic was discussed in it, but from a slightly different angle. The nature of all-women shows was assessed as a possible threat to art, meaning that it could leave the art world short of “new history”. The author has mentioned a few particular shows, and accused them of showing no regard to anything particularly new – as in, no “new names, unseen works or understudied lives“. As a conclusion derived from the possible relationship between the title of the article and the moral of the story, one can suspect that all-women shows are becoming alienated, and slightly autistic, if I may use the word. And there is a good point actually – encouraging diversity usually makes the difference more apparent, just like the in-your-face attitude related to some all-women shows eventually seems to emphasize the problem, rather than solve it. Moreover, the pattern used for these shows is becoming repetitive, and it could make the endeavor stumble upon itself. We can usually predict the tone of these shows, sometimes even guess who the key players are, and it really makes one wonder if there is more to feminism than isolating oneself from the (supposedly) single-minded society dominated by men.

Exhibitions which feature Artists, that happen to be Women

However harsh or critical this may have sounded, it shouldn’t let you jump to any conclusions just yet. The assumption that all-female exhibitions (especially the feminist kind) usually bring no good to either women or art today, does not mean that there is anything wrong with all-women exhibitions as such (note: the keyword is usually). It is mainly the context in which they are put, that makes them seem inefficient at what they supposedly aim to achieve. That said, a group of women exhibiting together does not automatically mean that they’re fighting for rights, or aiming to change the attitude toward female artists. It could simply mean that a bunch of artists, who incidentally happen to be women as well, wish to showcase their works together. Since the idea that art needs to be purposeful is distant to me, I would personally love to go to any all-female show, in which nobody brings out that fact as the reason we’re at it in the first place.

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Toyen – Spici (Sleeping), 1937

Feminine and Feminist

I spent quite a while deciding if I should make this entire article about Lana del Rey or not, and I eventually realized that it could turn into a very long article had I done that (hopefully this doesn’t become a habit since I tend to mention her a lot). Still, I believe that this brief comment on del Rey project could be a nice way to end the discussion. The reason I mention her, is because I think that she is a rare example of a celebrity that is both feminine and feminist, which could be one of the purest, most natural ways to erase the gender issue, and help the society, culture and even art progress (but I am still not saying that it is the only way). Now, although the feminine part is probably clear because of the girly attitude, I suppose that it is not that apparent why I would call her a feminist. And here is why: she doesn’t seem to be concerned with the differences between the sexes at all (and that is something that people usually relate to men). Paradoxically to my personal view of the character that she presents to the world, Lana del Rey was frequently attacked as an anti-feminist, whose apparent “submissive” attitude empowers inequity. But isn’t the very key to the problem right there, in that accusation? Why is vulnerability solely attributable to women?

So it seems like we’re spinning in circles here. On one hand, making all-women shows could make women-artists estranged, and on the other hand, regarding these shows as counterproductive could induce the idea that there is something wrong with all-women shows, while there’s nothing wrong with all-men shows. Either way, if we choose to name them this way – the named ones lose. Therefore, as to the question raised in the title – Should Women Agree to do All-Female Exhibitions – the most probable answer is: maybe. But it is perhaps best not to ask this question ever again.

Editors’ Tip: 25 Women: Essays on Their Art by Dave Hickey

25 Women is a collection of essays, which analyze the work of some prominent female artists such as Joan Mitchell, Bridget Riley, Fiona Rae, Lynda Benglis, Karen Carson (and 20 others, mostly related to the 20th century art). In a way, the book is an all-female show itself, one which you can always return to. The book contains the author’s impressions and insights, as it surveys the work of some of the most influential women in the art world. Dave Hickey discusses their work as work, bringing politics and gender into the discussion only where it seems warranted by the art itself.

Featured image: Snapshot from Quentin Tarantino’s “Death Proof” (2007). All images used for illustrative purposes only.