October 6, 2014



Following the recent inspiring and encouraging footsteps of Emma Watson, I’ve decided to dedicate this post to the f-word: feminism, and women in the arts to be more specific. Along with many, many other professions, fine art has been a long hard road for females.
From our depiction (starkers — it’s tradition!) to our positions in arts management, things have not always been considered equal. It’s been famously asked by the Guerrilla Girls, “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met Museum? Less than 5 percent of the artists in the Modern Art sections are women, but 85 percent of the nudes are female.” Apparently they did a ‘weenie count’ of the nude dudes in the museum and the results were “very revealing”. But we shouldn’t buck tradition should we? Chicks are hot — lets show them off, right? It would be great if men were getting their kit off too, and we actually had equal space on the gallery and museum walls to represent our respective genders.
Gender stereotypes are rife in society and they paint a pretty picture in the arts world. Artists get a bad rap as it is, and stereotypes of female artists can go from the ‘crafty art teacher’ with over sized jewelry, the hippy with unconventional hemp clothing, dreadlocks, a very alternate view of the world to the erratic mad painter with thousands of paintings and just as many cats. As artists, women tend to de-sexualize themselves in order to become part of the old boys club of art that is still very much prevalent.
To again quote the Guerilla Girls, female artists can be reassured with the some (comical) advantages, such as “knowing your career might pick up after you’re 80, being assured no matter what kind of art you make it will be labeled feminism, and having the opportunity to choose between career and motherhood”. While male artists customarily go down in history as ‘geniuses’ with estates that keep their future generations cashed up enough to go clubbing for decades.
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Don’t get me wrong, we’re lucky here in Australia to have a more balanced attitude towards male and female artists. However, when you look deeper, it hasn’t always been the case. Out of its long and impressive history that began in 1921, only 8 women have ever taken out the Archibald Prize — most recently, the fabulous Fiona Lowry. Nora Heysen was the first woman to win the Archibald Prize in 1938 and it took another 22 years for the next female to be crowned. Max Meldrum criticized the 1938 winner, saying “women could not be expected to paint as well as men.”
For those who think there isn’t an issue, here’s a quote from Fiona Gruber’s article in the Sydney Morning Herald, ‘Recasting the Old Masters Club’:
“Statistics show that male artists get more exposure than women: the influential blog CoUNTess, which tallies up the exposure of female artists in key contemporary art galleries across Australia, reveals that not only do male artists outnumber women as exhibitors — 59 percent compared with 35 percent (with 6 percent collaborations) — but they command twice as much text space on gallery websites. The figures have actually worsened in the past three years.
“Being an artist is also twice as tough for women. Australia Council statistics from 2008 (the most recent available) reveal that two thirds of visual artists are women but that women in the arts (there are no separate income figures for visual artists) earn on average 50 per cent less than men.”
Arts management has also copped a fair whack from the old sexism stick. Walk into Olsen Irwin in Woollahra and you’ll realise that both the weekend manager and the weekday manager are both women — amazing ones that juggle their careers with respective fine art studies and families. The director, however, is male, along with many of the other galleries in Sydney and Melbourne.
Gruber from the Sydney Morning Herald once said, “major state and national collecting institutions are still almost exclusively run by men.” Julaina Enberg, director of the 2014 Biennale of Sydney goes on to say “women do a lot of heavy lifting in the art world,” but they rarely reach the top jobs. These still tend to go to men and an atmosphere of male elitism persists. ”I was once told that I would never be a director because I couldn’t attend the Melbourne Club.”
One of the few galleries I know with a female director, Eva Breuer, just shut its doors. It’s a sad predicament — some say women aren’t tough enough to run big businesses, we’re too emotional and best suited to creative roles, but once we’re tough, suddenly we are labeled ‘bossy’, ‘unladylike’ or ‘ball breakers’.
Equality in the arts is paramount, and as Emma Watson said, it’s not about ‘man-hating’, it’s about embracing all voices, and all genders, so that we can have a broad spectrum of creativity and culture. It’s up to all of us to embrace diversity in the arts and to support both male and female creatives. It is up to all of us to stop giving into archaic stereotypes and gender based assumptions, to shake off dusty inequality and to start embracing the many voices and ideas that come from all of our country’s artists.
