Who Does She Think She Is?

Heidi over at there is grace recently posted about this wonderful documentary about the struggles women have in modern society in balancing their need for artistic creativity and the demands of motherhood.

I haven’t seen the film yet, but something in the trailer caught my attention: people on the street were asked if they could name five female artists. They couldn’t even name one!

At first I was self-righteously disgusted. These were people on the steps of the Met Museum in New York, for heaven’s sake, and they couldn’t even name ONE woman artist? I could name a dozen right off the top of my head, right?

Hmmm. . . .


This one is easy for me:

Ursula K. LeGuin
Marion Zimmer Bradley
Edith Wharton
Christine de Pisan
Jane Austen

Susanna Clarke
Judy Grahn
Mary Balogh
Christina Rossetti

Margaret Atwood
Mary Stewart
A.S. Byatt

J.K. Rowling
Zadie Smith
Jane Yolen
(and I could go on.)

Visual artists

Hmm . . . getting a little harder:

Frida Kahlo
Liane Collot d’Herbois
Tove Jansson

Mary Cassatt
Diane Arbus
Annie Leibovitz

Georgia O’Keefe
Elsa Beskow
(I had to reach into anthroposophy land to find two of them!)

Now, I’m not going to do actresses, as that’s too easy, as is musicians/singers. And of course there are quite a few writers and artists in my own blogroll! But it was interesting to realize that while I can name many female writers, it wasn’t that easy to name more than five visual artists.

As I mentioned to Heidi, I don’t know if that’s a reflection of poor arts education or the patriarchy of the art world. Even if artistic work is easier for women without children (if only because they have more time!), why aren’t more women prominent in the visual arts? Why can I think of fifteen male visual artists in a few seconds and struggle to think of that many women?

Patriarchy certainly plays in there — notice all of the female artists I thought of date from the late nineteenth century at the earliest, but I can think of male artists dating back to the early middle ages. On the other hand, apparently writing has been an “acceptable” female activity for much longer. I wonder why that is?

Try it — how many can you name?

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Filed under art, Blogging, movies, Rants, Writing

23 responses to “Who Does She Think She Is?

  1. Ah, yes. I am a painter and musician. I have thought of this before.

    I think that there is a disparity between male and female artists (part. visual art, as you said), but I think that the modern handicraft and crafting industries are a result of that…although ‘craft’ in our society isn’t considered as valuable or high-brow as ‘art’. But there isn’t the income or fame associated with craft in general.

    I love low brow art, and many women artists in that area are awesome:
    -Elizabeth McGrath
    -Isabel Samaras
    -Stacy Lande

    and back to add to your painters/visual artist list who are more well known:
    -Leonora Carrington
    -Camille Claudel (sculpture)
    -Lee Krasner
    -Elaine de Kooning
    -Yoko Ono
    -Yayoi Kusama

    And there are tons of poets, the list is super long, but even in the past twenty years there are poets/performance artists, like Karen Finley.

    Writers, musicians, actors, filmmakers, glass artists, ceramics artists…so many!

    I know that I learned about female painters and sculptors through the ages when I was taking my painting and art history classes in college. But writers probably did achieve more recognition than painters.

    But when I think about it…most people probably couldn’t name many male artists either … just a thought.

    Good list! 🙂

  2. Amy

    I had similar thoughts when I saw the trailer. I think the writing may have been easier because women read, but I don’t know how many women readily went to art exhibits, or shows. Much of art, early on, was commissioned, so that could have been another reason. Commissions were made by men, and they contracted men. I recall from college art history courses, that there was a time that visual art was also looked down upon, even for men, so if it was a bit scandalous to be a man doing it, I’m sure it would have been more so for a woman. I think we as a society value creative endeavors more now, from either sex, than societies of the past.
    Not an exhaustive list of reasons, but that was some of my thoughts after the trailer and reading your post.

  3. Mon

    That’s astounding that they couldn’t name just one! sheesh.

    To be in 2009 and the situation is still such that thinking of female artists is so difficult is a shame.

    Frida Kahlo was the first that popped into my mind. Then Mary Cassatt, Tracey Emin, without the slightest effort.
    But then I had to stop and think.

    That’s bad. And I have a degree in visual arts! Okay it was a time ago, but I find that a shame.

    I agree with Denise about crafts not being high brow enough. There are some amazing crafting women out there. Taking up knitting, I’ve come across some real WOW pieces. But it’ll just never get the same recognition as an oil painting.

    Aside from that, I also think that male artists are still taken more seriously.

  4. I could only name Annie Leibovitz, Grandma Moses, Mary Cassatt, and Georgia O’Keefe! Notice they are all 20th century (or very late 19th). Men painted for commissions, women painted to learn to be ladies 🙂

  5. Now, I will cry. Women may be trapped because of societal norms; but I think women put their artistic talents aside more often because they just “can’t break free from the demands of motherhood.” Childcare options are poor; they love their children, which leads them to doing more and more… very, very difficult for women, and yes, I think it’s the world’s loss.

