Conversations in Contemporary Feminism and Art

31 women and no one wants to talk about it?

Yesterday I attended a panel discussion, 31 Women in Art Photography: Past, Perspectives, Projection, organized by the Humble Foundation in conjunction with their latest exhibition, 31 Women in Art Photography, being held at Affirmation Arts.  The panel consisted of Jon Feinstein, Co-Founder and Curatorial Director of Humble; Sasha Rudensky, one of the artists in the show; Marla Goldwasser, Director of Affirmation Arts; Justine Reyes, artist in the show; Charlotte Cotton (who needs no introduction); and Vanessa Kramer, Director of Photographs at Phillips de Prury and Co.

image by Sasha Rudensky

Overall, it was disappointing because very little was said about issues around being a female artist.  There was one moment, one question, where they discussed what it means to be a female artist and how that informs the work of the artists present, but neither artist present had much to say about it.  Cotton brought it up as well, but no one bit.  I, needless to say, took the Q&A as my opportunity to put it to them again and voice my concern that no one was really talking about gender issues, and Cotton immediately posed another question in response: in short, do women need a sort of positive discrimination to make it in the art world, such as this show they were in?  It didn’t take off like either of us had hoped, but I did get to speak to Cotton afterward, and hopefully we will be able to continue a dialogue about this via email, and then hopefully you will see it here.

image by Justine Reyes

But what about that positive discrimination?  We all sat there amongst the 31 images chosen because their creators were women.  We would never see a show called “31 Men in Photography” because, ostensibly, ALL shows are predominantly if not exclusively male.  Do we need this type of show, a sort of affirmative action for women? What happens to these women after the exhibition?  If this is the (or a) pulse of contemporary women in photography, where will they go?  Will they make it?

Surprisingly, Kramer from Phillips de Prury had nothing to say about the representation of gender in her department. She is in an interesting position to see who is really making the cut of history.  Arguably, those whose work she is currently selling at auction are closer to having a spot in art history than those exhibiting in the Humble show, for now. It is a dilemma: to show as a “female art photographer” or not. Rudensky pointed out that her classes at Wesleyan, where she teaches, are easily 75% women. So where do they go?  Why do we then need to have a special show just to give them a chance?  What do we have to do?  Just like photographers in the 1980s started making enormous prints so that they could hang with the painters and be considered on the same level as the “serious art” of painting, what do we have to do to be considered on the same level as male artists?

Moreover, the argument can be made either way that women have a better chance in the medium of photography than other media because we’re not up against hundreds of years of a male-dominated and -mastered art form such as painting.  This is true.  But we are also, I find, up against a medium that is highly technical and equipment-oriented, which is, to be blunt, a guy thing.  Men love equipment and technical stuff, if I may make a generalization, and often feel like it’s their territory.  For women to use these items, these heavy, complicated machines, sometimes feels like a threat to men.  I have experience on numerous occasions, while working in public with my camera, a male condescendingly asking me how I can manage that all by myself. It’s clear that women in photography have mastered it, and I might argue that someone like Cindy Sherman is responsible for actually making it into ART.  So why are we still struggling to get shows and earn a living doing this far more than men when women have been some of the most important artists of the last 30 years?  Who knows, but what would happen if the folks over at Phillips and Sotheby’s and Christie’s turned their attention towards gender and really examined how they are perpetuating gender disparity in art sales.  Kramer mentioned during the discussion that sales are what dictate how they organize shows:  whether a photograph is placed in a photography sale or a contemporary art sale, is dependent upon how much money it can bring in if featured in one sale versus another.  I do not criticize this, for they are an auction house, not a museum.  But the amount of power they have in the art world is astonishing, especially when you think about their motivation (money).  This New York Times article makes some interesting claims about calculating the economic value of art, and a really good book on the art market and auction houses is Don Thompson’s The $12 Million Stuffed Shark: The Curious Economics of Contemporary Art.

Another point I find interesting was when Jon Feinstein commented that the work they selected (he co-curated with Cotton) was not what is typically associated as “women’s art,” i.e., body art, issues of gender, etc.  He made it clear that this was his conscious choice. Feinstein said they received many submissions that were body art and focusing on these issues of the female body and female presence, but they really wanted to stay away from that.  The work is overall very clear, crisp, objective, and lacking warmth and connection.  Was Feinstein trying to help women make a place in the contemporary art world–see, women can do art which isn’t overtly about being a woman or having a clear female voice?  Must a woman artist omit that feminine voice in order to become commercially successful in the mainstream art market?  Is Feinstein presuming that this must be the case?

As an artist who makes some work that is clearly about my female relationship to other women in my life and the history of women and feminism and who also makes work that, I think, could be construed as aesthetically genderless, I certainly do choose which work goes where.  Personally, when I sent my submission for this show (sadly, it was not selected), I knew not to send them my work about feminism.  The curator and founders of Humble have an aesthetic taste and they like it.  Perhaps the key is to learn this and play it as best you can.

It was really interesting to hear from these various panelists, although it would have been nice to hear more.  But the folks at Humble, while advocates of a particular photographic aesthetic that is not my personal favorite (think Yale, think cool in tone), they are in an interesting position to be a valuable part of the community here in New York. We’ll see what comes of their efforts.  It is great to see these young men and women working to get us photographic artists exhibitions, sales, and grants.  Thanks, Humble! And thanks to the other panelists for sharing their time.


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  1. * gachette says:

    Love this post, and am not surprised this happened. Went to a thing in LA recently that was similar: women arts professionals on a panel that was ostensibly about women in art in LA. The packed audience waited patiently the whole time for the women to start talking about what it means to be a woman in the arts in LA, and they NEVER did! Even during the Q&A, when several of us tried to get them to address the question. So strange. I personally think it’s the market: being a feminist is passe, so nobody wants the label. Which is so wrong it makes me want to cry. Anyway, would love to talk more about feminist art in LA vs NY. You can contact me through my website

    | Reply Posted 7 years, 8 months ago

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