From the Archives: Sexual Politics, Art Style

Feminist critic and curator Lucy Lippard published the following op-ed about sexism in the art world in the September-October 1971 issue of Art in America. In it, she mentions having curated a show of women artists who had never had solo shows before. That exhibition, “Twenty-Six Contemporary Women Artists,” opened at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield, Conn., earlier that year. It included now-well-known artists like Mary Heilmann, Howardena Pindell, and Adrian Piper. Over half a century later, the Aldrich is revisiting the show: “52 Artists: A Feminist Milestone” features new works by twenty-six emerging female and nonbinary contemporary artists (among them Ilana Harris-Babou, Astrid Terrazas, and Tourmaline), alongside work by the original group featured in the 1971 exhibition.—Eds.

For the last three New York seasons, and particularly during the past winter, women artists have begun to protest discrimination against their sex in the art world. Active protest began in 1969 with WAR, burgeoned in 1970 with the Ad Hoc Women’s Committee, which first addressed itself solely and successfully to raising the number of women in the Whitney Annual; now there are at least two other organizations in New York as well as smaller artists’ consciousness-raising groups. On the West Coast, at Cal Arts, Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro have set up the first women’s art program, and Marcia Tucker will direct one similar course at the School of Visual Arts in New York. An international liaison network called WEB (West-East Bag) was recently created to inform women’s art groups of each other’s activities. In June, the new Los Angeles Council of Women Artists threatened a civil-rights suit against the Los Angeles County Mu­seum with statistics that reflect the na­tional situation: 29 of 713 artists whose works appeared in museum group shows in a decade were women; of 53 one­ artist shows, one was by a woman­ the same record, incidentally, as New York’s Museum of Modern Art, and both of these women were photog­raphers.

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Yet, in spite of all this activity, the art world has been slow in coming to grips with the question of sexist dis­ crimination. Real change probably won’t come about until the society we live in and its basic woman-man rela­tionships are fundamentally altered. In the meantime, however, discrimina­tion against women in the art world consists of: 1) disregarding women and stripping them of their self-confidence from art school on; 2) refusing to con­sider a married woman or mother a serious artist no matter how hard she works or what she produces; 3) label­ing women unfeminine and abnor­mally assertive if they persist in main­taining the value of their art and protest their treatment; 4) treating women artists as sex objects and using this as an excuse not to visit their studios or show their work (“Sure, her work looked terrific, but she’s such a good­ looking chick if I went to her studio I wouldn’t know if I liked the work or her,” one male dealer told me earnestly “so I never went”); 5) using fear of social or professional rejection to turn successful women against unsuccessful women, and vice versa; 6) ripping off women if they participate in the un­fortunately influential social life of the art world (if she comes to the bar with a man she’s a sexual appendage and is ignored as such; if she comes with a woman she’s gay; if she comes alone she’s on the make); 7) identify­ing women artists with their men (“That’s so-and-so’ s wife; I think she paints too”); 8) exploiting women’s inherent sensitivity and upbringing as nonviolent creatures by resorting to personal insults, shouting down, art­ world clout, in order to avoid con­frontation or to subdue and discourage women who may be more articulate and intelligent, or better artists than their male company; 9) galleries turning an artist away without looking at her slides, saying, “Sorry, we already have a woman,” or refusing to have any women in their stable because women are “too difficult” (a direct quote–though since the Movement, people are more careful about saying these things). And so forth.

The roots of this discrimination can probably be traced to the fact that making art is considered a primary function, like running a business or a government, and women are conven­tionally relegated to the secondary, housekeeping activities such as writing about, exhibiting or caring for the art made by men. Art-making in America has a particularly virile tradition, the ideal of large scale, “tough,” un­compromising work being implicitly a masculine prerogative. Men are some­how “professional” artists even if they must teach a twenty-hour week or work forty hours as carpenter, museum guard or designer. Women, on the other hand, especially if they are married and have children, are supposed to be wholly consumed by menial labors. If a single female artist supports her­ self by teaching or working as a “gallery girl” or whatever, she is called a dilettante. If she is a mother, she may work forty hours a week in her studio and she will be taken seriously by other artists only after she has become so thoroughly para­noid about her position that she can be called an “aggressive bitch,” an opportunist, “pushy” and so on. It doesn’t seem to occur to people that women who can manage all this and still be serious artists may be more serious than their male counterparts. Sadly enough, most of the few women who have made it into the public eye have been so absorbed by the male world that they resist association with other less successful women artists, for fear of being forced into a “woman’s ghetto” and having their work thereby taken less seriously. They tend to think of them selves as one of an ex­traordinary elite who are strong enough and good enough to make it, not real­izing that they denigrate and isolate their own work by being ashamed of their own sex, that if their art is good it cannot be changed by pride in being a woman.

The worst source not only of dis­crimination but of the tragic feelings of inferiority so common among women artists is the art schools and college art departments (especially women’s colleges), most of which have little or no female faculty despite a plethora of unknown male names. Women com­prise a majority of art students, at least for the early years; after that they begin to drop out as a result of having no women teachers after whom to model themselves, seeing few women shown in museums and galleries, lack of en­couragement from male professors who tell them that they’ ll just get married anyway, that the only women artists who make it are dykes, that they’ll get along fine if they screw the instructor, or that pale colors, weak design and fine line are “feminine” (i.e . bad) but less so when perpetrated by men. Small wonder that there are far fewer women in the graduate schools, that survivors of this system are afraid to take their slides to galleries or in­vite criticism, that they find it difficult to work in isolation if their husbands move them to the sticks, that they may marry an artist instead of con­tinuing to be one, or become the de­spised “lady painter” in between children, without studio space or materials money.

When a woman does show, the same attitudes prevail in regard to journalistic coverage. The one art magazine that has had any feature coverage of the “woman problem” (two articles, which enabled the editors to announce their “women’s issue”) now feels it need never mention the subject again. The Whitney Annual was chosen for sustained public pro­test last year because survey shows are the most obvious examples of discrimination, focused as they are on no single taste, but simply on “what is being done in such and such an area.” But why is it that so few women’s studios are visited when survey shows are being organized? Connections in the art world are made through friends and galleries, and aside from the prob­lem of competition with men (which makes it unlikely that many women will be recommended to begin with) few women artists are represented by the big galleries to which curators refer when doing a show.

What applies to group shows ap­plies equally to foundation grants, which again purport to concentrate on no single style, gallery affiliation , or institutional support. The statistics here are even worse. The usual defense is that not many women applied or that they weren’t “good enough.” It is important to remember that so-called “quality” on a list of, say, twenty­ five younger artists given grants or shown in a museum, will not be agreed upon by any five “experts.” If “quality” is admittedly elusive, why is it that foundations ignore women with qualifications (one-artist shows, prestigious group exhibitions , special­ized press coverage, even age and length of career) far exceeding those of male colleagues who do receive grants? A Women’s Art Registry (138 Prince St., N.Y.C. , 10012) , now in­cluding slides of about a thousand women, makes it clear that a large number of female artists are working on a par with men . Last spring it was possible to put together, in good conscience, an exhibition of twenty-six women who had never had one-artist shows. I could never have organized an exhibition of that strength (all this being regulated by my own taste, of course) of unshown male artists; by the time they are that mature, most men have had a show somewhere . All grant lists, all art school faculties and all group shows include a certain percentage that is totally inexplicable to anybody. Why aren’t these, at least, replaced with women whose work is as good as the best men accepted? The John Simon Guggenheim Foundation and the Na­tional Endowment for the Arts, among others, have lousy records. In fact , there isn’t any art-world institution so far that hasn’t.




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