Determining the ‘Value’ of Women in Art

Last week a Georgia O’Keefe, “Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1,” sold for $44.

million, the highest price ever paid for a painting by a woman. While that is a hefty chunk of change, it is far below the prices paid for works by men.

Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1 by Georgia O'Keefe

Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1 by Georgia O’Keefe

In 2001, Paul Cezanne‘s “Card Players” sold for $259 million. A piece that is more contemporary with the O’Keefe, Jackson Pollock‘s “No. 5,” sold for $140 million in 2006.

In a recent blog for the Guardian, critic Jonathan Jones argues that paintings by men appeal to men, and as most critics are men, it stands to reason that male artists are more heavily promoted. He specifically cites Damien Hirst and Jackson Pollock among examples of “macho”painters he has championed.

There have been articles written in the past about why women artists are not as great (including theories about men’s and women’s brains being wired differently making it easier for men to be tap into their creativity — a theory that, while claiming to be rooted in science, is patently ridiculous).

There has to be some credibility to the argument that we live in a patriarchy where men are promoted at the expense of women. It is clear that women have traditionally been denied opportunity and respect.

But in our modern world, women are supposedly offered equal opportunity, yet it seems to still be the case that works by men are the most sought out and valued.

As someone who has always considered himself a feminist, I like to think I look at work on its own merit, regardless of gender. Yet as I think about the shows I am looking forward to seeing on my latest trip to New York — El Greco, Henri Matisse and Egon Schiele — they are all males.

Does this reflect a male bias on my part, responding to them more as a male? Or does it reflect the lack of opportunity to see a big show that focuses on a woman?

The Dinner Party by Judy Chicago

The Dinner Party by Judy Chicago

I have seen solo retrospectives for Frida Kahlo, Cindy Sherman, Yoko Ono and O’Keefe. I have seen many shows where women played a prominent role in a group, but even then they were presented as supporting players. The Judy Chicago show at The Brooklyn Museum, where her classic “Dinner Party” is housed, was impressive, but was shown in the the Feminist Art wing which separated it into the category of “other.” And one of the best shows I have seen in the past couple of years was also in Brooklyn, featuring a magnificent installation “Submerged Motherlands” by Swoon.

Submerged Motherlands by Swoon

Submerged Motherlands by Swoon

But most of these have been one-offs, whereas I have seen at least six major overviews of Picasso, and almost as many of Matisse.

Of course, Matisse and Pablo Picasso are the two giants of the 20th century regardless of gender, so maybe that comparison is unfair.

It is a vicious cycle. The male artists are traditionally valued higher financially. People look at money as a signifier of what is “good.” Therefore, more people will show up to an exhibition that is “good,” excluding women from the opportunity.

So will there come a time when a woman artist reaches the value and respect of their male contemporaries? Or are they doomed to always be artistic second-class citizens.

I have no answers to these questions. I like to think that I am not drawn to the masculine (Pollock is not among my favorites and I actively dislike most of Hirst’s work). But is it possible to think outside one’s gender experiences? I’d like to think so.

Galerie St. Etienne has an exhibition by Marie-Louise Motesiczky titled “The Mother Paintings.” It’s not exactly billed as a blockbuster but it looks interesting. And that’s really the point.

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