Essays

Art Is Genderful! An Artist’s Notes on Navigating a Sexist System

Despina Stokou, "George B" (2016), digital drawing (courtesy the artist and Cirrus Gallery and Editions, Los Angeles)
Despina Stokou, “George B” (2016), digital drawing (courtesy the artist and Cirrus Gallery and Editions, Los Angeles) (click to enlarge)

A lot of people mistake my work for a man’s. When I venture to find out why, they mention how BIG the pieces are — the “Size = Penis = Value” equation has, alas, dictated many a Schnabelesque work; not mine, though. Then again, a lot of people also mistake my work for graffiti. So I wouldn’t read too much into this.

Art does not have gender. If you were so inclined you could — maybe — try to differentiate between nuances of female and male energy. But, really, why should you? The discussion we are having, then, takes place in the social context surrounding art. This context has seen some eras of rigid and slow development, but right now it has more of an ever-changing, reading-on-the-iPad-while-on-the-toilet character. It is important to remember that.

There have been occasions. My teacher before I enrolled in art school (an archetypal male master, all alcohol abuse and sleeping with his assistants) threw a beer at my 17-year-old self and said: “You know what your problem is? You can’t come.” I made a point of learning that lesson _ thanks, master! I live in Los Angeles now, and your career never left that building. A “big” artist I once tried to show my work to, who told me: I like your ass more than I like your work. (A few years later, he congratulated me on my success and told me to buy him dinner.) And there was a trip to South Korea where the (female) translator blatantly refused to translate my project proposals — me being the youngest member of the group, and an unmarried female to boot. The trip ended with me nearly getting arrested at the airport after donating my work to a woman who turned out to be a hooker. The police were called upon to retrieve the work, and the curator showed up at the airport to rescue it, somehow managing to feel me up in the process. So, yes, there is sexism. You could also say these are all examples of people abusing their power.

“Men get ahead in the art world.” Is this a useful distinction to make at this point in time? Or should we focus on: “Stupid, dishonest, unimaginative people get ahead in the art world.” We will come back to that.

Eau de Bro — the Micro Farts of Sexism

When I hear my gallerist-man say he is going to take that mega-douche of an artist-man to the art fair and not artist-woman me — merit, or balls?

When I am invited to an all-women show titled something to the effect of: “Women.”

When I hear a collector-woman gush over this muscular, process-painter-man: “He is so hot!” Is he? I thought he was rude. Not that one excludes the other. Is this really happening? Do I need to be cute in addition to everything else? Note I said “cute,” not hot — being a hot artist-woman, you enter into a whole different (ahem) ball game. I always feel I get uglier when I work on a show. But don’t worry, I pull it together for the big day.

Or when I hear an art advisor-woman brushing off an artist-man’s incompetence with a little laugh. “You should have seen it; it was so dumb,” she says admiringly. As if all men have to do is act dumb, and bingo! Goal achieved. Look at artist-women complaining; the ceiling for poor artist-men is set even lower: they can just be Bad, Goofy, or The Muscle.

I visited an exhibition by this young artist-man spreading his talent so very thin to cover the vast real-estate entity that is David Kordansky Gallery in Los Angeles. The press release read: “He constructs his practice starting with the most basic of materials: himself.”

Eau de Bro.

No wonder he had to send his clothes to cleaners.

“What is your problem with Feminism as you see it practiced today?”

This sentence was written on papers scattered on the table at LACE gallery during a feminist roundtable I attended for the five minutes it took them to say that they couldn’t support Bernie Sanders because he is not established enough, while Hillary Clinton is. The event was hosted during the show (En)Gendered (In)Equity: The Gallery Tally Poster Project
, organized by Micol Hebron. Interesting show; unfortunate title.

I am glad you asked.

Justifying Bullying as Natural

Like stupidity, bullying is often brushed off as part of the natural male behavior. Men just grab things; it is in their DNA. They just take up space, naturally, unapologetically. I believe this was the point old Georg Baselitz was trying to make in his much-discussed interview with Der Spiegel.  I was discussing this with a female peer, who said that this is why us women should stick together. We were at a benefit auction for JOAN, an all-female curatorial effort, so clearly this thinking has its merits. Still, I wonder if that is really the solution, or — to put it differently — if that is really the problem I want to have.

