Opinion

Georg Baselitz Is a Sexist Grump

Georg Baselitz in front of one of his paintings (image via fansiter.com)
Georg Baselitz in front of one of his paintings (image via fansiter.com)

Women, ladies, girls, however you identify — if you’ve got two X chromosomes, I’m talking to you, and I have an unfortunate announcement: You can’t paint. At least not well. So if you’re thinking about becoming a painter, don’t do it; you’ll never be any good. If you already are one, I’m sorry; you should probably take up knitting instead.

This cold, hard, and disappointing truth comes courtesy of Georg Baselitz, the renowned German painter who turned 75 last week and seems pretty damn grumpy about it, at least compared to the other septuagenarians I’ve known. “Women don’t paint very well,” Baselitz told Der Spiegel in a recent interview. “It’s a fact.”

That nugget comes in the midst of a fairly infuriating third page of the interview, which Der Spiegel has aptly titled “Women Simply Don’t Pass the Test,” after another one of Baselitz’s gem-like zingers. “What test?” the interviewers ask. “The market test, the value test,” he answers, which then leads us into the aforementioned assertion — I’m sorry, statement of fact — that women don’t paint very well.

Let’s read a little bit more, shall we? I’ll hold your hand and guide you through it.

Baselitz: Women don’t paint very well. It’s a fact. There are, of course, exceptions. Agnes Martin or, from the past, Paula Modersohn-Becker. I feel happy whenever I see one of her paintings. But she is no Picasso, no Modigliani and no Gauguin.

SPIEGEL: So women supposedly don’t paint very well.

Baselitz: Not supposedly. And that despite the fact that they still constitute the majority of students in the art academies.

SPIEGEL: It probably isn’t a genetic defect.

Baselitz: I think the defect actually lies with male artists. Male artists often border on idiocy, while it’s important for a woman not to be that way, if possible. Women are outstanding in science, just as good as men.

Translation: Women are bad at painting but smart! And what they should aspire to, in all fields, is to be “just as good as men.”

SPIEGEL: Women certainly aren’t as loud and obtrusive when it comes to how they present themselves. With its desire for the sensational, the market isn’t very forgiving of that.

Baselitz: Don’t you know who Marina Abramovic is? … She has talent, as do many women. But a painter doesn’t need any of that. In fact, it’s better not to have it. … Talent seduces us into interpretation. My sister could draw wonderfully, but she would never have hit upon the idea of becoming a painter. I never had that extreme talent.

Translation: Women are talented, but men are ambitious, and the latter is more important.

SPIEGEL: For centuries, art was a craft, an almost physical labor that was performed by men. Men were also the first art historians. Everything was male, and it’s simply stayed that way.

Baselitz: That has little to do with history. As I said, there are certainly some female artists: Helen Frankenthaler, Cecily Brown and Rosemarie Trockel.

Translation: history has nothing to do with history, and yes, fine, female artists do exist. They’re just not very good.

SPIEGEL: The latter is German, and she currently has a big show in New York. She is also well-regarded worldwide.

Baselitz: There’s a lot of love in her art, a lot of sympathy.

SPIEGEL: That doesn’t sound like praise. So what does she lack, and what does Modersohn-Becker lack, to make you not rank the two of them among the great artists?

Baselitz: Let me qualify that. There is, of course, quite a lot of brutality in art. Not brutality against others, but brutality against the thing itself, against what already exists. When Modersohn-Becker painted herself, she looked very unpleasant, and extremely ugly…

SPIEGEL: …and nude, at a time, around 1900, when it was completely taboo for women to portray themselves in that way.

Baselitz: Exactly. But she hesitated to destroy others, in other words, to really destroy Gauguin by going beyond his art. Men have no problem with that. They just do it. But you must know that I do love women.

SPIEGEL: Of course.

Baselitz: Yes, I’m constantly in love — with my own wife.

Translation: Women are tender and have warm, fuzzy feelings, like sympathy and love. That’s why I love them! They’re just not assholes, like us men, and being an asshole is necessary for true genius.

Well, at least he got that last part right, about men’s capacity for being assholes!

For what it’s worth, women aren’t Baselitz’s only touchy subject in the interview. He spends a large chunk of it lambasting German museums and the German public for basically not appreciating him enough. Yes, life is hard when you’re a famous white, male artist whose paintings sell for a lot of money. Good thing you have outlets like Der Spiegel to air your grievances.

Obviously Baselitz’s comments are offensive and gross, and some people tweeted some quite priceless reactions to them, which are too good not to share here.

But I don’t know if it says more about me or the art world — or simply the world — that my first reaction to Baselitz’s sexist comments was that they’re unsurprising. Sexism is not new. Women have been fighting the stereotype that they’re inferior at just about everything for centuries. I find myself actually sort of reassured that at least Baselitz is old and out of touch — a bit like the grandfather who makes racist comments at family gatherings, but you can’t sway him or change his mind because he’s been alive too long.

Other people on Twitter echoed my sentiment that, at heart, the issue here is less Baselitz and more the world in which he operates:

And I would definitely extend that indictment to Der Spiegel, whose editors basically excuse and forgive Baselitz’s comments in their introduction: “German painter Georg Baselitz has made a name for himself — and a fortune — by being provocative. In a SPIEGEL interview, he stays true to form by bashing Germans and their museums and saying that the best artists have less talent and can’t be women.”

This is letting him off far too lightly, although to the credit of the interviewers themselves, you can tell just by reading the text that they’re flabbergasted and trying to take him to task.

At the end of the day, controversy brings attention, which is obviously what Baselitz wants. “Painters just don’t live to draw attention to themselves in that way,” he says at one point, but of course the entire interview is proof that that’s not true. “What I do is quite aggressive and quite mean-spirited,” he also says. Well, at least the guy is self-aware.

AFC writer Corinna Kirsch made one of the most astute points when she tweeted:

I fear she’s right. The art world consistently rewards macho, bad boy behavior (see: Hirst, Koons, and basically every canoncial white male artist), so that even when there’s no blatant dismissal of women, there’s a latent sexism that permeates everything; existing hierarchies are reinforced through decisions about who gets to show where, who gets written about and interviewed, whose sales generate more money. All I can think of to really deal with Baselitz and his idiotic comments is to ignore him, and for Der Spiegel to now interview 10 women artists — young and old, emerging and established, white and of color — in his place.

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