Erasure of women from the arts

// 13 October 2009

gg.gifBidisha has a good piece over on Comment is Free today about the way that work by male artists is overvalued and work by women artists is undervalued. Yet the support staff are usually all or almost all women. The full post is worth reading, but this bit was particularly apt I thought:

I have been a critic for 16 years, across all arts disciplines and all media. It is simply not true that there are not enough women artists, commentators, writers and critics to achieve parity in arts events, whether they are poetry festivals or radio programmes. I used to present a radio show in which, a number of times, there were six male guests and no women, “just by accident”. The majority of times there was one woman. We discussed virtually no works created by women artists, writers or thinkers. Not once were there all women guests, “just by accident”.

It fills me with ice cold rage. Men and women both like to worship men, for some reason; women even, perversely, love to promote men who themselves hate women (hello, Roth’n’Updike fans. How’s it going?). Both sexes unquestioningly perpetuate the boys’ club through the invites issued to men, the opportunities, associations, deals and chances offered. The talks, readings, colloquia, special trips, lectures and guest spots are organised by women for the benefit of men’s careers. For the men, the glory, status, visibility, influence and enshrinement in history. For the women, the expected but unacknowledged work.

I’ve spent the last six weeks making documentaries that involved interviewing several prominent male artists. Their teams of assistants, PRs and administrators were always all female, efficient, intelligent and erudite – in galleries that almost never show women artists’ work. The men themselves rarely bothered even to look me in the eye when I was interviewing them. These men did not respect women, and enacted that disrespect blatantly in every encounter with women. They never, ever name-checked women writers, artistic, politicians or thinkers as influences. Yet we women helped their careers.

This problem isn’t just confined to the world of art and literature of course; I see the same thing at press conferences and other work events. It’s unusual to see more than one woman on stage, if that, and almost all PR and admin jobs are done by women.

Comments From You

Jennifer Drew // Posted 13 October 2009 at 2:10 pm

Given we all live in a society which is male-centered, male-dominant and believes the world does indeed revolve around men it is not surprising the men centric view is perpetuated. Because women’s experiences, women’s perspectives and women’s views are routinely dismissed and/or eradicated it should not surprise us that women, like men believe the world is men-centric.

Our patriarchal system has been 99.9% successful in promoting myth male centric view = human view and so given women have little or no opportunity to see the world from a different perspective, it should not surprise us women too believe man = human and male centric views/perspectives = human views perspectives.

How do we challenge this ingrained male-centric perspective? It is very difficult when it continues to be men who are ones with the social and economic power to define what is and is not relevant, but fortunately women for centuries have refused to be the ‘silent majority.’

The challenge is to change our male-centric way of thinking but it is a very long and arduous battle, given the patriarchal institution never concedes an inch but is determined to retain its pseudo right of defining our world through male-centric eyes.

Juliet // Posted 13 October 2009 at 3:12 pm

Yeah, this is maddening. But I would say to those women, bloody well stop helping men’s careers! Refuse to do work that’s “expected” of you and that will be stolen and/or go unacknowledged.

Women have always been praised and admired for being men’s helpers, but as soon as they want to strike out and do something on their own, they’re (choose an epithet).

Just. Say.No. And don’t tell me it ain’t that simple. If you’re not going to be acknowledged, why bother? It won’t help you in any way. Might as well spend the time doing your own thing.

Liz // Posted 13 October 2009 at 3:58 pm

My favourite comment…

‘If you look for mysogyny everywhere, you will find it’

yes. yes you will find something if it’s there…


Charlie Twist // Posted 13 October 2009 at 11:15 pm


Why? I’m a superb administrator and organiser, why should I stop doing something I’m good at and take pleasure from just because it benefits a man?

Just on the bit where she’s talking about the male artists staff. Jamie Oliver, in an article I read the other day, was talking about his staff and noting that he pretty much had an all female staff outside of the kitchen because they were just so good at making sure everything happened as it was meant to, when it was meant to without any unnecessary fuss. That’s the shortened down version of what was basically a respectful and glowing review of the women who ran his business life. Most the authors and artists I follow online have women running their schedules and handling their travel again because they do it extremely well, and there is no lack of respect for them.

It annoys me that there is this seeming attitude that if you fill a traditional womens role then you’re selling out or something. I’m good at my job and I prefer to work for men because IME they are so much easier to work for and with.

thebeardedlady // Posted 14 October 2009 at 7:34 am

It’s a fantastic article – but don’t read the comments unless you feel like stoking up your feminist rage. The cif commenters are the vilest and most hateful MRA type commenters on the web. And so patronising – half the comments start with ‘Oh Bidisha, you silly woman’ or WTTE. Then again, I only read the first few as they were making me violently ill.

