Before starting Women Can’t Paint: Gender, The Glass Ceiling and Values in Contemporary Art I was filled with apprehension. Having read dozens of books on feminism in recent months, I expected something turgid and dispiriting. I should not have worried. Women Can’t Paint is one of the funniest books of the year and unintentional comedy gold. If Titania McGrath had written a polemic on the art world, this is the book she would have produced. Andrew Doyle’s latest comic creation is pitch perfect. According to the back cover, Helen Gørrill is an “artist, futurist, writer, editor and educator”. In the opening pages, she describes how her article for The Guardian on gender inequality in the arts received so much derision that its comments section had to be closed. By page 2 I was laughing aloud.
In 2018, I wrote a new Access art and design course for a prestigious Scottish university, underpinning the contextual studies design with equality rather than the traditional white heteromasculinist canon […] Two male colleagues made attempts to remove this vanguard, but I stuck to my guns and received a tremendous backlash […] Sadly, as soon as I left the institution the vanguard was immediately quashed, with only a tokenistic selection of women and BME artists (less than 6 per cent of the total) represented […] The white masculine canon alas endures […]
Moral indignation, grandiloquence, reduction of art to quotas, use of jargon and the lack of self-awareness typify the feminist woke scolds of art administration and university faculties. The author’s imperiousness and lack of humour allow her to deliver towering inanities and spiteful asides in a manner surely not even our most skilful comic writers could contrive.
Gørrill claims pro-women museums have failed to sufficiently implement steps towards full gender equality. Hence quotas are needed to advance women artists. She claims that if legislation provides for equal treatment yet delivers unequal outcomes then this evidences systemic bias. Yet equal opportunity allows for disparate outcomes; in all aspects of life we see uneven sex distributions in jobs, abilities, career preferences, life choices and so on. Balanced outcomes are rare and often indicative of artificial constraints imposing balance. On this point, factual refutation is ineffective. One core function of feminism is as justification for preferential treatment; it is a goal-oriented rhetorical system not an epistemological one. Feminists cannot see any gender disparity unfavourable to women as anything other than overt or covert discrimination. Where women do better – as they do in arts administration – the advantages are dismissed as negligible, hardly compensating for historical injustice.
At no time does Gørrill express pleasure in art, discuss why art is valuable or explain why sex equality would be beneficial for museums, artists and visitors. It never crosses her mind that she would need to address such matters. Not a single sentence treats art as the subject of wonder, inquiry or enlightenment – we get statistics from the culture economy, measured like tractor production or grain tonnage. This is a repugnantly utilitarian view of art and humanity. Art cannot be weighed like iron ore and is not an interchangeable good.
Equality seems both a self-evident benefit and an attainable target for a political authoritarian; she simply needs access to sufficient power to enact her enlightened guidance. “In Women Can’t Paint, you will also read a selection of manifestos which will pave the way to a better future – if of course, enough force is applied to forcefully shove the gendered boundaries aside and enable growth and prosperity for all.” These noble euphemisms remind one of Communist Party directives to commissars. While the rhetoric is about empowerment, the aim is score settling. For every living woman artist advanced, a man will have to step aside – or be removed. It is historical retribution for the sins of his forefathers. It is collective punishment of the privileged.
This book is not an argument but an inadvertent exposure of the psychology of a hard-line progressive
The oft-observed fact that art by women sells for less than that by men is not evidence of sexism in commerce but that commercially attractive art is not produced equally by both sexes. The pricing mechanism of the market (through revealed preferences of consumers) is abhorrent to leftists. The feminist fear is that prices measure competence and no feminist would countenance women (on average) being less competent than men at producing attractive art; thus price data unfavourable to women is framed as the result of prejudice. Quite why commercial gallerists would fail to promote women artists (thereby foregoing market opportunities) is hardly explained as “misogyny”. Perhaps feminists should take this up with the women who run roughly half of all commercial galleries and comprise the majority of museum administrators and art-journal editors.
Why women administrators favour women artists and women gallerists do not favour women artists is easily explained: generally, women artists are promoted on socio-political grounds but their art appeals commercially less than that by men. Socially directed preferential treatment of women artists by public venues does not generate visitor enthusiasm.
Now that some women artists are advanced due to quotas and skilled women artists (who achieved their success through merit) resent this influx of untalented artists. There is an understandable fear that cynicism will taint perception of all women artists. Already, informed visitors cast a jaundiced eye over museum labels, sizing up which criterion an artist has been selected to fill. Quotas are state patronage for favoured groups. First-wave feminists wanted the state to step aside and allow all to rise to their level of merit; one hundred years later, feminists are lobbying for state-enforced protectionist policies to prevent men competing with them.
Gørrill cites an overwhelming predominance of art by men in historical collections as “not reflecting the world we live in”. Historically, there were few women artists. How would any rebalancing of collections occur, considering the dearth of historical art by women? Easy, sell art by men and go on a massive acquisition campaign to buy contemporary art by women artists such as Gørrill and her interviewees.
The author lists measures to redress gender imbalance that amount to command-economy control of culture via appointments, quotas, caps, prize shortlists, pay regulation and a raft of insanely draconian, intrusive and arbitrary restrictions. All of this would lead to unintended consequences, widespread discrediting of institutions and wholesale work-arounds. They would make museums and commercial galleries moribund within a matter of months in what would be a black comedy of Stalinist proportions.
Due to research, I found myself in a position to provide refutations to the author’s fallacies as they arose. Then I realised that would be unsuitable. This book is not an argument but an inadvertent exposure of the psychology of a hard-line progressive. At times it felt indecent to be reading this book, with its sinews of malice and nervous system of self-interest so nakedly exposed. Providing statistics on the facts that women artists are proportionately equally served with opportunities and win disproportionately more prizes than male artists – as my recent survey did – would have been beside the point. The notion of female disempowerment is so deeply rooted that data does not shake the emotional truth of the feminist narrative. Thomas Sowell’s economic and social arguments against protectionism would not even be acknowledged by a committed feminist who believes quotas are needed to redistribute privilege.
This book is terrible on every level: tonally, logically, rhetorically, ethically and intellectually. The author is statistically disingenuous and economically ignorant. Gallantry suggests some leeway should be given in any review of a book of such limitations. On the other hand, this is an author who has published articles in national newspapers, has held teaching positions at university and has now published a book through a respected academic press.
More importantly – and alarmingly – this book represents the thoughts of those who hold positions of power at all levels in education and the arts. The director of the Tate is Maria Balshaw, an avowed feminist and graduate of English Literature and Critical Theory, both political disciplines. Dr Balshaw has never studied art history nor published anything on it; she has said that it is her mission to advance women artists at the Tate as a point of principle. Artistic considerations do not come into play. Tate Modern even built an extension in which it pledged to exhibit artists in a 50/50 gender split. Visiting the Virtue Bunker is a miserable experience and a salutary warning of things to come.
This book may be funny but it is also chilling. As I read on, this psychopathology of progressivism in its starkest form became palpably less amusing, eliciting more queasy winces than laughter. Quotas are already here and they are no laughing matter. This book is an unwittingly honest glimpse into the bleak distorted worldview of those who already influence our culture and crave complete command.
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