Where the Ladies At?

State of the Art

New shows, same old problems

PAUL TEASDALE Recently a flame war broke out on Facebook concerning the endemic problem of gender imbalance in the art world. This followed the decision by Berlin-based artist Daniel Keller to curate only male artists (including himself) in a recent show, Liquid Autist, at Kraupa-Tuskany Zeidler gallery, Berlin. Keller’s not alone: 35 artists are included in the current abstract painting show at Gagosian’s Britannia Street gallery in London, The Show is Over – all but one are male. And at the Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin, Udo Kittelmann has included only male artists in his contribution to the recent four-venue exhibition Painting Forever! – supposedly a ‘survey’ of painting in Berlin now. How is this still happening?

ELVIA WILK It’s hard to figure out the best approach to right the imbalance, and attempts are often self-defeating. The typical reaction to a gender-imbalanced show is to ‘counteract’ the discrimination one-for-one, by putting together an all-women show. For example, curator Eva Scharrer responded to Kittelmann by selecting four women painters for her version of Painting Forever! at the Deutsche Bank KunstHalle. Unfortunately this tactic reinforces the bracketing of ‘female art’, categorizing artistic practice and implying that all art made by women has something in common. This system, totally reliant on the gender binary, is self-perpetuating and deadlocked.

PT What’s a better solution?

EW I don’t know. One place to begin is with preemptive affirmative action – requisite representation of both women and men – either enforced by official policy or social pressure.

PT But doesn’t the term ‘affirmative action’ imply that female artists wouldn’t – or worse, couldn’t – be shown on merit but are merely included to fill a quota? The type of thinking that perpetuates the sexism it’s supposed to eradicate?

EW Maybe – but there’s no such thing as gender-blindness. You can’t divorce your knowledge of the artist’s gender from your assessment of his or her work, and you shouldn’t have to pretend that you can. Don’t get me wrong: I definitely don’t think the quota system is a permanent fix, just a provisional step. We can’t treat numeric equality as an end-all solution, because this glosses over the attitudes driving the problem – fixating on symptoms instead of causes. For example, why do we assume that women aren’t sexist, or that men are incapable of making feminist work? We have to question those attitudes, not to mention the content of the art work itself. Who else, apart from curators, are responsible?

PT Everyone who is in a position to affect the landscape – curators, gallerists, museum directors, editors. The frieze d/e editorial team currently includes only one woman – though it’s worth mentioning that over the history of the magazine, we have featured more female artists than male. Would more women in positions of power level the playing field?

EW I’d hope so, but not necessarily. The art market prizes male artists, both in a cultural and economic sense, and this would not be reversed so easily. Women in positions of power often find themselves having to pander to the existing dominant system in order to gain and retain authority.

PT True. There are more female gallerists than ever, and you would think that this would lead to more female artists being represented, but it’s a catch-22. The fact remains that male artists sell more and for more and galleries are, afterall, a business. That’s why public institutions need to take a stronger lead on this.

EW It would be great to have more statistics on art-world demographics. And not just in terms of typical signifiers like gender and race but in terms of the work’s content and the type of shows being made. To me one of the most alarming things is how notoriously man-heavy shows about technology are – I wonder how many women are self-identified as working with new media versus how many are shown.

PT The Preis der Nationalgalerie für junge Kunst 2013 show at Hamburger Bahnhof, for instance, includes three female and one male artist, but the only artist explicitly working with ‘future’-oriented technology was the male artist, Simon Denny. So the way to formulate the problem is not just in terms of the number of women represented – it’s the particular way women artists are instrumentalized to fulfill a role.

EW Exactly. And that has to do with how their work is framed, including the rhetoric used by curators and writers. If a woman is making art about/using technology, do we say she’s ‘participating in a male field’? If she’s making minimalist/mathematical work, do we say it has a ‘masculine’ aesthetic?

PT The sad thing about the debate now is that we’re supposed to be over this lazy misogynism but it’s becoming reinforced by a new generation. Justified by atavistic ‘philosophical ideas’ – such as certain notions of evolutionary theory – rather than blatant sexist claims, prejudice in the field of digital or Post Internet art, for example, has become even more insidious and troubling.

EW Right, everyone is supposed to be over sexism by now – which is why it’s OK to claim total rational determinism by referencing certain theories. That’s why, although I’d never immediately assume an all-male show is sexist, if it’s an all-male show whose press release revolves entirely around autism, libertarianism, math, or evolutionary psychology, as in Liquid Autist, I get suspicious. I think a certain measure of suspicion is healthy – and in this case, productive.

—by Paul Teasdale and Elvia Wilk

Paul Teasdale is assistant editor of frieze and managing editor of frieze d/e. He is based in Berlin.

Elvia Wilk is a Berlin-based writer and an editor of the online architecture magazine uncube.