It’s a real shame MRAs seem to have completely taken over cif – every feminist voice there is shouted down by a chorus of women-hating men. But good on Bidisha, Cath Elliot and others who’ve got the guts to keep trying, despite all that.

Josie // Posted 14 October 2009 at 9:39 am

I agree beardedlady, those comments are some of the worst I’ve read for a long time. The level of misogyny on the CiF website never ceases to amaze me. I cannot stand the whole ‘get a sense of humour’ theme, its lazy and thoughtless and patronising. I thought it was a great article written by someone who obviously has first-hand experience in this area. Her description of the male artists she interviewed not even bothering to look her in the eye rang totally true with me. And yes Liz, that ridiculous comment was my favourite too – made me laugh a lot!

Jess McCabe // Posted 14 October 2009 at 10:19 am

@Charlie Twist I don’t think anyone would seriously suggest you should stop doing something you’re good at and enjoy because it benefits a man. The critique Bidisha has doesn’t come down to individuals, but the structural stuff that’s going on which results in this strong gender imbalance, so women are overwhelmingly doing administrative work and feighted artists are – still – overwhelmingly male.

But I do think it might be worth re-examing this idea that men are “much easier to work for”. I think that’s a damaging stereotype that does actually hold women down. xkcd’s take on this idea comes to mind.

Anne Onne // Posted 14 October 2009 at 11:37 am

Very interesting article, and NoScript seems to have saved me from the comments.

Liz: LOL Conversely if you don’t acknowledge something might be there, you will not notice it, even if it is right there in front of your nose.

I don’t know much about the gallery-type art establishment, but I do know that online artist communities such as DeviantArt feature a lot of women artists (maybe they even have a majority, who knows?) of all ages and styles. Women can make great art, whatever you define that as. There’s just SO much talent out there. Of course, the majority of the artists one can find online won’t ever be recognised, and I can’t help thinking that a lot of creative people are repelled by the art establishment as it is, especially the rather heirarchical structure, and its noticeable favouring of men.

Juliet: some people like doing supportive jobs. The problem isn’t with the jobs existing, it’s unequal divisions. Of those that don’t want these kinds of jobs, many of them can’t otherwise get a job in their chosen field. Maybe they’re trying to work their way up. I suspect many of the women who actually want to do the jobs the men normally just aren’t given them. It would be pointless expecting women who like ‘organising’ jobs to not do them because other women who want the ‘top’ jobs are not getting them. The system, as JenniferDrew puts it, is a lot bigger than individual women in ‘lower’ jobs, who after all are not responsible for the establishment in which they are the pawns.

To me it’s like suggesting female nurses should have quit when there weren’t enough female doctors.

sianmarie // Posted 14 October 2009 at 1:29 pm

the problem with CIF is that everyone has “i’m an expert on everything” syndrome! so when there’s an article on something that you are interested in or have first hand knowledge of, or experience, peopel shout you down with their own ill informed, prejudiced opinions! makes me so cross!

the arrogance and ignorance is astounding, but at the same time, nicely proves bidisha’s theory!

Michelle // Posted 14 October 2009 at 10:04 pm

The problem is very deep in the sciences and engineering as well. Women, especially young women (or women who look young) do not get taken seriously. The majority (but not all) of men do not even notice if there are not any women on a three day conference list of speakers. The work a woman does may be transformative but unless she has a “gold star” on her forehead by having been “blessed” by one of the prominent males in the field, it is likely to go unnoticed.

Charlie Twist // Posted 14 October 2009 at 11:10 pm

Jess: IME – in my experience.

I’ve had almost equal numbers of female and male bosses whilst working in my field and have had one female boss that was easy to work with compared to having an easy time with all bar one of my male bosses. This is solely my experience which is why the IME was in there. It is, quite likely, as much to do with my personality and my bosses personality as it is with gender. I personally find female bosses tend to fuss a lot and want to control the fine details, whereas men tend to go I need this and leave the fine details to you provided they get what they need in the end. I work best with the latter approach, some people prefer the former.

Daniela Vincenti // Posted 15 October 2009 at 9:58 pm

Whilst Bidisha undoubtedly has a point, I think she might have gone a bit too far in this article.

Presumably if these “intelligent, efficient and erudite” administrators were treated so badly by their male boss, they would have looked for another job? I would also suggest that avoiding eye contact is a sign of an akward social situation rather than disdain. Maybe this male artist was nervous about being interviewed by Bidisha, who has written innumerable articles distinctly critical of men.

Anyway, women increasingly have their own consumer power nowadays. If you see a work of art by a female artist that you like, buy it. Go and see her exhibitions. If you like a record from a female artist buy it… don’t download it for free if you can afford it. We need to stop blaming the patriarchy and put our money where our mouth is.

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