  6. Gosh! I never realised my schooling was biased, but I went to an all girls high school, and they must have gone out of their way to include female artists in the arts curriculum, my favourites would be Grace Cossington-Smith, Margaret Preston, and Jenny Kee. – or maybe it’s just an Aussie bias?

  7. Denise: I can think of a few people whose “craft” work has brought them fame, like Sam Maloof, but mostly it’s a small world of crafty bloggers, not the mainstream world, that values women’s crafts. I’m not sure what I think about the difference between “art” and “craft”…too many years loving the Arts and Crafts movement I guess!

    Amy: One of my guilty pleasures is reading Regency novels. Often they talk about the cultured woman doing a few tepid watercolors, but to aspire to be a “real” artist was considered not at all the thing. Maybe women were supposed to be decorative and procreative, but not have any strong desires of their own. Christabel and Blanche in A. S. Byatt’s Possession tried to live free of patriarchal strictures and to create a life of art and craft, but it was a huge struggle. (Victorian era, this time) And then they didn’t succeed in the end.

    Mon: I was thinking about art vs. craft the other day. At first I thought the difference was in the utilitarian nature of crafts — the objects are made for a useful purpose, like clothing or a water pitcher. But then what is really the difference between a cross-stitch sampler hung on the wall and a drawing? One of my favorite textile artists is Annemieke Mien — she creates incredible textile landscapes and 3D creatures reflecting the natural world of Australia. It’s definitely art . . . and craft.

    Sarah: You’ve been reading historical novels too? 🙂 I forgot about Grandma Moses . . . interesting how she only started her painting in her seventies (after she was presumably free of child-rearing!) and, according to Wikipedia, “Moses began painting in her seventies after abandoning a career in embroidery because of arthritis.” Funny how she started in craft, then!

    SusieJ: Yes, it’s another result of society’s lack of support for the allegedly crucial work of parenting.

    ArtemisMoon: Perhaps you were lucky. I don’t know much about Australian culture, but certainly it (white Australia) started out as patriarchal as they come, no? I wonder if most people would include illustration as art, like Elsa Beskow’s work?

  8. Alida

    Tasha Tudor was the first one that came to mind. Motherhood is definitely not for the feeble, it takes all of you and then some. Raising children should be considered an art too! Yet, somehow in spite of the roadblocks, the expectations or lack there of, in spite of it all, we emerge as something more than mothers. Some emerge as writers, artisits, singers/songwriters, professionals etc. It really is a beautiful process.

  9. I’ve skipped to the bottom here to see if I could manage this without cheating, though I don’t feel overly confident. Ah, Louise Bourgoeis (sp?), Tracy Emin, Rachel Whiteread, Frieda Kahlo, Sam Taylor-Wood (I think), Barbara Hepworth (in case of any really serious spelling errors disqualifying any of the preceding). Of course, ask me to name five preceding the 20th century and I’d be utterly stumped…

  10. Yes, very patriachial, but we love to extol the virtues of Australians (even if we do have a strong tall poppy syndrome) the three artists I mentioned were Aussies! If we are allowed to include book illustrators I could launch into many Aussie favourites, but I’ll just add May Gibbs (Snugglepot and Cuddlepie) as I’m not sure how obscure you would find the rest.

  11. Alida: Yes, Tasha Tudor…but then again I wonder how illustrators are regarded. I’ll bet somewhere between art and craft.

    URD: Seems like something changed in the 20th century, eh?

    Artemismoon: Nothing wrong with celebrating the locals 🙂 My kids and I like Alison Lester very much…not sure how obscure she is either! Now that I think about illustrators, there are so many that are really artists. Jerry Pinkney comes right to mind.

  12. Tammy

    I was able to think of quite a few, but still fell short of your list. What’s worse is I bet my teenage daughters wouldn’t even be able to come up with as many as I did. Good food for thought here…..

  13. Nana

    I immediately thought of Mary Cassatt and Georgia O’Keefe, then added Beatrix Potter and Kate Greenaway.

    As for writers: Anais Ain (spelling?), Dorothy Parker, Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, Lillian Hellman, Willa Cather, Ayn Rand, P.D. James, Ruth Rendell, Agatha Christie, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Daphne Du Maurier…

  14. The first visual artist I thought of was Margaret MacDonald, then I thought of Frida Kahlo then Georgia O’Keefe (although I couldn’t remember her name, just the, you knew, erm, subject matter of her art). Reading the comments has reminded me of other female artists that I knew about but couldn’t recall their names.

    I think it’s the whole Shakespeare’s Sister thing. The inequality certainly didn’t die out after Shakespeare’s time. I feel as though I’m living that every single day of my life.

  15. I think the lack of women artists may be related to something even more practical than just patriarchal bias. Women, because of our physical equipment, are traditionally the child rearers. Is the fact that we have the breasts and the uterus due to a patriarchal bias? As long as the major source of food for a baby is mama’s breasts, women will be the care provider. It wasn’t until the 19th century that women were liberated by formula and bottles, a dubious advance in my book considering the health impact of that change.

