Image Credit: Made By Women
"Most people, if asked, would be able to name three male artists, but would struggle to name three female artists.” This line was written to me last week by York graduate Laura Moseley, as part of an interview I was conducting with her about her company Made By Women, which aims to increase the visibility of female artists.
Until I read that, I had never really considered the disparity between how male and female artists are discussed in general conversation and popular culture. I wondered whether this could possibly be true and so got up to find a housemate to question. Wondering into my housemate’s room I posed to her the same question Laura had sent me: “Can you name three male artists?” She looked at me confused and reeled off three names: “Andy Warhol, Monet and Van Gogh.” “Okay,” I said, “can you name three female artists?” She looked at me, laughed and said no.
I explained to her about my interview with Laura and what she had said about most people not being able to name three female artists and she was far less surprised than I was. Unlike me, my housemate has very little interest in art and so beyond that which is taught in school and what we’re all exposed to in day-to-day life, I think she’d agree with me, that her knowledge pretty much stops.
But what interests me is that even though my housemate has virtually no interest in art, she could name three male artists, which demonstrates the point I think Laura had been trying to get across to me with this observation in the first place. The gap in knowledge about female artists may not necessarily be as present in the higher levels of art education, but exhibits itself in the far more pernicious form of general knowledge about the art world.
It is not the art geeks like myself or the art students like Laura who are unaware of female artists’ work per se, but it is those who aren’t particularly interested in art. Those who do not seek art out, who are left with whatever culture feeds to them. And what culture is feeding to them is art by men - white men. And while there is much to gain from this demographic’s contribution to the art world, in the process we are limiting our experience of art drastically and dangerously.
If art has the power to change our lives, our world views and everyday experiences in the way I and many others believe it to, then this great limitation on the variety of art work and artists we are making accessible to the general population is of great concern.
Luckily, however, there are people out there like Laura Moseley who are aware of this problem and are starting to make the changes needed to correct this gender imbalance in the arts. Back in March last year, while Laura was still a student at York, she was inspired to setup her company Made By Women. Through researching two women artists for her History of Art dissertation, Laura came across so many female artists whose work she wished she could explore.
And so, she began making zines; small,self-published booklets that she could use as a medium to share what she was learning about these women artists with other people.
The Made By Women zines aim to teach their readers about women artists in an accessible and affordable way. They specifically aim to highlight women artists who may have been overlooked or marginalised in the past,with each zine being illustrated by a contemporary female illustrator.
In the age of social media, working physically with zines as opposed to spreading information solely through the internet, may be considered an unusual choice. But the decision behind using zines has far deeper roots. Particularly popular in the women’s liberation movements of the 1970s and 1980s, Made By Women chooses to produce zines in part as a homage to the medium’s history in activism but also for its qualities of being cheap to print and easy to circulate. Zines allow Made By Women to share their message in physical space around the world and are extremely versatile in their design, placing no limitations on self-expression.
It is an ingrained bias against women artists that the Made By Women zines aim to tackle. This bias causes the gap in the education and exposure of women’s art that leaves us in a situation where male artists hold such greater precedence as household names.Course syllabuses, art historical literature, and exhibition programmes all predominantly feature white European men.In recent years diversity has been spoken about more and more in the art world, with some concrete improvements to show for it. For example, the prestigious Turner Prize was won by women for three consecutive years between 2016 and 2018 and last year when it was decided the award would have multiple winners, exactly half were women.
And yet at the same time much of what we may see to be positive change on the surface in terms of diversity in fact falls down under closer inspection. Discussion of diversity remains just that, a discussion, a method for organisations and galleries to signpost to the public their conscience while doing very little practically to support it.
The Tate galleries, for example, espouse an equality agenda through their show casing of works such as those by the feminist art collective Guerilla Girls. Their partnership with this organisation is used heavily in advertising campaigns. And yet,despite this partnership with a collective that has a sole purpose of ending sexism and racism in the art world, still only about 30 per cent of the rest of the artworks in the Tate are by female artists.
In an industry powered by money, the economics behind the support for female artists leaves little to smile about. As little as 13 per cent of the Tate budget has been spent on women artists in recent years and the gender income gap in the arts is one of the highest of all sectors, reaching up to 80 per cent.
It is easy to gain these facts and statistics when we simply split artists into these two binaries of men and women; it becomes much harder to analyse discrimination when we consider the many other factors that affect an artist’s visibility. And yet the discussion of visibility as a whole in artwork is empty without recognising the many other limitations placed on artists including class, ethnicity and sexuality that all too have the power to marginalise artists and so prevent them from reaching a certain level of success.
For example, while we celebrate the fact that in recent years the Turner Prize has seen so many female winners, over the entire history of the award there has only ever been one woman of colour to win which was Lubaina Himid in 2017.
The Made By Women zines recognise this need for intersectionality and reflect it in their work. Issue five of their zines for example, focused entirely on LGBTQ women artists, to try and highlight how queer sexuality has been erased in art history. Laura also spoke about the importance of recognising how black women, working class women and disabled women also face structural barriers in the art world, and how their representation in art history is essentially non-existent.
Projects like Made By Women represent a small but important step in increasing awareness for these grossly underrepresented artists. Laura is now beginning to work directly with museums to support them in showcasing women artists in their collections and exhibition programmes and also to generate new research on these artists. She is also hoping to curate some of her own exhibitions in the near future and to deliver more workshops on both women artists and zine making.
While I would happily play the blame game all day long, providing a long list of all these faceless institutions that we can point our fingers at as the ones to blame for women artists’ under representation, perhaps a more proactive approach would be to take a leaf out of Laura’s book and to educate ourselves.
I am by no means an art expert or anything remotely near it. But art is an important part of my life and being the daughter of an art teacher, it was an important part of my childhood too. If someone asked me, I would be able to name three female artists - I’d be able to name more. Frida Kahlo, Georgia O’Keeffe, Yayoi Kusama, Bridget Riley, Jenny Saville, Tracey Emin, Jenny Holzer, and Barbara Kruger were just a few of the ones to come to mind when I first read Laura’s email.
However, if you posed to me a similar question but changed the field slightly, I would struggle in the same way my housemate did. ‘Can you name three female footballers?’ for example would result in a similar response of a laugh and a no. Yet despite my distinct lack of interest in anything relating to a pitch or a sideline I could just about scrape together three male footballers for you.
This goes to show how the gendered nature of general knowledge extends beyond only the arts. We live in a culture where men are getting more air time in every sector and if I’m preaching that the way to counteract this is to educate ourselves then I’ll start the revolution at home. My research tells me that Steph Houghton, Lucy Bronze and Ellen White are three of the players from the England Women’s Football team. I’m glad that their names are now included in my general knowledge.
To find out more about Made By Women and the work they do, visit their website or social media.