The gender discount

Women may now account for 64 per cent of fine arts graduates in Britain but research shows the old values remain entrenched, says Michael Prodger

On Art

In 1971, Linda Nochlin published “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?”, an essay that became the foundational text of feminist art history. Instead of answering her own question by uncovering or elevating the best individual women artists, Nochlin examined “the whole erroneous intellectual substructure” that had decided there were indeed no great women artists, everything from art school training to which arts were seen as appropriate for women. “The fault,” she concluded, “lies not in our stars, our hormones, our menstrual cycles, or our empty internal spaces, but in our institutions and our education.” It was the prevailing system of judgment — white, western, male and largely blinkered towards female artists — that was “unconsciously accepted as the viewpoint of the art historian”.

Nochlin’s analysis started a re-evaluation of the work of women artists — not, however, one that has been either rapid or universal. When, for example, Frances Morris became director of Tate Modern in 2016, fully 45 years after Nochlin’s essay first appeared, she felt the need to state that her brief, as she saw it, was in part to increase the visibility of women in her gallery, both through its acquisitions and its exhibitions. Nevertheless, despite recent Tate shows for, among other, Joan Jonas, Anni Albers, Rachel Whiteread, Dorothea Tanning, Natalia Goncharova and Dora Maar, works by women artists still amount to just some 30 per cent of the various Tates’ collections.

This is clearly partly because of playing catch-up with history but nevertheless things are a long time in changing: women may now account for 64 per cent of fine art graduates in Britain but research shows that the old values remain entrenched.

Recently Kooness, an online marketplace collating the work sold by nearly 700 contemporary art galleries around the world, looked into art’s gender issue and compared the sales and values of artworks produced by men and women.

The overall result was that work by women is three times more likely to be undervalued than that by men

Kooness studied 2,723 pieces by 440 artists from the galleries they represent, and their headline finding was that work by men sold for 24 per cent more than their female peers, an average of €3,630 to €2,930 — or a €700 differential. Furthermore, 63 per cent of the total artworks for sale were by male artists against 37 per cent by women. The same percentages applied to the gender split of winners of five major contemporary art prizes (including the Turner Prize, the Hugo Boss Prize and the Duchamp Prize).

This imbalance is in many ways to be expected. The real surprise of Kooness’s data crunching is that being a woman artist is not a neutral state but a disadvantageous one. As part of the exercise, 2,000 people were shown 10 artworks and asked to value them. More than half of them undervalued work by women artists (against the asking price) while only 12 per cent overvalued it, compared with 32 per cent overvaluing work by men. The overall result was that work by women is three times more likely to be undervalued than that by men. Art, regardless of its subject matter, is gendered.

Needless to say, pricing by sex is a non-scientific exercise, since there is no accurate metric by which to value a work of art: as the critic Robert Hughes once put it, “A fair price is the highest one a collector can be induced to pay.” There is though clearly a bias — more likely to be unconscious than conscious — at work.

This is a view supported by a slew of other statistics: in Britain, for example, the gender income gap for artists reaches up to 80 per cent; according to the Freelands Foundation, review coverage in the main broadsheets is skewed towards male artists (in 2018 the Telegraph and Financial Times reserved only 40 per cent of their coverage for female artists, against The Times, which gave more than 60 per cent); and that even after death there remains a gender imbalance with four times the number of dead male artists having exhibitions at London’s main commercial galleries than deceased women artists.

Meanwhile, the pinnacle of the art market has come to its own judgment: the most expensive work by a living female artist is Propped, a 1992 nude self-portrait by the British painter Jenny Saville which sold for $12.4 million in 2018, while the most expensive living male artist is Jeff Koons, whose metal “inflatable” Rabbit sold for $91 million last year. The most expensive work ever sold by a female artist is Georgia O’Keeffe’s Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1 of 1932, which sold for $44.5 million in 2014 (which itself was three times greater than the previous
record-holder).

Public galleries, with their duty to promote female art as part of their diversity and equality brief, appear to have no doubts about the quality of what they are promoting but others are proving slow to follow. All evidence suggests that art does have a woman problem or, as Helen Gørrill, author of Women Can’t Paint, puts it, albeit in broad-brush terms: “When men sign their work it goes up in value, when women sign their work it goes down.”

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