Culture Vulture

Sexism in the art world

Male artists seem to get exhibited more and are also able to sell their works at higher prices

More than seven years ago, while covering a press conference to announce the artists representing Singapore at the 52nd Venice Biennale - Vincent Leow, Jason Lim, Zulkifle Mahmod and Tang Da Wu - I asked why they were all men.

Since 2001, when Singapore first started taking part in arguably what is visual arts' most prestigious platform, 14 male artists and only one female artist have been shown on that world stage: artist Suzann Victor, alongside Matthew Ngui, Salleh Japar and Henri Chen, in the year the Singapore Pavilion made its debut at Venice.

Puzzled looks were exchanged among the panellists, before the Singapore Pavilion's then-curator Lindy Poh replied: "I'm a woman."

There was a ripple of amusement in the room and my question was passed over like a silly oddity.

I was reminded of this small but telling incident recently after reading American author Siri Hustvedt's latest novel, The Blazing World.

In it, a frustrated artist and the widow of a famed art dealer, Harriet Burden, comes up with an experiment to challenge what she perceives as sexism in the New York art world. Dismissed by critics and collectors, the middle-aged woman decides to exhibit her work behind three male "masks".

Rather than merely adopt fictitious male names, however, she finds three men and gets them to act as though they created the works in three different exhibitions, giving interviews and basking in the ensuing success.

Hustvedt's book plants this question: Are people biased against female artists, even today?

The author alludes to examples of gender inequality in the visual arts field, such as the Museum of Modern Art's (Moma) major international survey of recent painting and sculpture in 1984, which included only 13 female artists out of 169 featured artists, and prompted a protest by the feminist collective Guerrilla Girls.

In a footnote, Harriet cites a study first done in 1968, in which college students were asked to rate articles. When the essay had a female name attached, it was consistently ranked lower than an identical copy bearing a male name. She also lists female artists such as Judith Leyster, a well-known Dutch painter born in 1609, who had been largely left out of art history books, her works wrongly attributed to Frans Hals or dismissed as imitations.

Killing time during a long transit in Amsterdam last week, I visited the outpost of the Rijksmuseum within Schiphol Airport. Of the 21 painters showcased in the small museum exhibit, which is rotated regularly, all were men. "Where are the Dutch female painters?" I couldn't resist writing in the guestbook.

To say that sexism exists in contemporary art is contentious. On the one hand, there are many successful women in contemporary art today. Serbian-born, New York-based  performance arist Marina Abramovic is one example, whose fame and cachet is such that when Moma held a retrospective for her in 2010, snaking queues turned up to see her. On the other hand, however, traditionally female arts, such as textiles, are still relegated to the less prestigious realm of craft.

And where art separates from the level of pure creativity to that of a business, the difference between men and women is even starker. The highest auction prices for fine art last year were all achieved by men, according to data from Bloomberg. Francis Bacon's 1969 painting, Three Studies Of Lucian Freud, was sold in November last year for more than US$142 million (S$177 million), smashing the record for most expensive work of art ever sold at auction.

In contrast, the most expensive piece by a female artist, French painter Berthe Morisot's After Lunch, fetched US$10.9 million in February last year.

As British art's bad girl Tracey Emin put it in an interview with London's Time Out earlier this year: "Louise Bourgeois has the highest female sales price at auction, but it's so far below her male counterparts, it's unbelievable. Were she a man, it would be 10 times more." French American artist Bourgeois, who died in 2010, held the record for most expensive post-war female artist previously for her sculpture Spider (1996), which sold for US$10.7 million.

Closer to home, Christie's sale of Asian 20th Century & Contemporary Art in Hong Kong earlier this month saw the top 10 lots dominated by male artists, with US$860,544 shelled out for Chinese artist Zeng Fanzhi's piece titled Bathroom. Meanwhile, the sole woman in the top 10 of that sale, Chinese artist Chen Ke at No. 6, realised US$113,400 for her work, Light No. 2.

So is it a case of glass half-empty or half-full? And should we even get mired in gender balance and quotas to fill the walls with art made by women? Taken to extremes, we might end up as a bunch of willy counters (volunteers who go to museums to count how many male private parts are on show, as opposed to female nudes, for Guerrilla Girls' data- gathering purposes). Yet, ignore the issue and deep-rooted, sub-conscious bias never goes away.

An art curator I know, who works for a local museum, says that she does not consciously aim for a balance between male and female artists in the exhibitions she puts together. She admits, however, that she sometimes deliberately programmes art films by women because "the barriers to entry in film are way higher for women".

She adds: "Sometimes, as a woman, it's hard to pull that clout to get financing and support."

The state of the arts in Singapore may be shifting, with more female arts policymakers in power, but it remains to be seen if the influence is trickling down to result in more influence and esteem for women creating art.

With Singapore gearing up to take part in the Venice Biennale again in 2015 after sitting out the 2013 edition, one hopes the country's female artists will be better represented this time around.