Do men really just grab things, or are we handing them over?  For example, in the “find a gallery–meet collectors–become a rockstar” ordeal, men help men get ahead, gay men help men, and, guess what, women help men, too! Who is helping women? Sometimes I think women won’t even help themselves…

Old (Vagina) Is the New Black

The reasons gallerists drool over the chance to market older, “undiscovered“ artists are clear. There is an untapped inventory of work spanning decades, it’s easier to mount museum shows because of that, and a better chance to create more value, quicker — as opposed to a younger artist, who you actually have to support and tolerate all through the “Hell yeah, I got money now, let’s party” years. And there is a much smaller chance it will blow up in a gallerist’s face if the artist turns out to be a one-trick pony. The reason these older artists are mostly women is also very clear: there are so many of them! But the reasons why this trend is being passed off as progressive or some short of “win” for feminism are beyond me.

All-Women Shows, Special Women’s Issues of Magazines, and the Isolation of the Female Element as If It Were a Rare Infectious Disease from Mars

At its best, curating a show solely based on the artists’ gender is as silly or as limited as curating a show based solely on the works’ medium or the artists’ personal characteristics — artists who use an airbrush, artists who have dimples, brunette artists, etc. At its worst, it is offensive — as offensive as curating a show based solely on the artists’ religion or race.

Yet this is the go-to way of showing support for female artists — giving women more space, more time in the spotlight. The latest and most stylish version of this is the inaugural show at Hauser Wirth Schimmel in Los Angeles, which revisits history from the perspective of female artists who might have been overlooked (and whose estates the gallery represents) — which, you might say, is admirable.

What I don’t like about this is the notion that women artists still need saving, that female art (whatever that is) still needs a safe space to be shown alongside other female art, because god forbid you show women artists’ work with men artists, it will not hold up (or vice versa). 

This kind of practice might (and this is a big “might”) still be necessary in professions where women do not make up 50% of the population, professions where you would actually have to look hard for and encourage female participants. A producer friend of mine was aghast when a young female director he started working with recently demanded that the whole crew of her movie be women. If he plays it right, this could be excellent PR.

In the art profession, it seems you actually need to try hard to ignore women. We are everywhere in the art world, in all the leading positions — as curators, journalists, artists, even gallerists. And yet, ironically, this is exactly what has been happening.

The Trump Choice — the Recycling of Male Value by the Media and, Well, You

Mainstream media plays a major role in reaffirming the “Male = Value” stereotype. I don’t know how many more White Male Artist covers Modern Painters can do and still maintain any pretext of relevance. Same goes for you, dear Monopol! A “women’s issue” every March for International Women’s Day does not a cutting-edge magazine make. We post what we see and we see what we post. The next time you (yes, you, reader!) post some big-name artist-man’s pedantic works on Instagram, ask yourself: Is this really something new? Is this really something worth publishing? Or am I just blindly recycling perceived value with the faint hope that it will rub off on me? Don’t make the Trump choice. There are many different value systems in art; being loud, big, or male are not some of them.

On the opposite end of the media’s gender-bias spectrum are articles like last year’s dramatic (and I am sure well intentioned) New York Times feature on 70- to 99-year-old women artists, titled “Works in Progress.” The section devoted to the currently very hip 99-year-old Carmen Herrera was colorfully subtitled “One Hundred Years of Fortitude.“ I wonder how she feels reading something like that. She probably does not care, but it makes me angry at how easily platitudes are passed off as journalism these days. “Works in Progress”?! If I am 90 and some condescending asshole “discovers” me, only to call me unfinished and commend me on my perseverance, I am going to kick him in the teeth.

It’s a Boys’ Club — No More

My conversations about these issues are often put to sleep with the fatalistic retorts “it’s a boys’ club” or “boys will be boys.” Again, stupidity and vulgarity are being shrugged off as inherent male characteristics, which is actually unfair to both men and women. More accurate would be, “it’s an obnoxious beer-belly man-child club” or, “obnoxious beer belly man-childs will be obnoxious beer belly man-childs.“

‘What is it you want?,” an exasperated male friend who read this text asked me. “We live, mostly, in a meritocracy.” (“Mostly” being the smug word of the century.)

I want men, most of whom are helpful and understanding, to stop patting themselves on the back for it. I want women to stop beating themselves up for everything — just stop. I want all-women shows that are not only about that, but just happen. I want to visit female museum shows, but not because they were sponsored by the Let’s Throw Women a Bone Society, because they were curated and financed by the museum’s (mostly) female board.

The times have changed. The media vocabulary, reproduction legislation, and, most importantly, the cultural narratives used to educate all of us are in desperate need of updating. This is why we artists are here. Our kids need to grow up with different fairy tales. Less prince charming, more gender imagination — lesbian princesses, transgender queens, and gay warriors! We need more female heroes, more female stories, and fewer male fantasy (super) heroes and women-in-men’s-roles heroes. How many Revenants can a girl watch? (None.) Art does not have a gender. Art is genderful! Time to make our society more so.

A version of this article in German appeared in Monopol on July 8.

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