I spoke with Tanya Linney: model, mother and artist, to see what her take on all this was.
Did you study art? How was the education system arranged? Did you think the women were treated equally?
I studied Visual Arts and Textile Design, so there were predominantly women in my classes. I think as far as the education system works, there is a fair and just starting point for all artists. It seems that history tells another story, however, and women have come along way from being muses to masters.
Do you feel an inequality when it comes to your male counterpart artists?
As an artist, I actually sometimes feel I have an advantage over men. When it comes to certain sensitive topics as a woman, I think I can actually push a boundary further than  men. For my 2008 exhibition, Counterfeit, I studied sexuality and the corruption of youth along with other social commentaries.
For a few of the images, I used a pre-pubescent mannequin, you couldn’t tell if it was a boy or girl but the imagery was controversial as it was right around the time Bill Henson was raising eyebrows over his use of young boys/girls. If I was a man, I wouldn’t have been able to get away with the sexual nature of the work. I think women can push sexual taboos further as its usually the female form that is on show. Being a woman gives you that right to explore deeper without judgment
Do you think male artists have more opportunities than female artists?
I think men have more opportunities in all fields and there is a lot of pressure on men to excel in their chosen profession. This creates a sort of shameless aggression when it comes to taking advantage of opportunities, and it can be good and bad depending on the profession. I think women tend to procrastinate, play, and over-think, and this too can be both good and bad. It cuts both ways, and either way, their is always something we can learn from the alternate sex.
There is a general understanding in the arts that female artists make personally driven work a lot further into there careers than their male counterparts. Men tend to make broader social commentary. Women are pretty complex creatures!
Do you think the depiction of women in art has changed over the years?
Definitely. Women were always a symbolic gesture; a frozen representation of female form; a non living fantasy; a gift or fantasy in the eyes of men. Women such as Louise Bourgeois, Tracey Emin, Sarah Lucas, Cindy Sherman, Sally Mann , Yoko Ono, Jenny Holzer, Jenny Saville, Lee Krasner, and Kara Walker have paved the way for female artists . They’ve come up against the odds as women (age, sex, race, religion). Slowly from the 60s and 70s to now, we’ve seen the pushing of women in the arts along with the messages these women are sending. The fear to be real has lifted and we now see women setting new found territory as the realms of womanhood are peeled back.
How do you think female artists are perceived in society?
There is a generalisation or stereotype of the female artist, however, I think it’s changing, and as long as there are women out there pushing those stereotypes out of shape, the idealistic views of what a female artist ‘should be’ will keep changing .When I first started out as an artist, I thought I needed to look a certain way and that I couldn’t be foxy and creative. How would anyone take me seriously
However, as I’ve grown into the role and grown up, I’ve realise that part of being a female artist is that you don’t say sorry for your past, your failures, your successes. Embrace who you are and it will show in your work. There is no point being an artist if you’re not going to put it all out there?
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Do you feel pressure being a mother and an artist at the same time?
Yes. Becoming a mother has made me finally grow up. Its not an easy juggle but I think it has actually strengthened my work. My viewpoint has broadened and I see life as a bigger picture these days. I think being a mother to a little girl makes you so much more aware of gender issues and as an artist I definitely explore these kind of subject matters.
In any career, I think all mothers (and fathers, these days) feel a sense of guilt around juggling or striking a balance between nurturing your child and your work. However the best example you can set for your children is showing them that if you believe in what you’re doing and you work hard, you can make what you want from life, no matter what hurdles you face. Monkey see, monkey do…
Do you think our experience as models skews our perception of the male gaze or how women are meant to look to others?
Hell yeah. We definitely have a warped view on reality. I often wonder what my work would have been like had I not been a model. It’s changing as I grow out of that but it can also be used for good, and having had a certain kind of reality on what is ‘normal’ can be drawn upon and can be humored in our work.
Hindsight, insight, and again, an authentic eye on the whole game is a valuable weapon when it comes to social commentary on body image and the over sexualisation of women in the media. It’s socially driven, though. We wouldn’t have a need for those images if there wasn’t a demand for them, so we have to look at the social paradigm.
See more Tanya Linney’s work on her website and on Instagram.
To find out more about the United Nation’s ‘He for She’ movement, see the website.
Words: Amy Finlayson
Images: Tanya Linney