Sexism in the art world

Sexism in the art world
Suzann Victor with her artwork, which includes one static and two swinging chandeliers.

SINGAPORE - More than seven years ago, while covering a press conference to announce the artists representing Singapore at the 52nd Venice Biennale - Vincent Leow, Jason Lim, Zulkifle Mahmod and Tang Da Wu - I asked why they were all men.

Since 2001, when Singapore first started taking part in arguably what is visual arts' most prestigious platform, 14 male artists and only one female artist have been shown on that world stage: artist Suzann Victor, alongside Matthew Ngui, Salleh Japar and Henri Chen, in the year the Singapore Pavilion made its debut at Venice.

Puzzled looks were exchanged among the panellists, before the Singapore Pavilion's then-curator Lindy Poh replied: "I'm a woman."

There was a ripple of amusement in the room and my question was passed over like a silly oddity.

I was reminded of this small but telling incident recently after reading American author Siri Hustvedt's latest novel, The Blazing World.

In it, a frustrated artist and the widow of a famed art dealer, Harriet Burden, comes up with an experiment to challenge what she perceives as sexism in the New York art world. Dismissed by critics and collectors, the middle-aged woman decides to exhibit her work behind three male "masks".

Rather than merely adopt fictitious male names, however, she finds three men and gets them to act as though they created the works in three different exhibitions, giving interviews and basking in the ensuing success.

Hustvedt's book plants this question: Are people biased against female artists, even today?

The author alludes to examples of gender inequality in the visual arts field, such as the Museum of Modern Art's (Moma) major international survey of recent painting and sculpture in 1984, which included only 13 female artists out of 169 featured artists, and prompted a protest by the feminist collective Guerrilla Girls.

In a footnote, Harriet cites a study first done in 1968, in which college students were asked to rate articles. When the essay had a female name attached, it was consistently ranked lower than an identical copy bearing a male name. She also lists female artists such as Judith Leyster, a well-known Dutch painter born in 1609, who had been largely left out of art history books, her works wrongly attributed to Frans Hals or dismissed as imitations.

Killing time during a long transit in Amsterdam last week, I visited the outpost of the Rijksmuseum within Schiphol Airport. Of the 21 painters showcased in the small museum exhibit, which is rotated regularly, all were men. "Where are the Dutch female painters?" I couldn't resist writing in the guestbook.

To say that sexism exists in contemporary art is contentious. On the one hand, there are many successful women in contemporary art today. Serbian-born, New York-based performance arist Marina Abramovic is one example, whose fame and cachet is such that when Moma held a retrospective for her in 2010, snaking queues turned up to see her.

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