"BP portrait award shortlist offers up all-female line-up” reads The Guardian headline.
Wonderful, I thought, as I’m sure many others did. Great stuff. Women artists are being recognised for a prestigious, high-profile art award. And not an award specifically for women, either.
But, before we all pat ourselves on the back and put on our pink pussy hats, before we allow ourselves to imagine that in the highest echelons of culture – the untouchable and often intimidating world of art – discrimination against women, conscious or unconscious, is slowly eroding away, we should, of course, look beyond the headline.
Because the “all-female line-up” is not a shortlist of artists, but of subjects. The three portraits are of women painted by men.
we’re not perceived to be, or meant to be, or even permitted to be, the creator, the active-doer, the originator, the talent. We’re the silenced subject, the passive creation of a man, the product of his gaze
Listen closely and you will hear the faint, slow handclapping of exhausted women everywhere. Nice try, Look how you’re celebrating women – by handing an award, and the £30,000 award money, to a man (one of those men, Benjamin Sullivan, also won third place last year and has been shown at the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery no fewer than 12 times). The Guardian’s headline is just as mind-numbing. In a world where all-female shortlists still actually make the news, readers would assume that was the story, not “Men Dominate Notorious Art Award Again”, because that is absolutely news to no one.
But the upset isn’t necessarily just that women have not made the shortlist – sadly, that’s depressingly predictable, if anything – the upset is far more problematic.
An “all-female line-up” in an art prize when the “all-female” bit only refers to the art, and not the artist, hits home at the heart of what women have faced for so long: we’re not perceived to be, or meant to be, or even permitted to be, the creator, the active-doer, the originator, the talent. We’re the silenced subject, the passive creation of a man, the product of his gaze, the extension of his genius. Our worth is his talent. Our celebration is through his skill and his perspective. It gets worse: two of the three portraits show a woman’s bare breast, one woman is pregnant, one is breastfeeding – reductive, sexualised, predictable depictions of women, you could argue.
So, here we are, being lauded at the top of the art world – but only through the lens of a man, defined chiefly by bodies and their functions. Considering this is one of the most highly regarded portraiture prizes in the world, with thousands of entries from all over the globe, the shortlist seems swayed to partially naked women or women performing their biological and cultural duties.
It’s no secret that the art world has a long history of excluding women from it’s canon and failing to recognise women’s contributions. Women are still missing from art galleries. According to a report in the same newspaper earlier this year, they currently make just four per cent of the National Gallery of Scotland’s collection, 20 per cent of Manchester’s Whitworth Art Gallery collection and 35 per cent of Tate Modern’s collection. Only 33 per cent of the artists representing Britain at the Venice Biennale over the past decade have been women. Women artists are under-taught, too. In one of the major student handbooks, HW Janson’s History Of Art, the first edition in 1962 included no women artists at all and the book was only updated to include women in 1987. And, of course, to add insult to injury, women actually outsell men. ArtFinder – an online marketplace to purchase art – reports that their female artists sell 40 per cent more artworks than men, they sell their work 16 per cent faster and, for every £1m of art men sell, women sell £1.16m. Yet, even this doesn’t stop the problem. The 10 richest artists in the world are men and, of the 100 top lots at auction in 2015, just one was a woman.
It’s a bleak outlook, admittedly, and a lot has to be done. Refusing to dress up sexism in the art world as an “all-female line-up” is a good place to start. A celebration of women is not expressed by her status as a subject of a man’s gaze – it’s on her own terms.