Who can do something, do what they can
... “Recalculating Art” trundled on with its bad-news stories, reporting that “the average work of art made by a woman makes just 10 percent of what the average work of art made by a man does”; “if an artwork has the hint of a woman, it’s deemed to be worth less”; and “70 percent of art school students (across the world) are female … yet 70 percent of men [are] in art collections, winning art prizes, represented by galleries.” The sobering listening experience continued with the announcement that “auction prices for art by women are still dramatically lower than art by men.” Perhaps with a nod to Rozsika Parker and Griselda Pollock’s Old Mistresses: Women, Art, and Ideology, this fact about auction prices was followed up with “you might expect this from historical paintings; after all, there were many fewer old mistresses than old masters.” Having reported that the highest price paid at auction for a work by a woman artist was $44.4 million for a work by Georgia O’Keeffe, the documentary moved into the realm of contemporary art with its references to the $91 million paid for a work by Jeff Koons versus the $12.5 million paid for a work by Jenny Saville.
But this is where the program floundered. The Koons/Saville disparity carried with it the implication that parity of sale price would confer or confirm gender equity. Perhaps if both artists’ works had sold for $91 million, or if both artists’ works had sold for $12.5 million, then all would be well. But the problem surely, in this instance, isn’t the number crunching that happens when the hammer drops. The problem, rather, is with the auction houses themselves and the ways in which they represent and confirm the very worst of the art world’s elitism and its pandering to often-shadowy collectors whose reasons for acquiring works seldom include giving ordinary people the opportunity to see another work by an important artist. Far too frequently, the last that is seen of an expensive work of art is when its auction price is confirmed and assistants wearing white cotton gloves carry the work offstage. Subsequently, we know that far too many such works are secreted away or put on display in places accessible to only the most fortunate, well-connected, or privileged people. Parity of sale prices between male artists and female artists would do precisely nothing to halt or alter this grubby and deeply problematic state of affairs. Too often, auction houses are complicit or self-serving in the eye-watering sums being paid for art that is acquired as an investment, a tax write-off, or for some nefarious purpose, as opposed to art being acquired for the viewing pleasure of ever-greater numbers of people.
Linda Nochlin’s legendary essay “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?,” supplemented by hugely important work by professors such as Pollock and Hilary Robinson, has long since confirmed the systemic disadvantages faced by women artists and feminist artists. See, for example, the earlier-mentioned Old Mistresses: Women, Art, and Ideology, cowritten by Pollock, and Robinson’s Reading Art, Reading Irigaray: The Politics of Art by Women. One of the main takeaways from “Recalculating Art” was that elements of the systemic disadvantages faced by women practitioners have, if anything, intensified and further solidified in the twenty-first century. But “Recalculating Art” didn’t know the half of it when it made mention of an “unconscious collusion between the marketplace, art history, and the institutions.” Art historians often get off lightly or escape opprobrium, as they tend to, perhaps inevitably, have little-to-no overt visibility in such a scenario of collusion...
The above extracts are from Eddie Chambers, “Who can do something, do what they can”, Art Journal, Spring 2023, 82:1, 5-7