    If you are going to be a visual artist, you need your medium and a place to put it. A sculptor needs wood, clay, stone, tools to work it and a place to stash it. A painter needs canvases, paints, brushes, a place to work, and a spot to stash the finished and unfinished. It isn’t all that easy to set aside an unfinished painting, and if you set it aside for too long I believe the paint drying may make it impossible to continue. Of course, wet clay only has a short shelf life.

    writing in a little notebook and putting it on a shelf when it isn’t convenient to be writing is certainly a lot easier. Hence the number of writers as opposed to visual artists.

    All you ladies who are mothers can immediately see the problem with this. And think about how difficult it was for even the really well known visual artists that are male to break into the big time. How does a woman with a family do it? yes, it was a patriarchal bias, but it was also a bias against artists in general.

    Actually, think about what your priorities are when you buy stuff. There aren’t that many people who choose to buy a beautiful sculpture when they need beans and bread.

    That being said, my education was sorely lacking in the arts department. It wasn’t that long ago that I didn’t really know that much about male artists either.

    But the problems in the way of all artists are steep, and women had even more obstacles put in front of them.

  16. Tammy: It’s not too late to include some art history curriculum! 🙂

    Nana: Good list! Funny that I forgot Beatrix Potter. She was a wonderful artist. I just found two framed Peter Rabbit prints at the thrift store for the kids last weekend.

    Helen: You mean flowers?? O’Keefe sure is famous for that 🙂 More appealing than cow skulls to most people, I guess.

    HMH: No, biology is not the fault of patriarchy. But the film trailer points out that something like 80% of art students are female. So why are 90+ % of famous artists, even in the 20th century, male? That points to nurture, not nature. These are young women, not yet mothers, who cannot break through some kind of barrier–their time is not yet taken up with raising children. I wonder what the gender ratio of gallery owners is? Certainly museum directors are typically male, I believe. So those are the decision makers when it comes to publicizing and supporting artists.

  17. I really want to see this movie and also had the same thoughts you did watching the trailer. When I thought about it I could only come up with four artists. The first three are too easy-Kahlo, O’Keefe and Krasner. However, I do remember Miss Artemesia Gentilechi (I know I’ve probably just butchered her name.) from Art History 101. She painted a rendition of Judith and Holofernes that just stuck with me for its graphic nature. I always thought she must have been a talented lady to paint such a topic at such a time, I think it was the early 1600’s.

  18. Erin: It’s funny, I almost felt guilty about thinking of Frida Kahlo and Georgia O’Keefe…like they’re the token famous female artists!

    Artemisia Gentileschi is an unusual exception. You can see her rather graphic Judith Beheading Holofernes here.

  19. I had no idea that there were so many young ladies studying art: 80% is a very high number to yield only 10% of the known artists. This smacks of sexism to me, I suppose I need to watch this documentary.

  20. Dorothea Lange is one of my favorite photographers.
    Marina Abramovic was an inspriation to many of my fellow art school gals
    Janine Antoni made me think
    Diane Arbus
    Yoko Ono completely elevated modern art for me with her YES ness at an exhibit at the SFmoma
    The Quilters of Gee’s Bend count in my book, too.
    Trinh T. Minh-Ha’s films and writing blew my mind.

    Thanks for bringing up this discussion! I hope this film comes to my area.

  21. Like you I can think of few writers and poets, but thinking of visual artists is harder. Frida Kahlo was the first to pop into my head, because I read a book about her recently and actually saw some of her work in London. Next I thought of Camille Claudel & Artemisia Gentileschi – saw movies about both of them and Camille was mentioned in a book I read about Rodin ages ago. I could also think of Zinaida Serebriakova – when I was tiny my parents cut out reproductions of paintings from the magazine to hang on the walls and I loved the ones of her work. That’s only 4! There was an Australian woman, who’s work I loved, but I can’t remember her name (agr.. It’s going to drive me crazy). I think I better get a book on female artists out of the library one day soon.

  22. Having grown up with Elsa Beskow’s enchanting art noveau children’s paintings and stories, and having come of age in New Mexico (home of O’Keefe), I have no problems relating to the idea of female painters. But I must say I believe there is something inherently male about visual expression, or even visuality as such. Which is why women care more about their visual appearance before men, than men do before women. The male counterpart would rather be the audial appearance – voice and speech. Women tune in to the voice of the man in a similar way that men tune in to the visual appearance of the woman. All that, I believe, is reflected in questions such as why there are more male painters or why there are more (noteworthy) female writers than painters.

    But think about photo models. They’re mostly female. They make themselves into pieces of art. I think it is easier for the female nature to be both subject and object at the same time, or switch between the two as the situation demands. The male nature is not that keen on experiencing itself as an object. An object is in some way passive, or active (causing activity) through simply being present. Like a painting. Not like a painter.

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