As a young woman and an emerging artist with a connection to street art, I am trying to understand my identity within the artsphere. Lately, the onslaught of the “10 Best Women Street Artists”-type articles has made the difference between being an “artist” and being a “woman artist” a potent source of inner-conflict. I feel like I’m supposed to like those articles and feel empowered or something. Maybe it’s because I attend one of those progressive, crunchy-granola liberal arts schools that recognizes gender as a spectrum (which, for the most part, just means removing the “male” “female” indications from bathrooms). But the underlying message in these female-centric articles feels as silly to me as the advertisements for Nerf guns marketed specifically to girls. It’s like saying, “it’s okay for you to like this now, there’s a flower on it.” I don’t want to read another article that says “women can do this too!” but lacks an understanding of the larger social issues connected to the gender imbalance in street art. Clearly the drive to see women succeed is there, and this press is well-intended. But what we need is broader systemic change for women on the whole before we start seeing the effects of that in street art.
When I read about sexism in the art world at large, it’s a numbers game. When we compare the percentages of male and female graduates from art institutions to the percentages of male and female artists shown in blue chip galleries, it’s easy to conclude that the sudden drop in female presence is due to sexist gatekeeping. So, naturally, I am given the impression that the purveyors are those who can be quantifiably held accountable for the percentage of women artists in their roster: galleries, blogs, magazines, advertisers, etc. But the idea that it’s a flaw in mere representation is like trying to cure a disease by hiding the symptoms. So I see a flood of “inspiring” listicles highlighting a few women succeeding within a flawed system, but virtually no recognition of the larger forces keeping equality at bay. Without that context, the actual significance of being a woman doing street art is incredibly unclear.
At least part of the reason for the imbalance is that women are made to feel vulnerable in public spaces (particularly in urban areas). Don’t believe me? A simple and obvious example is the “10 Hours of Walking in NYC as a Woman” video. Kudos to Tatyana Fazlalizadeh for drawing attention to these larger issues through her powerful “Stop Telling Women to Smile” street art campaign. Obviously, this is not a problem that exists within the vacuum of street art culture (though some articles seem to act like it is). I mean, really. How many women have actually thought “There’s no point in pursuing street art because my work will be outshined by men”? I’m willing to bet that a lot more women have thought “I was verbally harassed/catcalled/stalked/objectified in public today, and sneaking around the streets is not worth the risk of sexual assault.”
A quick look at the language used in several of these supposedly feminist articles reveals that they are not a critique of or a challenge to a sexist system at all. They’re just a ‘congratulations’ to women who have succeeded within it. Articles like “10 Women Street Artists Who Are Better Than Banksy” and “In search of a female Banksy” evaluate women based on how they measure up to successful men. It’s a backhanded compliment that reinforces male superiority. Feminist scholar Dr. Jessica N. Pabón asks, “Why would an article highlighting women’s work in a male-dominated field write about them through men’s work?”
It’s feminist click-bait; high in pro-women calories, but low in nutritive value, as Ann Friedman might put it. Too frequently, these “top [whatever number] women street artists” articles feature artists who have specifically said they don’t want their work to be defined through the limited rubric of gender. This article referring to Faith47 and Aiko as “Female Banksy’s” (which is a hilarious accolade, if the goal was female empowerment) actually states that both artists expressed they do not want to be labeled “female” street artists, and quotes Faith47 as saying, “My attitude has always just been that I focus on my work and not what race or gender I am.” Probably one of the most referenced artists on these lists, Swoon, said in an interview for Freshness Magazine, “Sometimes I think that my mom did all that work in the seventies so that I could have a normal life where it’s not about being a female artist, but about being an artist. Period.”
It seems that just by inherently being a woman, your art is subject to being evaluated in terms of gender. This shuts down a more nuanced appreciation of art made by women, and takes the control away from the artist in shaping her own narrative. “Whatever kind of art you make will be labeled feminine,” the Guerilla Girls offer in a scathing list of the advantages of being a woman artist. Some artists embrace this. Elle, a staple feature of these articles, says, “There were so few women on the streets, when I first started, that it was important to me to be outstandingly feminine, in color and in name. … Being a woman is not an excuse to not do anything, and I like to think that I have helped to push that idea forward.” And yes! Sometimes gender is important to acknowledge. But perhaps these articles would be better if they looked at women artists who were trying to speak about gender, sexuality or feminism through their art, rather than force that narrative onto artists just because they are women. Or to humor the listicle format, “15 Reasons Women Don’t Wear Headphones Walking Home At Night.”
This issue isn’t confined to the discourse around female street artists, as other marginalized artists have tried to escape imposed labels. When Adrian Piper pulled out of a black performance art show, she said a more effective way to celebrate her contributions to the art world would be to see it in “multi-ethnic exhibitions that give American audiences the rare opportunity to measure directly the groundbreaking achievements of African American artists against those of their peers in the art world at large.” Similarly, the organizers of a show in New York City called “Jew York” were rejected by several invited artists, who didn’t want to appear under such a rubric. One artist’s response takes the cake:
Luis Camnitzer, a German-born Uruguayan artist, was so conflicted that he couldn’t decide whether to recuse himself or contribute a piece. So he sent a letter describing his conundrum, which became part of the show. It read in part: “Do I refuse the invitation on the grounds of feeling that it is an artificial and anecdotal grouping irrelevant to the work of most artists invited and therefore tinged by an aroma of weird fundamentalism? Or do I have to accept on the grounds of my need not to deny my Jewish connections bound by my ethical debt and beliefs? Maybe not totally pleasing to everybody, this letter tries to be my compromise.”
My quest for identity started with wondering why my art needed to be gendered at all. But reading the comments on videos like “10 Hours of Walking in NYC as a Woman” makes me realize we’re still in the 16th century. Sexism is real and gender is important, but it’s also pretty limited as a method of evaluating creative expression, and right now it’s just about the only way that women in street art are being evaluated. What am I supposed to do if the Huffington Post comes knocking? What are other women supposed to do? Do we say ‘okay, just this once because it might help my career to get some press,’ or do we stop engaging with fem-fluff that reduces the appraisal of women artists to their gender? Sexism needs to stop, but these “inspiring” lists aren’t addressing how.