Masterworks or ‘mistress works?’ Painting the inequality of the art world

Going to art galleries is one of the few things I do to periodically scratch that little itch in my brain that arises from artistic deprivation. To be soothed by gazing up at the framed pieces, analyzing each brushstroke and letting our minds drift into a dreamy state; how wonderful it is that art has the power to unify all walks of life. Yet, I can’t help but cringe in annoyance at designated portions of galleries titled something isolating like “Women in Art”.  

You can argue that the gestures as such are empowering and inclusive, but it honestly feels like a disingenuous band-aid on a real issue and an unironic implication that women can indeed do what men can do.  

Before eyes start rolling at what may seem like another feminist rant, hear me out. I am a senior, graduating this December, in a field that pertains to visual art. I am so excited, yet utterly terrified for the waves of reality to hit, because my experience with having a career in something I am extremely passionate about has not been as smooth sailing as I hoped.  

I can’t shake the memory of a couple years ago when I stared into the eyes of my favorite hip-hop artist’s creative director, and he bluntly remarked: “I have never seen a young woman wanting this job. Good luck being taken seriously.” 

It was difficult to not taste the bitter tang on my tongue from the hateful remark on something I whole-heartedly love, and it threw me into a rabbit hole of noticing the prevalent misogynistic characteristics of the artistic world.  

The harsh reality is: whether it is the constant creepy approaches disguised as business opportunities, or just flat out rejection due to perceived inferiority, women in the art field have always had to work a thousand times harder to even be in the same ballpark as the opposing gender.  

There is no doubt that cultural gender norms are the main culprit.  When the female experience is widely regarded as trivial compared to a male’s, the ideology that art imitates life renders a female’s art meaningless.  

  The evidence of what I am attempting to convey is eerily blatant in art’s complicated history.  

I am sure when I say the name Vincent Van Gogh, the rhythmic swirls of paint forming “The Starry Night” might pop into your head. Or when I say Pablo Picasso, imagery of chaotic abstraction may dance across your memory.  

Now what about the name Plautilla Nelli?  

Unless you have some expertise in art history, odds are you may be drawing a blank despite her masterworks such as “The Last Supper” or “Praying Madonna.”  

As with most gender-related injustices, the struggles for women artists are systemic. Even large names in the industry had their own dilemmas. For example, Georgia O’Keeffe, who is considered by some to mother the feminist movement in art, had experienced her fair share of cold shoulders due to her gender.  

In “Women, Art and Society” by Whitney Chadick, O’Keeffe gives an interview on her personal experience in the industry.  

“The men liked to put me down as the best woman painter,” O’Keeff said. “I think I’m one of the best painters”  

Frida Kahlo, the extraordinary famous Mexican painter, is a perfect example of the tendency to overlook massive talent by shoving them in the shadow of a male colleague. During a prime era of her career, a massive headline in “The Detroit Times” read “Wife of the master mural painter gleefully dabbles in works of art.”  

The irony of the situation is that while another woman authored the article, “The Detroit Times” claimed a male editor wrote the title. The journalist made sure to slip in one of Kahlo’s quotes about constantly being compared to her husband. 

“Of course, he does pretty well for a little boy, but it is I who am the big artist,” Kahlo said. 

Obviously, the constant disregard of actual talent is annoying, but it is just the vile icing on a stale cake. My main problem is the gender gap in actual museums as well as the profits artists make.  

In 2017, The University of Luxembourg held an experiment by throwing an artist auction. When the pieces were anonymously made, the sales for women and men were nearly identical, and a majority of days the women sold more pieces. However, on the days when pieces were labeled, the women artists barely reached 47% of the men’s sales. Even the pieces generated by artificial intelligence sold more.  

The corruption of art is so pervasive that entire organizations make it their mission to expose it.  

The Guerrilla Girls is an anonymous activist group, and through their fake gorilla heads, they uncover some of the industry’s darkest, dirtiest secrets. Their most popular campaign reads “Do Women Have To Be Naked To Get Into The Met. Museum? Less than 5% of the artists in the Modern Art Sections are women, but 85% of the nudes are female”.                 

My college education has served me well by prying my eyes open to different historical inequities, but it is tragic that, without some of the passionate professors I have had (special thanks to Dr. Howell), I wouldn’t be aware of some of the most talented people in the art field because of their lack of exposure.  

The only way to incite change in any immoral system is to not just talk about it with our words, but rather speak in action. In an unfair society that underestimates due to the pigment of skin or the part between legs, it is absolutely necessary to build your own knowledge on matters (or people) that are shut out.