Home >Opinion >Blogs >EYE SPY : Women in art

The short, and depressing, answer to this question, raised by art writer Jonathan Jones in his recent Guardian blog, is yes.

Jones was on holiday in Rome, when it struck him that the historical statues, paintings and frescoes that lie across the city in a dizzy splendor are seldom attributed to women. “Which doesn’t mean there were no women artists at all before modern times," Jones wrote, before mentioning that indeed, historians like Pliny the Elder and Giorgio Vasari do praise women artists—such as Artemisia Gentileschi, one of the most accomplished Baroque painters in the generation after Caravaggio. Jones then went on to discuss the critical reputations of some great female artists in contemporary Britain—Bridget Riley and Tacita Dean, who he mentions, are among my favourites—before concluding that “All these women get recognition, but not enough, and not the right kind."

I couldn’t agree more with Jones, especially with his view that “millennia of prejudice" and “a deeply ingrained sense that genius is gendered" are responsible for making people hesitate before coming up with a female name when thinking of greatness in the history of art. This bias seems to have been only reinforced by the shocking disparity between the number of male and female artists represented in some of the world’s most respected museums. In India, where museums are few and usually woefully neglected, art usually gets public attention when it fetches astronomical sums at an auction or a sale. (But that, I may venture, is the case with most things in India—writing, film-making, art, however fine, seldom gets noticed, let alone lauded, unless it is associated with big money or big scandal, the relationship between monetary value and/or notoriety and success usually being inversely proportional.)

Even when it comes to pricing, there remains a gap between male and female artists. Nilanjana S. Roy explored the reasons behind this difference in an article last year. But consider this for a moment: Does a painting by Amrita Sher-Gil, an installation by Bharti Kher, or a photograph by Dayanita Singh make us sit up because we are aware that these works are likely to fetch millions in the market? Or do we experience them for what they intrinsically are—sublime objects of beauty that have the power to remove the film of familiarity from our tired eyes and allow us to see the world from a fresh perspective? Thinking along these lines, I am often led to wonder if the works of M.F. Husain would have been feted so highly were it not for their stupendous prices and the whiff of controversy associated with them. After Husain’s death in 2011, Ruchir Joshi wrote an essay on the artist, focusing, for a change, on his aesthetic legacy than the impact his art has had on India’s social, political and cultural fabric—and his conclusions are arresting.

One of the reasons why biases exist and proliferate so widely is the need to pigeonhole individuals into categories based on gender, sexual orientation or ethnicity. I am far from dismissing the ‘uses’ of such categories, limited as they may be. It is important to signal these identities, especially of people working in the creative sphere, often to make a political point—acknowledgement from a cross-section of society can act as a great leveler, as a crucial source of empowerment. But what usually goes missing is the next step: the imperative to cultivate a critical discourse that is able to analyze creativity without being oppressed by the context in which a book was written, a work of art created, or a piece of music composed. It is one thing to be aware of the caste of a writer but quite tyrannical to be forced to read their work through the singular prism of caste. Speaking of his new book, The Childhood of Jesus, J.M. Coetzee recently said that ideally he would not have wanted a title and author name on the cover of the book. But, of course, the exigencies and conventions of publishing would not allow that. In a similar spirit, I would love to, in an ideal world, walk into an exhibition or a museum and look at the art on display without being reminded of the identity of their makers.

I am sure many of us are troubled by the reputations enjoyed by so many artists whose work has left us cold. I am, for instance, mostly unmoved by S.H. Raza’s abstractions but can feel a lump rise in my throat when I look at the squiggles of Cy Twombly or the blocks of colour by Mark Rothko. I am also willing to stick my neck out and say that much as I admire Frida Kahlo, I do feel wary of the melodrama of her paintings at times. But my predilections and responses probably say more about my own sensibility and taste than about the absolute value of the work of any of these artists.

To my mind, the mark of a really great work of art is its ability to exist out of its context, to have an afterlife beyond the circumstances in which it was created or the opinions with which it was received, and touch our lives for reasons that have nothing to do with the gender of their makers but everything to do with the intriguing gift of access they have to our carefully guarded emotions, our secret histories.

A fortnightly look at the world of art from close and afar.

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